Who Taught Citizens 
to Think of Themselves 
as Victims?

Spring 2019 Insider

Who Taught Citizens 
to Think of Themselves 
as Victims?

Jun 10, 2019 7 min read

Who Taught Citizens 
to Think of Themselves 
as Victims?

The political and social conflicts dividing America today are rooted in a shift in thinking that occurred in the previous century. That shift concerns our understanding of the inherent tension between freedom and equality. The divisions have broken up the rough consensus that used to exist in America. 

Love of liberty remains a constant in America, even if now some on the Left love it only in areas where it means unbounded pleasure-seeking and want to constrain freedom where it delivers material rewards. Yet, it is in the definition of equality that the biggest and most damaging change has happened. A new meaning of the concept has prompted a dramatic growth in government intervention into our lives, which in turn has created pathologies that are changing the American character.

We used to say that American politics was played within the 40-yard lines, and it was largely true. Within those hash marks was the “liberal consensus” written about by the noted social scientist Louis Hartz, whose work influenced a generation. By liberal, of course, he and the many he inspired meant what we call today “classical liberalism”—i.e., a respect for individual freedom, private property, consent of the governed, self-preservation, and equality under the law. 

Whatever one may think of what Hartz wrote, it is true that we had never (until recently) had strong socialist or reactionary political forces, at least not in the class-based way they are understood in Europe and Latin America. Failure was seen as the Puritans saw it, often the result of personal flaws and something about which to be ashamed, and not as Europeans saw it, as a consequence of the class into which one was born.

There have always been critics of the American system, to be sure, especially about a century ago when the Progressives and Transnationalists were numerous among intellectuals. Yet, they were fringe elements, even under the progressive Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and were not to have an impact on the way the country was run till after mid-century. Until then, America was largely ideology-free. Attachment to freedom (in Hartz’s words, “an irrational attachment to freedom”) was about all we had.

Our institutions, from the media to the academy, reflected that broad consensus. Until mid-century or thereabouts, writes the media critic Robert Lichter:

[L]iving within the framework of a broad ideological consensus, American newsmen, like most other Americans, found it difficult to recognize that their view of the world might be shaped by a particular set of premises, a paradigm or Weltanschauung, which strongly influenced their view of social causation and hence their view of what the facts were […] News and entertainment took the hue they did largely because publishers and most reporters believed that was the way it was and should be. Key elites in American society accepted the broad framework of the American ideological consensus, and most did not even realize that there might be other ways of looking at the world.

The consensus breaks up when the meaning of equality begins to transmogrify. The inherent tension between equality and freedom was much more manageable when the goal was equality of opportunity and not of outcome, and when the evil to eradicate was disparate treatment, not disparate impact

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the relationship of government to the citizen in the 1930s, but dependence on government programs did not really get going until President Lyndon B. Johnson put interventionism on testosterone.

The social scientist Irving Louis Horowitz calls the new departure “neo-liberalism.” Many writers believe this begins to happen as a result of one of liberalism’s achievements: the Industrial Revolution, which produced incredible wealth, but also a worker class. The American progressive Herbert Croly, the founding editor of the New Republic (New, get it?) was the first to come up with the horserace analogy. In 1909 he wrote:

The democratic principle requires an equal start in the race, while respecting at the same time an unequal finish. But Americans who talk in this way seem wholly blind to the fact that under a legal system that holds private property sacred there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be any equal opportunities for exercising such rights.

Croly thus sets up equality in opposition to other freedoms, starting with property.

James Traub writes that, at this point, “the trunk of liberalism now separated into two boughs.” One went with Friederich Hayek and the other with Isaiah Berlin. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the relationship of government to the citizen in the 1930s, but dependence on government programs did not really get going until President Lyndon B. Johnson put interventionism on testosterone. The footprint of the welfare state in 1961 was not dramatically larger than it was under FDR or even Hoover: Total entitlement transfers to individuals accounted for less than 5 percent of gross domestic product. By 2015, that figure had nearly tripled—to 14 percent—with over a third of the population receiving needs-based benefits from the government. Today entitlement transfers claim 21 percent of GDP. 

