Liberalism And Philosophy

Jonah Goldberg has an interesting observation on the relative lack of intellectual roots in modern liberalism. Now, it’s not fair to say that liberalism has no intellectual tradition — cetainly the concept of "social justice" through economic redistributon comes almost straight from John Rawls "Veil of Ignorance" exercise. (An exercise which has some ramifications Rawls didn’t intend, but that’s an argument for another day…)

At the same time Goldberg is right in pointing out that liberalism as it exists today doesn’t seem to be grounded in any kind of a consistant philosophical framework. Conservatism is based upon an acknowledgment of what Edmund Burke called the "permanent things" — certain societal values that provided the glue that held society itself together. Conservative political philosophy is based on the concept that the past provides important lessons that should inform future actions. To quote Churchill, to a conservative "the farther back you look, the farther forward you see". The very name "conservative" implies a desire to safeguard and protect those "permanent things".

In comparison, liberalism (used in the modern sense) is an ahistorical philosophy. In many ways, it’s an anti-historical philosophy. Deconstructionist historians like Howard Zinn use history not as an example, but as a cautionary tale. They look into the past to see how terrible we were back then &emdash; how racist, sexist, imperialist, etc, our past is. The past is viewed as something shameful, something that must be discarded in favor of the new more equitable liberal order.

This is why when a conservative mentions returning to traditional values a liberal reflexively assumes that means Jim Crow, sexism, patriarchy, etc. When one’s view of history is shaded by the concept that the past is to be avoided, it’s a natural assumption to make. The consevative may be talking about a return to the strong bonds of family that keeps society coherent, the spirit of self-determination that Tocqueville admired, and the importance of individual ethics and morality in society — but to the liberal these are merely code words for racism, sexism, etc.

There are several problems with such an ahistorical outlook. First of all it ignores that those "permanent things" exist for a reason. The concept of sexual morality isn’t some arbitrary framework, it was a way of ensuring that unwanted children weren’t abandoned and that sexually transmitted diseases didn’t spread. As we move away from traditional sexual ethics, we’ve suddenly had an explosion in unwanted pregnancy and STD infections — all because some have decided to explicitly reject the lessons of the past. Likewise, sexual freedom have not led to more happiness — quite the contrary it’s led many women to find a certain sense of rudderless emptiness as they careen from one meaningless non-comittal relationship to another.

Secondly, a philosophy without ideas quickly becomes reactionary. What does a modern liberal stand for right now? Stopping Bush, stopping the war, stopping the tax cuts, stopping educational reform efforts, etc. It’s blazingly obvious what liberals stand against but what do they stand for?

The problem with not having a consistant intellectual framework is that without it you can’t easily answer the question Why do I believe what I believe? A philosophy that can’t define itself at all is an empty one. A philosophy that tries to define itself as the paragon of all that is good and just (as many liberals do all the time) is both a tautology and intellectually narcissitic. The only way one can be a philosophically "complete" person is if they not only know what values they uphold, but understand why they uphold those values above other competing values and can demonstrate how their philosophy upholds those values. That requires a great degree of philosophic understanding, but it’s the basis of philosophy itself. Merely arguing that the value of "fairness" is paramount isn’t enough. Why is "fairness" a better value than competing values like "opportunity" or "self-determination"? By what criteria are we judging what is "fair"? Do liberal policies really increase "fairness"? These are all questions that must be asked.

I have to agree with Goldberg when he argues:

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this for my book, and I’ve concluded that the problem with liberalism isn’t lack of money or organization or media access (please God, stop their whining about Fox News and the American Enterprise Institute for pete’s sake, they look ridiculous). Their biggest problem is they don’t have a philosophy. This causes a lack of organization. This causes a lack of popular ideas. This is why the Democratic Party defines itself in such reactionary terms — blocking Republicans, creating lockboxes, yelling "stop" and "no" a la Al Gore and so on. Today the only issue that unifies liberals or the Democrats is their hatred of George W. Bush and to a lesser extent “his” war. That’s not a program, that’s not a philosophy, that’s not even liberalism. That’s a gripe.

Goldberg is right. A philosophy of mere opposition isn’t enough. A philosophy based on getting rid of one man or one group isn’t enough — if such a philosophy were to succeed, what then? Without a plan it quickly falls apart. If the Democrats were to win in 2004, it would probably be the worst thing to happen to them. Without George W. Bush to act as their Emmanuel Goldstein/demon figure to rally agains, what would liberalism be?

Of course, liberals would argue that they have a philosophy, and that their philosophy is based on social justice, equality, fairness, puppies and kittens, etc, and that conservatives are all mean-spirited brutes who enjoy juggling babies over fire pits. Except that view is not only short-sighted, it’s patently absurd. One can’t try to claim the moral high ground while spewing the worst kind of invective like the billious hatred of Air America or the blind partisanship of Nancy Pelosi.

For all the intellectual narcissism behind modern liberalism, it remains a largely reactionary ideology — and basing one’s entire political outlook on kneejerk hatred isn’t condusive to being an informed citizen or an effective advocate — which is exactly why liberalism, despite having plenty of money, media access from NPR and The New York Times to every one of the major TV networks, a virtual monopoly on Hollywood, and millions upon millons of dollars through groups from Planned Parenthood to is still having a difficult time getting their message across. It’s not that the message isn’t being heard — hearing it is unavoidable — it’s that the message itself is flawed.

2 thoughts on “Liberalism And Philosophy

  1. Liberals don’t have any answers, and I think they realize it.

    Conservatives, on the other hand, think they have answers, but don’t.

    Looking back to get a more expansive view of the future sounds wise, until one realizes that it only works as long as human beings are little different than they were in the past. Of course, when medicine and basic cybernetic implantation technologies give us near-eternal life and allow eight year olds to access more information in seconds than most people today can dream about, everything suddenly changes. The ancients didn’t have to deal with global resource depletion, environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, or many of the other threats we face today. As much as Fukuyama, Kass, and the rest of their ilk would like to stop the clock right here, we are marching straight into a transhumanist terra incognita.

    Which neither liberals or conservatives seem to have much to say about.

    Which is why I can no longer consider myself either one.

  2. which is exactly why liberalism… is still having a difficult time getting their message across.

    Last I looked, Americans support equal access to the political process, fair wages, affordable housing, healthcare, freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and press, civil rights, clean air and water, effective schools, and accountable government.

    Sounds like the message of liberalism is getting across just fine to me.

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