As such proposals indicate, American liberalism has remarkably come to resemble nineteenth-century British Tory Radicalism, an aristocratic sensibility that combined strong support for centralized monarchical power with a paternalistic concern for the poor. Its enemies were the middle classes and the aesthetic ugliness it associated with an industrial economy powered by bourgeois energies. For instance, John Ruskin, a leading nineteenth-century Tory Radical and a proponent of handicrafts, declaimed against “ilth,” a negative version of wealth produced by manufacturing.
Like the Tory Radicals, today’s liberal gentry see the untamed middle classes as the true enemy. “Environmentalism offered the extraordinary opportunity to combine the qualities of virtue and selfishness,” wrote William Tucker in a groundbreaking 1977 Harper’s article on the opposition to construction of the Storm King power plant along New York’s Hudson River. Tucker described the extraordinary sight of a fleet of yachts—including one piloted by the old Stalinist singer Pete Seeger—sailing up and down the Hudson in protest. What Tucker tellingly described as the environmentalists’ “aristocratic” vision called for a stratified, terraced society in which the knowing ones would order society for the rest of us. Touring American campuses in the mid-1970s, Norman Macrae of The Economist was shocked “to hear so many supposedly left-wing young Americans who still thought they were expressing an entirely new and progressive philosophy as they mouthed the same prejudices as Trollope’s 19th century Tory squires: attacking any further expansion of industry and commerce as impossibly vulgar, because ecologically unfair to their pheasants and wild ducks.”
Neither the failure of the environmental apocalypse to arrive nor the steady improvement in environmental conditions over the last 40 years has dampened the ardor of those eager to make hair shirts for others to wear. The call for political coercion as a path back to Ruskin’s and Mishan’s small-is-beautiful world is still with us. Radical environmentalists’ Tory disdain for democracy and for the habits of their inferiors remains undiminished. True to its late-1960s origins, political environmentalism in America gravitates toward both bureaucrats and hippies: toward a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line and toward a back-to-the-earth, peasantlike localism, imposed on others but presenting no threat to the elites’ comfortable lives. How ironic that these gentry liberals—progressives against progress—turn out to resemble nothing so much as nineteenth-century conservatives.