With passage of the Social Security Act, in 1935, the American government took on new social welfare functions, which have expanded ever since. The Transformation of American Liberalism explores the arguments American political leaders used to justify and defend social welfare programs since 1935. Students of political theory note the evolution of liberal political theory between its origins and major contemporary theorists who justify the values and social policies of the welfare state. But the transformation of liberalism in American political culture is incomplete. Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, the arguments of America’s political leaders fall well short of values of equality and human dignity that are often thought to underlie the welfare state. Individualist—“Lockean”—values and beliefs have exerted a continuing hold on America’s leaders, constraining their justificatory arguments. The paradoxical result may be described as continuing attempts to justify new social programs without acknowledging incompatibility between the arguments necessary to do so and individualist assumptions inherent in American political culture. The American welfare state is notably ungenerous in its social welfare programs. To some extent this may be attributed to the shortcomings of public justifications. An important reason for the striking absence of strong and widely recognized arguments for these programs in America’s political culture is that its political leaders did not provide them.
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