Liberals and Their Dragons: Voegeli’s Got My Back

One of the many things left undone on my long To-Do list was a response to the sequel to the response (still with me?) to my controversial “Modernizing Conservatism” essay in the Breakthrough Journal a few weeks back from Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute.  I thought our exchange in the Journal was reasonably productive and cordial, but in his sequel Mark wanted to extend the argument, in particular by rejecting my central point that modern liberalism has no limit in principle to its aspirations to extend political solutions for all social problems.  Mark thought my one example—comparable worth—was my only example, confusing a respect for brevity in a response to several commentators with the whole of the argument.  I could have gone on with examples large and small (perhaps the rat eradication program of the Great Society would also illustrate the point), but it is clear from Mark’s response that he completely misses the point.

To concentrate on the essential: he attributes to me and Bill Voegeli the idea that liberalism is without a principled limit to its ambitions, and pushes back on my example of comparable worth by saying—look! liberals backed off the idea because of practical politics!  Which isn’t exactly the same as explaining a philosophical principle that would prescribe a limit if there wasn’t adverse public opinion to constrain them.

Fortunately for me, Bill Voegeli’s got my back, with a terrific smackdown of Schmitt over on NRO’s Corner on Monday.  For my part, I want to add that the idea that liberalism is without a principled limit to its ambitions to extend the reach of government didn’t originate with me or Bill.  I’m not quite sure who should get the credit, but one of the best early explications of this is in the classic 1963 book, The Liberal Mind, by the eminent British political scientist Kenneth Minogue.  There he defines liberalism by its irrepressible drive to alleviate all “suffering situations,” as though it is possible through politics ultimately to eradicate all tragic outcomes in the world (a telos it shares in common with Marxism, though less self-consciously).

Minogue has a wonderful image in the opening paragraph of The Liberal Mind that perhaps conveys the argument in terms Schmitt can understand more clearly:

The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon.  After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century.  The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance.  These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence.  But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire.  The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life.  He needed his dragons.  He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped.  As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.