Unintended: The Consequences of Liberalism
A Brief Outline
Modern theories of liberalism place great emphasis on the consequences of social action. In the utilitarian tradition, this is symbolized by the single-minded pursuit of "the greatest good of the greatest number." Pragmatism also insists that it is only consequences that count. And nothing can be counted out until it is tried. Abandoning the age-old effort to find indubitable "first principles," and so not bound by any universal verities, the purveyors of political consequentialism stress the practical benefits of democratic deliberation and, above all, the willingness to boldly experiment on behalf of the greatest good - for Americans, the "general welfare." So why is it that so many social experiments end in disappointment, producing consequences no one ever anticipated, intended or desired? In fact, failure is often just the first consequence of well-intentioned laws and policy initiatives. We frequently find that much-touted solutions only exacerbate the grave problems they were designed to solve and/or create a worrisome set of new problems with which the "experts" must cope. When it comes to effecting meaningful campaign finance reform, eradicating the "scourge" of drugs, educating our children, eliminating the hardships associated with poverty, reducing the numbers of out-of-wedlock births, or combating a dozen other social ills, the pragmatic approach has actually proven itself remarkably impractical, over time. Could this be just an unfortunate aggregation of coincidences? Or is there a deeper explanation?
My thesis is that political consequentialism is impractical, in principle, and so ever destined to be unworkable, in practice? In fact, the "consequences of pragmatism," to borrow a title from Richard Rorty, its leading living proponent, are much greater and more problematic than even his sternest critics have dared to imagine. In simply relying on the deliberative process (the daily tug and pull of politics) and responding to stark social problems with ever-more-imaginative, yet narrow, experimental initiatives, we unwittingly, yet unavoidably, impede our otherwise laudable efforts to improve the conditions of life for current and future generations.
This book, then, has three basic objectives. First, it will and outline the arguments that inform the modern, anti-foundational models of liberalism and trace the movement’s historical origins and progress in the post-Lockean world of liberal speculation. Second, it shall show just how momentous and historically detrimental the consequences of consequentialism have been: (1) for a couple of early 19th century British utilitarians and (2) for the conduct of public policy and politics in America over the course of the 20th century. Finally, the project will outline a competing and far more productive approach to conducting the people’s business. In what ways does this work contribute to the important and ongoing discussions of our time?
In recent years, a legion of authors have warned of The Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (Dahl), the pitfalls of Private Power and American Democracy (McConnell),, the trap that has been set for The Semisovereign People (Schattschneider), the very disturbing Paradox of American Democracy (Judis, 2001)), The Rise and Decline of Nations, (Olson), or The End of Liberalism, itself (Lowi). Cutting to the chase, some authors argue The Case Against Congress (Drew Pearson) or just expose The Corruption of American Politics (Elizabeth Drew). Telling much the same story, William Greider simply asks: Who Will Tell the People? And, very revealingly, David Schoenbrod speaks of Power Without Responsibility: How Congress Abuses the People Through Delegation. The fact that this cottage industry has grown to become a genre onto its own signifies just how many thoughtful Americans worry and read about the uncertain course the country is taking.
In one way or another, these books allude to a "rule of law" standard that is being broken down by the predatory power of private interests and the leverage they exert on the American political system. Judis is right to notice that "former officials who used to provide dispassionate guidance on difficult foreign or domestic policy issues have become [mere] lobbyists and consultants for American and foreign businesses." He might have thrown labor organizations, environmental coalitions, welfare and animal rights lobbies or a congeries of other single-interest groups into the mix. They all contribute to a climate of increasing fragmentation and conflict. Appropriately many of these authors warn of the unintended and genuinely ominous consequences that could come of all this, and the subsequent need to, somehow, unify the fractious climate by strengthening such "centralizing" institutions as the Presidency or Party System, or effecting "real" campaign finance or deeper electoral reform. Unintended asks the more basic question: how did all this come about? It traces current conditions to the American embrace of pragmatism, generally, and to the pragmatic precedents set by one Administration, in its desperate bid to end widespread hardship in America, in particular. Only by understanding the deeper historical process that carried us to today’s state of affairs, will we ever be able to swerve back to a safer and surer political path. But this calls for steady conclusions. It presumes that it is possible to reach an "objective" understanding of things as they are and have been, or form solid principles by which to organize and guide political relations.
And that brings us to another literature with which Unintended must contend. Much of modern liberalism is grounded in an abiding skepticism. Whether moored in a well-respected post-Humean or radical postmodern predicament, modern Pragmatists (such as Rorty, but even more doctrinaire writers, such as Putnam and Bernstein) implacably resist a "wrongheaded" reliance on any "narrative" vision or overarching ideology to adequately "mirror" an external reality, let alone intelligently direct public affairs. In sum, the anti-foundational wing of liberalism despairs of finding a single set of injunctions sure and safe enough to support a firm structure of policy and legislation Until very recently, this perspective has all but dominated intellectual debate.
But the anti-foundational view is coming under increasing academic fire, as is the skepticism that lies at its root. The opening volleys of an authentic epistemological counter-offensive have been sounded. Is the fatal concession to fallibility just a self-fulfilling prophecy; necessarily undercutting the effort to make sense of the historical record, or to use the lessons of the past to achieve a more satisfactory future?. In Richard J. Evans’s, In Defense of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999) and Keith Windschuttle’s The Killing of History (The Free Press, 1996), we find clear and compelling arguments against the popular view, today, viz., that any historical account is just one "narrative" fiction among many and that none is more reliable than another. Important, also, are two works on the more specific subject of property, Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998) and Richard Pipes Property and Freedom (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1999). Each work presents a wealth of historical evidence supporting the view that only under a regime of private property have societies or civilizations been able to prosper in peace or preserve their liberty. Human understanding, in short, is possible, and there is much to be gained from its avid pursuit.
Unintended, then, seeks to contribute to the vital reconstructive work that is being undertaken in the fields of history and political theory. Leaning on a very different liberal tradition, it will demonstrate how underlying political principles (i.e., foundations) can be confidently fashioned from a studious encounter with the past. For, in the annals of American history there sits a liberal/republican model that has proved eminently practical, over time. Relying on a careful process of historical induction, it has served the nation well, producing precisely the consequences its framers intended from the outset. Having made an indelible imprint on our democratic traditions and institutions, this model can be dusted off and adapted to a wide range of policy arenas.- to society’s lasting benefit.
©Copyright by Jerome Huyler 2002
Liberalism: A Tale of Three Theories
1. Without Foundations: American Liberalism Between Theory and Practice.
2. Was Locke a Liberal?
3. The Futility of Utility as Political Philosophy
4. Going Around in Cycles: The Lessons of History vs. Rorty's Antifoundational
5. No Great Awakening: On the Revival of Pragmatism
The Modern History of liberalism:
FDR & the Consequences of Pragmatism
6. The Consequences of Pragmatism
7. The New Deal Confronts Calamity: A Crisis of Capitalism or the Consequence of
8. FDR and the "Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Political Corruption and the
Campaign for Campaign Finance Reform
9. 40 Years in the Wilderness: FDR, LBJ and the War on Poverty
10. Never To Pass This Way Again: Poverty, the Lessons of History and their Relation
11. Summing It Up and Sorting It Out: American Liberalism Between Principle and