Yay! I have a political label!

I haven’t been comfortable calling myself “conservative” or “progressive,” which are the two major labels floating around American discourse.

I certainly don’t identify with either political party. Even though I’m a registered Democrat and have always voted the straight Democrat party line, I’m often voting against the Republicans, who are wedded to a pernicious social conservative platform.

I’m drawn to elements of market capitalism, socialism, Objectivism, and libertarianism, contradictory though those philosophies are. While I’m a religious unbeliever, and push back hard against attempts to make religious policy into law, I respect that religion is a source of strength, wisdom, and comfort to billions of people.

So I’ve flailed around in trying to describe my political beliefs.

Until now.

I’m a liberal.

This is satisfactory as a political label, in that people sort-of know what it means. It’s also appealing in that it’s a word that has fallen out of favor. People like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter despise liberals. It’s good to be despised by people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

What is a liberal? Edmund Fawcett tackles the question in, “Reclaiming liberalism: Liberalism is not dead – its ideals are more important than ever – but it must change radically to survive in the future.”

At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.

The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.

I like political arguments. I enjoy reading both conservative and progressive blogs. To tell the truth, I actually like conservative blogs like Hot Air and even Breitbart and Drudge Report better than progressive blogs as a class. On the other hand, the progressive Talking Points Memo is emerging as my favorite source of national news.

Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.

America’s failure to grasp this point drives me crazy. Progressives say Big Business is evil. Conservatives say Big Government is evil. I say yes to both.

Or, more precisely, both Big Business and Big Government are necessary forces, but left unchecked they can do great damage. They’re powerful, dangerous tools. When managed correctly, they manage each other.

Also, government is better at some things, and business is better at others. For some things, government and business need to work together in the form of government contracts and incentives.

Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable, for society as a whole and for people one by one, through education above all, particularly moral education.

Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are. Such respect requires not intruding on people’s property or privacy; not obstructing their chosen aims and enterprises; and not excluding anyone from such protections and permissions because they’re useless to society or socially despised.

This point about civic respect is arguably the most difficult to put in practice. It’s why I’m ultimately sympathetic to Holly Lobby, even though they’re wrong. Holly Lobby has a right to withhold payment for birth control it considers immoral — but it should not exercise that right.

By insisting on pursuing all its ideals at once and in parallel, liberalism made a high bid. It was never easy to better people’s lives while letting them alone, nor was it ever easy to respect people’s beliefs while improving their minds. At the same time government could protect markets from state power, or people from market power, and give majorities their say while protecting minorities. Liberalism’s high bid has made it a doctrine of hope but equally an engine of disappointment….


Its most obvious current failing is letting the power of the market run out of control. A direct consequence, rising inequality, has become the number-one topic in public debate. The economic arguments on this question are old.

Since the late 19th century, liberal thinking about the economy has gone back and forth between using the state to tame market power and using the market to tame state power. After 1945, liberal democracies appeared to get the balance right. Then in the 1980s, following a decade of inflation, joblessness and tax revolts, the balance swung strongly away from the state towards market power. Super-returns for a few and stagnant wages for the many have created social inequalities that are ethically offensive and, in a liberal democracy, politically unsustainable. Something has to give.

For the free-market right, the capitalist engine spreads its benefits in the end. If in the meantime it spreads inequality, so be it. On this reading, the egalitarian hopes of liberal democracy have to give. Left-wing liberals, meanwhile, see no inevitabilities here. Capitalism spreads inequality, they believe, if politics allows it to. They continue to trust the capacity of politics to tame markets, and so, for them, untrammeled capitalism has to give.

I would not say liberals have let the market run out of control. Quite the contrary: Government in the West acts to preserve Big Business against outside forces. If markets were free, Aero would be legal and big banks and auto companies would have been allowed to go out of business (while government would have stepped in to protect employees from the damage done by feckless upper management and investors). Government propping up Big Business is one of the biggest threats faced by Western civilization (although Big Business itself is necessary and beneficial).

Liberalism is currently flailing. In the United States, neither political party is liberal. Liberalism needs a 21st Century framework to operate, just as it found frameworks in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

32 thoughts on “Yay! I have a political label!

  1. SocialDog

    Patricia Keefe: one of the things I always appreciated about Howard Dean was his enthusiastic embrace of the label “liberal” at a time when many liberal politicians virutally shrank from the word – so afraid were they of other people’s definitions of the word. Well, Howard would have none of that – nor was he about to let conservatives define what being liberal meant. I loved that about him. (and since I’m on the subject of Howard, I dunno if I would have voted for him in the primary, but I always thought that the fact that a shrieking cheer to his troop sounded the death knell of his campaign speaks to the absolutely worst in American culture and politics. His campaign is over because he yelled in joy? really? AYSM? )via facebook.com

  2. SocialDog

    Flavio Carrillo: I’m feeling rather paleoliberal myself nowadays.The problem I have with modern progressivism is that it’s altogether too focused on identity politics and insufficiently alive to issues of political economy. These are worthy issues but for me inequality looms far larger as a problem. I mean, yeah, it’s great that gay marriage is on the way to becoming the law of the land and all that, but that’s not going to stop plutocracy which is spinning out of control.via plus.google.com

