Thoughts on “The Conscience of a Liberal”


April 23, 2009 by D Stack

The Conscience of a Liberal (

The Conscience of a Liberal (

I just finished reading economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal. It is an interesting and informative read on the histories of both liberal and conservative politics in the United States.

Krugman starts by challenging the premise that economics drives politics but rather that political action determines economic realities. He defends this premise by following the relationship of American politics and economic growth and inequality.

Economic inequality is perhaps the main focus of this book. Krugman explains how the current enormous gulf between America’s richest and its median income has a  parallel in what he refers to as “the Long Gilded Age”, a period extending from the late 19th century until the New Deal. During this period there was growth in America, but the greatest percentage of this growth went to the very rich. He explains how the very rich lived lives completely different from most Americans, with estates, servants, etc.

Krugman goes on to discuss the effect the New Deal and World War II had on American economics. In a period called “the Great Compression” the gap between the top of the American economy and its median shrunk dramatically. This was accomplished through taxes, social security, union power, social expectations, etc. However, during this period the middle class grew dramatically with most Americans being able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. The American economy continued to grow during this period with the gains shared by all.

He then explains how the New Deal coalition unraveled and how Movement Conservatives took over the Republican party. With the changes to tax policy to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans, the diminishment of organized labor, and other conservative policies the gap between the wealthiest and the median income again grew dramatically. There is a significant discussion as to the growth of Movement Conservatism.

The book then looks forward, with a discussion of how America  repudiated Movement Conservatism in the 2006 mid-term elections with the possibility (as of the time of its writing) of continuing these trends in 2008. He explains the anxieties of middle class Americans with regard to job security and health care and evaluates practical ways in which universal health care can be achieved and be cheaper than America’s current health care system.

In analysis, I found this to be a compelling read. Krugman is a fine debater and does an excellent job building his arguments up in the face of typical conservative counterarguments. He is very persuasive, both from the perspective of what is “right” and backing up his arguments with facts. There are also occasional touches of wry humor throughout the book. Krugman does not “talk down” to the reader, assuming a reasonable level of intelligence, but he does not try to impress the reader with how clever he is through use of obtuse language. I listened to this as an unabridged audiobook and Jason Culp did a fine job in his narration. I particularly enjoyed this quote from Krugman’s closing argument:

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.


One thought on “Thoughts on “The Conscience of a Liberal”

  1. JG says:

    “I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by [necessarily violent government] institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in [the legitimizing gloss of] democracy, [government allotted] civil liberties [and entitlements], and the rule of law [for the ruling class only in extreme cases]. That makes me a [socialist] liberal, and I’m proud of it.”

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