Michael Sandel has a short, but excellent, post on liberalism. He gives a brief history of liberalism in the 20th century, though leaving out the story of its abandonment by many after its association with Michael Dukakis in 1988. However, the most important shift in the definition of liberalism occurred in the 1930s. The New Deal reforms abandoned one of the most important tenets of the American system, the Jeffersonian principle that democracy was inherently decentralized. Sandel suggests, and I think quite rightly, we must re-embrace this principle if we are to effect reform of our political economy.
With the growth in power of the major industrial corporations at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a major liberal/progressive response was to break them up. Louis Brandeis became a major advocate of bringing Jefferson’s 18th century thinking on the undemocratic nature of concentrated power into the 20th century. Brandeis referred to it as “the curse of bigness“. Anti-trust, the breaking up of the new corporate structures, never gained much power, but as Sandel points out, after a brief flirtation, the New Deal abandoned anti-trust and what emerged was a hybrid-balance between, big government, big labor, and big corporations. Over the years, big corporations took over big government, destroying big labor. Today’s liberals cling to the notion that somehow they are going to get bigness to work.
One of the reasons our American politics and government is dysfunctional is because power was never meant to be so concentrated. Power from the beginning was checked and balanced, separated, and distributed not just in the three branches of the federal level, but also from the federal level with power in the states, and separated and balanced from the states with power in the counties and local governments, and finally from the county and local with power in the individual. The evolution of power across the 20th century was the antithesis to this system, with ever greater concentrations of power in DC and our mega-corporations. In part, the system isn’t working because it was never designed to work like this in the first place.
We need to reform our political economy and the only way we’re going to do that is by breaking-up power. We need to revitalize the American system by embracing the notion of equality and distributed power. Most interesting, over the last few decades, we have learned more about the ability to sustain order from the bottom up using distributed networks. The Internet is the best example, showing distributed networks can be very stable, distributing power as opposed to hierarchical centralization. In many ways, this is not in anyway foreign to the first American system. In reforming our political economy, it would serve us well to think about how we revitalize the American system, at the same time evolving it for the 21st century.
Cross-posted from Archein: Liberalism