Liberalism at a Dead End: The Permanent Crisis of the Liberal Welfare State

The welfare state is in crisis. As this is being written the Clinton administration has just had enormous difficulties in getting any budgetary program through Congress, even one as gimmick laden and patched together as this congressional product was. To be sure, the president’s difficulties are compounded by his own ineptitude at key moments and our constitutional schema of diffuse and divided governmental power. But every major western democratic regime whether nominally liberal or conservative faces these same pressures. In parliamentary systems, third and fourth parties proliferate along ideological, regional, and ethnic lines. Calls for regional and/or ethnic autonomy proliferate, and there are even calls for outright dissolution of existing regimes, as has already happened in the former Czechoslovakia. Where there is little history of peaceful negotiation the parties take to the killing fields of Bosnia or Belfast.

It may be time to think clearly not about this inept leader, that unsound policy, or these regional or ethnic conflicts, but about the fundamental theoretical and structural difficulties of large, welfare state liberalism that has dominated the political landscape of twentieth century liberalism of which the budgetary, ethnic, and religious strife just noted are only symptoms. It is time, perhaps, to think of the permanent crisis of the liberal welfare state.



It wasn’t originally supposed to be this way. The dream of the founders of liberalism, including the greatest liberal statesmen, the American founders, was that a political order of security and liberty could be constructed by limiting the reach of politics to the needs of the human body while deliberately ignoring the demands of the human soul. Bodily survival and its logical extension, material prosperity, were minimum goods of nearly universal appeal. A politics that was limited to this universal desire would tame the strife of earlier ages, a strife rooted in conflict over incompatible religious, moral and philosophic commitments, and communal traditions. Political reason would no longer aspire to the philosophic or religious goal of teaching citizens truths about the ends of human existence, nourishing these commitments in civic life, and rendering political decisions in their light. Political reason was now a techne, a means or instrument in the service of bodily survival. Politics was now supposed to be about means, not ends. The ends or purposes of human life were those religious or philosophic intangibles over which people will fight to the death and on the basis of which the civil peace passionately desired by liberals is so difficult to fashion. Contrary to the suppositions of Mrs. Clinton, a politics of “meaning” was a prime target, not a goal, of the liberal project.

As a regime whose vision was firmly limited to this world and not the next, liberalism sought to unleash the inquisitive and acquisitive powers of humankind in the search for more wealth to fulfill the desires of the body and more technology to secure the body against the assaults of nature. The desires for material acquisition and earthly domination that Christianity had regarded with extreme suspicion, liberalism unleashed with delight.

Civil peace became the anchor of politics. A politics based on material well-being is always a politics in which compromises can be made or interests bought off. This is the dream of James Madison: the large commercial republic in which political things can be reduced to economic ends, which are ultimately commensurable with one another. A person will almost always be willing to sell his property in hopes of getting more of some material good he desires. Sincere believers, however, will not sacrifice their salvation for gain. If humankind can be taught to ignore the question of the ultimate ends or purposes of existence or treat such beliefs as merely a private opinion, politics will certainly be easier and less dangerous. Formulating a wilderness policy, for example, where everyone talks the same language of economic calculation, is clearly easier than a case where some want wilderness preserved for its ultimately incommensurable spiritual worth.

The Jewish and Christian religions which did teach of the ends of human existence that liberalism denied, might have been expected to reject this limited view of politics. But Judaism was always politically marginal, and Protestantism was so enamored of its individualism and so suspicious of any hierarchy even vaguely resembling Catholicism that it offered little resistance. Catholicism did offer serious resistance but its partial transformation on this point is much too long and complicated a story to relate here.

This profound liberal skepticism about the transcendent human good that western theism calls “salvation” is the absolutely necessary foundation for the preeminence of individual rights in modern politics. This was opposed to the emphasis on duties or virtues that characterized classical and medieval political thought and practice. Duties are always duties to perform some action, pursue some goal, achieve some end. As such a politics of obligation would nurture some vision of human existence which would underlie any such pursuits. Liberalism professes only that the individual should find his own purposes and hence that he or she should have the rights necessary to do so. For example, one never hears of prosecutions for adultery or even public announcement and humiliation of adulterers. Yet a constant stream of complaints is heard about invasions of a supposedly absolute right to privacy.

