Notes From Babel

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The problem with substituting empiricism for principle

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Remember before Obamacare passed and folks like Ezra Klein were saying that if the bill didn’t pass, tens of thousands of people would die each year as a result?  Tim Carney recounts the interesting journey this argument has taken, from adamant insistence on its rightness, to the recent proclamation that “Health care doesn’t keep people healthy — even in Canada.”

One of the so-called advantages of liberalism is its emphasis on “empirical” analysis of social problems.  If nothing else, it does indeed have strategic political advantages.  Observe:  Once the model is adopted, the approach proceeds by identifying some kind of social “epidemic”—e.g., “tens of thousands will die without health insurance,” or “the middle class will collapse without unions,” that sort of thing.  Establish the question as a moral one.  Next, make vociferous arguments insisting that “the data is in” and that practical results based on rigorous empirical analysis should be favored, and that conservative, piecemeal approaches that insist on constitutional/legal consistency should be eschewed.  Remember, people will die.  And the Constitution is over a hundred years old, after all.  By this time, if you’re doing it right, you can accuse your objectors as both morally and intellectually insolvent.  Then, only later when the empirical analysis is finally demonstrated to have been full of beans, the playbook prescribes a casual acknowledgment that maybe some mistakes were made on both sides, but that we oughtn’t throw the gears of the bureaucratic regulatory machine in reverse now.  Throw in some familiar terminology like market predictability and stare decisis.  Finally, before awaiting further protestation, promptly identify yet another social epidemic calling for further empirical assessment and immediate constitutional policy overhaul.

You can’t stop progress.


Written by Tim Kowal

February 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 2

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This is the follow up to my first post describing the historical and social underpinnings of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, drawing largely from Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920.  The thesis, arrived at in this post, is that while conservative values may have played a role in progressivism’s initial volley, the ultimate goals of progressive movement were anything but conservative.

* * *

The new standard of living being conceived in the minds of Americans at the end of the 19th century put individualism in the crosshairs.  At the beginning of the 19th century, individualism was a hard lot, but a seemingly fair one.  A fledgling national government, a nigh-nonexistent system of roads, and a still sparsely populated nation rendered individual sustainability difficult but relatively predictable.  By the end of the 19th century, however, the vagaries of national macroeconomics were already beginning to render markets less predictable; the vast expansion of federal power rendered economic activity an increasingly political affair; and the maturing American economy, fortified by extensive rail and telegraph networks, saw industries becoming dominated by big firms.  All the while, increasing numbers of common working Americans were funneling into urban factory life.  While farms seldom provided more than subsistence living, Americans felt relatively proud and fulfilled.  They had a markedly different experience in the new American factories, however.  All this made working class Americans increasingly discontent—all they needed was a reason to impugn the individualism that sustained the unhappy state of affairs.

Conservative activists were all too eager to supply such reasons.  The expansion of pleasure-seeking to the middle-class worsened the problem of vice and had weakened the family structure.  The Social Gospel leader, Washington Gladden, for example, traced prostitution to middle- and upper-class affluence, as young men increasingly began to put off marriage “until they are able to support a wife in good style.”

“[A]nd as the wealth of the land increases and their neighbors live more and more luxuriously, the phrase ‘in good style’ is constantly undergoing changes of meaning. Young women become accustomed in their parental homes to a certain amount of comfort and of leisure, and they do not relish the thought of beginning to live more plainly and more laboriously in a home of their own.” When these people postponed marriage, Gladden affirmed, “one of the inevitable consequences is the increase of social immorality”: young men, single for too long, would seek sexual satisfaction with prostitutes. The attack on the brothel, then, might not get at the real problem that threatened the home. “I do not believe that there is any remedy for this social disease but the restoration of a more wholesome sentiment concerning this whole subject of family life,” Gladden concluded. “The morality of what we call our respectable classes needs toning up all along this line.”

(Emphasis added.)

It is this sentiment—that “morality . . . needs toning up”—that represents the conservative contribution to progressivism:  as new social, political, and economic forces began to disrupt cultural and moral values, many conservatives sought to push back in kind not merely to curtail those effects, but to counteract them.  Man and his moral character were no longer something to be left to the sole province of himself and his community; they must be “toned up” and remade through the law.  Under the progressive construction of man’s moral predicament, man was no longer accountable for his own actions.  Because people were malleable and defined by their environment, criminals were not wholly to blame, since their crimes owed in part to the sins of society.  “What we have got to have,” said Gladden, “is a different kind of men and women.”