  3. SocialDog

    Mitch Wagner: +Flavio Carrillo I identify the problem as more about niche issues than identity politics. Identity politics is only a part of it. Both major parties are excessively focused on niche issues, and they are the same niche issues: Gay marriage, reproductive freedom, and immigration, to name three. But at least the Democrats agree with me on those issues. I support same-sex marriage wholeheartedly. But my LGBTQ friends need jobs and healthcare exactly to the same extent I and my heteronormal friends and family do. (One of the ways the 2016 election is starting to look interesting is that Hillary is talking about the niche issues, while the GOP is starting to wake to populism. Suddenly the GOP is looking oddly attractive.)+Richard Adhikari People tend to have clusters of political beliefs. If you’re a free market capitalist, and oppose same-sex marriage, you probably think global warming is baloney. Labels are one way to identify those clusters. Of course, we all have views that deviate from the cluster — but perhaps fewer than we’d like to think.via plus.google.com

  4. SocialDog

    Flavio Carrillo: +Mitch Wagner Hillary lacks the common touch. She’s a bit of a plutocrat herself nowadays and kinda sorta in bed with Wall Street.She needs to get in touch with her inner Elizabeth Warren. Or maybe just draft Warren on the ticket.Don’t get suckered in by the GOP’s faux populism. The Democrats, Hillary notwithstanding, have far more of the real thing going on. It’s in their DNA. The GOP’s DNA lies elsewhere. I speak as a recent refugee from the right To the extent GOP populism is the genuine article, it’s of the Tea Party kind which is the bad kind.Above all, parties matter more than individuals. We’ve moved in a stealthy way to a rigid parliamentary system. Didn’t used to be this way and it made some sense back in the day to vote a candidate over their party. No more. Since the GOP has taken leave of its senses in the last decade, the choice is clear. I’ve been there and there isn’t any going back to that fever swamp. If you are at all serious about your liberalism, forget the party of Lincoln. Maybe in a generation or so it’ll be possible to vote for them again.via plus.google.com

  5. SocialDog

    Mitch Wagner: +Flavio Carrillo I don’t seriously expect to vote for the Republicans. When it comes to winning my vote, they always manage to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. I might have voted for McCain in 2008 until he picked Sarah Palin. Hillary’s an interesting case. A month ago, I was itching for an opportunity to write a  blog post referring to her as the “next President of the United States,” because I thought her election was assured to that extent. Now I wonder if she’ll make it through the primary. The American economy is struggling, foreign policy is struggling, Americans are losing hope for their country, desperate for leadership, and Hillary can talk about is herself.via plus.google.com

  6. SocialDog

    Shane Brady: Interesting, you almost sound libertarian to me, but that’s probably my bias showing. ;)I remain a libertarian, but not a Libertarian.  I’m willing to look at things like single payer for health care insurance, but see things like the VA and could never accept government run healthcare in this country.Even if one is a big government liberal, I fail to see how you could support this big government we have.  We often don’t have free markets where people think we do.  The government historically has codified discrimination and has to be forced to undo it.I would prefer Hillary to Obama, though.   I wouldn’t vote for her, but I know I wouldn’t vote for any of the potential republicans.  Third party all the way most likely.via plus.google.com

  7. SocialDog

    Ellis Booker: I live in Evanston–two blocks from the Purple Line–and work from home these days. I’ve toyed with getting rid of my car because I rarely use it. But I doubt I’ll do that. What I really want is something more substantial & safe than a bike but less expensive/big/carbon-footprinty than a car. Why aren’t such vehicles being made?via plus.google.com

  8. SocialDog

    Flavio Carrillo: +Ellis Booker Orange County. About an hour north of San Diego driving time. That makes me practically a neighbor of Mitch in Cal terms.I toy with the idea of going back to Chicago one of these days. I miss city life. Not having to ever drive again sounds pretty good to me. Somewhere along the line driving stopped being fun. You don’t need a car in Chicago, indeed, it’s just a money pit if you live downtown.via plus.google.com

  9. SocialDog

    Ellis Booker: As for the topic in the OP, I’m never, ever gonna vote for the currently-constituted GOP. Maybe if they kick out the wacky social conservatives and the armchair generals who are all-to-quick to get us into wars, I’ll take a second look. But I don’t expect them to rein in these groups. If anything, the GOP has become much, much more reactionary in my lifetime, and I don’t expect this to change.via plus.google.com

  10. SocialDog

    Flavio Carrillo: +Mitch Wagner You missed out one of the big ones: regulating markets. That’s what killed libertarianism for me: the idea that unregulated markets work just great. That idea got exploded rather spectacularly recently.True believers insist that markets can never fail, only governments can fail them. Nowadays, I think markets must be tamed and civilized in order to produce useful and equitable outcomes — that left on their own they have no conscience at all and concentrate wealth more and more. That’s when they work. When they don’t work, they just blow up the economy.Only the government can tame this beast and make it useful.via plus.google.com

  11. SocialDog

    Mitch Wagner: +Ellis Booker  I’ve been on the lookout for the same sort of vehicle for more than a decade. Never been able to find one. +Shane Brady  I’m not a libertarian. Libertarians oppose government. Governments do some things pretty well, even aside from defense and police — picking up the trash, building roads and public works, inspecting food and buildings. Other nations do national healthcare pretty well. We should be able to as well. Although on the subject of healthcare, I’m more inclined to think some sort of private solutions can be found. Not because of magic free market competition fairy dust, but just to give people plenty of choices and try a lot of different things.via plus.google.com

  12. SocialDog

    Flavio Carrillo: +Mitch Wagner Nah, they exist. Mostly in places like Somalia. It’s true that here it is more a question of inadequate regulation than total lack of it. But that’s only because of prior efforts. Roll the clock back far enough and you’ll get to something close to a pure free market even in the US.Markets can exist in the absence of the state and I’m fairly sure they preceded it. The state is about 5000 years old. Some kind of market activity probably took place before then on a limited basis.What libertarians don’t get is the state is the price we pay for civilization. It is indeed coterminous with it. No state, no civilization.via plus.google.com


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