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American History IV: Founded in Liberalism, Conservatism, and Socialism - Part 4: Comparing the Two Sides of Liberalism

Updated on April 2, 2022
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ME has spent most of his retirement from service to the United States studying, thinking, and writing about the country he served.

Concluding Chapter

PART 4 of this political look at American history will conclude our discussion of American Liberalism. Whereas the previous three parts have been a relatively academic discussion of liberalism without much commentary, I do want to take the opportunity at this point to attempt to put my on spin on the issue of minimal state vs active state liberalism.

Concluding Part 3 is a list of "achievements" leading toward "progress" in the search for a fundamentally "better" society through the expansion of civil rights; an expansion which was only possible with the rise of active state liberals in the political power structure in all three branches of the Federal government as well as State legislatures. I put "achievements, progress, and better" in quotes because those qualifying terms are from my perspective, and I suspect the view of all of those who think of themselves as progressives. Because their whole world was turned on its head during the period 1860 - 1983 due to the rise of activism, these are not terms conservatives would use; to conservatives, change of this sort and magnitude is inimical.

But, what about minimal state liberals, how do they feel about these changes? Well, theory should have it that the end result would not be much of an issue for them; after all it doesn't seem the expansion of individual rights is their problem, I would think it is how that expansion occurred. Once done, would minimal state liberals want to put the advance back in the box? To undo the Civil Rights Act, for example? I think not since that would be contrary to their beliefs on two fronts, 1) it is an abridgement of individual liberty and 2) it would mean the Federal government would have to act in an affirmative manner.

Conservatives, on the other hand, would work, have worked. are working to undo what had been accomplished and there is ample historical evidence to support this assertion. The most visible effort was discussed previously and it is the activity from 1871 - 1930 to circumvent, stop, or reverse progressive laws and Amendments put on the books since 1865.

Since 1983, however, with the advent of the Reagan administration and the Rehnquist Supreme Court, progressive ideas and active state liberalism as been in decline in America. Affirmative action, meant both as what government does to address wrongs and the specific programs by that name which try to redress discrimination, has become a dirty phrase in the American vocabulary as conservatives have fought to regain the power they lost 80 years ago. Conservatives appear adamant in trying to regress the Nation back to something more compatible with their philosophy. This has been accomplished by appealing to the American citizen's sense of patriotism, harking back to Jefferson's yeoman farmer idea of rugged individualism, and the once true Horatio Alger syndrome (no longer true once Westward expansion came to an end). This is a powerful combination of mythological ideas of our distant past which many, if not most, Americans hang on to; I know I want to.

With the election and then re-election of President Obama, America may be reversing directions again; but not without a fight, as the 2010 mid-term elections proved. And if the active state liberalism effort is to be reinvigorated, new ways must be developed to articulate why this particular philosophy makes more sense than other philosophies.


Society Is a Living Organism

FOR YEARS I SEARCHED around in my mind for an analogy and/or metaphor which could be used to present a simple visual that argues for the need for the Federal government to take affirmative action in America to right past "societal wrongs". I think I found it in a "Ball and Chain" metaphor. It seems apt in so many ways starting with its actual use on slaves and prisoners in America's not so distant past. Another is its representation of an unnecessary, external weight which hinders ones progress; it is also a symbol of oppression.

"Societal Wrongs", a large term to describe an extensive, ubiquitous process to suppress and oppress one culture in favor of another. It is so all encompassing and across generations that it is easy for a person to say "it is not my problem, it happened before I was even born.", a persuasive argument indeed. Persuasive yes, but it is as self-serving as it is incorrect.

The above quote is most often heard in America with Caucasians grousing about Affirmative Action programs designed to give black American's a leg-up in getting to an equal footing at the starting line. The theory is that the injustice done to Blacks in America happened generations, even centuries ago coupled with the fact that the 13 - 15th Amendments and Civil Rights Acts gave Blacks the "right" to be equal, why should a formerly oppressed people need any more help. After all, if you are an adherent to Sumner's Social Darwinism philosophy, all that needed to be done for Blacks, or other peoples under the thumb of Caucasian America is to have a guarantee of "equal rights"; the rest is up to them for history has been obliterated and everybody is now toeing the same mark in the Great Race.

I argue that the past does matter today and that, in this case, the "sins of the father do visit the son". My reasoning is that society is a living organism and all that make up a particular demographic of it share in its history, burdens, and providence. This is a true for society's past as well as its future. You cannot ignore a society's bad actions any more than you can ignore an individuals bad actions, both must be atoned for. In terms of Black America, it isn't that an individual Caucasian inflicted harm on another, it is the fact that it was the Caucasian ethnic group, which the sum of its individual constituents, which visited the oppression of another on another society, a society comprised of black Americans.

