REPEATEDLY since the election my conservative friends have made sport of the severe defeat suffered by us liberals and have asked, "Do you surrender? Do you admit your attitudes are defunct?"
Not at all. I quarried my attitudes painfully from the granite of long experience, from observations compiled numerous societies around the world and especially from my harsh observations of my own country. I would be ashamed of myself if I were suddenly to abandon those hard-won conclusions.
I am a liberal now, tomorrow and for the rest of my days because I believe that liberal views are absolutely essential to any society. If I were the only person in my country to subscribe to the basic liberal doctrine, I would still do so, secure in the knowledge that my voice and my criticism were necessary. And I would confidently expect that in the long sweep of years my society would have to return to some, at least, of the principles that I espouse, because to kill them off would constitute national suicide.
In the election my wife and my secretary, both strong Democrats with the former an official of the party, felt that they could not vote for Jimmy Carter, so I knew that my side was doomed. They could not vote for him because he had shown no consistency, had given much evidence of being unable to cope with tangled problems and had surrounded himself with an extremely limited group of men from Georgia.
I was more generous in my assessment. I thought Carter had striven to do a good job, but when pressures increased he vacillated more than I liked. Having lived for some time in Iran and for a lot of time in Moslem nations, I knew from the moment the hostages were taken that this affair could not end well, and Carter's pusillanimous response did not help. Indeed, it seemed as if the administration contained no one with a knowledge of Islam or of traditional Islamic reactions to situations.
I supported Carter in his insistence on human liberty and believe that he accomplished much with his program, but as one who had lived abroad a good deal I had to confess that some of his actions in this field were naive. Certainly they were counterproductive. It is probably unwise to build foreign policy upon moral outrage; but is just as unwise to suppress moral outrage if the causes for it are odious. Carter did not pick his way adroitly through these conflicting truths.
I supported Carter's social legislation enthusiastically. I wish he had been more forthright in proposing and implementing even more programs than he did. I say this from an abiding belief that society must address itself to the grand problems of an era, and that to avoid them as an invitation to disaster. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by my liberal commitment.
1. I believe that progressive taxation is the device whereby the well-to-do avoid revolution by the less fortunate. This basic fact must be kept in mind when conservatives blindly ask for massive cuts in taxation. Such cuts can be made. They have been made throughout history, and invariably they have brought revolution. And will again. The terribly difficult task of a government is to ascertain the precise limit at which taxes will be tolerated without provoking rebellion from either the rich or the poor. Under liberal governments that tax level sometimes rises too sharply; under conservative governments it drops too low. A proper balance must be found, and it is the job of each administration to find it.
2. I believe that tax money should be used, and liberally to correct social injustices. By this I mean specifically unemployment insurance, aid to the destitute elderly, low-cost housing for those unable to buy in the general market, and especially aid to mothers who through death or desertion of their husbands are left with the care of young children. Because of my good luck as a writer I pay far more taxes than most who will read this, and I do so gladly because I know that they buy my freedom to operate. Were the above programs to be halted, as some counsel, this would hardly be a nation worth living in, and I suppose it would not continue long, for it would be fractured by dissension and revolt.
3. I believe that with our modern technology we can feed, house, educate and clothe our population while utilizing only a portion of our available work force, and I expect this situation to continue indefinitely. This means two things: An increasingly large number of people will be unable to find jobs, and the flow of wages will therefore not be adequate to purchase all the products made. Obviously, the unemployed will have to be taken care of in some way. And, equally obvious, money will have to be pumped into the system so as to enable the population to buy the products being made. I am in favor of any solution which attacks these dual problems and I listen attentively to my conservative friends who propose reasonalbe adjustments, for I am not happy with the way things are working right now. But to think that all support systems could be terminated, with the economy prospering as before, is fatuous and I will not hear of it.
4. I believe that any nation has a categorical imperative to protect its existence, not only for its present citizens but also for those to come. This implies an adequate defense force to repel attackers from outside and a trained police force to ensure domestic tranquility, but it does not mean that government should be turned over to either the military or the police. Again, the problem of government is to find the proper balance between expenditure and safety, and I am not satisfied that either the liberals or the conservatives monopolize wisdom in this delicate and crucial field.
