The Liberals' Mistake
Charles A. Reich
[A paper presented at the Center for the Study of
Democratic Institutions, followed by discussion. Reprinted from The
Center Magazine, July-August 1987]
Charles A. Reich is the author of the
influential book, The Greening of America (1971), and
the Center Occasional Paper, "Bureaucracy and the Forests"
(1962). This article is adapted from his Regents' Lecture at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, and his opening
statement. Dialogue Participants included: Mason Gaffney
(Professor of Economics, University of California, Riverside);
Giles B. Gunn (Professor of English, University of California,
Santa Barbara); Donald McDonald (Acting Director, Center for the
Study of Democratic Institutions); Alison Dundes Renteln
(Visiting Lecturer, Law and Society, University of California,
Santa Barbara); M. Stephen Weatherford (Professor of Political
Science, University of California, Santa Barbara)
The country we live in is a laboratory. We have one experiment after
another. Unfortunately, it is not a laboratory where no one gets hurt:
some lives are enhanced, others are ruined. We have to view our
society with concern and passion, and see what we can learn from each
of our experiments. When we get upset and angry about politics -
whether it is conservative, liberal, or whatever - we tend to think in
terms of right and wrong, not what we can learn. After Watergate, we
dismissed Richard Nixon from our minds and didn't ask what can be
learned from Watergate. We have strong opinions about the New, Deal,
but, again, we tend not to look at it as an experiment from which we
can learn anything. As Reagan conservatism is becoming less popular,
people are asking: Where do we go from here? We can also ask: Does the
last era of liberalism provide any indications as to where we might or
should go from here?
The liberalism of the nineteen-thirties emerged after the catastrophe
that resulted from the conservatism of the nineteen-twenties.
Conservatives had been in power for a long time, and ended by nearly
wrecking the country. Liberals came along and performed a rescue
operation. Ironically, they are credited with saving the
establishment, which they surely did.
Liberals were high achievers. They did superlatively well in school,
excelling in law and in the social sciences. They thought they were
well-equipped to run the world, and never lacked self-confidence. They
loved to talk and argue and tell you that you were wrong about
everything. They were irreverent, funny, and impatient, but they were
also people worth knowing.
I was in my twenties when I knew most of the nineteen-thirties
liberals, who at that time were in their fifties. That was the best
part of my overall education. The liberals were wide-ranging in their
interests, ready to question the orthodoxies of the time, and looking
for new horizons. It is always difficult to find people like that, but
it is even more difficult today.
The liberals of the nineteen-thirties were diverse, but they had a
common vision. They accepted democracy, the free market, and
capitalism. However, they thought that unless the market was not
corrected or ameliorated, there would be child labor, neglect of the
elderly, dangerous and harmful consumer goods, monopolies squeezing
people out of business and forcing down wages - in short, there would
be the horror of Great Britain's Industrial Revolution before the
British began passing social legislation. The liberals' vision was
that something better could and would have to be made out of this
economic machine. John Dewey, a leading philosopher of liberalism in
the nineteen-thirties, described that vision as the "liberation
of the capacities of individuals for free, self-initialed expression
by the regimentation of material and mechanical forces." He
argued for liberating people from the oppressive forces of economics
and industry and freeing them from the insecurity caused by the
By 1930, the United States had solved the problem of production: it
could produce enough for all its people. There was no need for
privation or want. There was no need for people to work all the time,
and the work that needed to be done would become ever lighter. In
1930, the task was to give people their freedom, unleash their
capacities to create a better society and better selves, and relegate
the economic production of goods to second place in the order of
priorities. The first goal of society was to have better, happier, and
more fulfilled people. Economics and production were to be only a
means to that end.
How did the liberals expect to achieve their vision? They had
unlimited faith in government. Their program consisted of governmental
regulation, governmental aid, programs for people who needed
assistance, and government ownership of services that could not be
managed well in the private sector. Their idea was that government
would modify the market and prevent it from grinding people up.
