The Croly Ghost

Exorcising the specter haunting American politics


Herbert Croly is not exactly a household name, but he should be. Seven decades after his death, we are still living in the political world his ideas built–and struggling to escape it.

Croly did two very important things: He wrote The Promise of American Life, published in 1909, which crystallized the thought of the Progressive movement as it assumed significant, multiparty political influence. And, five years later, he founded The New Republic, which gave–and gives–voice to those ideas.

Croly's central message was that the government's job is to solve social problems and to actively shape the future, not to be a neutral referee. "To conceive of a better American future as a consummation which will take care of itself,–as the necessary result of our customary conditions, institutions, and ideas,–persistence in such a conception is admirably designed to deprive American life of any promise at all," he wrote. Croly's ideas influenced, among other contemporaries, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, political rivals who in retrospect had more fundamental agreements than differences.

Crolyism overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power–commissions to regulate and plan–and mass democracy. It was this pragmatic progressivism, not socialist utopianism, that extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government. Frustrated with constitutional limits, Croly wrote, "The security of private property and personal liberty, and a proper distribution of activity between the local and the central governments, demanded [at the time of the Constitution's framing], and within limits still demand, adequate legal guarantees. It remains none the less true, however, that every popular government should in the end, and after a necessarily prolonged deliberation, possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare." This statement, while extreme, pretty much sums up today's governing philosophy.

In Crolyism, we find the assumptions that underlie just about every current political debate: Government is supposed to pick sides and solve problems. The only questions are which sides and how. When that most conventional of Washington columnists, Morton Kondracke, writes that "the solution [for Republicans] lies in the same place that Clinton found victory in 1996: centrist problem-solving," he is affirming the Crolyist creed.

So, far more explicitly, are Weekly Standard editors William Kristol and David Brooks when they declare in The Wall Street Journal, "Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine….What is missing from today's conservatism is the appeal to American greatness." By their own admission, Kristol and Brooks have only the haziest of agendas: "It would be silly to try to lay out some sort of 10-point program for American greatness." They simply know what they want to quash–the idea that American greatness is emergent, rather than planned, and that it does not emerge from Washington. "American purpose," writes Brooks, "can find its voice only in Washington."

"As long as Americans believed they were able to fulfill a noble national Promise merely by virtue of maintaining intact a set of political institutions and by the vigorous individual pursuit of private ends, their allegiances to their national fulfillment remained more a matter of words than of deeds," wrote Croly. Echoes Brooks in the Standard, "If they think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities, [Americans] lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose." Like Croly, Brooks wants to crush the idea that government's job is simply to maintain free institutions and to let Americans, as individuals and in association, do the rest.

As Jim Glassman and I have written elsewhere, such conservatives have trouble finding American greatness because they are deeply alienated from the textures of American life–from the private activities in which Americans express grand aspirations and noble purpose. (See "'National Greatness' or Conservative Malaise?," The Wall Street Journal, September 25.) They view America as a rotten society, whose very creativity and exuberance is a cause for dismay.

But Kristol and Brooks are on to something: We do need to talk about governing doctrines. For the first time since Croly's era, we are at an inflection point in American politics, a time when the fundamental definition of what politics is all about could change. This redefinition is not a matter of party realignment but of big ideas. America's Crolyist assumptions are no longer secure.

Like the change in Croly's time, this inflection point is a product of intellectual and political trends over several decades. Belief in the practical power of technocracy has steadily declined, among both elites and the general public, since the mid-1960s. The old habit of "got a problem, get a program" remains, but enthusiasm for those new programs died in a gas line sometime during the Carter administration. From urban renewal in the late '50s to the S&L bailouts of the 1980s, Crolyism has not delivered on its grand promises.

As government has grown and special interests have multiplied, bureaucracies that once seemed to function reasonably well have become decadent, rigid, and insulated: Until the late 1950s, muses Nathan Glazer in The New Republic, the New York City public schools did a good job. What happened? Glazer tepidly blames the '60s, missing dynamics that political scientists find just about everywhere. It's hard to explain the high-handed incompetence of the U.S. Postal Service–and the contrasting competence of FedEx and UPS–by invoking the counterculture. NASA's sluggishness has nothing to do with hippies.

As the recent Senate hearings on the IRS revealed, picking sides and solving problems also means treating Americans not as equal citizens but as unequal subjects. A Crolyist government has a natural but nasty tendency to abuse its citizens. Its governing doctrine has a touch of the dominatrix. "The Promise of American life," wrote Croly, "is to be fulfilled–not merely by a maximum amount of economic freedom, but by a certain measure of discipline; not merely by the abundant satisfaction of individual desires, but by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial."

