Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Casting a Wide Net: The Varieties of Statist Liberalism

[by Anne Kornhauser]

First, a hearty thank you to Karen, Dan, and company for inviting me to be a guest blogger on this superb site. I will use this opportunity to discuss my book Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970, in particular its interdisciplinary character--beyond the givens of law and history. Throughout the month, I will highlight the challenges and possibilities for legal historians and others of melding academic disciplines in the realms of writing, publishing, and teaching.

My book is about how statist liberals responded to modern American liberalism's crowning achievement: the "leviathan" state. I grew interested in this topic because I knew that the relationship between liberals and the state that took shape during the New Deal and World War II was more complex than the longstanding political rhetoric of big-government liberals versus small-government conservatives would have us believe. But there was a more scholarly reason as well: After an astounding burst of scholarship on the history of 20th-century American conservatism, liberalism as a public philosophy of the state had been relatively neglected. During an age of conservative ascendancy its history was thought not to matter as much. Yet if liberalism was no longer so resonate as a political creed, its state largely remained. Path dependency, a favorite of political scientists, was a possible explanation, but history does not travel along neatly articulated trails. Besides, this was an uneasy state, perhaps even an unsustainable one. How, then, could historical exploration help explain the persistence of a strong liberal state with a weak liberal creed?

The first step was to leaven my intellectual history with political-institutional history to see what statist liberals thought about the American political institutions when the leviathan (or administrative) state was consolidated in the 1930s and 1940s. It turned out these liberal intellectuals thought a variety of things, some of them quite critical. These more critical liberal views were what interested me as they were less well-known and more revealing. In probing these sympathetic but critical views of the state, I had several aims. First, I sought to show through a cross-disciplinary, global conversation among liberal intellectuals that concerns about the newly hegemonic administrative state was not the provenance of conservatives alone; liberals too had their grievances. But liberal disquietude about the state was not as easy to discern. By looking at a wide variety of critical liberal intellectuals--many of whom were involved in government service--I found that they were thinking along similar lines about the state, but expressing those thoughts in different registers. These intellectuals ran the gamut from American social scientists and legal academics, to German emigre thinkers trained in law and politics, to the political and moral philosopher John Rawls.

Without an interdisciplinary sensibility, I might well have overlooked this shared unease about the the administrative state's increasingly bureaucratized, discretionary, and executive-driven power and the emergency conditions that justified it. The critical liberals all worried about the strains this state placed on the liberal values of majoritarian democracy, the rule of law, and individual autonomy and its die-hard proponents' lack of a rationale, other than that of "necessity," for exercising that power.

Second, by casting a broad net, in terms of the intellectuals' academic disciplines, countries of origin, and argumentative style, I could better see the tensions and contradictions within statist liberal thinking and the resulting issues of legitimacy that swirled around the liberal state. I found that most liberal were unable to or lacked interest in defending the state on principled grounds, while the attempts of others--the "sympathetic critics" of my story--to address this legitimation deficit made little headway, either because they were ignored, were impractical, or gave way to new concerns.

The excavation of tensions within liberal thought wrought by the leviathan state allowed me to offer a alternative explanation for statist liberalism's conceptual and the political weaknesses in contrast to those that blamed frontal assaults on liberal ideals and institutions, poor policy choices or programmatic failures, and ineffective political elites. The fact is most American liberals have offered a largely uncritical defense of the administrative state, though that may be beginning to change.

Structurally, the book looks first at liberal intellectuals' critiques of the New Deal state in its domestic guise. Then it turns to critical reactions to that same state as it operated in World War II, where I use the German occupation as an example of the administrative state at war. For the extended postwar period, I examine the singular figure of John Rawls. With this theory of a just liberal society, Rawls was the first among statist liberal intellectuals to offer a comprehensive attempt to overcome the legitimation deficit opened up by the prevalence of administrative governance and emergency politics in a constitutional democracy. In future posts I will discuss the variety of intellectuals who populate my book and the benefits and potential pitfalls of placing in conversation a bevy of social scientists, legal academics, and philosophers as they reacted to, worried about, and ultimately tried to legitimate the leviathan state while preserving the liberal values that mattered deeply to them.