In her new book, The Rights Revolution, Mary Ann Glendon inveighs against the proliferation of increasingly minute rights of every conceivable special group, interest, or desire. Her complaint is eminently sensible but the root cause lies in liberal skepticism itself. To hold that one set of rights is more important than another would be to offer special protection to the activities that those rights represent and to the character or form of life that those activities embody. It is just this commitment to a specific way of life that skeptical liberalism cannot make. As such it must increasingly offer the covering of its concept of rights to any activity that someone finds desirable.

This connection between skepticism and rights is made most powerfully evident in one example that might be useful here: the right to religious liberty. The most fundamental statement of the liberal theory of religious toleration is indisputably John Locke’s Letter on Toleration, a text that was a bible on these matters for Jefferson and Madison. For Locke, toleration of almost all religious belief was required because no one knew what religion was right. Hence, any public attempt to promote religion could only conceivably promote one private opinion over another. The chasm between this skepticism and any form of sincere Jewish or Christian conviction should not be forgotten.

As a regime of the mediocre, liberalism required for its success that those alternatives incompatible with it be politically banished. The first were those regimes based on the absolute domination of one human being over another, e.g., slavery in its various forms. Such regimes placed the survival of one at the mercy of another and hence were incompatible with both the first and second rules of liberalism, survival and liberty. But it also required that those regimes that aspired to more than what liberalism offered also be banished as viable alternatives. Regimes based on a philosophic or religious vision of a transcendent human good were also incompatible with liberalism and had to be contained and suppressed.

This character of liberalism is powerfully revealed in two crucially symbolic acts in American political history. The first is the platform of the first truly national political party in America, the Republican platform of 1856 with its famous claim to destroy the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy. But it was not just two isolated policies that were at stake. The Republican platform aimed to suppress the two competing political alternatives that were incompatible at the deepest level with the final dominance of the large commercial republic envisioned by Madison.

That is why the modus vivendi of the 1890s, by which Mormon Utah became a state, required far more than just the ending of Mormon polygamy. In essence Mormons had to follow the ancient Israelites and become “like unto the nations” if they wished to be accepted by such nations. They had to end the Mormon school system and establish a system of secular public schools, end a Mormon based political party and undertake a host of lesser changes. The end of Madisonian liberalism, insofar as Mormonism is concerned, was not toleration but the Supreme Court decision of Davis v. Beeson. This decision proclaimed the ultimate incompatibility of Mormonism and American liberal democracy, and allowed Idaho to give effect to such an incompatibility by prohibiting Mormons from voting.

The second powerfully symbolic act took place at roughly the same time as the federal attempt to suppress the Mormons. Until the 20th century it was not thought that the Bill of Rights applied to the states. This was the original view of the matter at the time of its passage and was clearly understood for a century and a half. But in the 1870s Congress did actively consider a proposed amendment offered by Sen. James Blaine to make the explicit provisions of religious disestablishment and toleration applicable to the states. The effort narrowly failed. But in the extensive debate the real animating force behind the amendment was clear: undermine the communal power of Catholicism which was coming to dominate urban areas on the east coast.

This hostility to serious communal religion, which as Tom Lindsay has shown is fully Madisonian in its inspiration, is likewise revealed in the Supreme Court’s now infamous “lemon test.” The first of the three parts of this test for establishment clause violations requires that public policies have a completely secular purpose. Policies derived from supposedly “off limits” convictions about ultimate human purposes or ends are impermissible. Otherwise permissible policies become constitutionally impermissible if they are enacted with reference to such ends or purposes. In other words, a religiously committed public official can only act if he or she is either hypocritical enough to assert, or unreflective enough to believe, that religious convictions about the ultimate ends of human existence can be taken off like a bathrobe when he or she enters the public sphere. If they are “sabbath believers,” or worse, “Christmas Christians,” their political leadership will pass scrutiny. But if they are the very sort of believer that Christian or Jewish or Islamic theism demands them to be, the council chamber or legislative seat is off limits. Deviousness or stupidity will permit them to serve with their faith. Thoughtful, honest conviction will not.