Thus, a renewed vigor for morals legislation ensued, directed at card playing, gambling, horse racing, Sabbath breaking, pornography, dance halls, contraception, and, most famously, liquor.  Liquor, more than all other vices, was seen as the root of man’s moral decline—particularly, the breakup of the family and the degradation of women.  In this respect, McGerr recounts Carry Nation’s attack of a nude painting in the bar of the Carey Hotel in Wichita:

“It is very significant that the pictures of naked women are in saloons,” she explained. “Women are stripped of everything by them. Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare in these dens of robbery and murder. Well does a saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

Yet, progressives quickly realized that prohibition of vices was not enough:  remaking man could not be achieved by negative campaign alone—it required an affirmative component.  Progressives would have to find “substitutes for the saloon.”

Alcohol free clubs and dance halls were needed to fulfill people’s desire to meet and socialize; libraries and gymnasiums were needed to fulfill the desire for stimulation. In short, the transformation of individuals required a more sweeping transformation of their environment.

With the progressives’ transition from a prohibitory campaign to more affirmative attempts to reshape mankind came the end of any partnership with conservatism.  Progressives moved beyond their “conservative” agenda to restore Victorian values, and instead began to explore a more radical, activist agenda.  Progressives began to remake rather than merely preserve society.  Law was not merely an anchor; it could serve as a sail.

This aspect of the progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated:  “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”  Progressivism had by this time become a different thing entirely than the post-Victorian conservatism it set out as.  Indeed, it could be said the project never was truly conservative in the first place, and that the lament of the decline of Victorian values was merely lip service to justify the brewing radicalist urges.  Thus, perhaps even the prescriptive components of the early progressive agenda were less about preserving Victorian values than preliminary efforts at remaking all of society—the symbols of Victorianism simply served as a convenient cover of authenticity for an otherwise radical movement.

Whatever their original intentions, progressives eventually settled on an agenda that harmed conservative values:

Ironically, reform could destroy what it was intended to preserve. Crusading in the name of the home, reformers were supplanting the very thing they wanted to protect. As outside agencies supervised children in and out of school, ordered the material environment of tenements and parks, and regulated adult behavior, the family and the home became less important. “As in the human organism, when one organ fails, its functions are often undertaken and more or less imperfectly performed by some other organ,” Josiah Strong noted; “so in the great social organism of the city, when the home fails, the church sometimes undertakes the functions of the home.” A host of other “organs”—settlements, playgrounds, Boys’ Clubs, schools, courts, municipalities, state governments, the federal government—were undertaking those functions as well. But even the most reflective progressive activists appeared oblivious to the actual impact of their reforms on many homes.

According to E.A. Ross, progressivism eroded man’s moral fiber:  “Too much consideration for moral weakness would fill the world with moral weaklings,” he insisted. “To abolish temptation is to deprive the self-controlled of their natural right to outlive and outnumber those who have a cotton string for a backbone.”

“Once work was so constant that married women did not realize their loneliness or the want of appreciation which befell them,” Kate Gannett Wells contended in an essay titled “Why More Girls Do Not Marry”: Now society and the middle class have leisure to examine their states of mental solitude, and to see just where husbands are wanting. Fifty years ago the woman was too busy to stop for the morning kiss as her husband went to work.  Now she has time to think about the absence or infrequency of the greeting for half an hour before she reads the morning paper, in which she finds some fresh instance of man’s wickedness.

Thus conceived, progressivism cannot be sustained as a practical tool put in the service of conservatism—it is a wholly new conception of man, society, and government.

The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 1

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I was referred to Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 after making some comparisons of conservatism and liberalism to Progressivism.  It was one of the first full length books I read on my new Kindle, and I found myself glad for the ability to easily tag and annotate McGerr’s many important ideas.  Upon finishing the book, I’ve set out to fortify the basic position I advanced here, as I believe it is vindicated by the historical record set out in McGerr’s book.

It has become a more involved project than I anticipated, however, and thus I have decided to break it out into several parts—probably three, by the looks of it.  The first part, below, concerns the decline of the era of Victorian individualism, and the forging of a new idea of individualism and individual entitlements.

