Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of "The End of the Republican Era", by Ted Lowi

Just so you don't think he's got an axe to grind, he's also the author of "The End of Liberalism".

Lowi writes early in the book, "Separation of private from public, of which separation of church and state is one small part, is the necessity driving this book." He points out that while moral standards should have bearing on one's private life, they cannot be transferred to the public sphere unless you abandon democracy or have a society composed entirely of the same kind of people with the same beliefs. "The moral republic can be a Christian Republic, an Islamic Republic, a Jewish Republic, or even a republic espousing a civic religion like communitarianism (a Clinton attempt to use national power to punish criminals and discourage exploiters of welfare)". Since we clearly do not have such a homogeneous society and are a democracy, it is obvious that an attempt to impose one group's moral standards on the whole nation will not last; Prohibition is an example that comes to mind.

An interesting feature of this book is the classification of major strains of American thought. There is Libertarianism, identified as "Old Liberalism", the New Deal and the social programs of the 1960's, called "New Liberalism", and then of course, "Conservatism". Lowi sees Libertarianism as a relative of Liberalism. This may seem surprising, but he points out that both focus on the rights of the individual, with Libertarianism rejecting any role for the state in protecting these rights (other than defending property) and Liberalism seeing the state as an instrument for guaranteeing rights. Lowi is not the only one to make this association; Ron Lora in "Conservative Minds in America" calls the Economic Libertarianism of William F. Buckley Jr "Classical Liberalism". Conservatism is characterized by the belief in a moral standard, or put another way, a belief that there is such a thing as quality (to use Robert Pirsig's term, from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), that some things are better than others, and some people are better qualified than others to direct society. Unlike the Libertarians, Conservatives believe that the state should enforce these moral standards. Particularly the "State", rather than the Federal Government.

New Liberalism's fatal flaw is that it saw every societal ill as the violation of a right and engaged the full powers of the government to guarantee those rights, with no thought of prioritizing or of whether the task was even possible. The end result was the promise of a risk-free society. The difficulty of funding such a system and the impossibility of keeping that promise are obvious.

The flaw of Conservatism is that it ultimately must be un-democratic. Coalitions are made, say Evangelicals with Catholics, with patrician Conservatives, in order to gain political power. But when this coalition wins and must govern, two of these three groups won't get their way on any given policy. This might be acceptable to other political unions, but it is not acceptable to Conservatives who believe firmly in the moral standards of their particular group. And if the coalition can somehow come to terms, there is always the risk of losing the next election. This idea is also unacceptable; democracy cannot be allowed to interfere with what is right for society.

Lowi wrote this in 1994, but his fear of the consequences of active Libertarianism seems to apply very well to today. "Note again what has happened in America since the collapse of the USSR. If we won, why do we feel so bad? What won? Certainly not democracy. The victory seems to have gone to a radical view of market-based capitalism. American government has been immobilized by a renewed public philosophy that is fundamentally antagonistic to government in general (Old LIberalism) and national government in particular (Old Liberalism in coalition with genuine conservatism). Representative government itself is in danger as a consequence...History is repeating itself, this time as farce rather than tragedy (Lowi called the failure of New Liberalism tragedy). Radical libertarian antistatism, far from producing the ideal political regime, can undermine the modest movement toward the ideal political system we have been able to attain. Hayek was the one libertarian wise enough to recognize that markets must operate within "the rule of law," which for him meant a particular kind of constitutional, stable, predictable political regime. But this meant good government, not no government."

In evaluating the three systems (Old Liberalism or Libertarianism, New Liberalism, and Conservatism) Lowi concludes: "What we have here is an inventory of ideologies competing as theories of state. In actuality they are off-the-shelf disasters for any people foolish enough to attempt to govern themselves by uncritically selecting any one such theory. Most Americans, being pragmatic, would tend to agree and proudly embrace the alternative "none of the above."...New Liberalism wins, because it can provide the only theory of the state capable of enduring all the alternatives (i.e. as I interpret Lowi, the relativism or open-mindedness of New Liberals can accept the legitimacy of the other two systems being in power). But it wins only by default. We have already seen how dangerously tragic New Liberalism can be. It is aging and decadent, useless without regeneration. Its core values require generous application of prudence and practical reason (words loved by conservatives)."

Lowi finally suggests we follow a governing philosophy of New Liberalism guided by only one moral principal: the rule of law. Remember, he began the book with the goal of excluding private morality from the public realm. He ends up allowing just one moral standard, the law, by which he means a directive that will stand up under legal scrutiny. This excludes general mandates such as requiring "clean air", or "a safe workplace", but allows specific laws where there is no interpretation required in order to know if you comply. He gives an example of how you could allow state laws classifying abortion as murder, as long as they met this level of specificity. Such a law would have to require a virtual police state for women, where they would have to register pregancies, report births, and any pregnancy that did not go to term would be investigated. Sound ridiculous? How else would you write the law if you truly equate any abortion with murder? His point is that such a law would never pass, because there's too many voters that don't agree with this.

Theodore Lowi has given a great explanation of the competing philosophies in American politics, along with some devastating criticism of New Liberalism that progressives like myself should take to heart. I think his "rule of law" solution, as opposed to the impossible risk-free society, may have promise.