Liberals themselves would staff the regulatory agencies and the
government in general. They believed it was possible to satisfy both
the public interest and one's own ambition al the same time. Their
idea was that the personal interests of each individual and the public
interest coincide: When we do good for others, we do good for
ourselves. The task of the government was to make policies that would
balance the various interests in the American society and to produce
the best plan for the general welfare and industry.
Congress and state legislatures delegated a great deal of authority
to the policymakers. As a result, lawmaking moved away from Congress
and into what came to be called the "fourth branch" of
government. This fourth branch was under the executive branch, but
also somewhat independent of it. Congress simply told the federal
agencies to act in ways that would further the public interest, that
is, the public good. Congress's general delegations of power masked
the fact that law-making was going to be done by experts, lawyers, and
professionals. That was a profound constitutional change. Prior to the
nineteen-thirties, the courts would have told Congress that only it
could make the laws. But in the nineteen-thirties, the courts accepted
the idea that the laws would, in effect, be made by the experts and
the professionals in their capacity as regulators and policymakers in
For the American people, the promise and bargain in this new approach
was: Do what you are supposed to do, and society will deliver what you
want and need. People could work at the jobs of their choice and
believe their lives would be fulfilled. Their work would contribute to
this great big machine and they could trust this machine to deliver in
terms of their personal well-being and the services and things they
wanted and needed.
Until the nineteen-sixties, the American people accepted and believed
in this bargain. We felt that ours was a good country, that it was
going places, that it was fair, that there were good and wise people
in Washington, and that opportunity was constantly expanding in our
society. All we wanted was the chance to participate. Now we no longer
say we want to do our share; we say: We want to get ours! Before the
nineteen-sixties, ours was a less selfish attitude, but it was also a
conformist attitude that accepted things as they were.
Why did the liberals' vision go wrong? Why didn't anybody understand
that it was going wrong? The liberals were right when they insisted
that we had enough food and goods for all of our people. But they did
not - and we still do not - know how to distribute those goods in a
rational way. We have failed to figure out how to turn this abundance
into an advantage. The liberals were also right about labor-saving. If
we evenly distributed the work that needs to be done, there ought to
be a lot of time left over for everybody to have the leisure that
people need. But we have managed to reverse that. Today, a great many
people cannot find any work. People are dispossessed and cannot
support themselves or their families. Many are homeless. For many
others, work has become a rat race: something to be endured, not
Today we are witnessing an impoverishment: the apparent drying up of
resources for all kinds of things that are badly needed. We seem to
have no money for housing, for education, or for health and social
services. And yet we have a deficit, and we are told by candidates for
public office that we must cut the federal budget even more. This
impoverishment is a mystery.
There is social injustice today, something that was never supposed to
happen again in American society. Ours is rapidly becoming a society
of a privileged class and an underprivileged class. Those in the
privileged class may fall, but they are protected; those in the
underprivileged class may rise, but they will never get out. The
underprivileged in our society turn to crime to survive and, in turn,
wind up in our prisons.
The drug-testing program today is a class program. It is an effort to
compel those who are restive and dissatisfied in our society to
behave. It cracks down on the underclass and the blue-collar workers,
but not the managerial class, the white-collar workers. The latter are
not being subjected to random drug testing or having their
constitutional rights invaded. There may be drugs on the assembly
line, but there are also drugs in the executive suite.
Why should a classless society become a class society? Why should one
be stuck in the condition into which one was born? For far too many
people, the idea of America as a society of opportunity has become
only rhetoric, not reality, and this reality is a far cry from what
the liberals envisioned in the nineteen-thirties. People feel they are
losing their values. And by values, I mean what people want. People
are not able to get what they want.
There seems to be less democracy today. People feel powerless. In the
1984 election, more than sixty percent of the eligible voters did not
vote. People thought the various candidates were indistinguishable,
that they did not represent anything the voters might possibly want,
or that no matter how one voted, the outcome would not change the
political system. And indeed, the political system does not respond.
