Kennedy's Big Government Paternalism

Remembering the darker side of the liberal senator's legacy

Ted Kennedy's death of brain cancer at 77 could not have occurred at a more symbolic moment. By the end of his life, the late senator became the lion in winter of old-style American liberalism—and one of his final political acts, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, was to pass on the mantle to Barack Obama, the prime champion of liberalism's new incarnation.

The praise bestowed on Kennedy today by political allies and rivals alike is testament to his superb political skills, including his capacity for bipartisan legislative work. Yet the grief that accompanies the passing of a public figure of such stature should not obscure the fact that his career also illustrates the darker side of the liberal legacy.

Kennedy championed a plethora of liberal causes that are surrounded by an aura of nobility: the defense of the poor, the disabled and the sick, the rights of women and minorities. Yet many of the measures he supported are prime examples of the discrepancy between idealistic causes and unintended effects. Thus, the vast majority of economists agree that increasing the minimum wage—one of the legislative achievements with which Kennedy is credited—leads to increased unemployment among the most vulnerable portion of the labor force, pricing the least skilled workers out of the labor market. Affirmative action, which Kennedy helped uphold on the federal level, tends to result in race discrimination against working-class whites (and, in many cases, Asians as well) and often backfires against its supposed beneficiaries as well. Some of Kennedy's other noble causes have been largely symbolic: thus, the Violence Against Women Act and hate crimes legislation create federal penalties for offenses that are already criminally prosecuted by the states.

Kennedy's liberalism was rooted in the belief that guidance by the government, especially the federal government, is the most effective way to improve people's lives. Indeed, the bipartisan efforts for which he was often hailed were invariably about collaboration with nanny-state Republicanism—the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 being a prime example. This "Uncle Sam knows best" mentality extended to some sympathy for regulation of the media market for the "common good": Kennedy led an attempt to restrict Rupert Murdoch's ownership of local media in Massachusetts and, in 2007, foiled a Republican effort in the Senate to bar possible reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine (which would cripple the independent media by requiring equal time for different points of view).

Support for interventionist government was hardly a viewpoint unique to Ted Kennedy. What Kennedy brought to this political philosophy, however, was the paternalistic mindset of noblesse oblige: the idea that the aristocracy has a special responsibility to protect and look out for the little people. The Kennedy clan is probably the closest there has ever been to an American aristocracy.

Of course, the flip side of noblesse oblige is the arrogance of privilege, and that was on abundant display in Kennedy's life. It was evident in his sense of entitlement during his 1980 presidential campaign, when he could not adequately explain his reasons for running and at one point made the revealing statement, "I don't mind not being president, I just mind that someone else is." Unfortunately, it was also evident in the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, in which Kennedy received a mere suspended sentence for failing to report the auto accident that killed his passenger, former Robert F. Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (an incident unmentioned on feminist blogs, such as Jezebel.com, that had words of high praise for the late senator's commitment to women). One is reminded of the old axiom that love of humanity does not always translate into care for actual people.

Many commentators have noted the irony of Kennedy's passing at the height of the debate on universal health care, another cause he passionately championed. Perhaps the biggest irony is that today, the political fortunes of President Obama, whose victory Kennedy treated in some ways as a vicarious fulfillment of his own failed presidential quest, are suffering because millions of Americans—not just conservatives—reject the vision of centralized bureaucratic control as the path to betterment. Obama's liberalism is more ideologically flexible than Kennedy's, but it still bears the stamp of big-government paternalism. In today's political environment, far more decentralized than it was for most of Ted Kennedy's career, such paternalism is unlikely to command the kind of awe that creates political icons and dynasties.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Yet as Cathy Young writes, the grief that accompanies the passing of a public figure of such stature should not obscure the fact that his career also illustrates the darker side of the liberal legacy.

    Is anyone (outside his immediate circle, of course) actually grieving for Ted? I despise(d) the man, so I'm not the one to ask, but I never had the impression he connected personally with the public.

  • PantsFan||

    Is anyone (outside his immediate circle, of course) actually grieving for Ted?


    Yes, lots are. I've seen and heard countless interviews with people who are overwrought with grief this last week.

  • ||

    NPR played a number of interviews with sobbing people standing in line to see him in repose.

    For what that's worth.

  • ||

    R C Dean, get a clue why dontcha. We liberal types get all caught up in the lives of the rich and famous that we despise for their wealth and fame.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    RC,

    I think Boston & D.C. cared about this guy. The rest of the country didn't & still doesn't.

  • ||

    the praise being heaped on him is just the typical "dead guy can do no wrong" crap and self-congratulatory puke that have become completely commonplace these days.

    that and the fact that its a quick way for some unknown congresscritter to make the evening news sounding solemn.

