The politics of increasing state power

Will Wilkinson touches on an interesting dynamic of current political discourse in the U.S.: It sometimes does seem as though the American left has more or less ceded the language of liberty to the right. . . . Why is that? I think "the left's confusion over how to respond ideologically" to the right's libertarian-sounding arguments flows in part from the left's own confusion about what it stands for. If the contemporary right is an uneasy fusion of conservative and libertarian articles of faith, the contemporary left is an uneasy fusion of technocratic progressive and liberal-democratic conviction. One sees progressive managerial elitism most clearly in the left's public-health and environmental paternalism. The rarely uttered idea is that the people who know best need to force the rest of us to do what's good for us. Whatever you think of this sort of state paternalism, it isn't liberal or liberty-enhancing in any non-tortured sense. The progressive technocrat's attitude toward liberty is: "Trust us. You're better off without so much of it." The more the left is inclined to stick up for this sort of "activist government" as a progressive, humanitarian force, the less it is inclined to couch its arguments in terms of liberty. And that's just honest. More honest, I would add, than social conservatives who in one breath praise liberty and in the next demand the state imposition of their favourite flavour of morality. I agree with [Peter] Beinart that engaging the right's worries about liberty by couching the left's agenda in the language of liberty would improve the Democrats' prospects. But I don't think he should discount the extent to which a consistently liberal philosophy of government clashes with cherished and deep-seated parts of the American left's identity. (For example, the part that insists on defending Woodrow Wilson despite the profound depths of his illiberalism.) Those Americans currently agitated about the threat Democrats pose to liberty are not wrong to be worried. Where they go wrong is in thinking Republicans are better on this score. Democrats might be able to argue this point effectively if only their own commitment to liberty was less conflicted. The inclination of both major political parties to increase state power has ominous implications for citizens. Is it possible to change?

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