* * *

For good reason, rebranding liberals as “progressives” is a widely used tactic on the right.  It is so effective because it associates the left with the repugnant and, even better, failed political movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.  That movement, of course, is the one that strove to remake humanity—economically through redistribution, morally through prohibitory legislation, and genetically through sterilization and eugenics.  The  Progressives’ zealous campaign against individual rights ultimately led even FDR, the very symbol of the remade 20th century America, to distance himself from the movement.  Thus, even while its legacy survives, Progressivism’s name is a scarlet letter in American politics.  An intellectual family tree that relates Progressivism to modern liberalism is thus a tremendously effective polemic device.

Yet, the right often neglects to mention that conservatism also makes an appearance on Progressivism’s family tree.  In its early stages, after all, Progressivism was a reaction to the decline of Victorian values, bowing under the weight of an increasingly industrialized and fractured American society.  Campaigns to stem the uptick of divorce, prostitution, and drink resulted in our nation’s first flopped constitutional amendment.  Progressives also were content to use the power of their new labor unions to exclude blacks from entire industries.

In A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, Michael McGerr outlines the social, political, and economic forces giving rise to the Progressive movement.  It is the early stage of the Progressive moment that most clearly reveals conservativism’s contribution to the ill-fated project.  As justice Frankfurter would later write in 1940 in Minersville School District v. Gobitis,

The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment.  Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization.

It was this sort of conservative sentiment, unconservatively enshrined in national policy, that initially propelled the Progressive moment.  American individualism, loosed across a vast continent connected by an unprecedented network of rail and telegraph wire, put strain on America’s underlying social fabric.  The divorce rate following the Civil War inclined steeply as high society became obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandizement, perverting the virtue of individualism.  While the Victorians had balanced individual freedom with self-control, hard work, and domesticity, McGerr points out, “[t]he rich had seemingly cast aside those balance weights. In the hands of the upper ten, individualism became an excuse for complete autonomy, a legitimization of indulgence and inequality, and a rationalization of the troubling national status quo.”

Because of the wild success of America’s system of government in creating vast fortunes and divergent ways of life, Americans, perhaps unwittingly, undermined the connection with their own social fabric. The old town economies and country religions were out.  A new national economy and civic religion were in.

The wealthy, however, did not seem to grasp what was happening, or account for the growing resentment felt toward them.  From their perspective, their parties “helped the economy because ‘many New York shops sold out brocades and silks which had been lying in their stock-rooms for years.’”  Teddy Roosevelt tried to stave off the coming revolt, noting that social and political stability impel the wealthy to observe certain “duties toward the public.”  “Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?”  “I wish that capitalists would see that what I am advocating is really in the interest of property, for it will save it from the danger of revolution.”

The extravagance of the “upper 10” during the depression years of the 1890s galvanized populist resentment, particularly as Victorian individualism was failing the industrial class at the same time.  Industrial work was distantly attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane.  McGerr notes that by 1900, following the depression of the 1890s, wage workers in manufacturing earned an average of $435 for the year.  The working-class earned less yet:  anthracite coal miners averaged $340 for the year; domestics, $240; and agricultural laborers, only $178 with room and board.  The middle-class, on the other hand, working as clerical workers in railroad and manufacturing firms, averaged $1,011.  For the lower classes, McGerr argues, “Victorian individualism was impossible . . . . Many workers simply could not make enough to support themselves, let alone a family.”  This, along with frequent economic upheavals typical of markets, tended to undermine the moral force of individualism among turn-of-the-century wage-earners.

Despite capitalism’s harsh terms, its attendant virtues of thrift and self-sacrifice began to decline.  As McGerr notes, wage workers simply “saw little point in trying to save their dollars and deny themselves.”  Instead, they took the little they had and threw it into the same rat hole of excess as the rich.

Some workers shared the upper-class obsession with fashion and display. Young laboring women spent precious dollars on flashy clothing intended to match or even outdo the upper ten. “If my lady wears a velvet gown, put together for her in an East Side sweatshop,” a reporter in New York observed in 1898, “may not the girl whose fingers fashioned it rejoice her soul by astonishing Grand Street with a copy of it next Sunday? My lady’s in velvet, and the East Side girl’s is the cheapest, but it’s the style that counts. In this land of equality, shall not one wear what the other wears?”

