ZUCKER: Co-opting conservative ideas

If idealism reaches its peak in college, then it is especially easy to unconditionally accept liberal values at Yale. In academics, politics and service, we live in a liberal echo chamber, with little incentive to self-critique. But four years here have taught me the value of five ideas that liberals at Yale — and everywhere — tend to neglect.

First, liberals allow conservatives to claim exclusive title to the gospel of personal responsibility. While liberals object that circumstances can be nearly insurmountable, conservatives maintain simply that individuals must be held responsible for their actions. This mantra allows the right to claim credit for work-based programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit while painting leftists as proponents of unconditional, perpetual cash transfers.

Of course, that distinction is fictitious; rejecting the universality of personal responsibility does not entail erasing it. But liberals should not forget that responsibility is an excellent rule of thumb, and policy should — usually — help citizens regain it. Weaning long-time welfare recipients off of benefits, if they are willing and able to work, is a no-brainer. Universal responsibility is nonsense given individuals’ radically different circumstances, but complacency in the face of unnecessary dependence is demeaning and just as dangerous.

Second, liberals are too quick to dismiss the power of markets. Liberals are largely correct to reject the radical privatization of the Reagan Revolution; Friedman-esque blind faith in the market has brought us failed schemes like voucher schools and private-insurance-based universal health care. But just as conservatives can mindlessly advance privatization for its own sake, liberals often adopt a righteous distaste for any reform with a private business involved. Markets often fail, but they define capitalist society and they deliver the overwhelming majority of goods and services. When private means can indeed ethically and effectively achieve liberal ends, liberals should enthusiastically accept them — not reject them for fear of conservatism-by-association.

Third, Republicans have long been the only skeptics of the welfare state. They (questionably) cite its costs and (reasonably) question its success in addressing our society’s ills. As terrified hostages, liberals have unconditionally defended welfare policies, hoping to keep the little that is left. But liberals should be, if anything, more skeptical of the welfare state than our conservative counterparts. If policy has made inadequate progress in fighting poverty, then we must condemn existing policies.

The difference is in the takeaway. Conservatives deduce that government supports never work and proceed to dismantle social programs. Liberals should reflect, study and build a better system. We are in an age of unprecedented research; more knowledge on social policy is being created every day. Critique does not imply that all is lost; it is a call to build the safety net this country deserves.

Fourth, and similarly, conservatives have long cast a disdainful eye on well-intentioned liberals whose organizations fail to achieve much change. Unqualified defense of these “do-gooders” comes from leftists who hope to bring everyone into the fight, valuing service, struggle and passion. Unconditional support for independent initiatives, however, is just as futile as unconditional support for government welfare. As with public programs, there are good and bad private nonprofits — and the ineffective ones waste resources and engender skepticism that anything can create change. Liberals should have the courage to discriminate between effective social ventures and well-intentioned failures.

Finally, the Republican party purports to be the party of values. Conservatives publicly hold firm to deontological beliefs of loyalty, individuality and freedom, alleging that liberals are weak-willed moral relativists.

Liberals have been too eager to concede this point. With a well-founded fear of cultural imperialism, liberals often enthusiastically relinquish universal values and focus on ad hoc, utilitarian arguments. But liberals must embrace the extremely strong values we already hold, denying that conservatives have exclusive title to values. Liberals do hold absolute values — equality, justice, opportunity and cultural difference, to name a few. Liberals must remember these strong intellectual counterweights to conservatism.

None of these five ideas are things liberals reject. The New Deal was built on social insurance so as to put personal responsibility center-stage. The civil rights movement was a huge exercise in value-rooted liberalism. In the 1940s and 1970s, liberals proposed full employment legislation as a cornerstone of the safety net — a policy rooted in markets. Now, in an era of embattled liberalism, is not the time to abandon them.

Gabriel Zucker is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at gabriel.zucker@yale.edu.

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