The view today - which I think is perfectly justified - is that
nobody cares what happens to anyone else. As a result, people will not
get what they need if they do not aggressively pursue it. The
individual cannot rely on government, on other individuals, on
institutions, or on politicians.
We are told that the American people have become conservative and
selfish. I don't think they have. I think America has become a place
where the individual has to look out for his or her own self. That is
the simple reality. However, this is an unfortunate attitude, because
of the kind of society and people that will result.
What mistakes did the liberals of the nineteen-thirties make that
brought us to this consequence? The first mistake was political.
Liberals placed an unreasonable amount of faith in large institutions:
unions, foundations, big government, large corporations, and
universities. These institutions are based on principles that are
antithetical to democracy. They are not democratic, they are
hierarchical: Someone is at the top and everybody else is at the
bottom. Their policies are not made democratically, they are made at
the top. These institutions are also not egalitarian. They operate by
administrative discretion and authority, not the rule of law: There is
no legislature, no group lawmaking body.
The individual in the large organization does not have the kind of
constitutional rights that an individual in the society at large has.
There are no protections of autonomy and free speech. Employees can be
fired for many reasons. We need to constitutionalize large
organizations to protect the people within them, to ensure that they
can be politically outspoken. We should not allow organizations to lay
off an employee who has invested twenty years of his or her life in
the organization. Keeping those employees on the job might cut into
the organization's profits, but profits should be put on one side of
the equation and democratic and human rights should be put on the
other side of the equation. When people in large organizations lack
protection, that undercuts our democracy, because it is not likely
that those people will be active, vigorous citizens in the society at
Organizations have led to the concept of membership and
nonmembership, and that has become a pervasive fact of American life.
You are either a member or you are a nonmember. Members are given
health benefits and promises of security; nonmembers are given very
little of these things. In our society, to be a nonmember is to be a
People in large governmental organizations made the mistake of not
relying on the people themselves for the political base of the
society. Liberals fostered an elitism that allowed only those who
understood what was going on to run things. People outside the system
did not know what was going on within the system, and eventually
liberals themselves were out of the system. They lost public support
because, in their governance, they had not taken the people into their
confidence. Consequently, those who today are angry at "welfare
cheats" and at public demands for social services do not
understand that the purpose of welfare and social security is to help
the victims of the market.
The second mistake of the liberals concerns what constitutes growth
and well-being. Liberals did not look critically at the idea of
growth. They thought that as long as the country had more goods, more
sales, and more profits, it would be better off. But growth is
accompanied by ever-increasing social costs: the gross national
product rises, but the environment deteriorates, people lose their
jobs, plants abandon towns and jobs go overseas. The GNP may rise, but
people find that they are drained emotionally: they have to work
longer shifts, and they have little to show for it when they get home.
The balance sheet may go up, but the emotional lives of people go
What we need is a concept of "gross national cost." Life is
a balance sheet, not simply economic growth. It is income and outgo.
And until we know what the cost of growth is we will continue to
operate under an illusion. As long as we consider only the growth of
goods and ignore the growth of personal and community well-being, we
will be impoverished by growth. That is what is happening in our
society today. When we call for more growth, we are, in effect,
calling for less of everything we really need, aside from material
The greatest single loss from growth is traditional values. Economic
growth harms the family. The more economic activity we engage in, the
less time we have for our families. Communities deteriorate when local
companies want to make so much money that they leave the communities
and go where labor is cheaper and where tax laws are more favorable.
Unemployment studies show that the loss of a job is disastrous to the
family: It results in divorce, child abuse, and family violence. All
of this can be traced to a system in which economics is more important
than all other values. If the nonmaterial, intangible, and emotional
goods of life are not considered as part of our GNP, they will
certainly decline in value.
