Kevin Williamson of National Review has perused a recent symposium from his favorite left-of-center publication, Dissent, and finds much that disappoints him.

Dissent’s contributors have not yet got their heads around the idea that it is impossible to have a government that is simultaneously totalitarian and humane; if they had, they would not be part of the Left, which remains corporately committed to the principle that an effectively unlimited public sector can be put to excellent use so long as its masters have the right sort of moral cultivation. Conservatives, so often put off by the Left’s habit of deputizing its members as thought police, often fail to appreciate the real roots of that crusading inclination: It is not only that they wish to suppress their political rivals and nonconforming ideas, but that they believe it is necessary to establish, by whatever Pavlovian means are necessary, deeply ingrained habits of thought and speech that prevent the emergence of heresy among their own, in order that they may be entrusted with the awesome power that the Left’s politics would deliver unto them.

That being written, if you want to know what the Left is thinking, read Dissent. Even when, as in this case, it is disappointing.

It is worth appreciating that distaste for bailouts launched two very different political movements: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. The intuition that there exists a dysfunctional and morally shabby relationship between Washington and Wall Street touches both ends of the political spectrum, particularly in their more populist expressions. Among those whose knowledge of these issues is more than can be written on a bumper sticker or a placard, there is a surprising level of agreement among people of very different political orientations: that we have not solved the problem of “too big to fail,” that the relationship between the financial sector and the political sector remains mutually corrupting and distorting, that prospects for non-elite American workers look relatively bleak, that this bleakness is in part a result of fundamental global economic changes but also in part the result of bad policy, that financial regulations have not achieved their desired outcomes, that familiar offerings such as education reform or manufacturing incentives are unlikely to prove sufficient meet to current challenges, etc. Given such potentially fertile ground, the Left’s failure to articulate a convincing reform agenda — or, perhaps more important, its apparent inability to even reevaluate its own longstanding assumptions about economic policy — is significant. A productive reform agenda will require fairly wide buy-in, among elites and ordinary voters both, and such a consensus will not be able to emerge so long as the Left remains mired in the assumptions of the 1930s. It is one of the great ironies of our time that the self-proclaimed progressives, who associate themselves with youth and change, are in effect, and more often than not in fact, a bunch of old men, intellectually exhausted and sodden with nostalgia.