Why isn’t there a liberal equivalent of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” or Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”? That is the provocative question Yale history professor Beverly Gage asked recently in a column first published in Slate magazine.

Gage observes that, if you ask conservatives why they hold the political views they do, many will cite some book. Perhaps it will be Rand’s novel dramatizing the rebellion of entrepreneurs and inventors against the redistributive state. Or it perhaps it will be Hayek’s polemic against government assaults on economic freedom.

Or it may be something else — maybe Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” or perhaps Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness.” But it will often be a book.

By contrast, few progressives today cite any book as having determined their intellectual outlook. Gage’s question is: why?

The answer is that progressives have no short list of liberal “great books” because they don’t need one. We conservatives have our little canon because those books are pretty much all we’ve got.

We have to turn to novels and treatises to see our ideas come alive because American politics, media and universities are dominated by the left, as they have been more or less since the New Deal.

No young progressive needs to turn to a book to imagine a bigger, kinder, more generous welfare state. For the last 70 years, our welfare state has hardly done anything but grow bigger and more expensive, under Democrats and Republicans alike.

Did the “conservative” Republican President George W. Bush reduce the size of government or act decisively to bolster economic liberty? Hardly. It was his plan that brought a new degree of national control to education and it was under his administration that a drug benefit was added to Medicare.

Do young progressives need to find solace in books, because they find that their favorite television shows don’t reflect their cultural, social, or political values? Hardly. Apart from the conservative chat shows, can you think of any show on television today that celebrates private enterprise or favorably depicts traditional values?

When young progressives get to our universities, do they find themselves driven to seek out books to counter the ideological inclinations of their faculty? Not likely. In my discipline of political theory, recent works on the left are easy to find — John Rawls’s “Theory of Justice” is practically obligatory — but conservative philosophers are scarcer.

And when young progressives do turn to literature, they find that almost the entire literary canon is either overtly on the political left or implicitly hostile to the values of the contemporary right.

There are no great entrepreneurs in Shakespeare, unless you count the self-righteous bigot Antonio — the eponymous merchant of Venice — but he’s no model capitalist, though in the end his ships come in and his fortune is made. The tragic heroes of the great plays are driven by honor, pride, patriotism and ambition, but never the honest desire to build a successful business.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote before the industrial revolution and the emergence of modern capitalism. But the literary novelists are no friendlier to the ideals of modern conservatism.

Anti-capitalist novels are a high school staple: think “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair and “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. And when the novelists aren’t actively protesting against capitalism, they are celebrating illicit love and aiming to shock the bourgeoisie.

The works Gage nominates for inclusion in her liberal canon such as the speeches of Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” prove the point: books are most inspiring when they present fundamental alternatives to the status quo.

There was a time, not long ago, when King was the outsider, and his doctrines of racial equality posed a radical challenge to the established order. Now we have an African-American president and celebrate a national holiday in honor of King.

Likewise with Friedan. In 1963, few women aspired to careers outside the home, and her call to women’s liberation resonated because it gave voice to the then-radical idea that women can and should accomplish everything that men can. In 2012, hardly anyone is inspired by reading the “Feminine Mystique” because so much of Friedan’s vision already has been realized.

Progressives shouldn’t be alarmed that they don’t have a canon: they should be glad that they don’t need one. Of course, we conservatives can always hope for the day when they will. Until then, we’ll have to hit the books. And the campaign trail.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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