In the course of doing some research for a longer writing project I had occasion this morning to re-read Lionel Trilling’s famous preface to The Liberal Imagination (1949), in which he observed:
It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. And when we approach liberalism in a critical spirit, we shall fail in critical completeness if we do not take into account the value and necessity of its organizational impulse. But at the same time we must understand that organization means delegation, and agencies, and bureaus, and technicians, and that the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of a certain kind and of a certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive. The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule—this sense does not suit well with the impulse to organization.
Lo and behold the morning’s news brings a perfect example of the inability of organizational liberalism to apply common sense exceptions to its rigid and conformist bureaucratic mentality:
Feds To Enforce 1965 Highway Beautification Act, Could Deny NYC $90 Million In Funding
The feds say many of Times Square’s huge and neon-lit billboards must come down or the city will lose about $90 million in federal highway money. . .
The edict comes from a 2012 law that makes Times Square an arterial route to the national highway system. And that puts it under the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which limits signs to 1,200 square feet. It took the feds until now to realize that Times Square was included, Kramer reported.
The edict itself may seem a bit ridiculous — and the threat of pulling highway funds heavy-handed — but this use of federal funds to induce local compliance is likely permissible under existing case law. Courts would be unlikely to find the amount of money at stake to be large enough to create problems under NFIB v. Sebelius, and I don’t believe the restrictions imposed by the Highway Beatification Act are stringent enough to raise significant First Amendment concerns.
In other words, this is just business-as-usual for our know-it-all betters in Washington DC.