The civil libertarians and secularists who so devoutly support this lemon of a test, however, primarily skewer their own. Consider Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example (although the priests who led the anti-war movement or the self appointed ministers of the religion of environmentalism like Vice President Gore will do just as well). In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, King records that as a young minister thrust into leadership of the first civil rights struggle, the Montgomery bus boycott, he was at one point ready to cave in to the constant death threats. Over a modest kitchen table in the middle of the night he prayed that God would show him a way to step out of his leadership. Instead, he recorded, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth and God will be at your side forever.” King could, as well as anyone, appeal to the public creed of civil egalitarianism to justify his struggle to a wider constituency. But the prophetic cadence of his public speeches testify to his deepest convictions, to the belief and experience that grounded his struggle and made it ultimately comprehensible to the hundreds of religious leaders and countless laymen who joined him.

One does not have to regard King as a saint to recognize that on this issue the liberals are still trying to have their cake and eat it too. They find conservative ministers dangerous and liberals like King ready for deification. The contradiction is glaring and the fact that they still will not admit it is a depressing example of either willful deceit or plain blindness.



The crisis of contemporary liberalism may be simply stated. It is no longer possible to delude ourselves that a politics, a public sphere, that is oblivious to human ends or ultimate purposes is either possible or desirable. At the most basic level the worldwide growth of religious fundamentalism, religions like Mormonism, and a variety of new age leaders and cults bear witness to a hunger that modernity cannot satisfy. Even the growth of ethnic nationalism bears witness to the impotence of liberalism in the face of questions that it tried to ignore and forces that it cannot comprehend. More profoundly we cannot address any great public problem without confronting the questions of ultimate significance which liberalism sought to deny. Consider just three examples:

1. Education: Public education has become a fierce battleground because both liberals and conservatives know that you cannot teach the three R’s, i.e., the tools of material acquisition that liberalism prizes, without teaching ultimate beliefs, convictions and values. Liberals demand that the “religion” of secular humanism dominate the school curriculum while conservatives insist that Judeo-Christian theism be given an equal voice. But they both know that a naked curriculum is impossible. The third-rate relativism of values clarification or the smorgasbord from which half-formed souls are to make the most awesome of choices are both so incoherent as to be beneath contempt.

For example, you cannot teach both safe sex practices and chastity. To teach the former is to presuppose that adolescents will be sexually active, that they either can’t or shouldn’t control their sexual behavior in chaste ways. Christian faith frankly denies that human beings either must or should cave in to their most unchaste desires. We frankly and proudly proclaim the possibility of a grace that enables any of God’s children to control sexual desire in the service of noble ends. Liberalism knows of safe sex practices. It even knows of chastity as the safe bet under certain circumstances where sex cannot be safe for the body. It cannot know chastity and marital faithfulness in the service of eternal goals. We can have a school curriculum based on one or the other of these premises but not both. In many parts of the country the school curriculums have simply caved in to secular liberalism. They have not, thereby, avoided questions of ultimate purpose. They have simply traded one faith, one set of convictions, for another.

2. Health Care: The health care system in every major liberal state is broke and no one seems to know how to repair it equitably. Western societies have for the most part conquered acute diseases and extended the life span beyond the wildest dreams of earlier ages. Now we confront permanent disabilities and life extending technologies and we ask how much of what kind of care is enough or too much. In America, we are frankly rationing access simply to those who are able to pay. In nationalized systems they resort to patently absurd rationing systems like waiting lists or arbitrary cutoffs. All this because we cannot publicly speak of the purposes of human life, without which we must resort to informal or formally absurd rationing systems to control health care use and thus cost.

Most of the current proposals to reform the American health care system focus upon universal access to some unspecified package of “basic benefits.” But to specify any such list in detail will, in fact, force us to address the very question of the meaning of life that liberalism thought it could publicly avoid. For example, should Navaho medicine men or Christian Science healers be provided for under a “basic benefits” package. To Navaho people this is the most significant and basic sort of care imaginable. Without it one simply does not have a system of care. But to endorse this care is frankly impossible for liberalism, and not merely because of the practical impossibility of supporting every brand of alternative healing. To endorse and support the medicine man and the Christian Science practitioner is to endorse a narrative about human existence which is profoundly at odds with the very core of liberalism itself. So liberalism endorses a public system of health care that is premised on the primacy of material reality, which itself is a story about human existence that, for all its professed openness, liberalism cannot publicly question.

