Terms like "Republican" and "Democrat" take on new meanings every generation, but Starr argues that the limits to government's power, state social safety nets and creative free markets that have characterized true liberalism make it the historically dominant global political tradition. In this discussion, Pulitzer Prize winner Starr traces liberalism from its laissez-faire roots up to the 2006 elections.
Paul Starr is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. He is also the co-editor (with Robert Kuttner) and co-founder (with Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich) of The American Prospect, a notable liberal magazine which was created in 1990. In 1994 he founded the Electronic Policy Network, or Moving Ideas, which is an online public policy resource.
Good evening and welcome to tonight's meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California. My name isJoe Epstein a member and a former President of the Commonwealth Club's Board of Governors. It ismy pleasure to introduce our distinguished speaker Paul Starr, co-editor of The American Prospect andauthor of Freedom's Power: A Discussion of The True Meaning of Liberalism In America. Tonight'sguest Professor Paul Starr has proclaimed that conservatism is in shambles and liberals now have a newopportunity. Liberalism, he states, is a practical strategy for a free society and for solving the mess thatconservatives are leaving behind. At Princeton University Paul Starr holds the Stuart Chair inCommunications and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School. In 1984 he won the Pulitzer Prizein the category of general non fiction for his book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine.He also won the Bancroft Prize for this work. In his recent book the creation of the media he receivedthe prestigious Goldsmith Book Prize in 2005.Paul Starr is currently the co-editor with Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect, a well knownliberal magazine created in 1990. He is also the co-founder with Robert Kuttner and current UCBerkeley Goldman School of Public Policy Professor Robert Reich of that publication. Professor Starris also well known for his expertise in healthcare. And in 1992 he authored a book entitled The Logicof health-care reform and he reissued an expanded version of that book two years later. This book laidout the case for a system of universal health insurance and managed competition. And in 1993 he wasthe Senior Advisor to President's Clinton's proposed health-care reform plan. Paul Starr earned hisB.A. from Columbia University and a PhD in Sociology from Harvard in 1978. Paul Starr has evenreceived a complement of sorts from current Chief Political Advisor to President Bush, Karl Rove. Andin an address given to the New York Conservative Party Rove stated that there is much merit in whatMr. Starr writes in his work, that was article entitled The Liberal Project Now. Well, Rove does go onto say however that he and Mr. Starr fundamentally disagree about many things I take it most things.But if Karl Rove thinks that there is merit in Paul Starr writing I think that there is something we willall learn tonight as we listen to him address the ideals of liberal thought and discuss his latest bookFreedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism. Kindly welcome Professor Paul Starr.Thank you Joe and thanks to the Commonwealth Club for the opportunity to appear here tonight. All inall as bad as things may be in the world today this is I think an opportune moment to publish a bookabout Liberalism. The conservative movement, I think conservatism generally, is in deep trouble.Divided, on the defensive and with a lot of explaining to do for the fiasco in Iraq. The 2006 electionwas clearly a set back for the right. That doesn't mean, however, that it was a clear victory forliberalism. But the national conversation is open again. There is an opportunity to make the liberal caseand there is some urgency I believe in clarifying just what that case is. I wrote Freedom's Power in thehope that I could change the way people think about liberalism. And by that, I mean, to include peopleon the left and people on the right.I wrote the book in the hope of persuading readers that there is a better way to think about liberalism.Truer to the tradition and better suited to the world's realities than the way they may have previouslyunderstood it. I wrote the book to propose that liberalism is not just a set of noble ideals but a practicalstrategy for creating the wealth and power that make freedom and justice realistic possibilities. I wrotein the conviction that liberalism's first principle and America's historic promise are and must be oneand the same, the idea that each of us has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I wrotebecause I believe the best strategy for realizing that promise lies in the creation of inclusive democraticpartnerships, a partnership at home, built on the basis of a shared prosperity and an internationalpartnership in power built on the basis of a cooperative framework of security. And I wrote to arguethat contemporary conservatism has weakened both of those partnerships, dissipated American powerand degraded American ideals.And like my earlier books Freedom's Power is aimed at both the general reader who is curious aboutthe subject and the academic reader who is well versed in it. And modestly I want to have an impact if Ipossibly can on popular, political and academic discussion. So, just as I want to persuade the generalreader to think about liberalism differently, so I want to tell a different story about liberalism, from theone that many historians and political theorists accept. I hope to persuade them that despite all of thechanges and disagreements within this tradition there is an overall coherence and continuity in thecenturies