Fortunately, the “L” word is inching its way back to respectability. Recently the word “progressive” has been the bridge from the trash heap where conservatives very cleverly and effectively assigned the “L” word. But now an occasional politician is using the “L” word with pride, and Paul Krugman’s latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal, has added new luster to a once prestigious and popular word.
For a while, I thought I had to joke about being a liberal, jokes as in “the last of a dying species” or “liberal, unabashedly and unapologetically.” But in the past few years, knowing about the pendulum effect in American politics, I have taken every opportunity to declare my liberalism. It is a good thing to be a liberal, as Louis Hartz wrote in his superb book, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), and as Krugman writes today.
So what is this proud tradition and what do we liberals, in 2008, believe? First of all, I think it important to remind ourselves of the fundamental tension in American history, the two polarities which pull one this way and that. The pull is between individual freedom and collective security and between maximum opportunity for the individual to pursue wealth and ambition and the needs, and I believe, rights of every citizen to receive at least minimum coverage in health, education, shelter, food, and employment.
Liberals, I believe, lean heavily toward collective welfare, while conservatives seek unrestrained opportunity for the individual. It was, however, this lack of restraint that allowed for such disgraces as slavery, child labor, the subjugation of women, the exploitation of workers in many fields, and absurd disparities in wealth: i.e., worker to CEO compensation ratios, homelessness amidst opulence, and the like.
Conservatives proclaim a desire to keep government out of the affairs of individuals so that they can pursue their ambitions freely. They do not, however, mind government welfare to corporations, which is now in the billions of dollars annually. As Gore Vidal has suggested, conservatives believe in free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.
Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a balance is possible between individual rights and the general welfare. Take estate taxes, for example. The Reagan-Bush Sr.-Bush Jr. folks would like to eliminate such taxes (which only 2 percent of Americans ever pay) altogether, calling them – inappropriately – death taxes. No, they truly are estate taxes. Bill Gates Sr. argues in favor of such taxes, saying without them we wind up with a permanent aristocracy. The reasonable application of such taxes leaves the very rich still very rich, but the tax income can go towards providing for the very poor – which we now fail miserably to do.
So the agenda for liberals is to increase public revenue by reasonable means to provide such opportunities as:
Health care for all Americans.
Quality education for all children and youth.
Shelter for all.
Full employment opportunities.
Comprehensive national security.
Constantly refurbished and improved city and state infrastructures.
Adequate care for mentally ill and special needs citizens.
Adequate care for veterans.
None of this is unreasonable or financially impossible. But it does mean sorting out our values. Liberals, I believe, sort things out in a more compassionate and community-oriented manner. We will soon have the opportunity to see if we can’t re-establish a better balance in our country and pay more attention to the common good of all.