Consequently, it isn't the individual Caucasian that must provide a remedy for the injustice committed by their father, it is the Caucasian society which must right its wrongs toward those whom they oppressed. That is why Affirmative Action programs are not only necessary, but morally required.

All Men Are Created Equal

THE FUNDAMENTAL TENANT behind liberalism and the founding of America is the idea that "all men are created equal". Nice sounding words, but hardly true at the time. To some, that equality was limited to the literal interpretation of the phrase "men", in particular landed, white males; Protestant, if possible. To others, realizing this ideal was just the beginning, the words represented a goal where "men" is just a metaphor for all humanity. How you interpret these words in your heart says a lot about where you fall on the political spectrum.

American history is made up of a series of "lurches" toward equality (as defined by active state liberals), first in suffrage for all adult, white, male Americans (1830) and then for all adult males (1865), followed by suffrage for women (1920), and finally in the expansion of basic civil and human rights for all of America's citizens (1964). In the main, the men responsible for increased suffrage, from Washington to Lincoln, viewed women and blacks as unequal to white males in most regards such as intelligence, initiative, courage, etc.; but, when it came to basic rights, primarily voting and the right to liberty, they believed, whether they could act on it or not, that blacks, at least, possessed those rights. (The exception is Andrew Jackson who limited his expansion of suffrage to non-landed white males.)

It is easy to understand in this context that what was needed was for a societal remedy to past and present injustices. Each of these sea changes in American social dynamics has been accompanied by very strong, sometimes violent opposition by conservatives and minimal state liberals, each for their own respective reasons. The most violent of opposition, of course, was the Civil War. In this, our "home of the brave and land of the free", the freedom of 65% of its population was very late in coming and bought at a very high price indeed. Further, it can be easily argued that we are not there yet, even in 2013. That much of the population is still being artificially held back from reaching their full potential by the application of their personal effort and talent is obvious to many, but, denied by still many others. To me at least, the ball-and-chain is still attached to too many Americans, in fact, in my opinion, the ball, in many respects, has been made weightier over the last decade.


The Great Race

I WOULD LIKE to keep using Croly's Race metaphor to make my point that affirmative action is still required by the Federal government, meaning active state liberalism still has a long life ahead of it. First, let us assume a Utopian world in 1787, where everybody (blacks, women, non-landed, indentured, and the aristocracy) can the same line with each being exactly equal, in all respects, and with no encumbrances on their ability to run the race.

What should one expect from this scenario? Well, according to all liberals, if one looks a year into the future, each person will be at a station in life where their intrinsic abilities and characteristics have taken them; in other words, they have risen to their full potential. But, are they equal in material things at this point in time? Of course not, nor should they be; all that is promised them by our Constitution is an equal chance to succeed, free of unnatural, external hurdles which can impede their progress.

Now, let us assume further, in this hypothetical example, that all men and women are angles ... not a mean or deceptive bone in their body. If that were the case, there would be no need for active state liberalism at all for there would be no barriers to remove nor previous injustices for which to compensate. There would be no need for federal interstate commerce laws because all states would play fairly with one another and so on. The only function really left to a central government, then, is to provide a common defense and conduct foreign policy (a role many conservatives and minimal state liberals think should be government's only real world function.)

As soon as you relax one of my assumptions, however, the race changes dramatically, and, in my view, where the need for active state liberalism is born. Let's say for example that we dump the "all men are angles" assumption, a pretty realistic thing to do, I would think. Then what happens if, at some point in the race, all of the men decide they don't like the competition from the women and concoct a belief system that requires women to stay in the home to take care of the kids; that they begin to collude to create glass-barriers designed to inhibit a woman's chance to grow in the workforce; that they spread terrible rumors that women are just too emotional to handle the job of President of the United States and other such nonsense. What have men accomplished through these activities? They have effectively attached balls and chains around the ankles of women, as a class, as they run the race, haven't they. Doesn't this result in women's inability, through no fault of their own but instead through the fault of others, to keep up?

Active state liberals, and I would think John Locke, will say it is government's job to step in and counter what the men are trying to do; minimal state liberals would say let it be for it will sort itself out Minimalists would say the State shouldn't interfere with the man's freedom to destroy the woman's chances at success and that the women should just "try harder" to overcome these new obstacles. Why do they say that? Because all the Constitution does, in their view, is to provide the "right" for women to succeed, but it says nothing regarding insuring the woman's ability to exercise those "rights" once put they are forced into the inferior position.