long development of liberalism from its classical to its modern forms. I want to persuadethem that liberal principles provide not only a theory of freedom and equality and the public good butalso what I call a discipline of power, the means of creating power as well as controlling it.I want to argue that it is no accident that the two great classical liberal revolutions, 1688 in England,1776 in America, though they began with the aim of controlling arbitrary power nonetheless producedwhat became in succession the two most powerful states in the world. And I want to argue that moderndemocratic liberalism, not conservatism, has the better claim to represent the true spirit of thattradition, the constitutional tradition on which this Republic has been built. Now perhaps the best wayfor me to convey what the book is about is to begin by explaining what I mean by liberalism. And thereare two senses in which I use the term, the first and the broader meaning refers to the fundamentalprinciples of constitutional government and individual rights shared by modern liberals andconservatives alike, though often differently interpreted by them. This is the tradition of constitutionalliberalism, of classical political liberalism that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminated in theAmerican and French revolutions and continues to provide the basis to the modern liberal state.The classical liberals generally stood for religious liberty, freedom of thought and speech, the divisionof governmental powers, an independent civil society and rights in private property, in economicfreedom that evolved in the 19th century into the doctrine of laissez-faire. Modern democraticliberalism developed out of the more egalitarian aspects of that tradition and its serves as the basis ofcontemporary liberal politics. The relationship between liberalism in these two phases has beenpredominantly cumulative. While rejecting laissez-faire economics the modern liberalism continues totake the broader tradition of constitutional liberalism as its foundation. And that is why it is possible tospeak not only of the two separately but also of an overarching set of ideas that unites them.Historically liberalism has been defined by a shared albeit evolving body of political principles. One ofthose shared principles is an equal right to freedom, where freedom has been successively understoodin a more expensive way. First as a right to civil liberty and freedom from arbitrary power. And then asa right to political liberty and a share in the government and finally as a right to the basic requirementsof human developments and security necessary to assure personal dignity and equal opportunity.Although I have describe these as a series of rights they imply corresponding responsibilities thatliberal society expects of its members individually and collectively in as much as individuals enjoyrights to civil liberality and freedom from arbitrary power. They are responsible for their own actionsand what they make of their lives. In as much as citizens enjoy a right to political liberty and a share ofthe government, they have the responsibilities of citizenship to make a democracy work. And in asmuch as the members of a liberal society have right to basic requirements of human development suchas education and a minimum standard of security, so they have the obligations to one another mutuallyand through their government to ensure that the conditions exist enabling every person to have theopportunity for success in life.The liberal project may be defined as the effort to guarantee these freedoms and to create theinstitutions and forms of personal character that will lead the people to assume responsibility not as anexternal burden imposed upon them but from a force within. And that's only a preliminary definitionbecause liberties come into conflict with each other and with other interests. And there must be way ofadjudicating among them that's consistent with the deepest interest in freedom and the public good.Moreover liberalism consists of principles, not only for a just society, but also for the design of a statethat is capable of surviving in a world with other governments that are armed and dangerous.The classical theory of Freedom's Power is that a constitutional government can be strong butconstrained, indeed strong because constrained. Or to put another way, constitutionally limited powercan be more powerful than unlimited power. Constitutional constraints shield individuals from tyrannybut they also strengthen the state's power to act on behalf of its citizens. Checks and balances,requirements for transparency and decision making and public accountability for performance reducethe odds of the capricious, reckless or self interested decisions by those in power. Public discussioninvites ideas and information that autocrats don't receive or are unlikely to heed. A constitutional statethat observes the rule of law are more likely to abide by its promises including paying its debts.Guarantees of religious freedom allow people of different faiths to cooperate under a political orderthat does not threaten to extinguish any of the various theological doctrines they support.But the classical liberal tradition had severe limitations. And there were limitations from the standpoint of justice and there were limitations from the stand point of power. The liberalism of the 18th and19th centuries, the liberalism for example of America's founders, was not democratic in a sense wewould recognize today. The majority of people, men without property, racial minorities, women weredenied political rights and full citizenship. In the 19th and early 20th centuries laissez-faire economicsprovided a framework for industrial capitalism's dynamic growth. But it left most working people ininsecurity and poverty. And in the same era, while often