Contemporary American liberalism suffers from a serious self-delusion that hampers it both as a governing philosophy and a political movement. Liberals tend to present themselves as pragmatic problem solvers, identifying and correcting social ills by the pure light of reason. They thus contrast themselves favorably with conservatives, whom they regard as rigid ideologues in the grip of obscurantist and superstitious notions.
Our liberals, however, are in fact at least as ideologically doctrinaire as any conservative. They are dogmatic egalitarians, harboring an almost religious reverence for equality. For them, equality must be understood as simply good in itself and as a cause of only good consequences. Anything that is wrong with our society can be traced to some kind of inequality and can be solved by moving in the direction of greater equality. They fail to notice that the social problems they seek to solve often only appear as problems on the supposition that human beings must be equal in the status and benefits they enjoy. Despite their claims to skeptical rationality, they are incapable of skepticism about equality as an ideal.
These tendencies can be seen in two of the major policy preoccupations of contemporary American liberals: same-sex marriage and health care reform. The establishment of same-sex marriage could not be of any interest to the nation as a whole on purely pragmatic grounds. The question directly affects the interests of only a small minority of Americans. For that minority, it affects their material interests only slightly, and those interests could be secured by relatively limited modifications in the law (regarding, say, inheritance, power of attorney, and hospital visitation), without redefining marriage. None of this would be satisfactory for liberal advocates of same-sex marriage, however, because what really rankles them, what they regard as the real “problem” that must be solved, is the simple inequality that society has established between marriage and other kinds of relationships that it chooses, so far, not to recognize or endorse.
Similarly, liberals have tried presenting the recent health care reforms as a kind of practical approach to a practical problem: the problem of increasing health care costs. It is evident to anyone, however, that the problem of rising costs could be solved very readily by reforms of a very different kind, namely by market-oriented reforms. Such reforms would tend to control costs by requiring citizens to pay individually for their own health care. Such a solution is unacceptable to liberals because of the inequalities that would necessarily accompany it: those with more money would be able to purchase more and better health care than those with less money.
A good case in point illustrating American liberalism’s tendency to conceal (even from itself) its uncritical egalitarianism behind a cloak of pragmatism can be found in Christopher Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes argues that America’s ruling elites–social, economic, and political–are dangerously corrupt and incompetent. The root cause of their bad condition is America’s increasing economic inequality, which fosters corruption by offering loads of money to those who climb to the top of the heap, and generates incompetence by creating an enormous “social distance” between elites and the governed, thus cutting off the feedback that the former need to govern effectively. Our increasing inequality, Hayes insists, is also the paradoxical result of the rise of meritocracy as an aspiration and a reality. America finally became a real meritocracy in the last couple of generations, when it threw off the various forms of discrimination that excluded talented individuals in unfavored groups from reaching the top. But the meritocratic elite that emerged ended up–inevitably, in Hayes’s telling–using its newfound power to rig the game of American life in its own favor, which in turn led to increasing inequality and its aforementioned dangerous effects. Since the cause of our most serious social problems is economic inequality, those problems can be solved, or at least significantly ameliorated, through the establishment of much greater economic equality; and this can be brought about by the formation of a new political movement dedicated to such ends.
Certainly Hayes’s concerns are serious. Few observers would take issue with the suggestion that American elites have not performed particularly well in the last decade. Hayes draws on numerous examples of elite failure, from the realms of sports and religion (the steroid scandal in baseball and the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church) and public policy (America’s difficult wars and financial meltdown). Moreover, his thesis is admittedly plausible. It is not unreasonable to suppose that extreme inequality might tempt its beneficiaries to abuse their power and render them out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens whose interests they are supposed to safeguard.
Nevertheless, Hayes’s typically liberal commitment to equality as a supreme value causes him to inflate his claims beyond all reason. One cannot sensibly turn the plausible claim that inequality contributes to elite failure into a claim that inequality is the sole evil force debasing our governing classes. Yet this is precisely what Hayes tries to do.
He sees inequality as the prime culprit in various failures where it may have been irrelevant or played only a supporting role. Consider, for example, his account of the sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church for the last decade. According to Hayes, priests were encouraged to commit, and bishops were encouraged to cover up, such abuse because of the “social distance” between them and their parishioners. From their lofty peak of leadership, they could ignore the concerns of mothers and fathers in ordinary families. This kind of argument is not new but is common to liberals of all stripes, both inside and outside the Church, who would like to use such abuse as an occasion to reform the “authoritarian” structures of Church governance. Such an account fails to observe, however, that the abuse increased in the 1960s and 1970s, diminished in the 1980s, and then resulted in reforms in the last few years that practically everyone admits are preferable to the failures of the past. Throughout all of these changes, however, the “social distance” between bishops and their flock remained essentially the same. Whatever forces were at work in generating the scandal, it is hard to see that inequality played a leading role.
