In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

Introduction

COLLECTIVISM is the antithesis of the individualism celebrated by theorists and practitioners of liberal democracy. Its employment by governments in the USA and Britain posed huge political challenges if it was to be made consistent with liberal precepts. The chapters in Part III examine how these challenges were met, if not fully resolved, taking the example of work camps in the 1930s.

Social policies which violated liberal principles were defined by three features: a broad ideological appeal, a basis in expertise, and a compatibility with liberal democracy. This last characteristic is manifest in the liberal democratic tradition commitment to both social reform and individual moral improvement. They provide a consistent political stimulus for social policies designed to ameliorate the circumstances of the least well‐ off in society. The British doctrine of New Liberalism and the USA tradition of Progressivism were both expressions of this position. The historian of the former, Michael Freeden, explains that liberalism 'alone realized the complexity of society by encompassing within its scope both collective organization and individual incentive' 1 Of the American context, Richard Hofstadter writes more broadly: Progressives belong to the liberal tradition in American politics which functions 'at first to broaden the numbers of those who could benefit from the great American bonanza and then to humanize its workings and help heal its casualties'. Without such ameliorative inclinations, Hofstadter concludes, the American polity would have been 'as in times and places it was, nothing but a jungle'. 2

These national liberal ameliorative impulses were rarely as tested or mobilized as during the 1930s when the problems posed by the economic depression and mass unemployment were formidable. In the United States, the employment of collectivist institutions in the New Deal was part of the formulation, shrewdly orchestrated by Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt, of an interventionist government significantly distinct from earlier policy; nonetheless, the ideological and political problems of

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1
Freeden (1978:161). Daniel Rodgers argues that the CCC was based in part on the plans developed between 1918 and 1920 to resettle soldiers on federal reclamation land (Rodgers 1998: 415).
2
Hofstadter (1955a: 18).

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