  • ||

    All I heard all weekend was tear drenched testimonials to the fat bastard. Thought I was living in Bizarro World. Glad to find articles online today that do better at recording the damage hid did as Senator. And that's not even taking into consideration the damage he did as a lying, lecherous, lush.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    If I exclude the news media love fest. I heard more average people(co-workers & friends)talk about the death of Billy Mays.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    If you really want a laugh, take a look at the comments left over at ABC news, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, in response to the question "What did the Kennedys mean to you?"

  • ||

    Please stop comparing me to this Kennedy fellow. I see it as an insult.

  • ||

    I think Boston & D.C. cared about this guy. The rest of the country didn't & still doesn't.

    That explains it. I don't think I've heard a single positive word about the guy here in West Texas.

    NPR played a number of interviews with sobbing people standing in line to see him in repose.

    I guess if I listened to NPR I would have caught that.

    All I heard all weekend was tear drenched testimonials to the fat bastard.

    I guess my aversion to TV news is standing me in good stead.

  • ||

    RC, your data reminds one of the infamous Pauline Kael quote.

  • ||

    Either the Evony folks have graduated to live models, or computer graphics have taken another jump in quality while I wasn't looking.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Either the Evony folks have graduated to live models, or computer graphics have taken another jump in quality while I wasn't looking.



    Considering the thread, I think ads for a game where you chase woman while trying to rule the world are rather apropos.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    My personal preference on "isms" is to affix "maternalism" to the Dems, and "paternalism" to the Repubs. It fits their patterns much better that way - the GOP wants to be the stern father figure for 300 million children, and the Dems are the whiny mom figure.

  • guy in the back row||

    Why shouldn't Teddy think having someone plan your life for you is the best of all worlds? It certainly gave him a life of attention and prestige without effort. He probably thinks government is just like his dad Joe, ready to make us all drunken, lecherous millionaires.

  • ||

    Is anyone (outside his immediate circle, of course) actually grieving for Ted? I despise(d) the man, so I'm not the one to ask, but I never had the impression he connected personally with the public.

    Yes, Chris Mathews of MSNBC nearly collapsed into a puddle of tears this weekend reviewing the lives of the Kennedy family.

  • ||

    When the Bushpig or Dickless Cheney die don't expect a public outpouring of grief.

    Ted Kennedy didn't hurt capital formation in the USA - in fact he presided over the largest creation of such in USA.

    Of course, he should get no credit for it - he just didn't hurt it.

  • MNG||

    I'm at a loss at what is supposed to be so bad, or so good about the man. I can't think of one major way my life sucks because of something the guy did or pushed. And I can't think of anything that makes me say "holy shit thank God Ted Kennedy did x."

    Meh.

  • creech||

    Chris Matthews, Mr. Insider. I heard him on the radio predict three things right after the death: Teddy would repose in the Capitol rotunda, he would be buried in Mass. next to his Mom and not in Arlington with his brothers, and the service would not be on Saturday. Three for three - wrong.

  • ||

    I'm at a loss at what is supposed to be so bad, or so good about the man.

    Well, other than leaving somebody to drown while he concocted his cover story, of course.

  • Libertarian||

    "Politician" is such an epithet..........yet TK is referred to as a "great politician" by the media and other pols. What does this tell us?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    If hell exists, I hope the shitbag is being cornholed by Jeffrey Dahmer right now.

    And libertarians, please stop referring to democrats and the left pinko fuckheads as "liberals." They are nothing of the sort.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I should have said Christmas Critters. Its funnier. Ted Kennedy is being cornholed by Christmas Critters right now.

  • ||

    I love comments by the pugnatious, conservative, disgusting slime that live among us. Although I was no big fan of Ted Kennedy, I at least know better than to attack the messenger rather than the message. When you find the time and courage to get your heads out of your asses, google the research on authoritarian personalities and try to develop some insight into what makes you tick. It won't change the way you think, but it might clarify and refine your ability to make a cogent argument that's based on ideas instead of petty, self-serving preferences.

  • Craig||

    This is the second Reason article on how the great centralist Kennedy was growing more out of step with the ever more decentralizing political environment. If only it were true.

    The central government's spending and borrowing are higher than ever before, the central government's control of industry and intervention in the market is trending sharply higher, and the central government's central bank is going far beyond its original charter to prop up the faltering economy it helped destroy.

    The Senator may not have lived long enough to see all of his centralist dreams fulfilled, but he certainly didn't spend his last days watching the decline of the central government's power.

  • Joe M||

    If you really want a laugh, take a look at the comments left over at ABC news, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, in response to the question "What did the Kennedys mean to you?"

