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Commentary & Opinion

Herbert London: Review of The Death of Liberalism, Thomas Nelson, 2012, written by R. Emmett Tyrrell

The redoubtable R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. has done it again; he has written yet another penetrating analysis of the liberal establishment in his latest book, The Death of Liberalism, Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Although this is a polemic with the biting attributes of Tyrrell’s acid-like analysis, the points are critical, or as he puts it, fatal. For example, as he notes, the increase in the national debt is crushing and no amount of expropriation in the form of new and higher taxes can retire it. At bottom Tyrrell, relying on a transparent admission by Herbert Croly in the Promise of American Life, maintains that liberalism is an expression of the belief “that the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.” Hence, the need for government social engineers who arrogantly do the necessary bidding for reform.

The new progressives invariably invoke the goals of justice and fairness, but their policy applications are anti-democratic and illiberal. They claim, as an example, that universal health care will engender low cost and high quality care, but overlook the fact that it entails stripping many Americans of cherished liberties.

Clearly statism of the kind promoted by the new progressives argues for aggressive legislation to right the wrongs of the past, from the unequal distribution of wealth to urban woe. In the process, liberty is compromised and the promised goals of this intellectual exercise prove elusive. As Tyrrell contends, liberalism is exhausted, a victim of failed policies going back to the New Deal.

He notes accurately, I believe, that the white working class believes in the nation, its history, Constitution, and customs. It is suspicious of elites and believes that the progressives have deserted them, despite rhetorical gestures made in their direction. The liberal schemes for the future are a composite of socialism, fascism, and American bred big government melded together in a brew that is designed to engender citizen dependency and infantilism.

When the Obama led government took over AIG, Chrysler, General Motors, and the banks that were deemed “too big to fail,” the sign of progressive overreach was readily visible. This spectacular expansion of federal authority placed one-sixth of the economy under government control. What Tyrrell describes as socialism with “a friendly face.”

As I see it, Tyrrell has effectively captured the liberal impulse for government’s insinuation into every aspect of economic life. Where I hesitantly challenge Mr. Tyrrell is whether the evidence he has compiled leads inexorably to the death of liberalism. After all, communism died, but leviathan prevails. It might well be asked if the number of Americans seduced by government activity is not larger than those who do not feed from the public trough. Consider for the sake of argument the fact that 45 million Americans are on food stamps (1.8 million in New York with a total population of 8 million); 50.5 million receive Medicaid; 46.5 million are on Medicare; 52 million receive Social Security benefits; 26 million are receiving earned income credit. These payments account for well over 70 percent of the federal budget and limits are not on the horizon.

Consider as well benefits to home owners, crony capitalism activity and the role interest groups play in deriving special treatment from government. It is one thing to say, as erstwhile President Clinton did, that the age of big government is over, and quite another matter to see it put into effect. Big government is not deleveraging because too many people have a stake in its retention.

Perhaps claims of The Death of Liberalism are exaggerated. But on the essential issue Tyrrell is correct—liberalism is draining energy from the body politic, forcing the United States into a crisis of unparalleled proportions. Of course, this may be a crisis that isn’t wasted and restores the traditions that gave this nation vitality. As I see it, hope is the harbinger of appropriate change and Tyrrell may be on to something.

Herbert Londonis a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Books). 


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