Booker T. Washington also documented this burgeoning sense of entitlement to the bounty of modern life, irrespective of the means to acquire it:

In these cabin homes I often found sewing-machines which had been bought, or were being bought, on instalments, frequently at a cost of as much as sixty dollars, or showy clocks for which the occupants of the cabins had paid twelve or fourteen dollars. I remember that on one occasion when I went into one of these cabins for dinner, when I sat down to the table for a meal with the four members of the family, I noticed that, while there were five of us at the table, there was but one fork for the five of us to use. Naturally there was an awkward pause on my part. In the opposite corner of that same cabin was an organ for which the people told me they were paying sixty dollars in monthly instalments. One fork, and a sixty-dollar organ!

. . . .

On Saturday the whole family would spent at least half a day, and often a whole day, in town. The idea in going to town was, I suppose, to do shopping, but all the shopping that the whole family had money for could have been attended to in ten minutes by one person.

The rise of hedonistic individualism hastened the decline of Victorian values.  McGerr notes that “middle-class husbands and wives judged their spouses by the pleasures they provided—the quality of the home and its objects, the happiness of the marriage. The failure to meet those increased expectations was a principal reason for the increasing breakup of Victorian marriages.”

This new form of individualism came as a result of a growingly diffuse economy in which labor and consumption had become only distantly and obliquely related.  Industrial work was attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane.  The American laborer no longer provided his own essentials of survival, but instead deposited his effort into a vast and complex economic machine.  His yield, his “wage,” served as the only symbol of his output, a rebuttable presumption of the value of his labor.  And, as his commercial appetites continued to increase, American workers started to rebut the presumption.  The wage system was being thrown into upheaval:  if the market would not set a wage sufficient to meet the American worker’s standard of living, he would set it himself.  “It seems to me that when a man, my father, works all day long, he ought to have a beautiful home, he ought to have good food, he too ought to get a chance to appreciate beautiful music.”  Thus formed a new basis for “individual rights” in American politics.

Accordingly, Americans, as laborers, resorted to collectivism to feed their individualism as consumers.  The marketplace had suddenly become too large and ominous, and the means of production too mechanical and rote, to expect to have much chance of improving one’s lot without collective action.  Though businesses would later seek to avoid unionization through “welfare capitalism,” it was already clear that unionization and government regulation were tools too powerful to go unused.  Moreover, the new strain of antisocial individualism complained of by Progressives was of relatively recent vintage, created in large part by a growing industrial economy fortified by a strong central government.  The cultural and societal growing pains caused by this surge in industrialization were serious concerns. Like the ills of slavery, since government had aided the accession of uncorked individualism, it was natural and perhaps even appropriate to look to government to redress its abuses.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 18, 2011 at 12:25 am

What Conservatism Is

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Someone mentioned recently that they had not been able to find any sources that defined conservatism as a political philosophy.  Though merely an enthusiast of the subject, I thought I’d sketch out some of the more common strands of the ideology.  In compiling this list, I made reference to my notes in Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.  Neither the list nor the sources are by any means comprehensive, obviously.  I welcome any thoughts or comments.

1.      Conservatism, as opposed to liberalism, is a bottom-up political theory:  It depends that there first be an underlying social order.  Government is transitory; society is permanent.  Society makes some claim of  man’s relationship with the transcendent.  If a political theory does not make some provision for who man is and what he is for, it has little hope of making any provision for what the state is and what it is for, other than an agglomeration and exercise of raw power.  For purposes of law and politics, society defines the morality of the people.  (This is not to suggest that conservatism embraces moral relativism, only that judges and legislators in a conservative framework would make no resort to sources external to the people for reviewing or dictating society’s norms and values.)

2.      Further, with respect to the characteristics of the social order underlying the political, the social order must establish the dualism of the material and the transcendent, must ground the world of ought, and enforce the notion that the apparent does not exhaust the real.  “All the aspects of any civilization arise out of a people’s religion:  its politics, its economics, its arts, its sciences, even its simple crafts are the by-products of religious insights and a religious cult.  Fur until human beings are tied together by some common faith, and share certain moral principles, they prey upon one another.”  Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order.  “For men, their acts must have significance.  Men are miserable unless they find ‘a disposition or arrangement of equal and unequal things in such a way as to allocate each to its own place.’  They must have purpose in their existence.”  Id. at 161.  Without a telos, the faculties of reason and rationality employed by the lawmaking function of a political order would be directionless.  “Reason alone fails to justify itself. . . . We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we have shown by our primary volition that we approve some aspects of the existing world.  The position is arbitrary in the sense that here is a proposition behind which there stands no prior.  We begin our other affirmations after a categorical statement that life and the world are to be cherished.”  Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences at 19.  “The ways of society are not the ways of reason, but of the customary experience of the species, beginning with small family-groups and growing upward into the state.  It is perilous to meddle, on principles of pure rationality, with valuable social institutions that thus are natural developments, not logical schemes. . . . It is quite possible to reason ourselves out of virtue and social enjoyment.”  Kirk at 361, 364.