When the Great Society was launched in 1965, transfer payments to individuals were 30 percent of government outlays. By 1975 they had risen to 50 percent, and in 2017 they accounted for 72 percent of the federal budget.

The difference then is not so much the New Deal, but the Great Society. And it shouldn’t surprise us that in his speech launching his ambitious domestic agenda, Johnson made use of Croly’s horserace analogy:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. [Italics added.]

The identity politics and victimhood culture that are so devastating to the American character today got their start when Leftist activists in the late 1960s pushed for analogizing the experience of black Americans—for whom the civil rights movement was solely intended—to other groups in society. The Census Bureau created the first National Advisory Committee on Race and Ethnicity in 1974. President Richard Nixon, distracted by the Watergate scandal, appointed a director of the bureau who was susceptible to intimidation by activists from the National Council of La Raza and other ethnic-identity groups financed by the Ford Foundation. This move was not a reaction to immigration; the immigration law of 1965 had not yet had a demographic impact. The percentage of the foreign born in America in 1974 was around 4.6 percent—a historic low compared to all the years from 1850 to the present.

Many of our ills—from the breakup of America into warring tribes to the collapse of the family, from the rise in out of wedlock births to the Marxist takeover of the culture-making industries—are linked to, if not the direct of result of, the skyrocketing of government spending as a percentage of GDP. 

“The corrosive nature of mass dependence on entitlements is evident from the nature of the pathologies so closely associated with its spread,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt. There’s no hope of it ending soon because “[t]he incentive structure of our means-based welfare state invites citizens to accept benefits by showing need, making the criterion for receiving grants demonstrated personal or familial financial failure, which used to be a source of shame.”

Equality of outcome necessarily presses us toward collectivism, because a powerful state is required to suppress the differences that freedom produces.

In turn, this ballooning welfare spending arises from the split in liberalism and the new belief that “equity” requires “equality as a result.” As Horowitz writes, the racetrack metaphor” meant that:

[T]he old liberalism assumed that individuals required a common starting place to such betterment and advancement. […] [N]eo-liberalism soon developed its own momentum in a post-Hartzian universe. It was a strategy that differed markedly from classical liberalism. It came to identify itself with a new set of outcomes, defined and determined by differential weights for different people, again, much like a horse in handicap races. Artifacts to impede their speed would weigh down good horses, while slower horses would escape such an outcome, and indeed be given incentives precisely because they are slower out of the gate. 

As the late, great Robert Bork explained, modern liberalism allows individual freedom only in areas of life where “there is no danger that achievement will produce inequality and people wish to be unhindered in the pursuit of pleasure[—]sexuality and the popular arts.” In areas where individual liberty produces inequality, the imperative of equality of outcome produces coercion in the form of quotas, affirmative action, etc. Equality of outcome, Bork observed, “necessarily presses us toward collectivism, because a powerful state is required to suppress the differences that freedom produces.”

According to modern critics of the Enlightenment, such as Bork and Yoram Hazony, the seed of liberalism’s destruction resided within its birth. “Liberalism always had the tendency to become modern liberalism,” Bork writes. “The difference was that classical liberalism, the glory of the last century, was not simply a form of liberalism but an admixture of liberalism’s drives and the forces that opposed those drives.” 

Modern liberalism, he adds, “is powerful because it has enlisted our cultural elites, those who man the institutions that manufacture, manipulate and disseminate ideas, attitudes and symbols[—]universities, churches, Hollywood, the national press (print and electronic), foundation staffs, the ‘public interest’ organizations.” 

Bork’s solution is to “rebuild the constraints that once made liberalism classical liberalism.”

Can we do that?   

Mr. Gonzalez is a fellow at The Heritage Foundation.