A Liberal’s Creed: Seeking to Narrow the Gaps
By Jerome Grossman
Liberalism in the United States is different from classical liberalism, American as apple pie. It draws its inspiration from the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal.” Equality is the master idea, in race, wealth, and gender. Yet liberalism does not advocate the absolute economic equality implied in socialist systems, because liberalism is restrained by its advocacy of the freedom of the individual and unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor. Liberals do not believe it is possible to create a perfect society but that we should try to reach the ideal.
Rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive movement, liberalism accepts with typical American pragmatism the dominance of business interests while seeking to modify the imbalances of political, social, and economic institutions. Big government is the instrument of modification for, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “There was a time when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day, the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations.”
However, liberals are also wary of big government, unwilling even for the goals of equality to sacrifice the protection of individual rights, the rule of law, and personal freedoms. It is this tension between two objectives that makes it so demanding to be an American liberal: eternal vigilance is required.
Liberals know that absolute equality can never be achieved. But, optimistic believers in the essential goodness of humanity and in human rationality, they promote change that will allow the aggressive and the talented to benefit from their efforts while promoting reforms that will minimize the differences in benefits, thereby cutting the equality gap.
The motivations are moral and pragmatic: moral in that equality reflects our communitarian heritage and love for all human beings; pragmatic in the sense that inequality spawns revolution and crime.
While conservatives are by definition the party of the status quo, they demonstrate by their actions a realization of the moral and pragmatic problems. Their answer is private charity to relieve the pressures generated by economic inequality, and political tokenism to make up for the differences in power.
For liberals, the conservative answer is insufficient. Only the government, as the instrument of the entire nation, should be responsible for providing the minimum conditions necessary for a decent existence. These conditions include not only adequate food, clothing, and shelter, but also education and employment.
The growth of industrial society has produced great inequalities of wealth and power. Liberalism insists that it is in the interests of all parties to narrow the gaps. This is American pragmatic idealism at its best: right and practical at the same time.