Liberalism Doesn’t Just Displace Arbitrary Power. It Reduces It.

Paul Krugman in a recent post argues that opposition to the welfare state is rooted in attachment to “traditional hierarchy”:

Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.

Samuel Goldman in the American Conservative responds with a charge of hypocrisy. While he admits to favoring traditional hierarchies, he claims that liberals like Krugman support meritocratic, technocratic hierarchies of their own:

The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.

Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.

Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. …

Krugman doesn’t see the énarques [the French technocratic elite] as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.

There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. … What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.

True, if I had to choose between giving great power over my life-choices to Cardinal Dolan and giving it to Cass Sunstein, I would, with the greatest reluctance, choose Sunstein. But I think Goldman is mistaken: that’s not the choice I face. Liberal governance doesn’t just mean replacing one set of rulers with another. It means taking many matters out of the sphere of “ruling” altogether—by leaving some of them up to individuals, and making others a matter of law and non-discretionary policy rather than arbitrary decision.


In a traditional society, many decisions that we now consider private or personal—up to the individual—aren’t. They are precisely governed by “property, church, and family.” Whom people can sleep with, or marry, is powerfully constrained by religious prohibitions and family honor (and property, too, where such exists: the rich can only court the sons of daughters of others who are rich, or at least high in status). People who lose faith in their god or gods are prevented from openly proclaiming belief in another, or none. Educational opportunities depend exclusively on the wealth of parents, and their continued favor, or else the patronage of a lord, gentleman, or religious endowment. In a liberal society, it’s not as if technocrats decide those things. To a first approximation, not denying the power of social norms, the individual does. The decline of social hierarchies enables private choice in matters of sex, marriage, and religion; universal public education allows individuals to expand their minds and build their economic opportunities without having to truckle to parents or patrons.

The welfare state, narrowly understood (transfer payments) of course requires administrators. But the hallmark of a proper welfare state is that those administrators may not act like rulers. They administer programs according to laws and rules that bind them as well as the program’s beneficiaries. In particular—and here Bob Goodin’s Reasons for Welfare is outstanding—a proper welfare state’s administrators lack discretion at the point of service. All applicants who fulfill a public and impartial set of criteria are entitled to benefits. An administrator who forgets that can be appealed against (and fired). Traditional hierarchies allow the hierarchs to distinguish between the deserving, the faithful, and the properly behaving, who are chosen to receive benefits; and the allegedly undeserving, ungrateful, nonconforming, or heretical, who are out of luck. The hierarchs have the power to decide which is which. Liberal elites have many vices, I am sure. But their (our?) vices have much less effect on others’ liberty, because the elites in question have much less power to arbitrarily dictate how others’ lives will go.

A liberal social and legal order doesn’t just replace old bosses with new bosses. It reduces the number of decisions that require the permission of any boss. In some areas, liberalism expands liberty directly by simply denying the conservative doctrine that matters of sexuality, marriage, education religion require social, familial, or institutional Church direction. When it comes to active social measures to support the helpless, liberalism expands the scope of liberty considered as “non-domination,” freedom from arbitrary power—which political theorists consider a small-r “republican” value but in this case fully accords with liberalism as well—by freeing people from desperate dependence on powers whose authority they would, if given the chance, reject. Crucially (this is a Goodin point again) the welfare state prevents, rather than simply displacing, the exploitation of weakness that such personal dependence renders ubiquitous.

Goldman portrays “radical leftists” as acknowledging a truth about power that liberals hypocritically deny. One might flip the point around. Conservatives secure in their convictions should (and many do) praise the disciplinary effect—the training in “virtue” if one will—that comes with a society based on unchosen social authority (a.k.a. power): parental and Church power over marriage, sexuality, education, and religion, and churches and voluntary societies’ power over the life-choices of poor people who left to themselves would lack thrift, strength of character, and sexual restraint. Such honest conservatives lament the existence of a “permissive” society in which many more personal choices are left to the discretion of sinful, self-seeking individuals, undisciplined by proper, necessary, social authority. To say that a liberal society on the contrary contains just as much power and authority as a traditional, hierarchical one—just exercised by different individuals—has the virtue of originality. But that’s the argument’s only virtue. It isn’t so.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.