    Awesome. Only took until the second page to Godwin the comments, too. Nice work, average Americans.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

  • MJ||

    Ted Kennedy is the best practical argument against aristocracy the US has ever produced.

  • mwg||

    "Ted Kennedy didn't hurt capital formation in the USA - in fact he presided over the largest creation of such in USA."

    Please shrike... not while I'm eating...

  • ||

    Ted Kennedy didn't hurt capital formation in the USA - in fact he presided over the largest creation of such in USA.

    And the largest destruction, as well.

    How many trillions have been destroyed in the last year?

  • Meh||

    I didnt care when Falwell and Helms died, so why should I care when Kennedy cashes in his chips? People die, its called the cycle of life.

  • ||

    I should have said Christmas Critters. Its funnier. Ted Kennedy is being cornholed by Christmas Critters right now.

    You're a fucking barrel of laughs. I bet you were cracking knee-slappers a mile a minute while the Bush liar killed 4300 US soldiers in Iraq.

  • ||

    How many trillions have been destroyed in the last year?

    $25 trillion - thank your Bushpigs for that.

    Why?

    80-1 capital ratios since 2002.
    SEC turning its head.
    No regulation at Wall Street.
    CFTC.
    No regs on rating agencies.
    Investment banks gone wild.
    Greenspan cutting the Fed Funds rate in a recovery.
    Bush killed GSE Reform (HR 1461)
    Bush and his American Dream Downpayment Act.



    I grew up in the industry and I am smarter than you are, RcDean.

    Quit listening to the Fat Redneck Limbaugh.

  • shrike||

    And I hate HTML.

  • Bruce||

    You can join the group to promote justice for Mary Jo Kopechne at:

    http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=drew+clark&init=quick#/group.php?gid=15826037123&ref=ts

    Mary Jo died of suffocation (no water in her lungs) as she kept her face in a small air bubble in the submerged car, assuming Teddy Kennedy would dive for her or go get help. Teddy was said by associates to enjoy Chappaquidick jokes, and would ask colleagues if they had heard any new ones.

  • ||

    Bruce - maybe Mary Jo gave her life for a higher cause?

    You know, maybe Bushillisimo should have drowned before killing 4300 Americans? And countless Iraqis?

    Nahhh, you fucking Christ-Fags will never get it - he suffered for your benefit.

    You shit-for-brains.

  • Nipplemancer||

    shrike - i'm gonna go out on a limb and say that most people who have nothing but disdain for Ted Kennedy and the rest of his fucked up clan had those feelings way before Bush was ever even the GOP nominee. how bout you knock down the self-righteous bullshit down a notch.

  • Jordan||

    Not everything is about Bush, dipshit. If the best defense you can muster is "he's not as bad as Bush!", then it's time to hang it up, you fucking lunatic. Ted Kennedy was a piece of shit, independent of the fact that Bush was one too.

  • Joel||

    I'm at a loss at what is supposed to be so bad, or so good about the man.

    For good, I got nothing. Sorry, baby, wrong ideology. He was on the right side of a few things, but in 48 years that was bound to happen no matter how hard he tried.

    For bad - well, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it, but he was desperately in love with gun control and universal health care, and he never met a tax hike he didn't love or a tax "cut" he didn't fight to the death. The Americans with Disabilities Act was his, and so was No Child Left Alone. He was a leftist's leftist, without ever having the honesty to just call it socialism. Plus he was just a *shudder* KENNEDY, and there should be a law about them that involves bag limits.

    And of course he should have been just about getting out of prison now for what happened to Mary Jo Kopechne, but instead... That's hard to love.

  • ||

    Not everything is about Bush, dipshit. If the best defense you can muster is "he's not as bad as Bush!", then it's time to hang it up, you fucking lunatic. Ted Kennedy was a piece of shit, independent of the fact that Bush was one too.

    Bullshit. 2002-2006 was all about Bush and his Christo-Mecernary Goon Squads. Kennedy voted correctly against the Iraqi Oil Grab for the Remaining Four Sisters (BP, Exxon, Shell, Texaco).

    Meanwhile the fundie-shit like Robertson, Falwell, and 40 million Christ-Fags were eating his shit off a stick.

    Learn from history - you liplocked GOPers.

  • Morton Kurzweil||

    Ted Kennedy is responsible for social security, medicare, women's rights, racial and education equality among other things.
    The socialization of the defense industry, the health services industry, and the financial and banking industries were produces by Reagan economists who believed that unequal opportunities and government subsidies were the answer to all of our problems.
    George Bush Jr. made that belief into a religious mandate by leading us into an unnecessary war, a major depression, and making religion, not the people the authority for his decisions.
    Name calling and anger are products of belief, not reason.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    "maybe Mary Jo gave her life for a higher cause?"

