The Browser’s Eve Gerber recently interviewed liberal Columbia University historian Eric Foner about the five books he thinks best illustrate “how concepts of American liberalism have changed over the past 50 years.” It’s an interesting selection and Foner makes some sharp points about the racism and hostility to civil liberties that you find when you start looking at Progressive Era left-wing reformers. But his thoughts on the tensions within today’s progressive movement are particularly illuminating. Here’s the relevant Q&A:
What would you define as the core tenets of today’s progressivism?
As I see it, the core tenets are somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand you have the belief in governmental assistance to the less fortunate, governmental regulation of economic activity and very modest governmental efforts to redistribute wealth to assist those further down the social scale. So it’s active government, in the pursuit of social goals, when it comes to the economy. On the other hand, modern liberalism emphasises privacy, individual rights and civil liberties – keeping government out of your life when it comes to things like abortion rights. In other words, in the private realm liberalism is for autonomy and lack of government intervention.
Foner returns to this point later in the interview, noting that modern liberalism features two “conflicting tendencies,” support for “activist government” on the one hand and support for “retaining an area of life sealed off from government intrusion, surveillance and intervention” on the other. You could make a similar observation about the conflicts inherent in modern conservatism, which also generally prefers activist government in some areas and a more libertarian approach in others.
The upshot for libertarians is that there are strong anti-statist tendencies among both liberals and conservatives. The downside is that both camps also appear to love activist government much more than they fear it.