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October 15, 2008

The Fix We're In: Alan Wolfe on "the utter failure of conservatism"

With the stock market nosediving, credit lines freezing, retirement savings disappearing overnight, and the state budget on the chopping block, we are facing an economic peril as great as any since the Great Depression. What are we to make of these frightening times? We asked some leading voices in the world of economics, political science, and public policy to help make sense of the tumult we find ourselves in. See all of them here. First up, author and Boston College professor Alan Wolfe:

For reasons known only to superior minds than my own, and perhaps not even to them, the stock markets are rebounding as I write, just after their worst week in modern history. Still, no one doubts that we are in something of an economic crisis and that much in this country will change.

I spoke yesterday at the John F. Kennedy Library at a forum in honor of the lives and work of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith. We were first treated to a video that Schlesinger made shortly before his death in which he asked how America, having made such a horrendous mistake in Vietnam, could repeat the same thing in Iraq. Much the same could be said about the economy: How, after finally learning in the 1930s the dangers of unregulated capitalism, could be have deregulated capitalism again?

If Iraq destroyed the credibility of one half of conservative ideology -- this is the half that says we can run the world anyway we choose -- the drying up of liquidity drains all appeal from the remaining 50 percent, which is that the best economic system is one that rewards the fewest with the most. I have not been witnessing much liberalism in American politics the past few decades. The utter, if predictable, failure of conservatism means I will seeing a lot more in the next couple of them.

The question is what kind of liberalism it will be.

In my forthcoming book The Future of Liberalism, due out in February, I argue that the crucial ingredient in liberalism is its sense of purpose. Liberals do not believe that the world is structured in such random ways that no one can apply their social intelligence to direct society in directions chosen by people themselves. On the contrary, the modern era is one in which people slowly learned that their fates lay neither in the whims of a capricious God nor in the dictates of an arbitrary nature. Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes may have disagreed about the scope of government intervention into the economy. But they agreed that people should take into their own hands the directions of their own lives.

The particular economic turmoil we are experiencing is not like a tsunami and it is not divine retribution from God for our sins. It was caused by human beings who designed a system that made it impossible for other human beings to be held responsible for their acts. If we are capable of designing something that bad, we can create something that much better.

Let us hope, then, that economic troubles can produce political benefits. We need that rarest of political creatures, people who actually believe that there is a common good and are willing to serve it. Self-interest got us to where we are. But there are, we have been forced once again to learn, more incentives in the world than greedy ones. There is an opportunity to turn the page on this crisis. To do it we will have to trust ourselves.

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.  He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, 2006) and Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What it Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press, 2005).

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