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Galston on the Case

In my second week here in Boulder last August I attended a conference hosted by the philosophy department that displayed a range of opinions that spanned all the way from the far left to the extreme left—except for me.  Naturally I offered a ringing attack on John Rawls’ egalitarian redistributionism, which left much of the audience with their jaws on the floor.  Who let this guy in here?

In the hallway afterward I fell into a conversation with the keynote lecturer for the conference, a philosopher from Canada.  Somehow conversation turned to Bill Galston, and the complaint that Galston had influenced Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party more than 20 years ago to turn away from Rawlsian redistributionism.  (Galston, who had been issues director for Walter Mondale in 1984, went on to a senior post in the Clinton White House.)  Needless to say, this philosopher didn’t approve of Galston’s sound advice.  And equally needless to say, Obama’s Democratic Party is back in the redistribution business big time.

All this is preface for Bill Galston’s nice comments about me yesterday on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal:

What the hell, Bill, you left out that I’m handsome and dashing, too!  (And as irony would have it, last time I saw Bill was a while ago now, but it was at  . . . the Madison Hotel.)

Bill didn’t have a chance to take in my entire Forbes.com article, so his spur-of-the-moment response doesn’t really connect up.  But I’ll say that far from advocating a return to 1920s-era size of government, I’ll happily settle for government the size it was under Franklin Roosevelt (which is about half the size, as a proportion of GDP, as it is today—ah the good old days of small government under the New Deal).  More to the point, I’ll take his reducing government by “a few percentage points smaller,” because that’s the difference between a solvent government and unsustainable and out-of-control debt.

But the wider scene requires more background.  Galston was a student of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom at Chicago a long time ago, and explained a few years ago why, unlike most Strauss-Bloom students, he wasn’t a conservative:

While I accepted Strauss’s critique of utopian egalitarianism, I saw no contradiction between the broad thrust of his teaching and the best of modern liberalism (in the political rather than philosophical sense of the term).  Unfortunately, as I pursued my graduate studies, American liberalism entered a period of degeneration and self-destruction. . .

I instinctively took Hubert Humphrey’s side against the partisans of the counterculture.  I was not persuaded that the antinomian attack on all restraints was a basis for a decent society or politics.  Nor could I accept the terms in which opposition to the Vietnam War was increasingly cast: the war might be tactically and strategically flawed, but I very much doubted that Ho Chi Minh was a misunderstood nationalist and social democrat.  [Comment: one person who doesn’t get that happens to be Barack Obama.]  Four years later I found myself unable to support George McGovern’s candidacy. . .

My thoughts finally came together in 1989, when I published a political manifesto under the combative title, “The Politics of Evasion.”  [This is the paper the Canadian philosopher was deploring at the August conference I mentioned at the outset.]  In it I argued that the Democratic party could not hope—and did not deserve—to regain a presidential majority until it shifted its orientation in a number of respects.  Americans would not support a party that they saw as lacking in realism and strength in matters of national defense, that espoused social policies at odds with the moral understanding of the middle class, and that pursued an economic strategy too concerned with distribution and class conflict at the expense of growth and opportunity.  The electorate was rightly impatient with a politics drenched in sociological explanation: what they wanted was a politics of moral accountability in which social responsibility was matched by personal responsibility.

I could go on all day about the obvious ways in which Obama represents a backsliding into exactly the slough of despond that Galston diagnosed correctly in “The Politics of Evasion” back in 1989.  And indeed we’ve noted here before on Power Line how Galston was criticizing Obama in The New Republic and elsewhere in the run up to the 2012 election, which I am guessing Galston privately thought Romney would win.  But just now he’s out with “The New Politics of Evasion” in DemocracyJournal.og, but  this time looking at the problems of Republicans.

There is a lot in this long article to argue about (“The Democratic Party today is a party of moderates and liberals”??—maybe, but certainly not the occupant of the Oval Office), but also to ponder seriously, as you should when a serious person puts down an extensive case.  For instance, this:

When combined with the party’s long-standing opposition to new taxes, however, the new commitment to a balanced budget entails much deeper spending cuts than most Americans are willing to accept—especially in programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It’s easy to find surveys showing that Americans favor a smaller government that does less and prefer spending cuts as the principal strategy for achieving that end. But when survey researchers ask the obvious follow-up question—Which of the following programs are you prepared to cut?—the consistent answer is, just about none of them.

Nor have Republicans found a response to one of the dominant economic facts of our time—widening disparities of income and wealth. This is more than a distributional table in an academic study; it is a reality that Americans have noticed and don’t particularly like. A majority of Americans sees the GOP as a party that favors the rich and opposes every effort to make them shoulder a larger share of the revenue burden. President Obama scored a clean win over Mitt Romney on that issue, one of several reasons why Republicans were eventually forced to abandon the Bush-era tax cuts for higher-income earners.

There’s a lot more here to ponder, but it is enough for now to say that everyone ought to take in Henry Olsen’s recent article, “Setting the Record Straight on the White Working Class,” that bears on much of this.

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