That last assertion is the same thing as saying, if you let women, with their ball and chain attached, and men "toe the same line" again, when the race starts, minimal state liberals think the two have equal chances at success for each simply because each has the right to succeed. The fact that the obstacles on one competitor were placed there by the other doesn't seem to hold much sway in this paradigm, don't you see.

The Drowning Metaphor

I RECENTLY HAD A CONVERSATION with a friend, a clear Minimal-Stater, who asked for an example of where the State should get involved; I suggested education, thinking that the education a student from a poorly funded high school is put at a sever, undeserved disadvantage when compared to a graduate from a high school in a rich neighborhood. He thinks not; because, when both graduate, each starts the rest of their life with an equal chance, meaning "right" to succeed. It does not matter that the quality of education each received, all the poorer graduate has to do is learn on his or her own what was not taught in their school that was taught in the other. This is straight out of Sumner, raise yourself up by your own bootstraps no matter how they are stapled to the floor, for from my friends perspective, there are no staples.

This led me to another, more graphic way to visualize this situation. Take a student who came from, J. V. Martin middle school in South Carolina, a converted prison which is falling down around the students heads (which President Obama used to highlight unfair school funding); then take another student from a middle school in Beverly Hills, CA. Then provide each with an aqualung which contains an amount of air equivalent to the quality of education each received. Finally, submerge each student in a lake to such a depth that only the student with more air can survive the ascent back up; the other will run out of air before he or she reaches the surface and drown.

Using my friends logic, the student with less air has the same chance of survival as the one with more air for all one has to do is try hard enough. The problem is, the only type of individuals who will survive such a dilemma are, to quote Croly, "... very exceptional men; men so exceptional, in fact, that the average competitor without such benefits [adequate education = sufficient air] feels himself disqualified from the contest" (of reaching the surface alive). The active state liberal, on the other hand, understands this and would insist the State provide equal quality education to all classes of citizens. The active state liberal would insure each student had an equal amount of air in their tanks before releasing them to swim to the surface.

To continue with this analogy, what if the student from the rich neighborhood kept himself fit and trim while the kid from the poor neighborhood ate candy and remained a couch potato? There is a reasonable chance the couch potato might not be in good enough shape to reach the surface anyway even with adequate air; what should the State do in this case? Well, this active state liberal would say "sorry son, you should have kept yourself in better shape, it was your choice not to remain fit, you get no help from me". This is not the same as the State denying the same person an opportunity at having a quality education. In the former case, the State has no obligation to make sure each boy stays fit; the only obligation the State has is to make certain each has an equal opportunity at a good education.

The Bottom Line

THE BOTTOM LINE for Active State Liberals is that society benefits most if the State and the Federal governments use their legislative and police powers to insure the playing field remains level, that unearned privileges do not work to upset this balance, and that nothing but personal limitations interfere with an equal chance at success or failure..

The bottom line for Minimal State Liberals is that so long as the State and the Federal government work toward guarantying the playing field is kept level only as it pertains to the "right" to liberty, to freedom, then the State has no further role or duty; the rest is up to the individual to succeed or fail on their own. Minimalist's think society is made better through the struggles of individuals to succeed or fail and that society, as a whole, will rise with the success of those strong and intelligent enough to scramble to the top.

The bottom line for Conservatives is that all citizens do not and should not enjoy the "right" to be equally free; instead, certain classes of individuals have different degrees of freedom conferred upon them by their superiors and by tradition. For Conservatives, it isn't about the individual, it is about the individual class relative to other classes. There is a natural, God-given order to societal hierarchy and it is government's job (a government made up of the aristocracy) to maintain that order and uphold traditional laws and customs.

To each, their particular bottom line seems very natural and obvious to them for it is a logical consequence of how they perceive the world about them. It is as foreign to a Minimal State Liberal for government to interfere with how life plays out as it is for an Active State Liberal not to, even though the goal is the same for each, to wit: maximum individual liberty constrained only by the needs of society as a whole (it is what constitutes a "need", which each side sees differently). It is just as obvious to Conservatives that society must be properly ordered for it to function properly; that there must be an upper, middle, and lower class of people to accomplish those functions needed for society to move smoothly forward.

It is these three philosophies which are in play in the political arena today, just as they were in 1785. It is the differences in these philosophies and the dynamics of the time that bastardized the original concept of "No-Party" or factions which the writers of the Constitution sought, into the miasma of different parties which developed over time, then broke apart, came back together, flip-flopped ideals, disappeared, and reappeared. It is the differences in these philosophy, and the lack of understanding of each, that drives such divisive debate today.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Scott Belford


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