Our friends at the Claremont Institute believe that America took a wrong turn with the advent of the Progressive era and the Progressive attack on the Constitution in the name of — what else? — progress. It is the audacious project of of the Claremont Institute to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.
Key to the success of the project is the intellectual reclamation undertaken by the institute’s flagship publication, the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here). The magazine means to play the same role in inspiring the rollback of the Progressive undoing of the Constitution as the New Republic served in paving the way for the abrogation of limited constitutional government.
The new issue of the CRB may be the best yet in the magazine’s ten-year history. With excellent review/essays by Robert Samuelson on the financial crisis and Richard Vedder on the causes of the Great Depression, as well as entertaining reviews by John Pitney on Sarah Palin’s memoir and Charles Murray on the two new Ayn Rand biographies, among many other instructive pieces, the issue is an education in itself.
The editors have allowed me to pick three timely pieces from the issue to preview here this week. I have selected pieces from the heart of the issue on our current political predicament, which raises certain recurring questions in an acute form.
Why are welfare state liberals like our president and his congressional allies perpetually seeking to appropriate the income and manage the lives of productive citizens? Why can’t they tell us when they will have taken all that it is right to take, so we can relax, secure in the enjoyment of our property?
In a series of essays written for the CRB, William Voegeli has explored the course and meaning of welfare state liberalism. Voegeli seems to understand welfare state liberalism like Whitaker Chambers understood Communism, from the inside. Jonah Goldberg has written of him: “Bill Voegeli has become my new James Q. Wilson — the egghead I always read even if I don’t think I’m interested at first.” Thus the publication of Voegeli’s new book on the subject — Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State — is something of an event.
Liberals and conservatives, Voegeli observes, have been arguing about the welfare state for 80 years, each side going so far as to define itself in terms of its stance on big government. In this context he has noted: “If the expansion of the welfare state is the reason liberals get up and go to work in the morning, its contraction is the reason conservatives do.”
Voegli’s explorations pose difficult questions for liberals and conservatives. He has observed, for example, that federal spending on “human resources” programs since 1940 has increased under every president since FDR. Real, per capita federal spending on such programs was 15 times greater in 2007 than in 1940. Even the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who called for cuts to federal spending more than any other recent president, saw a slight increase.
The welfare state has massively increased in scope and size since 1940, and it is undergoing another vast expansion under Obama. Despite this massive growth, the left keeps calling for more. Since the beginning of the Progressive era, no liberal politician has suggested the ultimate or sufficient size of government. Instead, liberals demand more growth, refusing to consider the limits to growth of the welfare state.
What is to be done? Voegeli follows Lincoln’s adage: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
The estimable Fred Siegel reviews Voegeli’s new book in “Insatiable liberalism.” Siegel finds that Never Enough is “the best book written on liberalism in recent decades,” and “an essential read for understanding how we came to this pass.” It is clearly one of the books of the year.