Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Liberalism's Intellectual Vacuum

Scott Johnson of Powerline waxes eloquent in his praise of the Claremont Institute:
Everything I think I know about American politics I have learned from studying the works of Professor Harry V. Jaffa and his students at the Claremont Institute. In general, we 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 is 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.

He links to a powerful essay by William Voegeli, "The Endless Party," which examines the fundamental weakness of American liberalism. A sample:

Liberals have a practical reason why they won't say what they ultimately want, and a theoretical reason why they can't say it. The practical reason is that any usably clear statement of what the welfare state should be would define not only a goal but a limit. Conceding that an outer limit exists, and stipulating a location for it, strengthens the hand of conservatives—with liberals having admitted, finally, that the welfare state can and should do only so much, the argument now, the conservatives will say, is over just how much that is.

Keeping open, permanently, the option for the growth of the welfare state reflects the belief that the roster of human needs and aspirations to which the government should minister is endless. Any attempt to curtail it would be arbitrary and wrong. (In his concession speech after losing to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale listed the groups he had devoted his political career to assisting: "the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless, and the sad" [emphasis added].)

This gets us to the theoretical reason why liberalism cannot incorporate a limiting principle or embrace an ultimate destination. Given humankind's long history of sorrows, most people would consider securing "abundance and liberty for all," ending poverty and achieving racial justice, a pretty good day's work. For LBJ it was, astoundingly, "just the beginning."

It's well worth reading the whole thing.