4. I believe that any nation has a categorical imperative to proect its existence, not only for its present citizens but also its existence, not only for its present citizens but also for those to come. This implies an adequate defense force to repel attackers from outside and a trained police force to ensure domestic tranquility, but it does not mean that government should be turned over to either the military or the police. Again, the problem of government is to find the proper balance between expenditure and safety, and I am not satisfied that either the liberals or the conservatives monopolize wisdom in this delicate and crucial field. $5. I believe that a democracy thrives best when it looks ahead, when it prepares itself to meet new challenges, when it adjusts to vast changes that sweep the world, and when it maintains an attitude of specualtion and hope. I respect those who look mainly to the past, hoping thus to identify the sources which have made their nation strong, and in my own writing I have lingered long in the past for exactly those reasons. But if I had to choose between looking backward consistently and looking forward, I would choose the latter every time. Actually, a prudent citizenry does both, for the historic bases of a nation are of immense significance, but to overstress this at the expense of a clear view of the future is self-defeating. This nation needs many citizens who are pondering where we shall be in the years 1990 and 2000, for if we don't, we shall fall far behind those other nations which have laid plans for the future.
6. I believe that a nation must strive constantly to keep itself purified, for if life and traditions and hopes turn sour, the nation is doomed. Purification entails continuous evaluation, policing and decision-making. The spiritual life of the people must be encouraged and protected; their education must always be moved forward; sharp alterations in custom must be judged carefully, and vision must be freshened and kept clean.
The conservative hopes to achieve these valuable aims by adhering to the past; the liveral trusts that they can best be attained by adjusting sensibly to the present. Both approaches are required, I believe, and neither is adequate by itself.
Those are the principles which I support. I do so because they have been proved effective in the governance of nations, and I am convinced they will prove applicable to ours. I cannot imagine myself deviating from them, no matter if the House of Representatives is purged in 1982 of all its liberals, for these principles transcend mere politics. They speak to the heart of national existence.
But I am not a doctrinaire liberal. In the application of each of these great principles I have seen liberals make grievous mistakes and I expect to see conservatives do the same in the years ahead. Here are the confustions which preoccupy me at present.
1. Our tax system is quite impossible. I have a college degree and a computer, but I am incapable of understanding my own tax return, which because of intricate adjustments and arcane provisions covers some 40 pages. Why not say simply, "Sir, you had income last year, from all sources of $1,000. Your tax is $399." No special deals, no deductions, no loopholes. One page to handle everything, including the important statement of how much tax has been withheld and how much more is due. I am strongly in favor of taxation but believe it could be made infinitely simpler. Liberals have made a hash of it; I predict that conservatives will do even worse; and I have no hope whatever that anybody will ever finagle a reasonable bill through Congress.
2. Supportive as I am of social programs, I realize that their administration invariably becomes corrupt, with liberals and conservatives alike sharing responsibility. Most of those at the lower end of the social scale who cheat and chisel seem to be Democrats; most of the doctors at the upper end who abuse our medical programs are demonstrably Republicans. The virtue of having elected a conservative administration is that it may feel free to look at the abuses which have clustered like barnacles to our social systems, but I fear they will inspect only those at the lower end of the income scale and not those at the upper.
Specificaly, about 60 percent of food stamp recipients should be thrown off the rolls. A high percentage of ablebodied men on welfare should be moved into work programs if labor unions would allow it, which I suppose they would not. The acturial facts of socail security should be reviewed and changes made where necessary. And pension plans of federal, state and local governments should be brought within reasonable bounds. At present they are so high as to constitute a danger to the nation. As to low-cost housing, I have reached the pessimistic conclusion that this is a problem which a capitalist democracy simply cannot solve. In St. Louis and Philadelphia I have watched the most handsome housing deteriorate into slums within a decade, and I would not know how to prevent this from happening again. But it is infuriating to think that a great nation cannot house its people, especially when they constitute its work force. n
3. I am a fortunate product of the American educational system and so is my wife, so we should be supportive of it, and we are. But I am appalled at the state into which so many of our public shools have fallen, where discipline problems take precedence over instruction, and where well adjusted children find it impossible to learn because the maladjusteds preempt attention. Frontal attacks should be made on this grave problem, and immediately. The school-leaving age should be lowered to 14 and alternative systems devised for those who do leave. To foce them to remain in school where they learn little and disrupt much is ridiculus, for the education of those capable of learing must be a priority of any nation.
For the next decade I would be opposed to tax credits for parents sending their children to nonpublic shools, or to warrants which would pay tuition in those shools; public education was the salvation of this nation and should be preserved. But if after that trial period public classrooms cannot be properly disciplined, then sensible parents will want to place their children in classrooms which can, and they should be encouraged to do so, with tax dollars if necessary.
