American liberalism is operationally conservative

There’s a saying among some mainstream liberals that Americans tend to claim conservatism while being “operationally liberal”, which they apparently define as being in favor of tax-funded benefits.  Kevin Drum touched on this by name recently during a post about Newt Gingrich’s campaign strategy against Romney of slapping him with the Capitalist Pig stick:

You all remember the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal? It means that lots of Americans say they’re conservative and like to believe they’re conservative, but when it comes to specific government programs they turn out to be pretty liberal. They like Medicare and Social Security and federal highways and disaster relief and unemployment insurance and all that. Try to cut these things and you learn very quickly just how operationally liberal most Americans are.

Two assumptions are being made here.  Let’s deal with the first: by pointing out that people tend to like these types of spending in the context of calling them operationally liberal, Kevin is assuming that people approve of such programs for the same reasons he does, which amount to the typical “Good Government” blather.  Yet, if most of this support were due to such a view of the State, then wouldn’t people express much less negativity about it when asked than they do?  Polls showing distrust in the government are so regular that it has become cliche. To assume that this support comes from the same place that Kevin’s does is to obliterate the distinction he himself makes between ideology and practice.  From my reading of public sentiment, it’s more like this:

  • Social Security: The gap between wage growth for most people and the cost of living makes actual savings nearly a pipe dream.  The learned dependency due to this has merged with the phasing out of automatic pensions after retirement as part of the reversal of the corporate-paternalism deal (“Big concentrations of the means of production are a-ok long as our insurance & retirement are paid”) that folks like Michael Moore and Ed Schultz wax so romantic over.  Also, not insignificantly…well damn, the tax is taken out of their paychecks anyway, they want that money back.
  • Medicare: Factors that make health care artificially expensive in the first place hit the elderly even harder since they tend to have more severe and/or chronic conditions.  The capacity of others to assist outside of government has been nullified due to the above mentioned savings problem, and (again) they pay the tax so they want their money back.
  • Federal highways: This is How Things Are Done for most people today, alternatives are generally not thought of and the negatives (eminent domain, the inevitable carving up of poorer neighborhoods to make way for a bypass, tying of highway funds to obedience on other policies) get shoved aside.  Besides, once you build them, they’re going to need maintenance — unless you enjoy potholes and driving over bridges that feel like they’re going to collapse.
  • Disaster relief: Once again, How Things Are Done for most people.  Also, it’s an issue that tends to not even come up unless in the midst of a disaster.
  • Unemployment insurance: See above with regard to savings. Oh, btw: they pay for it anyway, why not get it back when they need it?  That’s what insurance is.

There’s nothing particularly “conservative” about any of this. Nor is there anything “liberal” about it either.  Generally it’s common sense as deployed within a constrained range of choices.

So, that assumption has been dealt with as unfounded.  The other one is that liberalism is merely a matter of favoring tax-funded benefits (the opposite assertion, that conservatism is anti-spending, is already rendered laughable by the comments and actions of even right-wing opinion leaders, so it’s not even worth focus).  For someone who identifies himself with that “side”, such a view comes off as the philosophical equivalent to a self-inflicted bullet wound.   Where his post was linked, a reply by Tim Kowal taking offense to the cited “old saw” that started all this, I contributed the following comment:

Between the remarks about elderly benefits and the vitriol that they throw at anyone on their “side” ideologically who questions the commitment of the party they tend to support to civil liberties and global restraint, I find myself wanting to ask: How small is American liberalism? Is it really just Managerialism + Medicare?

Consider how much, outside of the Greenwald/FireDogLake faction, the focus has basically been reactive, very narrowly construed towards maintenance and defense of programs from decades ago, meanwhile reminiscing on a mythical golden age.  Pointing out that the period being thought of coincided with things that no one within a mile of capital-L Liberalism should approve of and asking why that’s the case gets you excommunicated.

Tim refers to this for a different reason, being a conservative and all, asserting basically that liberals “won”.  I’d say it’s more accurate to say that the state won.  Winners don’t normally eat themselves.


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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