When we buy anything in the market, we, in effect, cast a vote. Price
stickers on some automobiles should read: This automobile was made in
an authoritarian country where people are denied their human rights,
where living standards are a small fraction of American living
standards, where people have no medical care or social security, and
where children are exploited. We should ask ourselves whether we
really want to vote for the social conditions in those countries.
Every purchase in the marketplace involves social choices. Some
products are made by companies that are destroying the environment,
other products are inexpensive because companies lay off fifty percent
of their employees so that they can lower the price of their products.
We should ask ourselves whether we really want to vote for the
destruction of our environment and for having every second person lose
his or her job in the factory.
We should be aware of the social consequences of our vote when we
purchase anything. We should also realize that if our cherished values
are disappearing, they are disappearing because we have chosen to vote
for their disappearance. The market is no better than our knowledge of
our society and ourselves.
We had a faulty market mechanism based on faulty self-knowledge, a
faulty conception of growth that is fundamentally impoverishing, and
this led to a predicament in which those who were suffering the most
had the least idea of the true cause of their suffering; they were
fighting among themselves rather than against the real cause of their
suffering. The result was a political stalemate; there was no way one
could vote for one's values. Values were at the end of an obscure path
that people could not follow. Consequently, people became frustrated
with politics; they felt that society was not responsive. This, in
turn, began the process in the nineteen-sixties in which everybody
tried to get what they wanted directly instead of going through the
There were various kinds of direct action in the nineteen-sixties:
the Civil Rights movement, in which minorities realized that nobody
would do anything for them, that they had to do things for themselves;
the women's movement, in which women realized they themselves had to
do something about their rights; the environmental movement; and other
social movements. The point is that people could not get what they
wanted through the system - they had to get it directly. It is no
wonder that what began as an idealistic concern for those who were
deprived of their rights led to a great deal of selfishness by those
who were not deprived. And here lies the affinity between the
radicalism of the nineteen-sixties and the conservatism of the
nineteen-eighties. Both grew from the same soil: They are different
responses to the same problem.
It is not a contradiction to say that we live in a society in which
some people are left-wing radicals, some are cultural radicals, some
are cultural conservatives, some are "yuppies," some are
trying to turn the clock back, some are trying to turn the clock
forward. All of us are responding to the fact there is no system that
can keep any promises. Everybody is fighting each other under the
illusion that it is the "other people" that are causing the
problem. We don't realize that we are all in the same boat. We are all
suffering from the absence of a system that can pull us together and
assure us that the results of each person's work will come back to him
and enhance his life in some way.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans today offer any vision of how we
can overcome our present difficulties and build a more satisfying
life. Both offer merely palliatives and, at best, a holding pattern.
We have to look beyond the politicians to see a different future.
Our society today can be compared to a home in which a baby is
screaming while its parents read a book on child care and say to each
other: "It says here that we're supposed to let the baby cry for
an hour. So, we're doing the right thing, we are ignoring what we
hear, what we see, and what we feel." Just so, it is possible for
Yale Law School students, as they go inside the school to study social
policy, never to notice the homeless people who are huddled outside,
trying to keep warm around the heating grates of the school.
We hear the screams around us, but we bury our noses in the books of
the system, looking there for the answers. We have to ask ourselves,
What do we need and how do we get it? rather than simply turn the
wheels of the system and hope that they will grind out something that
may respond to our needs. When we are working on our own needs, we are
in fact working for the public good.
What is happening in our society today is the result of mistakes we
made in the past. These things are neither necessary nor inevitable.
Nor are they things we have to accept. They were simply bad choices.
We can make better choices.
The basic vision of the liberals of the nineteen-thirties - less
work, more abundance, and a higher fulfillment of human beings - was
not a bad one; it simply has not worked out well. The liberals did not
do too much; they did too little. They underestimated the task of
living in a complicated industrial society and of regulating a
complicated economy. Today, we need a different kind of liberal, one
who is much more sensitive to people and to what the screaming of the
MASON GAFFNEY: At one point in your book,
The Greening of America, you said we are entering a new age of
man. I sense in your presentation today, however, a kind of pessimism.