4. As a former military amn who has seen much warfare I am deeply worried about the status of our armed forces. As a liberal I doubt that the present inefficiency of our defense forces can be corrected merely by spending more money, but I do believe corrections can be made by a thorough overhaul of the system. I judge from what men in uniform tell me that our army would be in some peril if trouble erupted overseas. Discipline is bad, leadership is often weak, and the principle of a voluntary army has filled the ranks with men of the most dubious quality. It is doubtful if we could prosectue a war overseas and certain that we could not do so in Africa, or even in the Moselm world, where our black troops might refuse to move against persons they consider their brothers.
If the safety of this nation is a high priority, a draft of all tallents, of all type of people, should be reinstituted right away, but I doubt that this will be possible. Perhaps we are destined to retreat to Fortress America, and I concede a chance that this might be the right move. But we should make it intelligently and not by default.
5. I do not see how any sensible citizen can avoid shock at the recent explosion of crime against person and property. Conservatives and liberals alike must address this problem, for it impinges on all of us. The former trend to see crime as a racial matter, the latter as a socioeconomic one. I see it as a consequence of rapidly changing social patterns, judicial confusion and a general weakening of controls. But whatever the cause, corrective measures are obligatory or the entire social fabric may be corrupted. I have always opposed the death penalty because studies have shown that under the old laws the only people likely to be hanged were Democrats. Republicans committed crimes, too, but they were never hanged. Now I am prepared to listen if reformers of our present system argue that extreme penalties are needed in extreme cases.
6. I am deeply worried about two special problems which do not involve any liberal-conservative dichotomy. The first is the decline in American production, quality standards and managerial acumen. When the stereo dealer in my small town confesses that he prefers Japanese products to American becasue "They are well made, they last twice as long and sapre parts are always available," something very bad has happened to our system. And when, for roughly the same reasons, normally patriotic Americans prefer European or Japanese automobiles to the American product which used to lead the world, a calamity is at hand.
Sometime ago a large automotive assembly plant in my district closed but when I tried to commiserate with my local dealer in those cars, he said, "Best thing that ever happened. Cars that came from that plant were invariably lemons, poorly assembled, poorly painted." Whin I asked why, if this was known, the parent caompany didn't do something about it, my man said, "They knew. But they were powerless to enforce any quality standards. Control of the plant had passed out of their hands, and they rejoiced at an excuse to close it down." Upon interrogation, he blamed management as much as labor, and so do I.
Another manufacturer told me, "Forget stereos and automobiles. If the Japanese or Germans tomorrow decided to challenge us in the refrigerator field, they would sweep the market with machines that looked good, worked well, provided innovations and lasted longer than ours." When I asked why this would be possible he said, "Because they are willing to rationalize production and we aren't." My liberal analysis of this infuriating problem gains support from the examples of Japan and Germany; because their productive capacity was completely destroyed in World War II, they were driven to consider new and alternative procedures; England and the United States, left with their old patterns, were not. It is the bold analysis of problems and the willingness to take necessary corrective steps which characterize the progressive nation.
7. My second area of arbitrary worry concerns our national boundaries, and again I find no conservative-liberal split. I suspect that three great changes may confront us one of these days.
Puerto Rico should be given its independence immediately, whether it knows that it wants it or not. For the United States to hang on to an unnatural relationship, and one which can only deteriorate, is folly. I understand that for the present the majority of Puerto Ricans do not want freedom, but I believe that revolutionary pressures will alter that in time, greatly to the detriment of American interests. To avoid this suppurating sore, freedom should be granted now, with whatever safeguards both nations deem best.
I fear there is a real possibility that Canada might fragment, with separate groups of provinces seeking separate alliances. Thus the eastern Catholic-French unit might want a close association with Catholic New England, while the far western segment might look for some kind of relationship with our western states. We should be prepared for such eventualities, never giving encouragement to separatist movements but always remaining aware that Canada's western provinces will not long tolerate the cultural and economic domination now thrust on them by the east.
There is a real danger that even before this century is out we may see a vast human wave sweep up from Central America and Mexico, fleeing poverty in their own lands and demanding entrance to a better life in the United States. In fact, the movement may already be underway, as signaled by the constant incursion of Mexicans, the dramatic influx of Cubans and the tragic efforts of the Haitians to gain entry. It seems that population cannot be controlled in these Spanish-Catholic countries -- Costa Rica had the world's highest rate of growth two years ago -- and if it is not, we must be prepared to accept the overflow. When that occurs, our blacks will find themselves once more disadvantaged, as now they do in Miami, where to get a good job they must speak Spanish, and we shall have a new constellation of problems.
