I’ve been reading this fascinating essay by James, Piereson, “Investing in the Right Ideas.” His account of how the Democratic Party, once led by classical liberals, virtually overnight became the party of the whining, class-warfare, everyone-in-a-group, welfare-state cheerleaders we have come to know and loathe, is intriguing. In addition, the three states of how investing in modern conservative thinking came to be in this country is, of course, the focus of the essay and equally interesting.
Finally, liberalism itself came to be recast along interest-group lines. The welfare state was redefined from a package of programs through which Americans lent assistance to the poor, the sick and the disabled to a system through which certain defined groups could command government support as a matter of right and as compensation for past injustices. Society was cast as the guilty party, the recipients as its aggrieved victims. This sleight-of-hand in turn made it difficult for government to require the beneficiaries of its aid to adapt their behavior to the standards of middle-class life.
As liberalism gradually absorbed the adversarial assumptions of the age, group-based claims became ever more strident and accusations of discrimination and injustice multiplied. In time, the new order would erase those large-hearted features of liberal philosophy that had made it appealing to middle-class Americans from the 1930s through the 1960s.
The political world that these writers saw around them in the 1970s looked much different from the one that had so troubled Hayek in London in 1944. Instead of leading us down the path to collectivism, the welfare state had produced fragmentation, group conflict, disorder and a general loss of authority in society. In the United States, moreover, the welfare state had advanced itself not through the nationalization of industry but through incremental expansions of social programs and accretions to federal regulatory power. It was the intersection of these programs with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s that gave rise, as the neoconservatives saw it, to urban crime, illegitimacy, broken families and educational failure. The contemporary problem was thus not so much collectivism or socialism as the loss of morale and self-confidence that was in some ways characteristic of all affluent societies–a problem to which classical liberalism did not promise any obvious solution.