3. Entitlements: In every major liberal democracy of the West the treasury is in chapter 11 or worse, primarily as a result of the enormous growth in welfare state entitlements. This growth is endemic to the welfare state. Liberalism cannot say no to any bodily interest because it cannot say yes only to some. Endorsing some interests inevitably implies a commitment to the vision of human existence in which those interests are coherently embedded. For example, since the liberal state cannot know what constitutes a proper family life it must offer the financial support of its “family policies” to every conceivable living, working, and cohabiting arrangement. The list of examples is endless. The point is the same. Since it is inherently incapable of deciding that some forms of human life and the interests that flow from them are more ennobling or virtuous or even “correct,” liberalism must endorse any and every interest claimed as such by some adherent. Once this inevitable conclusion is transformed via Judeo-Christian compassion into government help for those who cannot support their own interests, the liberal treasury plunges into ever increasing debt.



The welfare state is on the verge of crisis because it ignores the questions that a religious public square will engage and answer. Hillary Clinton appears to be enamored of a “politics of meaning” and in this she is raising a crucial but profoundly transforming point. Welfare state liberalism requires a politics of ultimate meaning such that none of Mrs. Clinton’s initiatives on health care or welfare reform can succeed without it. But the Lockean and Madisonian roots of the American regime abhor such a politics and this regime must be profoundly transformed if any such communitarian politics of “meaning” is to succeed. For example, religion is preeminently the vehicle for engaging the questions that liberalism now ignores. Any politics of meaning will entail a public square in which political debate and the resulting policy is suffused with the content that religious communities have taken as central for millennia. We may still separate formally the organs of church and state, which western societies have done to their credit, but any politics of meaning that answers to the crisis of the welfare state will find it impossible to banish religious commitment and discourse from the public square. It may be that Mrs. Clinton’s apparent support of a civil libertarian reading of the Constitution is deeply at odd with their talk of a new politics of “meaning.”

Liberalism is in crisis because it ignores the very questions that its own policies require it to confront. Its theory simply cannot account for nor sustain its practice. At this point two alternatives present themselves. First the liberal state might mute the crisis by reducing itself to merely a vehicle for private commercial transactions. By eliminating most of the apparatus of contemporary public life, from public schools to environmental policy and welfare entitlements, it can reduce to an absolute minimum the range of policy with respect to which liberalism must place its faith in the primacy of the physical welfare of human beings. This does not mean that no such faith lies at the core of this libertarian utopia. It merely means that the range over which such a faith must dictate to those of us who do not share it is reduced to a tolerable minimum.

Though many talk as if such a gathering of rational contractors would be a heaven on earth, few actually practice the egoism that lies at its heart. Our moral capacities for love, compassion, care, and trust may not let us. Neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Islamic theism offer any solace to individuals or communities who ignore those of weaker spirit or frailer bodies in favor of material acquisition. It is precisely because we are not Hobbesian egoists that the libertarian dream cannot be a paradise. However theoretically elegant it may be, it will not, in practice, be a permanent solution to the crisis of contemporary liberalism.

If the libertarians are not likely to be persuasive in practice and the large republic of welfare has reached a state of extended crisis, perhaps the answer will be found in the very place once rejected by the Madisonians: communities far less extensive in size and thus less devoted to the nihilistic pluralism that dominates public discourse in regimes such as ours. Even a reasonably minimal degree of consensus on ultimate matters is impossible in a regime of 270 million. The sort of community that can preserve liberty and at the same time address publicly the questions that liberalism sought to ignore may be impossible in the large commercial regime of Madisonian inspiration. But it is not impossible to think of smaller political communities in which dialogue on questions of ultimate significance and decisions rendered in this light is both possible and even likely.

The Madisonian founders of the American regime sought to realize the liberal goal of a purely secular politics by making the regime so large and so devoted to the needs of the body and the desire for material acquisition that the aspirations of the soul would be publicly muted and dissipated into a thousand competing and publicly impotent sects. Their goal has largely been reached. At this very moment, however, the achievement is in a crisis of its own making. It is impotent in the face of forces it cannot comprehend and it has nothing to offer but faith in Enlightenment rationality when confronted with the most pressing public issues of our time.

It may now be time to think again of that alternative that once was rejected: regimes of such limited size and scope that enable a politics which actively engages questions of ultimate significance. As Enlightenment liberalism unravels, as ethnic groups and religious communities increasingly recognize its impoverishment, we must think through the alternatives that preserve its core virtue of self government while offering more than liberalism provides. For the alternatives that speak to the questions that liberalism ignores, while finally offering less, are always with us.


  • Richard Sherlock

    Richard Sherlock is Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University.

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