Freedom Plus Groceries

Plan A for this column was to first observe that the National Association of Manufacturers is planning a multimillion-dollar campaign to support the president's judicial nominees and to then draw some conclusions from this. It turns out, however, to be a pretty easy to understand situation. The association is not putting millions of dollars up because it wants to ban abortions, stop gay people from marrying, or any of the other hot-button issues that usually dominate fights over the judiciary. It's a business lobby, and the association wants judges who'll apply an antiquated understanding of "interstate commerce" to rule that the bulk of the federal regulatory state (and perhaps much social spending) is unconstitutional, thus accomplishing by judicial fiat the shrinking of the state that the Republican Party dare not implement in Congress lest it face the wrath of the voters.

This is something that liberals and Democrats need to understand. The looming battles over Supreme Court nominees must be fought on the full range of issues at stake, and not just on the narrow grounds of abortion rights and related issues.

Which brings us to another issue: Liberals, it seems to me, often have problems setting priorities. This is related to Prospect Editor Michael Tomasky's observation last week that there's a paucity of philosophy among American liberals. Coincidentally, that same week, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait had an interesting proposal: Liberals don't really need philosophy. That's because we're pragmatic empiricists who want to know what works. There's some truth to that, and I think it does a lot to explain why conservatives tend, broadly speaking, to be more philosophical. On economic matters, in particular, conservative policies are drawn together by a broad principle: Small government is good, regulation should be light, and taxes should be low. Liberals don't really accept the reverse of those propositions. While the right thinks taxes should be as low as possible, liberals don't think they should be as high as possible. We think that should be high enough. But high enough for what? High enough to pay for spending on programs that work well. But work well at doing what?

There's the rub. Liberalism's pragmatic, empirical orientation -- it's focus on producing good outcomes rather than conformity with abstract principles -- is a source of strength. But it doesn't get you very far unless you have some idea of what the good outcomes are. Sometimes this is easy. When there's a child starving somewhere, it would be better if someone gave him some food. Other times, it's not so clear, and liberals have a lot of disagreements among themselves.

Recently I heard talks from two progressive figures who disagree about a lot, but do agree about one thing. First, was Kevin Mattson, author of the excellent new book When America Was Great (about the Cold War liberals of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy eras). Second was Clare Short, a minister in Tony Blair's cabinet who resigned over the Iraq War (and now leads what you might call "the Labour wing of the Labour Party"). They both think it's important for liberals to fight against what they see as a rising tide of materialism in Western society. I couldn't agree less. I like Depression-era Congressman Maury Maverick's definition of liberalism as "freedom plus groceries." Not just groceries, of course, but stuff -- material goods -- in general. The genius of liberalism as freedom plus groceries is that it identifies the doctrine with things people like. Generally speaking, people want to be free to do what they want. But mere freedom -- in the sense of absence of coercion from the government -- often isn't good enough. Someone with no money is allowed to do all kinds of things, but he or she can't actually do them. Hence the desire for more stuff, which is exactly what liberalism -- at its best -- aims to provide.

Anti-materialism on the left tends to reflect, I think, a kind of moral vanity. Many of us, especially during an era when we haven't been very good at winning elections, like to think that not only are our adversaries mistaken about what the best policies would be but also that we're morally better than they are. On this view, liberalism is a kind of charity venture undertaken by kindhearted people, while our opponents on the right are greedy. To win, we need to make more people kindhearted and charitably inclined, hence the need to combat materialism.

One problem here is that it's not going to work. People are not averse to doing one another a good turn now and again, but fundamentally we're an acquisitive, status-conscious species. Given the option between more stuff and less, people are going to want more. And with reason: Stuff is great! More fundamentally, liberalism-as-charity is self-defeating. If you really could persuade most people to put their greedy instincts aside and sacrifice for the sake of others, there would be no need for liberal policies that deliver the groceries. When you think about it, the project of trying to transform Americans into a self-sacrificing, charity-oriented race is fundamentally a conservative one, especially in its "compassionate" form. This view holds that we don't really need government action to tackle public problems. Instead, moral leaders will simply exhort citizens to volunteer time and donate to charity as a way of making a better country and taking care of the poor. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't work. People give and people volunteer, but not on the scale necessary to do more than rub off some of the rough edges of serious problems. This is because people like stuff, and they like freedom; they want more, not less, of the stuff they've worked hard to acquire. Our economy is based on this principle, and our politics need to be, too.

You can see this dynamic at work in the Democrats' campaign -- so far, a very successful one -- on Social Security. When liberals defend broad social-insurance programs that make most people better off, we win. This is what the voters want: a market free enough to promote robust growth and the creation of new stuff, along with a market tempered by enough regulation and social insurance to ensure that everyone shares in the rising tide of prosperity. Preachy talk about the evils of material wealth, on the other hand, doesn't get you very far.

It's a lesson worth keeping in mind when the fight over the future of the judiciary is rejoined. Constitutional law involves a lot of complicated, abstract issues. But basically the National Association of Manufacturers wants judges who'll let it keep all the groceries for itself. Liberals want a government whose policies make sure there are plenty of groceries for everyone. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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