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.
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.
The most ominous example of coercion is the new health-care law's individual mandate, which forces us to "choose" an insurance policy. But the law limits our medical options in other ways, through price controls to contain costs. "We economists don't know much," Milton Friedman once said, "but we do know how to create a shortage. If you want to create a shortage of tomatoes, for example, just pass a law that retailers can't sell tomatoes for more than 2 cents per pound. Instantly you'll have a tomato shortage." What is true for tomatoes is true for health care.
If you are poor, your freedom to "choose" the health care you want may be imaginary. But policies that limit choice do not enlarge the circle of real wealth. Policies that maximize choice, by contrast, lift all boats: They make the best use of the knowledge society as a whole possesses.
Forced social idealism
You know more about the circumstances of your situation than anyone. The principle that Washington should not second-guess your choices has enabled America to use the vast quantity of information its citizens possess more efficiently than any other nation. Efficiency is not the end of life but the beginning of prosperity.
Policies that would decree progress by government fiat curtail freedom in another way. Overall government spending in the United States, which accounted for less than 7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1903, was estimated in 2010 to account for 42 percent of GDP. As the proportion of the productive wealth of the nation controlled by the government increases, our ability to choose what to do with our own resources decreases.
The "ultimate threat to human freedom," Trilling wrote in an account of George Orwell, might well come from a "massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture." Such idealism is dangerous because the idealists have disguised their deepest motives even from themselves. In his essay on Henry James's novel "The Princess Casamassima," Trilling described the willfulness of the progressive reformer "who takes license from his ideals for the unrestrained exercise of power." In today's ostensibly benign social policies, there is more than a whiff of the coercive "will" Trilling dreaded, the "will which masks itself in virtue."