William Voegeli

…In 1932, FDR stated that under the social contract laid out in the Declaration of Independence, “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” Unlike the rights described in the Declaration, however, there is nothing natural or inalienable about the ones described by FDR: They’re not yours to begin with, and statesmen and historical changes can always alter, augment, or rescind them.

By 1944, the social order had changed and grown enough for the statesman Roosevelt to explicitly redefine Americans’ rights to include jobs, housing, medical care, education — in short, a “Second Bill of Rights,” all of which “spell security.” That can’t be the last word, however; the prospect of future changes in the social order causes FDR to urge the recognition of “these and similar rights.” The governmental right to discover new rights could, for instance, someday lead to the development endorsed by FDR’s National Public Resources Board in 1943, when it called for recognizing the right to “rest, recreation and adventure.”

Who among us would disdain citizenship in that Club Med polity where safaris and sea cruises are guaranteed as a matter of right, where we might awaken any day to find that the changing social order has left us yet another shiny new entitlement in the driveway? The problem is that it turns out to be impossible to elevate every social-policy goal to a right without reducing every right to just one more policy goal. In 1994, the Clinton Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) enforcement of the Fair Housing Act was so zealous that it demanded that groups opposed to new homeless shelters or drug-treatment facilities in their neighborhoods turn over to federal investigators (who were seeking evidence of discriminatory motives or attitudes) every article, flier, or letter to the editor their leaders had written, as well as the minutes of every public meeting they addressed. The HUD assistant secretary called upon to defend this thuggery compressed six decades of liberal rhetoric into a single op-ed, which explained how the department had to “walk a tightrope between free speech and fair housing. We are ever mindful of the need to maintain the proper balance between these rights.”

…Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast recently concurred: “FDR’s greatness stemmed from his indifference to ideology.” Beinart approvingly quoted Roosevelt’s reply to a question about how he would explain the political philosophy behind the Tennessee Valley Authority: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but, whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.” By the same token, Beinart praised Barack Obama for discovering and giving voice to his inner New Dealer in time to salvage health-care reform by turning “a theoretical debate into a tactile one.”

This tactile aspect of liberalism is the one that causes so many conservatives to pound their heads on the table in frustration. I refer to the moist-eyed, quivering-voiced, morally preening affirmation of the tautology that when the government gives people stuff, the people it gives stuff to wind up with more stuff than they had before the government started giving them stuff. After they calm down, conservatives say, “Fine. Stipulated: Benefits are (or at least can be) beneficial. Now, can we please talk about how we’re going to pay for all these programs? And how we’re going to make sure that the Santa Clausification of American government does not transform us from a republic of free and equal citizens into a nursery of wardens and wards? And, finally, what will be the governing practices that allow us to overcome the correlation of political forces that makes it so much easier to expand failed programs than to euthanize them?”

Given liberals’ disdain for specifying any sort of theoretical limit on how much the government should do, tax, spend, borrow, and regulate, the entire credibility of their assurances that we needn’t worry — that this affirmative government project of ours won’t spiral out of control — rests on the efficacy of the practical constraints, their ability to identify and eliminate instances of Big Government gone bad. It’s especially striking and important, then, that these ad-hoc limitations have also been so unavailing. “It is common sense,” Roosevelt said in 1932, “to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”