After Goldwater, from the opposite side

politics | The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman, W.W. Norton, $25.95, 296 pages

In 1960 a brash conservative writer named L. Brent Bozell Jr. ghost-wrote a book for a brash Republican senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater. The book, "The Conscience of a Conservative," argued for a radically different relationship between government and individual than the one to which Americans had become accustomed.

To many in the political establishment, the book's argument seemed frightening and alien. But to Goldwater and Bozell, it was mainstreamers who were true aliens. All they were trying to do, in Godfrey Hodgson's phrase, was "turn the world right side up" -- to rediscover an older, better America, one so disfigured by decades of liberal government that many Americans did not realize it was once the norm.

The title of Paul Krugman's new book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," is no accident. If Goldwater harked back to the days before the New Deal, when government made few claims on the economic life of the individual, Krugman harks back to the days before Goldwater, when the New Deal ensured that most individuals (if they were white) lived roughly equal economic lives. He says Americans have forgotten how radical the current political mainstream actually is. He hopes that by reminding Americans of how different things used to be, he can overcome the fatalism and timidity that prevent fundamental change.

In invoking Goldwater, Krugman identifies himself with an argument heard frequently among Bush-era liberals. Bill Clinton, in this view, was a kind of Eisenhower, a well-meaning, competent man but unwilling or unable to challenge the core maxims of his time. But now, with conservatism melting down in something like the way liberalism did in the late 1960s and early '70s, the time is ripe for a much bigger ideological reorientation, the kind America has not seen since Bozell, Goldwater and their successors overthrew the political mainstream decades ago.

Krugman is well equipped to lead such a charge because his own mainstream credentials are so strong. Bush administration foreign policy has turned Krugman -- a renowned and fairly centrist Princeton economist, as well as an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times -- into a radical critic of American political economy.

In "The Conscience of a Liberal" Krugman suggests that things we take for granted about the U.S. economy -- above all, that extreme inequality is an inevitable byproduct of robust economic growth in a globalized age -- are not inevitable at all. Political choices, he argues, not economic laws, have made the United States a nation of the very rich, the very poor and an increasingly fragile middle class. His claims are convincing not only because he discusses complex economic questions with rare lucidity and skill, but also because of who he is. Icon destroyers are most powerful when they hail from within the elite.

Readers who turn to Krugman to understand what's unjust about the U.S. economy, and why it doesn't have to be this way, will be amply rewarded. And as Democrats seek a rationale not merely for returning to power, but for fundamentally changing -- or changing back -- the relationship between America's government and its citizens, Krugman's arguments will prove vital.