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.
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.