History Magazine

Searching for a Moderate View of Social Justice

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

Liberal and conservative ideologies differ in the degree to which they view government’s proper role in the promotion of social justice. Liberty, equality, and order are desired virtues of democratic society from both perspectives, but the degree to which one should be given emphasis over the others is a point of contention between these partisan philosophies. Equality, as an end, is encouraged more by liberal policies, while order and stability are the focus of conservative ideals. Franklin Delano Roosevelt embodied the liberal attitudes in his 1941 State of the Union address, while syndicated columnist George Will expressed a conservative justification for the welfare state in writings more than forty years later in 1983, thus illustrating that expanded government involvement in economic wellbeing found validity in both political philosophies at one point in our recent history. There is much less moderation from liberals and conservsatives on the issue of social justice in 2012.

In Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, he layed out an inspiring vision for the future of the world. He promoted the right to freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom of religion. He characterized economic security as a freedom from wants, and suggested we can obtain a freedom from fear in the form of substantial worldwide arms reduction. These freedoms are the right of all people in the world according to Roosevelt, and he was optimistic about the capability of achieving those ideals within the current generation. To reach such an ambitious goal, he acknowledged the need for self sacrifice and called on Americans to support tax increases as a means to these ends, with the caveat that the tax burden should fall most heavily on those who can afford it, namely the most wealthy. Roosevelt’s speech appeals to the need for an expanded government to address monumental issues that the public at large actually expects the government to solve.

George Will presented a more conservative view of a just society in his 1983 essay, “In Defense of the Welfare State”. He supported government involvement in the economy to ensure “equality of opportunity”, while recognizing that other American ideals, like prosperity through economic freedom, inherently produce unequal outcomes. However, he argued that the idea of the welfare state is a political reality that conservatives must address within the context of their values in order to be relevant. Social unity, from which we derive national strength, necessitates a welfare state. Will suggested that for people to work toward a stable society there must be a system of entitlements. The types of policies that he advocated were of the conservative flavor, with their intention to strengthen the family, and to enhance “public-spiritedness.”

Roosevelt and Will, though both backers of expanded government involvement in the promotion of the collective welfare, had different justifications for this intervention. Roosevelt appealed to an individual sense of entitlement that goes beyond just equality of opportunity, but where the outcomes themselves are a right of all peoples everywhere. He talks about jobs and security for everyone who desires them, and the ending of unfair advantages enjoyed by a privileged few. Will’s view, in contrast, is more cynical in regards to the ability of government to control the outcomes themselves, and he promoted policies that improve shared opportunity. Rather than use inefficient government bureaucracies to provide services, Will says conservatives should encourage policies like tax cuts for medical insurance, and private education. Will still sees the market as a better method for the most equitable distribution, because self-interest is required for temperance.

I would characterize Roosevelt’s viewpoint as signigicantly liberal in regards to economic security, while Will’s was conservative, but much more moderately so. I say “was” because George Will is no longer defending the welfare state in 2012. In a very recent article, “In the Welfare State only the Rich get Richer”, Will makes the case that the liberal achievement of redistributive justice has demonstrated that government only make things worse, with benefits only acrueing to the political class and rent-seeking special interests and corporations, while opportunities are lost for the middle class. He points out that the tax code has been changed 4,500 times in the last ten years, but he does not mention his promotion of these sorts of targeted tax cut policies during the Reagan years. Will now claims that the government has not clearly articulated any ethical reasons for redistributive policies, and then he even characterizes all taxes as coerced payments to government, the greatest beneficiary of the money (Will). In 2012 then, I would have to characterize George Will as substantively less moderate than he appears to have been in 1983.

Since FDR has long since passed I will consider President Obama as a proxy for comparison to Roosevelt’s liberal significance. In many ways Obama’s rhetoric sounds simular to FDR’s, perhaps not quite as socialistic in the promotion of equal economic outcomes as a freedom. A USA Today/Gallup poll, taken at the end of 2011, suggests that most Americans view President Obama as more liberal than they are. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most liberal and 5 being the most conservative, Obama scored a 2.3, with independents giving him a 2.5, liberals giving him a 2.8, and conservatives giving him a 1.7. Of those surveyed they rated themselves 3.3 on average, illustrating a large tilt torward conservativism in the polling data. President Obama is liberal leaning, but only in relative terms from the conservative perspective. From the view of independents, Obama is a centrist and a moderate, and liberals actually think he leans conservative.

Politically, I personally am a moderate independent. I see President Obama as a moderate liberal, to the right of FDR. The electorate is much less receptive to grand liberal plans than it was immediately following the Great Depression, and Obama is certainly tempered by the public sentiment to act more moderately than he might otherwise have. The lack of political moderation would seem to be eminating much more from the Congress, with both sides of the ailse in both chambers significantly polarized. President Obama has appeared willing to compromise on policy more often than his opposition in the legislature, and the members in his own party. If Governor Mitt Romney becomes the GOP Presidential nominee, as seems likley, the 2012 Presidential race might turn out to be a contest between moderates. Although I doubt this will be detectable in the political rhetoric this year. On the issue of social justice, it is likely that niether of the candidates will seem especially moderate with the liberal and converative talking points flying about. I’m not even sure moderation is what people want, but its what I want. I guess we’ll see.

Jared Roy Endicott

Searching for a Moderate View of Social Justice
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Roosevelt, Franklin D.. “Four Freedoms Speech.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. 6 Jan. 1941. Web. 11 Jan. 2012

Tau, Byron. “Poll: President Obama is a Liberal.” Politico.com. 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Will, George. “In the Welfare State only the Rich Get Richer.” PostBulliten.com. 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

“Gilder, Will, and Welfare.” Christian Science Monitor. 18 May. 1983. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

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