After 70 years of increasing subordination, it's no wonder "leave us alone" is a slogan appealing enough to unite, on occasion, an unruly coalition of libertarians and social conservatives. As long as Crolyism is still generating new schemes–Internet censorship, HMO regulation, smoking bans, manipulative tax credits, endless databases and ID cards, mandatory "voluntary" TV ratings, etc., etc., etc.–simply saying no is a serious, and necessary, political position. (The failure of the Republican "leave us alone" coalition is evident in these examples, since social conservatives ardently support about half these laws.)

As slogans go, "leave us alone" is not bad: It suggests that there is something precious and vital in private pursuits, something that is threatened by a government bent on subordination. Not so good is "government doesn't work," which, along with variations on the same theme, is popular in libertarian circles. At the very moment when Crolyism is vulnerable, such anti-government sloganeering accepts and reinforces a Crolyist definition of "government" as synonymous with the unlimited administrative state. It thereby jettisons the entire classical liberal tradition–which is very much supportive of "government" properly constrained–in favor of a vague anarchism. As an alternative to Crolyist subordination, "government doesn't work" offers the Hobbesian state of nature. That is exactly what Croly's many heirs, on both the right and the left, want people to see as the choice.

Crolyism was not built on slogans, and it cannot be displaced by them. A new governing doctrine, like the old one, requires two components: an inspiring vision of private life and a sophisticated vision of government. Fortunately, both of these visions exist. The challenge is to develop and communicate them.

America is an amazing place: creative, generous, and productive, with so many cultural nooks and crannies that no one can comprehend them all. Ours is a country whose greatness lies in its plenitude, the sheer diversity of niches–business, cultural, artistic, stylistic, intellectual, athletic, philanthropic, technical, you name it–it continuously creates and fills. (I owe the apt term plenitude to anthropologist Grant McCracken's book by that name, available at Plenitude is exciting, fun, stimulating, cool. It allows more people to be happy more of the time. It defies rigid status categories, whether "traditional" or "multicultural," in favor of the fluidity of choice and contract. It is a source of progress and competition, of the essential variations in the evolution of a dynamic civilization.

Crolyism despises plenitude. As a governing doctrine, it is inherently intolerant, demanding conformity to a central purpose. "In becoming responsible for the subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose," wrote Croly, "the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth." To the distribution of wealth, we can add a host of other private matters, from the correct relation between employers and employees to the intimate structures of family life to the proper forms of art. In a Crolyist state, the National Organization for Women can imagine no way to peacefully coexist with the Promise Keepers–for one vision or the other must define the "dominant and constructive national purpose."

Classical liberalism, by contrast, was built on the idea of peaceful coexistence. It evolved as an alternative to unceasing religious wars. Its 21st-century version–which emphasizes dispersed knowledge, competition and feedback, and evolutionary learning, as well as personal freedom–is the only political philosophy that makes room for plenitude. "There is a common culture that unites the world of plenitude," McCracken writes coyly. "It is, I think, and this will please no one, the marketplace. This is the great lingua franca of the contemporary world. As long as we can meet somewhere in the exchange of something for the benefit of someone, we have a foundation that can sustain plenitude."

The question, then, is how to sustain in turn the foundations of the marketplace–such free institutions as property rights, contract, the rule of law, and freedom of conscience and expression. This is not an easy question, which is why it is so often finessed with slogans. It actually has several components: how to move toward freer institutions, how to protect them, and how to define them. What exactly is meant by "property rights" or "the rule of law" is not obvious in every context–What about commons? Spillover effects? Intellectual property? Incomplete contracts?–nor is the relation between legal institutions and cultural habits and beliefs.

By dismissing free institutions as annoying impediments to political action, Crolyism has pushed such fundamental issues out of public view. But scholars have continued to think about them. As a serious intellectual movement, classical liberalism is not only as vibrant as ever, it has become downright trendy. The questions it asks are interesting, deep, and practical, a sure recipe for scholarly attention.

In mid-September, a remarkable conference was held at Washington University in St. Louis, the first meeting of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics. NIE builds on the work of two Nobel laureates, Ronald Coase, who has asked such basic questions as, "Why are there firms?," and Douglass North, who asks why some economies have grown faster than others and examines how they developed the institutions that permitted that growth. With no advertising except the society's Web site (, the conference organizers expected 40 or 50 attendees; they had to close registration at more than 200, from 20 countries and all the social sciences.

The NIE conference was testimony not only to the power of cyberspace to nurture international communities but also to the vitality of serious alternatives to Crolyism (even at the World Bank, where NIE-inspired researchers are actually pondering such issues as "the sources of secure property and contractual rights"). Conventional political discourse continues to define government as the manipulative determiner of national purpose, but the twin challenges of Third World development and postcommunist transition have revived the fundamental insight of classical liberalism–the idea that government best serves its citizens by limiting itself to enforcing neutral rules. Figuring out how to turn that insight into policy is both an intellectual and a political challenge. But the idea itself is a "governing doctrine" worthy of American greatness.