Everyone says liberalism has run out of ideas. As one who despised the House Un-American Activities Committee, revered Adlai Stevenson and Martin Luther King , rejoiced at the poverty program, and was an early foe of the Vietnam war, I, too, have wondered if the liberals' cupboard is bare. But I've concluded that if liberals are fresh out of new ideas, they have some golden oldies which can be sensibly adapted to the public interest. Maybe these can give liberals some cohesion, some sense of purpose, and some relevance in the years ahead.
1. Especially since the slow-growth Eisenhower years, liberals have favored a high-growth economy, believing it would help the poor, including poor blacks, more than anything else. There were some defections during the "small is beautiful" period of the mid-'70s, but each recession reinforced the high-growth thesis. It is no sell-out, then, for liberals to support tax measures which promote greater industrial productivity; only this will restore American competitiveness at home and abroad and provide the jobs and revenues needed for the years ahead.
2. At same time, liberals should resist lower income-tax rates for upper-income grops. Tax plums for the wealthy will do little to make this country more productive, since investment in productive enterprise overwhelmingly comes from corporate earnings and depreciation allowances. The shortage of savings is not due to excessive taxes on the rich; inflation is the real culprit.
Currently, 1 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the privately owned assets. One of the most valid and urgent liberal tasks is to press for tougher federal inheritance taxes on large estates. This reform would have a minuscule effect on incentive -- and who deserves that silver spoon, anyway?
3. Liberals have little that is unique to contribute to national energy policy -- since the current policy of pressing ahead on every feasible energy front makes good sense. What they can do, however, is insist that the environment be accorded the respect it so richly deserves. A healthful environment is more important maximum economic growth, and we must never lose sight of that.
4. Liberals should be the first to oppose unnecessary business regulations, since senseless or dubious interference with business weakens public support for intelligent and necessary intervention. But the effort to gut agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Trade Commission should galvanize liberal opposition. We cannot rely on the profit motive to protect consumer interests involving health, safety, or fair competition; the historical evidence argues conclusively to the contrary.
On the other hand, liberals are prone to forget that the consumer may often be best protected not by more regulations but by the "pitiless publicity" Woodrow Wilson advocated long ago. If congressional committees, armed with the subpoenas which Ralph Nader and the press lack, publicly embarrass corporations disrespectful of the legitimate interests of the consumer, that publicity can be a muscular regulatory force.
5. Liberals must always worry about those who can't find work. But "make-work" jobs are not the answer. These provide neither skills nor self-respect.
President carter has suggested that millions of jobs will eventually be opened up by energy development and energy conservation industries. Many of these will mushroom far from the centers of unemployed, however. As the Swedes have done, we may need to supply information, encouragement, and moving expenses for down-and-out adults willing to leave home base and strike ot for these areas. We owe this, especially, to minorities who are losing faith in government.
6. If no one else cares about those on welfare, liberals must. More than half of those on welfare, remember, are children. Welfarees have been consistently short-changed during recently inflationary years; payments in many states have not begun to keep up with the rise in the cost of living. The cost of bringing welfare payments up to a livable minimum would not be great. But in return for possible cooperation with moderate conservatives, liberals should stop scowling when the former insist that able-bodied welfarees work part-time on community projects when private jobs cannot be found.
7. Liberals will cease to be liberals when they lose interest in the hopeless and the wretched abroad. It is shameful that America is contributing a much smaller percentage of its gross national product for economic aid than many other Western nations. We can do little to industrialize the less-developed countries but we can assist promising agricultural improvement programs in some areas.
8. Of course liberals should support an "adequate" military budget. What "adequate" means is not at all clear, but it does include strengthening our conventional forces. IT does notm mean the MX, or nuclear superiority, or even nuclear equivalence. So long as the US can devastate the USSR with its submarine-launched missiles and cruise missiles, it should be willing to concede nuclear superiority to the Soviets. Superfluous superiority has no real military significance, anyway.
There's not much new in this agenda. It isn't very inspiring. Much of it runs upstream. But it conforms to liberal principles, it makes sense, and it is not designed for never-never land. If others can improve on it (as of course they can), bravo!