Friday, September 17, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about how I would characterize my liberalism as it relates to other ideologies, and I have to say that a debate that emerged some weeks ago spurred on by a posting from Matt Yglesias some while ago in which he basically differentiated between his small-government tendencies at the local level, coupled with his recognition of a more actively-involved, bigger government at the national level, resonated with me. Here's the crux of Yglesias's point concerning might might be called his liberaltarianism in the form of an example:

Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”
There is a sense, as Yglesias said, that liberals think that the proper role of the state is to protect the freedoms of the little guy over the privileged big actors. This is where I think many small-government conservatives misunderstand the motivations of liberals. It's also what annoys me, too. Because I think there is an appropriate role of the state in constricting the ability of the privileged to manipulate social structures and institutions (and to harness the power of the state) to preserve that which maintains their privilege and constricts the liberty and opportunities of the marginalized -- i.e. that subsidizing student loans making it more affordable and possible for larger numbers of the less affluent to gain an education and thus improve the likelihood of their success in the marketplace, or that having the state ensure basic health care coverage for all, especially the most vulnerable, actually enhances freedom because it removes structural impediments that keep the downtrodden down -- many conservatives would consider me a socialist/communist/anti-individualist whatever. And this couldn't be farther from the truth. And it especially annoying when some of these very same conservatives go to extremes to argue that the legitimate exercise of state power is in preserving the structures that maintain privilege for a particular kind/type of person (i.e. a white Christian heterosexual) and constrict opportunity/freedom for a marginalized minority. For true small-government, liberaltarian-leaning conservatives, there are points of convergence with liberals that should form the basis for collaboration and compromise; but this never seems to be sought after. I wish it were.


eric said...

"For true small-government, liberaltarian-leaning conservatives, there are points of convergence with liberals that should form the basis for collaboration and compromise; but this never seems to be sought after. I wish it were."

It's a problem of prioritization. Liberals almost always seem to put equality on a higher plane of importance than liberty. Removing "structural impediments that keep the downtrodden down" is not, in and of itself, a bid for more liberty. You completely skip over the part of how enacting that agenda requires stripping other people of liberty, and you make no attempt to prove how the liberty that might be gained by educating the downtrodden at the expense of the rest of us is BETTER than letting them find a way to get educated that doesn't require mob tactics. Let's say there is some sort of Laffer Curve for Liberty where if you expend liberty in an attempt to expand liberty, you eventually get diminishing returns. I'd argue that liberals tend to see us as still having plenty of liberty/capital to spend before we reach that delta, whereas conservatives tend to believe we crossed the threshold of diminishing returns a long long time ago. Libertarians usually agree with conservatives here, which is why they rarely side politically with liberals even when they may have overlapping goals.

Huck said...

Eric - Let me give an example of what I'm talking about here to show that sometimes stripping people of what you call "liberty," but what I would call privilege, is an absolute necessity in some cases. Take segregation, for example. And lets use segregated schools. We know from our history that segregation equalled second-class. It meant white students generally got better schools, textbooks, teachers, etc., while black students got worse. And there is no question that this is not only about equality, but also about liberty. In this instance, telling the white majority that the are no longer at "liberty" to allocate better resources to white schools over black schools, or simply to have segregated schools at all, is perfectly acceptable. I could make similar arguments about the women's suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and the gay rights movement of today. The whole anti-illegal immigration movement today is rooted in a kind of liberty-crushing protectionism -- whether of jobs or of some notion of a privileged "American" culture. Shedding the benefits that come with unearned privilege is not constraining liberty.

eric said...

"Shedding the benefits that come with unearned privilege is not constraining liberty."

Sure, but it's very easy to play it fast and loose with the word 'privilege'. A kid from a home with two loving and caring parents is more privileged than a kid from a home where dad has never been present and mom locks herself in the bedroom and drinks a fifth of Southern Comfort every night. The first kid's privilege is likely to leave him with more tools to do better for himself in life than the second kid. Is he somehow indebted to the second kid for this. If not, he should be at liberty to decide for himself whether he wants to do soemthing to help the plight of the second kid. If so, then how do you measure that debt and it's repayment, to make sure the first kid doesn't get off too light or is taxed too much in repaying his obligation to kid #2, or is it an open-ended obligation, and if so what does that say about your concept of liberty?

I think coservatives and liberals tend to have very different answers to these questions, and libertarians more often than not see it in the same light as conservatives, at least when it comes to the government's role in the matter (I think many social cons would argue that the first kid DOES owe a moral debt to the second kid, but an ethical resolution demands that he chose to repay it of his own free will).