The effort to make inequality the scapegoat for elite failure is no more persuasive in relation to our national financial and political elites. Hayes, like many intellectuals on the American left, makes no secret of his admiration for the social welfare states of Europe and openly contends that America should imitate their policies in the pursuit of greater social and economic equality. There are moral grounds on which one might try to justify such a prescription, but it is hard to see how we could expect it to result in better elite performance. After all, Europe’s elites are not exactly mere innocent bystanders to the policy failures Hayes identifies. Many of them supported America’s wars in the Middle East and invested in America’s housing bubble. Their societies’ greater equality does not seem to have saved them from following Americans in what Hayes thinks were ill-advised choices resulting from our own inequality. Indeed, it is doubtful that any neutral judge–that is, one not already committed to casting blame on inequality–could examine the news from Europe, a whole continent the politics of which is now constantly roiled by the possibility of national bankruptcies, and conclude that European elites are qualitatively performing better than their American counterparts.
There is a further problem with the liberal egalitarianism exemplified by Hayes’s social criticism. The possibility that is not so much dismissed by liberals as absolutely unthinkable to them is that equality, or at least a foolish commitment to equality, may itself be a contributing cause of elite failure. If we revisit the examples discussed above, all of which are examined by Hayes, we find that an unrealistic egalitarianism had a hand in all of them.
Some bishops failed to take appropriate steps in relation to predatory priests because, influenced by the therapeutic culture, they evidently wanted to believe that such sexually aberrant behavior was not a sin but a kind of illness. Conceding, of course, that we are all sinners in the eyes of God, sin is nevertheless in certain respects an inegalitarian concept. After all, some people (like sexual abusers of children) are manifestly much more egregious sinners than others. These distinctions, so discomfiting in an egalitarian age, are smoothed over when the bad behavior can be attributed to an illness that could afflict anyone.
Similarly, a kind of egalitarianism can be found at work in America’s nation-building wars in the Middle East as well as in the financial crisis. Without passing judgment on the wisdom of those wars, the decision to undertake them was certainly eased by the egalitarian assumption that liberal democracy can be accepted by any people anywhere, regardless of their culture and history. And while the housing bubble was perhaps inflated in part by the heedless greed of financiers, the egalitarian desire to expand home-ownership also played a role. Policies encouraging more generous (or lax) lending standards were devised by egalitarian minds that saw a “problem” in the fact that “only,” say, around 60 percent of Americans owned their own home, instead of a more suitable 65 or 70 percent. Such considerations are certainly unspeakable and probably invisible to liberals like Hayes.
So powerful is the liberal faith that its adherents attribute perfect efficacy to the principle of equality, not only in policy but also in politics. That is, they are certain not only that programs based on egalitarian assumptions will uniformly improve society, but also that they reliably will win elections. Think, for example, of all the liberal commentators who believe that President Obama would be in a more commanding political position now if only he had governed from further to the left. Hayes, unfortunately, shares this delusion. He concludes Twilight of the Elites by calling for a political movement to establish greater equality in America through government redistribution of wealth. As evidence for the political viability of such a movement, he cites polls showing that Americans would prefer a more economically equal society and that majorities favor raising taxes on the wealthy in order to balance the budget. What he fails to note, however, despite the fact that it is right before his eyes, is that preferring a more equal society is not the same as wanting to empower government to make it more equal, and that favoring higher taxes on the wealthy to balance the budget is not the same as favoring such taxes for purposes of raw redistribution. One would think that the dangers here would be obvious, given the political reversals suffered by the Democratic Party over the last three years, but love is blind, and Hayes, like a good liberal, loves equality.
The blindness of this love, moreover, as well as its needlessness, and hence the gratuitousness of the harm that it inflicts on contemporary liberalism, become more evident in light of the following consideration: dogmatic egalitarianism is not even necessary to justify the specific humane reforms that liberals seek to ameliorate the condition of the least among us. Such reforms–aiming, say, to improve the quality of health care available to the poor–can be defended simply on the ground that there is a minimum of care that human dignity demands, without insisting that inequality as such is necessarily unjust. After all, it is a historical fact that the hospital, understood in its original sense as an institution that generously provides medical care to the poor, was first conceived and instituted long before the rise of liberal egalitarianism.
Twilight of the Elites confirms that contemporary American liberalism is seriously hampered as a political and governing movement by the dogmatic egalitarianism that lies hidden behind its claims to pragmatism. Those claims are not so much a fraud perpetrated on the public, as some conservatives contend, as a form of self-defeating self-delusion. Liberals cannot govern effectively because they exaggerate the importance of equality in solving social problems, and they cannot reliably win elections because they venerate equality far more than do the majority of their fellow citizens. They would improve their position considerably by taking the advice of Alexis de Tocqueville, who contended that the leaders of a democracy should not be romantic lovers of equality so much as its critical friends, willing to acknowledge both its benefits and its limits. However desirable such a change would be, Hayes’s book suggests that it is not in the cards, and that in the future, American liberalism will continue to be dogged by the errors that have marred its past and present.
This article is reprinted with kind permission from Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.