June 09, 2009

This I Believe

First a little background about this post. I have been assailing my friends with emails about the auto industry bailouts and as a result a close friend of over 30 years fired back that he is sick of the unfair attacks on Liberals. This led to several exchanges with me berating the failures of Liberalism. He countering with the evilness of Bush and conservatives in general and the need to make the system fairer even if it meant putting the screws to those better off in society. I then asked if he was "willing to give up liberty in exchange for social justice." “You cant be serious.” He replied.

I am serious, and here is my response.

You are certainly right that your (my friends) "brand of Liberalism defies definition"; as a result you find lists like Edward R. Murrow’s (This I Believe) that attempt to show what it looks like and not necessarily what it is. I hope to explain, as succinctly as possible, my brand of political liberalism and why your brand even in its weakest form is in error.

People have been arguing the proper role of government at least since the days of Socrates. J.S. Mill in the 19th century asked the question “When is it acceptable to restrict an individual’s liberty?” As we know society has an enormous list of bad reasons to restrict a person’s freedom and Mill wanted to identify if there were any good reasons. Without good reason there is no liberty and we become just a permission society. (Maybe that has already happened in which case you win and I’ll pack my tent and go home) For liberty to exist Mill believed, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” This I’m guessing is the basis for your “rights extend to the end of your neighbors nose” definition of social justice.

Mill proposed that a society advances only when individuals have the freedom to pursue ends of their own making. A person needs to be thoughtful, critical, and self-reflective as an unexamined life is not worth living. To do this free speech, thought, and action is crucial. The result is a set of political rights that are of such a presumptive good to the individual that they were wisely ensconced in our constitution. This philosophy obviously stresses the individual over the group and liberty over fairness/social justice.

Therefore, if liberty and society is to flourish then the proper extent of the government and society’s intrusion into a person’s life is properly limited to the protection of life, liberty and property (Locke). Of course members of society have the obligation to be compassionate to the least fortunate. Of course members of society have certain social obligations such as an education. Of course members of society have an obligation to pay taxes for physical security and of course there are things that naturally fall under the purview of the federal government because of their scope. I argue however that we have moved way beyond that today. So what’s gone wrong?

We have expanded from the negative rights ensconced in the constitution to the creation of positive rights embraced by Modern Liberals. (Who can forget during that campaign Obama’s remark that the constitution contains not only negative rights but positive rights) You can only make this leap via the twisted logic that individuals are merely an element of a tribe, race, or culture and because they may be blinded to or ignorant of what’s best for some group (social economic or cultural) it is justifiable to coerce the individual in the name of some particular goal. Isaiah Berlin wrote, “Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their 'real' selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom - the free choice of his 'true', albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.” This approach certainly turns the ideal of individual liberty on its head.

The problems with this approach is first, who gets to make these decisions as you essentially replace politics with the role of the “political philosopher.”(1) Second, is the paternalism inherent in some second party deciding what is best for the individual. Immanuel Kant noted that “Nobody may compel me to be happy in his own way… (Paternalism) is the greatest despotism imaginable.” As Berlin explains, “This is so because it is to treat men as if they were not free, but human material for me, the benevolent reformer, to mould in accordance with my own, not their, freely adopted purpose. This is, of course, precisely the policy that the early utilitarians recom­mended. Helvetius (and Bentham) believed not in resisting, but in using, men's tendency to be slaves to their passions; they wished to dangle rewards and punishments before men - the acutest possible form of heteronomy - if by this means the 'slaves' might be made happier. But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you - the social reformer - see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

Adherence to the principles of positive rights requires the Modern Liberal to accept coercion as the means to some normative societal end. If you accept the coercion necessary for the egalitarianism offered by positive rights you must reject the universality of “All men are created equal.” because they are incompatible. As Ariel Durant wrote in The Lessons of History, "Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.” Allowing the political philosopher to make normative judgments about what is “fair” necessarily means that you are going to have to be “unfair” to someone else. Obviously it cannot by its very nature be applied universally.

We can no doubt find historical precedents where the imposition of fairness has infringed on individual rights, where political equality was rejected for the protection or advancement of some group, or where people put their trust in some charismatic philosopher king which had horrendous outcomes.

A prescient Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about Modern Liberalism:

"I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

This has gotten much longer than I intended so I will close by saying that “What I Believe” is that the liberalism of Locke, Mill, and the Founders is the only way that a free and democratic nation can survive in the long term. Modern Liberalism is corrosive to individual liberty and inevitably will lead to a form of despotism. That is why “liberalism must be a fighting creed.”(2) Call me a mindless knuckle dragging Conservative if you must but I will continue to attack, assail, and assault Modern Liberalism at every opportunity.

J. S. Mill “On Liberty”
Isaiah Berlin “ Two Concepts of Liberty”
Alexis de Tocqueville “Democracy in America”

Also see;
1. Professor K. Anthony Appiah in Multiculturalism by Charles Taylor.
2. Paul Kelly, Liberalism

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