REICH: The things I have criticized are not mandated by nature, or by
anything in our society. The present system has been able to sustain
itself despite the many failures and the criticisms. I am optimistic
that we can change these things. I think we can have a better society
and better individual lives.
In the nineteen-thirties, we solved the problem of production. Today
there are still enough goods for everybody in our society. What we
have not solved is the political problem of how to distribute these
goods in sufficient quantities so that every American can have a
decent life. Ours is an enormous productive success, but a political
GAFFNEY: The ideas you advance in your paper have their counterparts
well before the nineteen-thirties. In 1879, Henry George said that a
great wedge is being driven through society and that those beneath it
are being ground down, while those above are being lifted up. Karl
Marx said the same thing at about the same time, although he gloried
in it and saw it as inevitable. You say that individuals who pursue
their own fulfillment will solve the problems of society. That sounds
very much like Adam Smith.
REICH: New things are happening in the area of law today. The
Critical Legal Studies movement, which emerged in the last decade,
attacks the legal system for rationalizing the status quo. It
demonstrates how the seemingly necessary propositions of the law are
really not that necessary. It suggests that we abandon the present
structure for one that is based more on individual rights. I am
astonished that our law schools have produced a generation of legal
scholars who are questioning the legal system at the basic level, and
they are doing it quite successfully.
There is also the jurisprudential school of thought - represented by
Professor Ronald Dworkin and others- that deals with rights in a much
more positive way than I have ever seen done before. It has found a
way to derive human rights for all of us that gives us a more
independent and better-protected position vis-a-vis the state, the
corporation, and large organizations in general.
The idea is that individuals have a set of human rights - including
economic rights and political rights - that the law can and should
recognize. I always thought that this development would be a long time
coming. Yet, in many of our law schools today, people are talking
about these things, and these people are becoming quite influential.
M. STEPHEN WEATHERFORD: One of the most striking things about your
presentation is that it is curiously un-American: it does not lead to
any action or any direct policy consequences. You are urging us to do
something that is foreign to American politics and much more congenial
to European political systems, and that is not to take action, but to
slow down and take thought.
Your paper seems quite ideological. It strikes me that this notion of
bringing things to consciousness - our actions, the organizations we
are involved in, our emotional giving, the values we sacrifice to
consciousness - is fundamentally a politicizing kind of admonition.
The political realm is one in which we have processes set up to force
us to be explicit about our arguments, to confront them honestly, and
to build coalitions frankly. In a sense, you urge us to think about
many other things in our lives that are outside politics - what we do
in large organizations, in the economy, in the family, in our
interpersonal relations - as if they were political. That is, we ought
to think about these things consciously and be willing to bargain
about them and be explicit about the tradeoffs we are making.
In your general perspective there seems to be the notion of balance,
of equilibrium, the idea that corporations have gone too far in
elevating profit maximimization above other values. You are suggesting
that the way to draw corporations back toward equilibrium is to
introduce the notion of property rights and tenured jobs, the notion
that there are limits on the ways corporations can treat their
employees. We can think about that, not as a restriction on what
corporations are allowed to do, but as the imposition of an
alternative set of values. This is an attempt to force corporations to
come to terms with the harms they are causing, because they are not
only harms in themselves but also, in a sense, violations of other
things we expect social organizations to do.
This sense of balance comes out in another way when you talk about
the public sector. And here it goes back to a notion that political
scientists usually call legitimacy, that is, the rightful authority to
make rules that will govern people's lives. You talk about the
impoverishment of the public sector, the kind of pathetic exercise in
which politicians, who represent the government of the most powerful
country in the world, say they cannot fund education programs, welfare
programs, and programs for the homeless because the nation does not
have enough money. This poor-mouthing in an incredibly rich society
always strikes one as being out of synch. We call on government to do
a lot of new things today. We seem to have no problem at all pushing
economic conflicts and personal conflicts into the public sector and
asking the public to resolve them while, at the same time, withdrawing
the resources that the public needs to solve them. So we do think of
the government as being, in a sense, responsible for homelessness, yet
we want to cut the taxes that would be needed to take care of homeless
people. That, too, is moving away from a balance between the public
sector and the private sector that John Kenneth Galbraith talked about
in the nineteen-fifties.
