Some Insight Into the Liberal Mentality The . Hon. John Tower United States Senate Washington, D.C. Dear Senator Tower, I was glad to have your piece in our last issue. You did the Observer compliment in sending it, and you stimulated many of our readers to reflection and reconsideration. Your remarks made me more aware of an affinity between the individualist liberal and the libertarian conservative, a common concern for the liberty of the individual. We both want him to have a wide amplitude of personal choice and to be able to walk easily through life without fear of coercion. We have this as a common starting point. I will not concede to conservatives the manly ideal of the libertarian life, because in real life, conservatives seem to me to be more frequently timorous and conformist than liberals I know; be that as it may, freedom of spirit is a personal, not an ideological thing. You are also incorrect, I think, arguing that the liberal is “essentially egalitarian.” Liberals do not seek “complete equality,” except of opportunity, nor do they seek a state in which everything is nationalized and the government is surrogate papa. To the contrary, liberals favor competitive private enterprise far more faithfully than conservatives who side with big business when it is arrayed against small business. Your position goes fundamentally awry, in my opinion, not in the values you assert, but in your monochromatic applications of them. You are against national government planning, as such. If this meant you are therefore effectively for individuality in private life, this would be fine, but it often means precisely the contrary. For instance, you voted in effect to. give away the monopoly over space communications to the existing American Telephone & Telegraph monopoly. It does not make sense to talk of a society in which “all men can aspire to be successful” when you wind up magnifying the power of A.T.&T., or opposing the government’s preventing the steel oligopoly from raising the price of steel to every business, small and large, in the United States.. Zeal for systems of thought readily becomes excessive. Models do not match proliferating life. The social genius of the western world is not capitalism, it is pluralism, or pragmatismthe use of the social form that seems to fit best a particular situation. We are not hideboundwe are not capitalists and we are not socialists, we allow much of both and much that is in between them, because we believe in adopting solutions to real problems without insisting that one solution solve all problems. I do not know a single intellectually serious liberal who opposes economic competition that is real and works. The truly competitive economic situation \(competing shoe stores, competing brands of chili, competing kinds reason as sensible and socially beneficial. But arguments for libertarian man, for freedom of choice, and for incentive have no application to situations of natural monopoly or industry-wide price leadership and division of markets. In these contexts, the productive power of concentrations of men and technology create huge surpluses of wealth which fall under the control of business managers. If these managers are left unregulated that is, free of the “government planning” you reflexively opposethey often use their social and economic leverage to restrict the material liberty of millions of people. “Material liberty”? A man is not free just because he can say what he wants to and assemble in the open field with those who will meet him there. His freedom depends on his material life, too : his work, his wages, his long-term security against crushing and frightening impoverishment for himself and his family. A liberal does not cavil against maximum freedom for personal economic decisionmaking, except as this freedom is asserted and abused by the “inheritors of pelf and power,” the custodians of massed, superconcentrated economic aggregations. Then the only remedy which can preserve effective individuality in the society is democratic control of big business and, therefore, of big businessmen. THIS IS a troubled subject because no one has a pure claim to the championship of freedom. I am still held by what a friend said in a conversation on this subject, that these days we are simply surrounded by massed power, and that there is only one way out, the social control of this power in the interests of individualism and fairly distributed plenty, combined with the erection of high, inviolate walls around “fields of freedom”those realms of speech, the press, assembly, religious belief or disbelief, and personal life in which the government has no legitimate business at all. In this formulation, my friend expressed the pragmatism, the attempt to address a complicated world with solutions that are not simplified, which seems to me to avoid the disadvantages of excessively ideological thinking. You hinted, senator, that liberals are not exercised enough’ against union power. If. you meant, against Jimmy Hoffa, this is of course quite wrong; the Kennedys have no stronger fixed idea than to get Hoffa. If you meant, against unions as another menace to individualism, you are right. \(But we often fear that when conservatives make this point, they mean something additional: that unions are monopolies and need to be shut down to leave employers free to hire workers at lower wages and the liberal and leftist literature of the country a strengthening conviction that we need to return to the fundamental concern for the person, the one who really exists, as he is buffeted around these days by the three great repositories of civil power, government, business, and unions. As Americans true to the inarticulable idea of a person’s dignity, I think we must, whatever our associations and predispositions, renew in ourselves April 4, 1963
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