Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, advocates for American political liberalism. His book responds to The Conscience of a Conservative
written by Barry Goldwater in 1960. Published nearly 50 years later, this response is more detailed and more attuned to the present. His words are partisan and personal "I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I'm proud of it." p. 267)
Krugman begins with an historical review emphasizing income differences. The years after WWII, it seems, were most congruent with liberal ideals. The "great compression" of salaries, New Deal social reforms, strong unions, and progressive social attitudes led to relative economic equality. Liberals seek a return to such times, while conservatives, in Krugman's view, prefer the "The Gilded Age" of pre-WWI capitalism. "Pre-New Deal America, like America in the early twenty-first century, was a land of vast inequality in wealth and power, in which a nominally democratic political system failed to represent the economic interests of the majority. [It was characterized by] the division of Americans with common economic interests along racial, ethnic, and religious lines; the uncritical acceptance of a conservative ideology that warned that any attempt to help the less fortunate would lead to economic disaster." (pp. 15-16)
Krugman applies this historical analysis to today's political spectrum: "Republicans cut taxes on the rich and try to shrink government benefits and undermine the welfare state. Democrats raise taxes on the rich while trying to expand government benefits and strengthen the welfare state." pp. 158-159 The gap between resources available to the rich and those available to the poor is America's greatest problem, intimately related to racism, crime, and unemployment. And the most appropriate remedy is direct: reduce high salaries and increase low ones. There is relatively less emphasis on educational opportunities, short-term assistance, or opportunities for business, home, or self-improvement.
While the core of Krugman's liberalism is simple, his justifications are not simplistic. He discusses in detail the role of labor unions, the need for universal health care, and the persistence of racism as a social problem and political issue. His thorough discussion not only elaborates the liberal viewpoint, but addresses common conservative counterarguments--though sometimes dismissively. This is not a balanced analysis, but it does not pretend to be one. It is well-articulated advocacy.
The author is at his best when describing liberal ideals. He is less considerate of opposing views. Ignoring broader concerns about high taxes, for example, he sees conservatism supported largely "...by a handful of extremely wealthy individuals and a number of major corporations, all of whom stand to gain from increased inequality." (p. 10). A large network of corporations, think tanks, and other groups further the conservative cause. "These institutions provide obedient politicians with the resources to win elections, safe havens in the event of defeat, and lucrative career opportunities after they leave office." p 163 The left is presented as a grassroots underdog, with nothing like this organizational and financial support. Researchers who measure the political leanings of media and the sources they cite would disagree (see Tim Groseclose's Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind
). Conservative thinkers might respond with additional data and alternative analysis to many of the book's conclusions about the economy, opportunity, and the rule of law.
Don't look for balance from this book. Look for that balance from this book when read along with contrasting conservative views. Krugman's defense of liberalism is thoughtful, detailed, and worth reading by liberals and conservatives alike. Do not shrink from reading it because you might disagree. And after you read it, do not shrink from reading responses to it. It surely invites such responses.