    ONE good thing came out of her early life-snuffing: It kept Ted from being president.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Add shrike to the list of pricks who come on here and tell us knuckle-dragging capitalist pigs what's what, yo.

  • alittlesense||

    Ted Kennedy was responsible for Social Security? FDR would be surprised to hear that.
    Oh, wait..maybe Ted was responsible for Social Security in the same way that Al Gore was responsible for the internet.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Oh, and shrike... you might want to consider that most of us didn't vote for Bush. Either one, for that matter.

  • Jordan||

    Do you see anyone here defending George W. Bush? Are you ever lucid?

  • ||

    When Ted Kennedy created humanity in different races, he took special care to make them equal.

  • ||

    and when he removed his own rib to create women, he gave them rights.

  • ||

    MK:

    "Ted Kennedy is responsible for social security, medicare, women's rights, racial and education equality among other things. "


    well there's a ringing endorsement.

    btw, kennedy gets credit for equality? so minorities were not equal 'til kennedy said so?

    how about the idea that minorities who have outstripped the barriers of the past are themselves deserving credit for their work? no it feels better as a liberal to give the credit to liberal jackasses who pander to minorities and keep the victim spirit alive!

    kennedy! puke! typical taking credit for the achievement of others!

    i have an idea, go tell sowell or c. thomas how much they ought to kiss his ass and see what response you get.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Kennedy voted correctly against the Iraqi Oil Grab for the Remaining Four Sisters (BP, Exxon, Shell, Texaco).


    He voted incorrectly against providing aid to South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression.

  • anonymous||

    "When the Bushpig or Dickless Cheney die don't expect a public outpouring of grief. "

    Ok.

  • MNG||

    "Well, other than leaving somebody to drown while he concocted his cover story, of course."

    This always kills me. If you crashed underwater with a passenger, I think you'd be a hero to go after them. I don't think that is "I expect everyone to do that or else they are bad people" territory. Now his not calling for help until much later is the bad part. But even this strikes me as disappointing as best, since it's easily believable that he was scared and distraught, common human emotions.

  • ||


    This always kills me. If you crashed underwater with a passenger, I think you'd be a hero to go after them. I don't think that is "I expect everyone to do that or else they are bad people" territory. Now his not calling for help until much later is the bad part. But even this strikes me as disappointing as best, since it's easily believable that he was scared and distraught, common human emotions.



    good point, now he gets a pass... oh wait...

  • MNG||

    "If hell exists, I hope the shitbag is being cornholed by Jeffrey Dahmer right now."

    This level of hate for Ted Kennedy is simply pathological.

    I mean do you people really wake up and curse the minimum wage as a great evil every morning? Jesus, get a grip. Save your hate for actual evil like Pol Pott, not someone who raises the minimum wage for Pete's sake...

  • MNG||

    ransom
    Who knows why he got a pass back then? There was a grand jury. He was famous and rich and connected, yes, but that doesn't always get you out of a grand jury. In fact, it often makes prosecutors incentivized to get you.

    I mean really, it sounds sort of fishy to me, but in fairness there just seems little reason to have so much hate towards the guy...

  • ||

    MNG:


    oh i agree with you on this one MNG, consuming hatred is a waste of time; esp the deceased!

    someone pointed out the other day, that given the laws in place back then, he probably would not have much to account for at the time. i'm not conversant enough to support that assertion, but it sounds reasonable...

    shit, we all knew the old bastard was dying, and i take no particular pleasure in it. but when shitbags at the huffpole go around asserting that MJK would have been glad to give her life for kennedy's career, or i've got to hear about all the wonderful shit he did, i call foul. i'm willing to let him go in peace, but it seems some are too opportunistic to take that same path.

  • ||

    If you crashed underwater with a passenger, I think you'd be a hero to go after them. I don't think that is "I expect everyone to do that or else they are bad people" territory. Now his not calling for help until much later is the bad part. But even this strikes me as disappointing as best, since it's easily believable that he was scared and distraught, common human emotions.

    But Kennedy had a moral obligation to go into the water to save her. He should have been forced at gunpoint to rescue her.

    Jeepers, MaunderingNannyGoat, you disappoint me.

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  • Colonel_Angus||

    The problem isn't just that ol' shitbag had some policies that I don't like, its that he was a lying little twat. In that way, he was a lot like Bush. I just think he deserves to be remembered as a scumbag while the media is sugarcoating his death.