REICH: The American people have little idea of how their society is
structured and how it works, how wealth is distributed and what
alternatives there might to the present system of distribution. The
idea that we have no more money for the homeless, for education, for
the elderly, for day-care services is ridiculous. We have all the
money we could possibly need. But the money is being hidden from us.
We need to know where our resources are being used. Without a kind of
social self-knowledge, we do not know what our choices are.
Corporations, for example, say they have to move their manufacturing
plants overseas. Why do they have to do that? They say they do it out
of necessity. But it is not a matter of necessity; it is a matter of
choice - they choose to maximize profits, by employing cheap foreign
GILES B. GUNN: Your analysis of some of our social problems is quite
acute. I am a little surprised, however, at what you suggest are their
causes and possible solutions. You say that we solved the problem of
production by 1930. That is true, but only in the sense that a certain
number of goods - which may have been assumed at that time to be
necessary to meet all needs - was within our capacity to produce. At
about the same time, however, our economy began to change from a
production economy to a consumer economy. Liberal critics of
liberalism would say that that transformation changed the entire
system. What were deemed old needs are not now easily fulfillable,
because our sense of what is enough has changed. In consumer
economies, needs are generated faster than they can be met, and thus
they remain insatiable. We simply cannot and never will get what we
need, especially when our needs continue to be, as your paper denned
them, in such disconcertingly individualistic terms.
You say that one of the things that joins the conservatism of the
nineteen-eighties with the radicalism of the nineteen-sixties is the
recourse to special-interest politics that seeks, if not to go out of
the system, at least to play to self-interests. Yet, you say the way
out of our current impasse is for people to accept the realism of
self-interest, and that somehow that will serve the public interest.
Is the present system in good shape? Does it merely need some
imaginative tinkering to ensure that fewer of us fall outside its
benefits and that power is shared among those who are lucky enough to
enjoy those benefits?
REICH: Derrick Bell, a black professor at the Harvard Law School, has
written, among other things, a series of imaginative cautionary tales.
In one of them, something happens to the flower of white youth of the
country so that they become like black ghetto youth: They lose all
motivation and the desire to learn. Then it is discovered that, for a
hundred thousand dollars apiece, we can restore the white youth: they
will get back their motivation and their desire to learn. Congress
promptly appropriates the necessary money for the white youth,
schools, for example, without an infusion of federal money from
Washington. Doesn't the federal government have a responsibility to
spread the wealth of the country to all those who need it?
REICH: Federal money is not coming back to the people. The Reagan
Administration is running up the biggest deficits and the biggest
defense expenditures of all time. People have to be selfish now. They
have to think of themselves. And only after they have taken care of
themselves can they think of sending their resources to Washington.
AUSON DUNDES RENTELN: I think that conservatives and liberals alike
would agree on what you have identified as some of our social
problems. The question is, what are the priorities? Many people might
agree with you that the Reagan Administration wastes three hundred
billion dollars a year by giving it to the military, but many others
would not agree with you.
In your paper, you say that "values are what people want."
People have quite different ideas about what are basic needs. Some say
that national defense is a basic need. Others say that housing for the
homeless is a basic need. We need to talk about particular values and
the priorities among those values. If the American people are as
materialistic as you seem to suggest, why should we believe that, by
identifying alternative ways of thinking and alternative policies, we
will persuade anyone to adopt them? We seem to be assuming that there
are shared values.
Regarding large organizations, you said organizations are extremely
undemocratic because they are not subject to the rule of law. If, as
seems likely, we are stuck with large organizations, can we try to
conceive of organizations that would be more oriented to helping
people, such as national health institutions that would help people
who don't have health care, or national day-care institutions that
would help families in which both parents have to work so that the
family does not suffer?