I spend a good deal of my time these days speculating on whether the United States is destined to repeat all the mistakes that Great Britain had been making, but at a time lag of about eight years. I rather think we are. Our handling of the Chrysler problem is almost identical with the way Britain handled the near-collapse of Leyland and there is real danger that the end results might be the same: unprofitable, unrealistic production supported by public funds in order to save jobs that will in the end not be saved.
I see here the same pusillanimous actions from management, the same recalcitrant behavior from labor. The only advantage, psychologically, that we enjoy is that our people are not divided into the strict social stratifications which inhibit vertical movement in Britain. But we have our own Achilles heel, our race problem, and it may worsen.
I suspect that much of the middle class vote against Carter stemmed from racial animosities, and from irritation with women over their demands for equality. Many working people whom I met said that they were fed up with reverse discrimination, equal opportunity employing and pressures from women. Macho university athletes and their coaches were appalled by the impact Title IX decisions which took money from male teams which earned it at footbalol and basketball and gave it to women's teams which earned nothing.
In all situations I have been discussing, the voice of the liberal is needed. He or she brings sanity, humanity, compassion into the argument, and it is upon such values that great nations exist. For the liberal to be silenced now, when he or she is needed most, would be a grievous mistake. And since the president-elect won only 51 percent of the 52 percent of the eligible electorate who voted, I do not feel submerged by numbers.
I think we are, as a nation, in a position much like New Zealand's when it switched from a liberal government to a conservative. The first thing the conservatives did was announce, "There will be no changes in the fundamental laws of this land, for we know that they exist by the will of the people. What we shall do is administer them better."
As a confirmed liberal I do not fear Ronald Reagan, for as a sensible man he certainly knows everything I have been saying. Having watched Jimmy Carter surround himself with an inept Georgia Mafia and damage himself mortally thereby, Reagan will not bury himself beneath a California claque, or bring in a host of untested California staff the way Nixon did.
What does worry me is the impact, during the next decade, of the charismatic southern television ministers who seem bent on becoming the American ayatollahs. Just prior to the election I spent a week in a southern town, working so hard during the day that I preferred to stay in my room at night. To pass the time I listened to a chain of electronic preachers, and I came away scared to death.
They are determined to outlaw the teaching of evolution, the rational study of geology, the implications of recent astronomical discoveries, social studies and anything else in the curriculum which does not conform to Genesis. They are clever, dedicated, brilliant in the pulpit and terrifying. They led the fight to eliminate all liberal senators and are now vowing to continue to purge in 1982 in both the Senate and the House. They intend to turn this nation into a theocracy, and I have spent a fair portion of my life studying theocracies. Always they turn out poorly, whether in New England, in Iran or in the jungles of Guyana. We really do not need a theocracy in this country.
The nagging difficulty a liberal faces in this situation is that he must agree with many positions taken by the charismatic ministers. I am personally against abortion, but I go the whole way and say that if 52 percent of all ive births in the city of Washington last year were illegitimate, society must either work to diminish the number of or help support the children that are born. I also favor sex education in schools to help diminish this problem, and I am willing to see my tax dollars used for these purposes, but I find that most other people who are against abortion are also against public aid to children and against sex education, which leaves them, it seems to me, in a most contradictory posture.
I also find myslef in agreement with the ministers when they identify pornography as a national menace. Many years ago I wrote that if our center cities became sinks of depravity like 42nd Street in New York the danger was not to the morals fo the people who frequented those streets but to the general public, because in time right-wing forces would use such streets as an excuse for taking power. The ministers are correct in claiming that such streets should be eliminated, but they are not correct in the sledgehammer way they are going about it.
A nation can remain strong only if it voluntarily faces up to its problems, and the more aggravating the problem, the more urgent becomes the need of solution. In a time when decisions must be made and priorities established, the voice of the liberal is needed as never before, for it is often the voice of sanity.
Obviousely, liberal government as practiced by Jimmy Carter disappointed the electorate and was rejected. But if some of the forces which triggered that rejection are allowed to rule this nation unchecked, a much greater loss than a mere election will be suffered. It is the job of liberals to voice apprehension, to keep the political process reasonably clean and to help in the establishment of priorities. For if woefully wrong decisions are made, hideous consequences will follow. History provides a thousand examples.