At their inception, the social programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reflected the confidence of American liberalism. Theoretically, they would apply the findings of social science to reduce poverty, crime and other social problems. In so doing, they would finally deliver on the federal government’s purpose of creating a “more perfect Union.” But as the programs failed to live up to the hype despite their high price tag, liberalism lost its cache by association. Only 40 years after the country affirmed American liberalism in the Great Society, the Democratic Party is avoiding the term.
In the place of liberalism, we now have progressivism — and with it, a new political rhetoric. Like liberalism, progressivism is animated by a dissatisfaction with social ailments. But the rhetoric of progressivism incorporates that which has been learned: that the state cannot solve all social problems, that citizens need to take some personal responsibility, that handouts create dependency. A good example of this rhetoric is Barack Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope,” which appropriates elements of the neoconservative critique of Great Society programs at almost every turn.
One might expect, then, that progressive policies would prescribe a more modest and restrained role for the state. No such luck. After implicitly validating the neoconservative critique, Obama ironically proposes a program to which the critique would apply. It would seem that the program must therefore be justified on other grounds. But when Obama fails to provide any further justification, the suggestion is his social programs are justified by the mere existence of a social problem.
Claire Gordon’s article on the American prison system (“Prisons commit greater crimes than inmates,” 3/31) follows this progressive pattern. She diagnosed the ills of the prison system with verve and insight, from overcrowding and exploitation to the system’s cost in dollars and dignity. She identified incentives that impede reform from private industry as well as a racial bias that perpetuates the risk factors for crime in certain communities. And she noted that the American prison system is uniquely bloated compared to others in the developed world. In truth, she identified a pressing social problem that would otherwise remain invisible, sequestered behind barbed wire off interstate highways.
But at the end of her complex exposé, Gordon proposed nothing more than adding a standard set of costly programs to the mix: “counseling, treatment programs, education, job training, expanded visiting rooms, family support and extended healthcare.” Such an approach fails to address the complexity exposed by the article. Indeed, if recidivism — repeated offense by criminals who have already spent time behind bars — were solved by greater monetary investment, Great Society prison reform would have succeeded. Since 1966, while the prison-system population has increased fivefold, cost after inflation has multiplied by 10; on average, we spend twice per person what we did in the past. Meanwhile, recidivism rates have increased.
It should be clear that increased spending will not solve the woes of the prison system. A libertarian might propose the privatization of the prison system instead. But such a scheme will also fail; while it may succeed in housing prisoners at a lower cost, the financial interest of the industry aligns with a high recidivism rate. What, then, ought to be done?
Liberalism and libertarianism are not as different as they may seem. Both implicate the state in relation to any social problem. For liberalism, the state is the solution. For libertarianism, the state is the problem. But problems in the prison system touch on currents in American society that run much deeper than the state. At bottom, the problem is one of character. The state reflects that problem, and it is unlikely that any legislation can root it out. The reformation of the prison system therefore requires a strengthening of the institutions that most directly shape character: the family and the church.
The dilemma between a failed liberal policy and an unrealistic libertarian proposal is not limited to prison reform. It appears in many social and economic issues. But elections beckon. Progressive politicians such as Obama willfully turn a blind eye to the failure of the liberal policies, hoping that their support for such policies can solidify the support of a vocal leftist fringe, while their rhetoric can deliver the moderate support necessary to form a majority. They hope that elections transcend policy to be determined on the basis of collective hope, where the least experienced candidate can become an empty vessel to carry the voters’ projected desire for transformational change. But once ascendant, they will surely disappoint.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.