REICH: We could have a society that includes large organizations, but
pay everybody in them approximately the same amount of money. Why do
executives have to be paid $500,000 or $1.5 million dollars a year?
Why can't we consider all work equally valid? Keep the present
structure, but change the reward for those who work in it.
RENTELN: That seems to be a minor change. You would keep large
organizations and simply change the rules under which they operate.
REICH: I think it is a major change. I would also provide the kind of
security enjoyed by the top people to everybody in the organization. I
would give job security enjoyed by tenured professors to all employees
in the universities. Academic tenure, after all, is a form of social
security. A person who invests his or her time in one organization
should be rewarded with job security. I would also extend that kind of
tenure throughout society. There is no justification for job tenure in
just one small area, the university.
MCDONALD: As to the question of shared values, how can you assume
there are shared values? Isn't it true that until blacks rioted in Los
Angeles, Detroit, Washington, and Newark in the nineteen-sixties, the
national government and the people generally were insensitive to their
problems? Does something like that have to happen again before
Washington becomes sensitive to the fact that great numbers of blacks
are out of work?
REICH: These people are screaming, and we ought to be able to
understand their screams.
GAFFNEY: You assume - and I agree with you - that we could curtail
most military spending without seriously damaging the security of our
country. However, Alan Wolfe points out that American politics is
driven by two things: growth and imperialism. It seems to me that
imperialism wins votes - at least it certainly sells newspapers, and
they influence votes. Jimmy Carter once said that if we want to make
the federal government a redistributor, of wealth, we need to find the
moral equivalent of war. It is the warlike spirit that drives people
toward sharing resources. But your remarks seem to suggest the
REICH: I am sure the problem is as you have stated it. I am not sure
I like the solution of channeling everything through the federal
government. That seems to have been the mistake the liberals made.
There has to be a better way to keep track of the resources we send to
Washington. If we send money to Washington, we won't see it again.
GAFFNEY: My point about military spending is that it does come back,
in terms of a psychic satisfaction, say, to the deer hunter in
northern Wisconsin who thinks in quite different terms than you or I.
He votes for military spending because he enjoys seeing the U.S. flag
around the world.
REICH: People who are victims of this system do not, to a large
extent, understand what is happening in the system, which enables the
system to continue committing tremendous injustices. The consciousness
of the people has to be raised.
GUNN: I am curious as to why you didn't address in your paper the
role of anti-Communism ideology in liberalism over the past fifty
years. Since the nineteen-fifties, all Democrats - and I think most of
them are liberals - have decided they will never be weaker on
Communism than are the Republicans.
REICH: I did not address the issue of anti-Communism because I think
it is more important to take care of our needs in this country and
stop worrying about imaginary problems in other countries. People do a
lot better when they deal with what is in front of them than they do
when they fantasize about what is threatening them in the outside
world. During the Kennedy era, the most lurid imagination took over
GAFFNEY: John Dewey said that ideas are plans to solve problems that
arise in a social context. Therefore, without a plan to solve a
problem, there is no idea. It seems your plan is to localize. However,
there are good reasons why we cannot localize everything.
The United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Canadian
Federation, and other federal governments have developed fairly
elaborate systems of revenue-sharing. In Canada, almost all of its oil
is in Alberta. It receives enormous revenues from its oil, and
finances generous public services with those revenues. The federal
government in Ottawa figured out that there would be an unbalanced
distribution of population if everybody moved to Alberta to share in
that wealth. And the people in Alberta figured out that they would
have to cut back public services and find some way to divide that oil
wealth up among those who were there first. Incidentally, Alaska
declared a social dividend from their oil revenues and restricted it
to those who were there first. But that was declared unconstitutional,
and so Alaska developed another way of wasting the money on
unnecessary public works rather than on social welfare, because that
would attract immigrants.
