The Long View 2007-08-11: The Lethal Insistence

John J. Reilly shifted his blog posts at the end of July 2007 away from commenting on current events, which in retrospect isn’t usually very interesting, and started doing more short reflections based what was happening. I think the improvement in his posts at this distance in time is quite striking.

Here, John reflects on the difference between the New Deal and the Great Society. Each one was an attempt by the reigning American liberal order to fix major problems in American life. However, their methods ended up being quite different, and their results as well. One of the biggest differences was that even when FDR’s programs failed to achieve their policy goals, they still fostered unity and solidarity. Johnson’s programs were divisive, even when they worked.


Part of John’s argument here anticipates Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement, which also argues that the structure of the political mechanisms put in place during the Great Society are fundamentally incompatible with the system that existed before, but the two nonetheless co-exist.

The Lethal Insistence

Writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, one Stu Bykofsky was so ill-advised as to publish a column this week with the title To Save America, We Need Another 9/11. The piece provoked a predictable amount of outrage. That reaction might have been more persuasive were it not for the fact, as Mark Steyn quickly pointed out, that many, very many people have already had thoughts along just those lines. Mark Steyn also suggested that such a catastrophe would not necessarily have a unifying effect:

The second time round, there won't even be a momentary veneer of unity. The angry left will be demanding by lunchtime "What did Bush know and when did he know it?" and citing eminent scientists such as Professor Rosie O'Donnell to demonstrate that it couldn't possibly have been anything but an inside job. The less angry left will demand not a punitive military response but a 12-month blue-ribbon commission co-chaired by Lee Hamilton to call witnesses and investigate where the Administration went wrong. Less motivated types will be convinced - like British public opinion after the Glasgow attack and the sailor kidnappings - that it's blowback for Iraq.

Disaster can be an occasion for social consolidation, but the occasion must be managed toward that end. If it isn’t, you get a situation like New Orleans after Katrina, or indeed like the United States as a whole between the fall of 1929 and the spring of 1933, when the collapse in morale threatens the existence of civil society. We have already considered in this space why the policies of the Bush Administration have promoted, if not a general collapse, then at least a high degree of political immobilization, to the great detriment of public order at home and national security abroad. To put the thesis again briefly: Bush has been trying to fight Churchill’s war with Coolidge’s state, essentially asking individuals to assume more risk that is personal even as the levels of public risk increase dramatically.

Though I know that “libertarian” means different things to different people, nonetheless I use that term to characterize this policy. In this sense, it is a danger to the state and society, and must be discountenanced as a matter of public order. However, the chief political alternative on offer in the United States, the composite of multiculturalism and the procedural welfare state that goes by the terms “liberalism” or “progressivism,” would not necessarily be better. Indeed, it would have much the same effect.

To see why, we must consider why President Johnson’s Great Society initiative in the 1960s did not have the same unifying effect as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives thirty years earlier. The short answer is the universalization, during the 1960s and through the Nixon Administration, of the civil-rights mechanism called “the private attorney general.” When FDR’s Administration wanted to undertake what today we would call measures to protect the environment, it would, for instance, organize small armies of conservationists to build windbreaks in the Midwest to prevent the topsoil from blowing away. In contrast when President Nixon (the last great New Dealer) created the Environmental Protection Agency, what he essentially did was give private parties the right to sue businesses and public entities. These new entitlements usually meant that lawyers, or political organizations, had been given the authority to ask the courts to make public policy under the legal fiction of representing “classes” of persons whose interests might conceivably have been affected.

As an aside, we should note how great a departure from American legal custom were these private attorneys general who soon dominated the new racial, gender, ecological, welfare, and in large part even the foreign policy issues of those days. The American rule is that litigants pay their own attorneys fees. One of the characteristics of the major legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, however, is provision for “fee shifting”: the loser pays the winner’s attorneys. In fact, often only the defendant, usually a business or a public body, is in danger of being required to subsidize the plaintiff’s litigation.

Now in fact much of this Johnson-Nixon reform legislation did quite a lot of good. The air is a great deal cleaner, and the states no longer run apartheid public institutions. Many of the New Deal programs were ill-conceived or badly managed, and sometimes defeated their purposes. Be that as it may, the New Deal efforts created social solidarity in a way that the programs of a generation later usually did not. New Deal programs were evidence that public bodies with which everyone could identify were at least trying to address real problems, and not by putting the burden on individuals. The Great Society efforts, for the most part, had the opposite effect even when they succeeded. They subsidized grievance. Even when no litigable entitlement was at issue, the Great Society fostered the development of the acrimonious niche-politics that we call multiculturalism. The niches by their nature could not recognize a common good; the closest they could come to that notion were agreements to try to plunder the public fisc at a sustainable rate. In reality, they killed the golden goose, which is why that mode of politics went out of fashion for many years.

Today, of course, it threatens to return. Unlike the Bourbons, the liberal-progressives have learned a few tricks in the intervening years, but they have forgotten nothing; certainly their list of scores to settle has in no way diminished. Libertarians will, of course, be horrified by this restoration, but their horror will be produced by their own reflection. We see now that both liberalism and libertarianism (in the senses in which I use those terms) are manifestations of the same cultural insistences. The private attorney general filing suit to prevent the police from questioning suspects about their immigration status is simply the Randian entrepreneur transposed to the public sphere.

I hope to have more thoughts on these issues online soon in connection with a review of Daniel H. Deudney’s Bounding Power. Before that, however, I should have a review of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Frances Yates.

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