3.      Conservatism is based on concepts of natural law.  Thus, just as society precedes the state, morality precedes society.  “Man must order his soul in conformity with divine laws, Plato said; only thus can order in society be obtained.”  Kirk at 81.  Conservatism thus assumes the universality of human nature across culture and geography and the objectivity of certain rights, duties, and norms.  Contrast this with liberalism, which takes bohemianism as the ultimate realization of man, whose destiny is mere activity.  Society, as the natural enemy of bohemianism, is thus at odds with the liberal state.  Liberalism, then, as a top-down political theory, assumes a strong political order make weak the underlying social order so as to pave the way for bohemianism.

4.      Similarly, the conservative construction of liberty is defined and limited by the natural law and man’s telos defining what sort of creature he is and what he is for.  Thus, even certain private, consensual activity is beyond the bounds of natural liberty, and thus may, in appropriate cases, be censured by the state.

5.      Rights and liberties are metaphysical and dogmatic, and thus do not depend on any test of social usefulness for their recognition and enforcement.

6.      Though political conservatism recognizes and accommodates the normative and cultural views of the society, it is itself neutral with respect to these ends.  “Ordinarily a people do not choose one constitutional form or another:  they find themselves necessarily under the sort of government which is suited to their social circumstances.  In a sense, any people obtain the kind of government they deserve—or, at any rate, the kind of government which their history and their conditions of existence have brought upon them.”  Kirk at 354.  Thus, while a conservative political system may reflect normative and cultural values, it does so at the behest of the society, and not for the purpose of reaching any ends of bound up in the nature of the political system itself.  Contrast this with liberalism, which stridently takes positions on political questions concerning the summum bonum, fragmented and schizophrenic though these views may be.

7.      Law is an articulation of the social order of a people.  Good law, thus, flows from the assent of the people.  “Stable government grows out of law, not law out of government.  If the political power decrees positive laws without reference to general consent, those laws will be evaded or defied, and respect for law will diminish, so that force must be substituted for justice.”  Kirk at 189.

8.      In recognition of and deference to the natural law, conservatism is decentralized.  The purpose of a centralized government, such a liberal political ideology, is to correct for “errors” and “injustices” worked by nature, equalizing what is by nature unequal, fortifying what is by nature weak, and dissolving what is by nature strong.  Such a planned and centralized government puts the fate of each citizen in the hands of men, whereas before he was at the mercy only of nature.  Conservatism acknowledges that nature is not always “fair” as we understand it, but that it is always more pernicious for man to purport to right what nature has set in place for each on his own to overcome.  The rightness of this position does not depend on whether nature or the state is the better arbiter of justice, but on the understanding that man is fundamentally at odds with any personified arbiter of his fate, and thus for the state to take the place of nature and nature’s God is to invite its own destruction.  For a man to reject nature and nature’s God is lamentable, but it has little effect on the social order.  Were nature and nature’s God to be replaced by the state, it would only be a matter of time before man will have cause to lose faith in the state just as he previously lost his faith in the transcendent.  This time, however, the apostasy will cause the social and political order to fracture and ultimately be torn asunder.  The concern here is about the legitimacy of a political order when it purports to replace the transcendent, and especially, when its outcomes are objectionable.  Churches may align the people’s will to God’s and make peace for the inequities of nature.  What will reconcile the people’s will to the state’s for its inequities?

9.      Collectivism is antithetical to conservatism in ways other than how it is antithetical to libertarianism, since conservatism embraces community and holds that man cannot be understood if not with respect to his nature as a social being acting as part of a culture.  Instead, the threat of collectivism is its capacity to divorce man from his mortality and his relationship with nature.

