Soros should revive the old liberalism

So, George Soros plans to put more cash into building up the intellectual establishment on the left. The philanthropist billionaire will, one presumes, endow giant think-tanks, fortresses from which neo-conservatives will flee. He will pour dollars over debaters until they morph into intellectual superheroes, capable of obliterating the scholars of the right and leading the Democratic party to victory in 2008.

To which one can only say: swell! One of the most embarrassing things about the election in 2004 was watching the Democrats find their inner jackal. After all, we expect Republicans to yap and scream - they are the Red State party. But it is downright painful to hear middle-aged political science professors howl over the air waves. If Democrats want to imitate Republican intellect after spending a year disparaging it, we will forgive them. And as long as Mr Soros is contemplating such a large agenda, we can offer a few suggestions.

Demand numeracy. Consider the debate over Social Security. Actuarial work shows the value of changing the system early: if the US waits, reform will be far more costly. Yet because most thinkers on the left prefer to view such government programmes in legal rather than economic terms, they insist that the party's job is to block change. Reformers' arguments fall on deaf ears: the chatrooms and the lawmakers have already taken the cue and begun debating in emotional terms. Hence the widening divide on the topic in Washington.

Another example involving innumeracy: patients' rights. Democrats love to expand them and so do their big-time donors, trial lawyers. But sometimes that goal is illogical and can even hurt the quality of medicine. Merck's removal of its anti-arthritis drug Vioxx from the market is an example. "Heart attacks and strokes double with Vioxx" was the headline about its withdrawal. But as the American Council on Science and Health points out, that doubling was from the small base of 1.9 per cent of the population to 3.5 per cent. The drug is a risk, but one a patient might choose to run, given the choice. This, however, is hard to impress on a party leadership that prefers the "perception is reality" argument.

Another suggestion: teach history. One premise of debates over large government programmes is that to alter them would be to betray the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. The truth is that Roosevelt himself could not have imagined such sweeping social commitments; his Social Security data did not assume people would live to 70. As for healthcare, Roosevelt thought it best that medicine "be kept out of politics".

This basic approach would allow Democrats to sort out their political philosophy. Many in the party today view the "liberal" label as problematic: "liberal" is what Ann Coulter, the conservative columnist, calls them. But it is possible to redeem this label by returning to the classical liberalism of Europe and the UK. Think-tanks could do worse than take their cue from Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty". The 1958 essay separates "negative" liberties - the freedom to be left alone - from "positive" ones - the freedom to take actions on behalf of others that might in reality limit their freedoms. The old - negative - liberalism would include choosing your own arthritis drug or pension format. And it stands for open-mindedness, because that allows the individual to inform himself.

This brings us back to Mr Soros's dramatic move, and the reason Republicans are perceived as such awesome foes today. About 20 years ago an illiberal left came to dominate US universities, especially in the humanities. In academic review committees, centrist or right-leaning applicants lost out. There were often good reasons for rejecting the candidates. But a vicious cycle was also at work: non-left candidates could not get credentials because they did not have them. The best headed for Washington and laid foundations for the very think-tanks Democrats are now so assiduously trying to replicate.

The illiberal university culture did a second thing. It refused to share space with the old disciplines - traditional languages and history, especially - and supplanted them with postmodern literature and (fact-averse) social sciences. Since these newer disciplines have their own lexicons, younger generations came to speak a new language. Almost every blogger today throws around verbs such as "deconstruct". But fewer actually know what John Locke or Friedrich Engels meant when they spoke. This sometimes contributed to the frustrations of campaign-period talk shows: even when debaters wanted to discuss something, they could not. They did not speak the same language.

There is enormous potential in the US for the old liberal ideal. What is more, Republicans have left a tactical opening by staying right on gay marriage and other social matters. And nobody knows better than Mr Soros how to leverage a tactical advantage.

Still, he seems to like the label "progressive". Progressivism, too, can strengthen the fragile Democratic party - as long as it incorporates more logic, more facts and more openness to ideas. Winning in politics is not merely about non-profit formats, blastmails, filibusters and vote counts: it is about the substance of the debate. If improving that is where Mr Soros wants to put his next $65m, all we can say is: welcome, George.

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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