I submit that over a large geographical area and large population we
have to have some system of revenue-sharing at the national level to
prevent (a) the kind of inequity that results from the fact that some
areas have all the rich resources, and (b) the kind of restrictive,
anti-social attitudes that would result from those people who were
there first pulling up the ladder behind them.
We need revenue-sharing at the federal level to accomplish the kinds
of things we both want to see accomplished.
REICH: There may be room for both: Some things need to be done at the
federal level and some things need to be done at the local level.
However, individuals should solve their own problems first and then
proceed to those in their families, among their friends, in the
community, and in the region. If this process does not begin with the
individual and then work outward, it gets beyond anybody's
comprehension and sense of responsibility.
GAFFNEY: It is comforting to note that there is revenue-sharing at
the state and local levels.
RENTELN: As to the question of a large-scale commitment, what should
our human rights foreign policy be? There are peoples throughout the
world who cannot meet their own needs. They cannot solve their own
problems. Should we be concerned about human rights in other
REICH: We should begin taking care of human rights in this country,
and then take a certain amount of responsibility for human rights
elsewhere. I am suspicious of those who talk about human rights
violations elsewhere and yet do not talk about the terrible human
rights violations in our country. They are dealing with the world
RENTELN: Why can't we be concerned about the human rights violations
in both places?
REICH: Maybe it is the idea of their being equally resolvable that I
reject. We should start with what is most easily in our power to
change, and then move outward. We must set priorities and clean up our
own act. That is what we can do something about. It is actionable to
start at home, and rather inactionable to complain about what happens
on the other side of the world. America is quite prone to getting
righteous about the rest of the world while ignoring what is happening
MCDONALD: The American economy is not as robust as it was thirty
years ago. The post-World War II economy was much more on the upswing.
Economists, such as Lester Thurow, and political economists, such as
Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, are saying that the standard of
living in the next twenty years will continue to go down, to a great
extent because of the flight of productive manufacturing jobs overseas
where labor is cheaper. As a result, ours is increasingly becoming a
service economy, which is not a high-paying economy. More and more men
and women are going into the services industry to find work. Sons of
steelworkers used to look forward to going into the steel mills; they
now have to go into service jobs. To what extent can we have a liberal
revival and the renaissance of a caring society if the economic
wherewithal continues to diminish?
REICH: There is a great deal of important nonmaterial wealth. It can
make the difference between someone having a satisfying life or an
unsatisfying life. We can stop at some reasonable level as far as
material wealth goes. From then on, the riches and the pleasures of
life can be expanded into the nonmaterial area, and that is unlimited.
The change of consciousness that I talked about in The Greening of
America recognizes that we need only so much in the material area
and that we are going to get more rewards and satisfaction by
developing ourselves in the nonmaterial area. Education may be the
most valuable thing of all, beyond the few basic material things that
MCDONALD: To help bring those who are left out of the system and who
are leading lives of despair up to a basic standard of living, the
rest of us will have to give up something of our standard of living.
That gets back to the question of whether there are indeed shared
values in our society. Are you saying that somebody has to provide
leadership to bring our consciousness to the level where we would be
willing to sacrifice some of our standard of living in order to help
others less fortunate?
REICH: It would not be such a great sacrifice. Does someone really
need a fifty-thousand-dollar car? At some point, other things become
more rewarding, and that's true even apart from whether others are in
need. It is more rewarding to go to the woods for a few days in an
inexpensive car than to have an expensive car and not go to the woods.
There is a point at which material things offer less than do some
nonmaterial things. We ought to be able to live on a reasonable level
and at the same time have others live on a reasonable level. Then we
would not be afraid to work in our cities, we would not be at war with
ourselves, which is characteristic of people in this country. If we
were at peace with ourselves, we would be able to see other less
material, but still quite rewarding, horizons. In The Greening of
America, I did not mean that we would all become richer in
material things, I meant that we would all become richer in the
totality. I still think it is possible for that vision to become a