favoring social reform at home the liberalimperialists supported western colonialism. The resulting conflicts and disasters almost brought liberalsocieties to ruin. The old liberal order of limited government, classical economics and colonialism wentup in flames amid World War and the great depression and fascism or communism could have easilyemerged from the wreckage to dominate the world. But modern liberalism and by that I mean in theUnited States The New Deal, transformed its classical inheritance into a genuinely democratic politicsthat proved stronger and more effective in both war and peace than its critics expected.Liberals began to call, it wasn't realized in many ways until the 1960s and 70s but liberals began to callfor true political equality for all, aimed to bring raw capitalism under control in the interests of anexpanded circle of prosperity and supported national self determination for all peoples and new formsof cooperation among states to promote democracy, human rights and international peace and security.The modern liberalism has a different theory, a more comprehensive theory of power than the one thatclassical liberalism gave us. The idea is that if we can use government, in limited but strategic ways, toinvest in the public goods that the market fails to provide, if we can use government in limited butstrategic ways to avoid the catastrophic damage from economic depressions. If we can provide genuineopportunity to those who have long but stigmatized and excluded and whose talents and abilities werelost to the society. If we can do those things and then guarantee stronger protections of civil liberties tocounter balance the expansion of government then we can build a society that is not only more just butalso more prosperous and more powerful. That is the modern liberal theory of Freedom's Power bywhich I mean the power that a free society generates and the power that the free society also demands -demands in part from a strong and capable constitutional state.And let me move to the very end of the book you know, if I can just quote from - this is a somewhatcondensed version of what I say at the end of the book about current developments. Shrewd as theywere in achieving political power, the Republicans of the Bush era have shown little of that genius inusing it. A conservatism that does not want to hear about inequality or the sinking fortunes of themiddle class or about dangers to the global environment or about unsustainable fiscal policies or aboutgaping flaws in plans for war may prevail in the short run. But the realities will sooner or later make themselves felt.A great nation cannot long be governed by wishful and simplistic thinking, denial, obfuscation, anddeceit. Costs mount, grievances accumulate, and there comes a reckoning. The conservative default isliberalism's opportunity, an opportunity to rebuild the political majority by showing how liberal ideasmake sense for America and by reopening a conversation with people who believe that liberals havenot shown any concern or respect for them. At the heart of any such effort must be a program forshared prosperity to counter the trends towards rising inequality, insecurity, and stress on workingfamilies. But no politics can live on bread alone. The public's concerns are inextricably moral andmaterial. Anyone who worries about the institution of marriage for example, ought to be receptive tochanges in employer policies, the availability of preschool education and other reforms that would helpparents meet their obligations both at home and at work. And anyone who favors those reforms oughtto make the argument that they are good for stable marriages.Liberals are to contest conservatives for the very ground that the right claims as its own, morality andpatriotism. What is the protection of the global environment if not a moral concern? What are theefforts to preserve America's constitutional liberties if not a patriotic devotion to the true basis ofAmerica's greatness? Liberalism should appeal for support on the straight forward basis thatconservative economic policies do not serve the interest of the great majority of people. But liberalismought to do more than that. It ought to remind us of our responsibilities and the power of our traditionsand call us to greater interests and purposes than our own. Nothing has to be reinvented but everythinghas to be re imagined. Constructive ideas for new policies are not wanting. But liberals have to thinkdifferently about what those policies are for? And how they can be achieved? The era of single issue,progressive causes each agitating and litigating on its own is finished. Liberals have to make the casefor progressive policies on the basis of the nation's shared interest and common future.The task of political leadership is as it has been so often in the past, to evoke a sense of our commoncitizenship, the belief that we are all in this together. That is the work of rebuilding the democraticpartnership at home that includes working in middle class families and a partnership with other liberaldemocracies in defense of our common values and security. In much of world the liberal project is stillthe creation of constitutional democracy and liberalism remains an intellectual tradition without deepsocial and historical roots. But in the United States the idea that everyone enjoys an equal right for life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is part of the national tradition.The story of America is of a nation that has grown greater and stronger by becoming more diverse,more inclusive and by extending the fruits of liberty more widely among its people. American liberalsdo not have to invent something new. They do not have to import a philosophical tradition fromabroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America's greatness as their own. Thank you.