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Response to Review no. 86

I am grateful to Bruce Collins for his many kind words about my book and for his thoughtful and interesting observations about its principal subject: the complicated history of American liberalism since the 1930s. It is no easy thing for an author or a critic to find a coherent structure in a collection of essays written at different times and for different purposes, but Collins has done an admirable job in summarizing many of what I like to believe are my book’s central themes.

He is right, most of all, in noting that one of my central concerns in this book (as in my earlier work, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War) is to explore the implications for American liberalism, and American society ge nerally, of what I argue is an important, if perhaps unintended, result of the New Deal: the shift of public policy away from “reform” (from efforts to restructure capitalist institutions, confront monopoly power, and redistribute wealth) and towards a la rgely “compensatory state,” to use my own phrase. The result was post-war American liberalism, committed to sustaining prosperity and economic growth through using Keynesian fiscal and (later) monetary tools; and to compensate for capitalism’s limitations by providing welfare protections for those left out of the circle of abundance. This was a reasonably successful formula for a generation after the war, and it contributed to one of the great achievements of modern American history: the lifting of millio ns of people out or poverty and into affluence. (It will be obvious, of course, that this was not purely an American achievement that most of the western industrial world experienced a similar elevation of living standards in the generation after the war, even if not always through the same public policy vehicles.)

Eventually, however, the compensatory liberalism of the post-war era experienced a series of crises some of them a result of the upheavals of the 1960s. But the most important crisis facing post-war American liberalism was probably not the Vietnam War or the racial crisis or the New Left, as significant as all those events were. The most important crisis was that the American economy began to change in fundamental ways in the late 1960s ways that eventually made it much more difficult for the governmen t to manage economic growth effectively, and ways that far from reducing inequality (as many liberals erroneously believed economic growth would do in the 1950s) actually began rapidly to increase inequality. Unable to provide answers of its own to the na tion’s economic dilemmas, liberalism lost much of its authority, to be replaced by a new orthodoxy of the market.

Collins offers several important observations of his own about the problems liberalism has faced in post-war America. One of them is that the United States is peculiarly devoted to the ameliorative power of voluntary associations (and religious institu tions) when it considers how to make social progress or address social injustice. He is surely right about that although not correct in saying that scholars have paid little attention to this aspect of American life. I am not convinced, however, that the power of voluntary associations and philanthropic societies is at the core of the problems that government (and modern liberalism) has faced in retaining legitimacy. It is true that there is now a very large network of not-for-profit and religious organiz ations committed to conservative and reactionary goals and working very hard to discredit state action. But most philanthropic and voluntary organizations are very comfortable with government; many are crucially dependent on it. The American state is, in fact, best understood as a system of alliances among many different organizations: governmental institutions at the national, state, and local levels, and non-governmental organizations (universities, foundations, charities, social service agencies, relig ious bodies, and many others) which work in tandem with government. There is a tension between voluntarism and the state, but there is also a great deal of mutual support.

Collins also suggests that the great expansion of university education in America since World War II has helped to undermine liberalism, by taking many of its erstwhile constituents and propelling them into careers (most notably in business) that has g enerally led them to more conservative positions. That is a plausible, although as far as I know so far untested, proposition. But the expansion of the university system has also played an important role in creating the social and technological knowledge on which the aims of liberal government relies. As Olivier Zunz points out in his recent book, Why the American Century?, the close partnership between universities, corporations, and government is a long-standing feature of American life and one t hat has contributed in many ways both to the strength and success of American capitalism and to the growth of progressive social policies.

I must take issue with Collin’s statement that I consider government activism to be “a generalised public good,” although it is certainly possible that my essays in this book may not suggest otherwise. I am, it is true, a believer in the idea that gove rnment has a useful and important role to play in the life of society and in the solution of social problems which is not, in the 1990s, as uncontroversial a stance as it once would have seemed. But I am all too aware of the many ways in which public bure aucracies have failed and in which government policies have been unsuccessful, or worse, in addressing public questions. Those who believe in the value of government have, as Collins suggests, been much too slow to acknowledge the inherent limitations of public bureaucracies and to imagine less bureaucratic forms for public attention to social problems. (The American Earned Income Tax Credit, a public subsidy to the earnings of the working poor, is one successful recent example of searching for effective alternatives to traditional bureaucratic policies.)

The purpose of the essays in this book, however, is not to prescribe social policy or to defend liberalism against its opponents. It is to explore, as history, some of the ways liberalism has changed, some of the ways in which it has been challenged (both by its own failure and contradictions and by an increasingly active and organized right), and some of the ways in which it has been understood (or misunderstood) by its chroniclers. I am, again, grateful to Bruce Collins for suggesting that I have been successful in at least some of these purposes.