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Opinion

Before NPR scandal, a warning about 'elite' liberals: compassion turns to coercion

Long before the NPR scandal underscored liberal condescension toward conservatives, Lionel Trilling saw the hidden hope of power that lies in the heart of those who seek to improve society. President Obama has renewed this progressive impulse, limiting our freedom and prosperity.

By Michael Knox Beran / March 9, 2011



New York

The past three years have witnessed a renewal of faith in progressive social policy, a faith embodied in President Obama's pledge to lead an administration dedicated to "change we can believe in." It is a faith that, in an earlier incarnation, made one liberal, the Columbia teacher and literary critic Lionel Trilling, uncomfortable.

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In his book "The Liberal Imagination," published in 1950, Trilling pointed to the "dangers which lie in our most generous wishes." Progressives, Trilling observed, believe that through the "rational direction of human life" they can alleviate misery. But the reformers, Trilling showed, are too often oblivious of the truth of their own motives.

In his 1947 novel "The Middle of the Journey," Trilling probes this hidden impulse in his portrayal of Gifford Maxim, a character modeled on his Columbia schoolmate and legendary Soviet spy-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers. "And in the most secret heart of every intellectual ... there lies hidden ... the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow man," Maxim says. This hope tempts the progressive to embrace coercive policies in the name of social equity. "The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become," Maxim says. "How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?"

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Trilling shared Maxim's skepticism about progressive motives. "Some paradox of our nature leads us," Trilling wrote in "The Liberal Imagination," "when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion."

Threat to freedom? The 'liberal imagination'

The threat to freedom in today's democracies comes from policies that, however benign in intention, limit the goods that people are able to choose. Such policies are coercive: They force us to narrow our range of possibility. True, some choices have long been proscribed by law and custom. But today's progressive policies limit choice in areas where we ought to be free:

•Unless you're rich, you have little choice but to send your child to the state-run public school, even if it's lousy. Progressive reformers have successfully resisted voucher programs that would expand freedom of choice in education.

•If you're looking for a job, the $787 billion stimulus hasn't enlarged your options. Rather than cut corporate and payroll taxes to stimulate private-sector job growth, progressive "experts" in the capital spent much of the money on boondoggles. Result: 9 percent unemployment.

•The Internet is virtually synonymous with freedom, but "net neutrality" rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission on the pretext of fixing a nonexistent problem (discrimination against content providers by Internet service providers) will bring the Net into regulators' grasp.

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