    It really doesn't take much effort to express my dissatisfaction with an individual in the way that I did in my above post. I just have to type a little. I don't need to save my hatred because there is plenty more of it to go around for many like him.

  • mark||

    Mary Jo died of suffocation (no water in her lungs) as she kept her face in a small air bubble in the submerged car

    Citation, please.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    MNG, for the record, I will be just as gleeful when Rick Santorum takes his celestial dirt nap.

    Now that's bipartisanship.

  • Jordan||

    This always kills me. If you crashed underwater with a passenger, I think you'd be a hero to go after them. I don't think that is "I expect everyone to do that or else they are bad people" territory. Now his not calling for help until much later is the bad part. But even this strikes me as disappointing as best, since it's easily believable that he was scared and distraught, common human emotions.



    Unless of course he was a doctor. Then he'd be an immoral bastard who deserved to be punched into saving her, right?

  • ||

    Jordan:


    Unless of course he was a doctor. Then he'd be an immoral bastard who deserved to be punched into saving her, right?


    excellent point.

  • ||

    The problem isn't just that ol' shitbag had some policies that I don't like, its that he was a lying little twat.

    Most lying little twats are harmless. Kennedy was a lying little twat who did a fair bit to increase the power and expense of the government.

    -jcr

  • ||

    But Kennedy had a moral obligation to go into the water to save her. He should have been forced at gunpoint to rescue her.

    If you were standing on the shore when Teddy the drunk came up out of the water, the proper use of the firearm is to threaten to shoot him in the head to get him out of your way, and then dive in and save the girl yourself.

    You don't send an incompetent to try to save an innocent person's life.

    -jcr

  • MNG||

    P Brooks

    Hardee har har...You know, this may escape you, but utilitarians are well aware that what may be morally correct may be something extraoridnarily difficult for a human to do, and therefore understandable when they do not do so.
    See this for your edification:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supererogation/
    (this kind of thing is also the start of the answer to the tired assertions of folks like TAO that there is a flaw in utilitarian ethics because were it true we would all be required to do more heroic acts like send more money to africa; the answer is so easy for a utilitarian: yes, ethics is hard and demanding and most people can't live up to what it demands a lot of the time:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supererogation/)

    "MNG, for the record, I will be just as gleeful when Rick Santorum takes his celestial dirt nap."

    Santorum struck me as an uncommonly silly man, but he did not harm my life and enjoyment by much, and so I think it's equally bizarre to hate the man so.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    It's not about hating them... it's about their desires to run our lives FOR us. Santorum has this vision of turning America into the 1950s again, and Ted had the vision of turning it into East Germany Junior, minus the razor wire and armed guards.

  • ||

    But even this strikes me as disappointing as best, since it's easily believable that he was scared and distraught, common human emotions.

    That's not really what the record shows. He managed to get back to his hotel while avoiding any people, make numerous phone calls to various advisors, try to fake an alibi, chat about yacht race, etc. etc.

    He was a genuinely bad person, whose subsequent career (and continued train wreck of a life) did nothing to redeem him.

  • mark||

    and Ted had the vision of turning it into East Germany Junior, minus the razor wire and armed guards

    Where's the fun in that? The best part of socialism is the sheer inequality of it all!

  • ||

    $25 trillion - thank your Bushpigs for that.

    Yeah FasSchrike, cuz all libertarians loved Bush so well.

    Regardless half your assertions are incorrect and (Bush (surprisingly) tried to reign in the GSE's, and was stopped by the Dems) most the rest had little affect.

    The only one you got right is Greenspan.

    What banks and insurance companies did only had effect because the government you love so well took money from us to prop them up.

    But if you hate all those policies then you must really hate Obama continuing them and expanding them.

    Don't answer.. you'd have to break your O-liplock.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    "Where's the fun in that? The best part of socialism is the sheer inequality of it all!"

    Exceptions being those in power, just like the old Soviet setup. Barry gets to hang in Martha's Vineyard, send wifey and kidlings to France to shop, but Joe Average has to pony up for higher gas and electricity prices under cap'n'trade... and that's just the beginning.

  • ||

    I could not agree more. Kennedy and his ilk personify the idea that government is obligated to help people. Absolve them of their personal responsibilities. This, because, well, "we" have so much "they" have so little. We and they become denizens of a gray area devoid of definition and inhabited by emotion. And as such is so fluid to defy definition. The "we" in fact are the millions who have earned their money and not like the Kennedy contingent who were born into wealth. Therefore, "we" morphs from the rich with their millions in wealth and compassion, to match to everyone who pays taxes. Somehow, we who earn our income and pay our bills have become obligated to pay the way of millions who just will not.

  • nike shox||

    is good

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