The promised Nor’easter is finally descending on my neighborhood, and bad weather that forces you inside somehow always makes me contmeplative. Most people pull out the Law and Order DVDs, but I’m just weird like this.
Lately I’ve been thinking about political labels. This election season I came very close to not voting for Obama, and that got me thinking about my own views – where I stand on different issues and why I take that stand. No, not for the reasons Bruno Gianelli gave in The West Wing:
Although to be fair in this political climate, Bruno may be on to something. Still, I actually had a different thing in mind. To my mind, “liberal” keys into a philosophical movement I just don’t accept. As odd as this may seem, philosophically libertarianism and liberalism are kissing cousins. Both grow out of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, which argues that the one good thing – the one absolutely good thing – is the good will. Basically what makes humanity worth so much is we’re able to make a choice. Because of this, anything that takes away that choice is deeply immoral because it undervalues what persons are worth.
This is at the heart of both liberalism and libertarianism – in the abstract. Philosophical libertarianism argues good government shouldn’t do anything that restricts peoples’ choices, unless perhaps it’s necessary to protect someone else’s liberty. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, your right to swing your fist ends when it hits my face. Of course, lots of people are libertarians for some very un-libertarian reasons – a frustration with an inefficient government, a frustration that others are taking advantage by receiving welfare but not putting into the system, that kind of thing.
These are valid concerns, and I’m as willing as the next person to argue that sometimes big government isn’t the answer. Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban strikes me as high-handed and insulting. But I think when you key into libertarianism, you’re relying on something I can’t accept for two reasons. First, I don’t think it really accounts for the fact that we have different resources to start with (so just assuming there’s a level playing field to begin with is downright naive). But more importantly, I think it falls into the problems that push me away from Kant’s descendants. It puts way too much focus on the individual. It doesn’t account for the fact that humans do best when we live in communities and that (IMO) we damage ourselves when we neglect those around us. The best life plays out in a nexus of relationships with people caring for each other, and where there’s enough distribution between differetnt communities so that they can flourish. It’s really true: no man is an island. And libertarianism, at least its philosophical variety, acts like we are.
Maybe it’s not so obvious why Kant’s philosophy would be anti-community. To be fair, there’s nothing in Kant that says community is bad. But I honestly have a hard time seeing how Kant can make sense of communal obligations. Kant says the only things that are truly moral are the ones that flow from our duty. Not just the things we choose to accept or go after, but the kind of things you couldn’t be a good rational agent if you didn’t do. One way Kant puts this is if you aren’t acting based on the kind of principle you’ could generalize into a moral law that applied to everyone, you’re not acting morally. You’re not acting immorally either; most likely, you’re just going after your own interests, not motivated by duty, and that’s neither good nor bad. The point is that you can’t have a duty unless it applies to everyone. So I can have a duty not to murder or steal or lie. But I can’t have a duty, as far as I can tell, to tread your mother or your neighbor particularly well. It may be good for you, but it’s simply not what the law or even morality is all about.
On its face, liberalism looks nothing like libertarianism. It’s full of big government excesses and all the limits that come from having to depend on someone else to write you a check. But it really traces back to the same Kantian philosophy libertarianism grows out of. Part of this is Rawls’s veil of ignorance – basically, we should only support policies that we would still support even if we didn’t know anything about our particulars – income, race, education, temperament, etc. This doesn’t mean strict equality (it may really be good for everyone to have highly-paid doctors since this means we all benefit from the better quality), but you can’t look just at what’s good for you. Liberals also push for a different kind of freedom. While libertarians emphasized negative freedom –the freedom from– liberals fought to get positive freedom, the freedom to.
Think of it this way. Say some Senator proposes a law that no one can buy prime rib. It’s too expensive, and that money should go to feeding the less fortunate. A libertarian might object that he earned the money and it’s wrong to put restrictions on how he can spend it – if he wants prime rib and can afford it, that’s his right. A liberal might argue that even without such a law, many people like the poor could never afford that steak. It is just as far out of their reach as if the government passed a law outlawing it.
So inequality is a different kind of inequality, but it’s still inequality and still needs to be fought against. That’s the basic idea behind the welfare state – that poverty and lack of resources means less choices are available to the poor. So just like libertarians thought the government shouldn’t restrict their choices through unnecessary laws, liberals think you shouldn’t restrict peoples’ choices through lack of resources. They also are big fans of liberty in other arenas. Feminism, the fight against racism and homophobia, the push for secularism – all of these trace back to the liberals’ focus on human freedom.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I like feminism. I’m glad there’s less racism and homophobia than there once was. I don’t think we do nearly enough to fight economic inequality, but I’m glad for the historic gains liberalism managed in that area. But I can’t quite buy into the philosophy behind that label, “liberal.” I think I have a duty to give the poor enough money for them to flourish, so far as I’m able, but it’s not because I respect their autonomy and worth as a human being. It’s because I recognize them as part of the community that helps me flourish – and I can’t ignore their needs without cutting myself off at some level. Watching the night-janitor suffer because he can’t afford good food or a doctor visit hurts me too, it alienates me from my community and I’m the worse for that. Ditto if it’s watching my gay classmate deal with
There’s a philosophy lurking behind this approach. This post is already so detail heavy and long,I don’t want to go into all that. But it pulls on Aristotle and some of his modern inheritors, and it talks more about virtue and character than character.
I’ll take progressive. I like progress, and I have no problem saying communities are getting better, so more humans can flourish now than they did back in the days when women couldn’t vote and Afro-Americans were only legally worth three-fifths of a white man. But liberal? That word has been bothering me an awful lot now.
Now you know why. You also probably have proof that I am a first-class geek who gets a little too worried over things like this. But we already knew that, didn’t we?
P.S. – A lot of the philosophy I’ve described here is highly condensed, not fact-checked, and definitely outside my field of expertise. I may be making mistakes, and if there’s a better way to read him I’m all ears. It’s the best my snow-addled brain can offer at the moment, though.)
P.P.S. – Thanks for bearing with me. This got longer and a bit more pedantic than I meant it to. I hope you found it interesting, in any case.