10.  Equality, too, is of little concern under conservatism.  The political order cannot be expected to do better than to afford the protection of the laws in equal measure to all people.  While certain moral values concerning readjusting the lot of the poor, the sick, or the aged may be expressed through the law, it is generally beyond the proper scope of the political order to pursue equality for its own sake.  “Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased.  In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty.  People do not know what to expect of one another.  Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.”  Weaver at 43.

11.  Conservatism seeks the preservation of the established order not primarily because that order is the greatest that might be devised, but so that the laboriousness of effecting the changes that, due to human nature, would be all too frequently desired, might expose the errors in such desires and to thus reveal the permanently true.  No less important is its effect to establish continuity of the human experience, to permit the father to communicate ideas to the son and make the realness of his experience evident.  “[T]he chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.”  Weaver at 176.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 4, 2011 at 8:29 am

Some thoughts about what liberalism is and isn’t

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E.D. Kain complained recently that the critiques of late concerning libertarianism seem to put too much emphasis on low-hanging fruit by focusing on libertarianism’s “fringe,” minarchist goals such as abolishing public roads and the welfare state—things that will never happen.  I pointed out in the comments that, say what you will about libertarianism, it’s honest about what it’s after.  Not like, say, liberalism, whose greatest accomplishment is having made socialist Progressivism—a la turn of the century thinkers like Edward Bellamy and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger—fit for popular consumption by omitting from the official literature its radical logical conclusions, such as the abolition of property rights and a centralized economy. The advantage is that liberalism has become wildly successful.  The terrifying part is we’re not permitted to know where the train is headed.  Indeed, when conservatives and libertarians moan that things like the Individual Mandate are one more step down the road to socialist Progressivism, the left won’t own up and defend the Mandate as a logical conclusion of socialist/Progressive political theory; instead, they scoff at the objections as reactionary.

This led to another commenter, Michael Drew, rejecting my characterization of liberalism and offering his own, as follows:

(1) A commitment to a consistent process or structure for decision making; (2) an embrace of politics as the animating force driving action in the process/structure, (3) a commitment to certain rights-based limitations on process outcomes, and (4) a broad agnosticism regarding outcomes, or at least a commitment to accept legitimate outcomes, whatever they may be (which is not to say a disavowal of taking strong positions in the political input part of the process).

This definition is almost entirely incorrect.  Although Drew cites to this entry on “Liberalism” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as his general authority, the entry says little resembling his definition.  In fact, it actually supports my claim that liberalism is either silent or schizophrenic about its “ends.”  I think it is helpful to walk through Drew’s proffered criteria and explain why they do not accurately describe liberalism.

The first two criteria deal with liberalism’s purported fealty to process.  However, the only reference to “process” in the Stanford entry is to John Rawls’s notion of liberalism as “largely restricted to constitutional principles upholding basic civil liberties and the democratic process.”  Nowhere is there any suggestion that liberalism puts a premium on “consistency” in that process, or of the “structure for decision making.”  Indeed, there are serious arguments that liberalism, more than conservatism or libertarianism, galvanizes “judicial activism”—a substantial sacrifice in consistency in process for the benefit of certain ends.  Again, it is the fact that liberalism is so cryptic about its objectives that such problems arise.

As to Drew’s third criterion—that liberalism espouses “a commitment to certain rights-based limitations on process outcomes”—the principal objection is to the single word “certain.”  Because liberalism is schizophrenic about the meaning of “liberty” and the existence of any objective “rights,” it is false to suggest that anything concrete may be said about them.  It is all too true, however, that this does not stop liberals from interfering with otherwise legitimate process by proclaiming the existence of some new “right” or another.

The fourth criterion is false for similar reasons.  Liberalism purports to be agnostic about norms and behaviors.  In fact, its animating principle is a sort of bohemianism:  that individuals ought to be enabled to pursue and fulfill their unique desires with minimal interference of prevailing cultural norms and customs, and indeed that the state ought to aid and encourage this individualism.  (Liberalism’s disdain for cultural norms is inherited from John Stuart Mill, who resentfully endured the scorn of Victorian society during his 21 year courtship of a married woman.)  Thus, when laws, however legitimately enacted, interfere with individuality, it may be challenged under the liberal model so long as the liberal resentment against the encroachment is sufficiently strong.  In other words, under liberalism, there’s no telling whether the process is legitimate until a liberal activist challenges it in court.

Thus, I still say that while Progressivism and liberalism do have separate histories, they are undeniably linked.  It can be said that Progressivism is a shorthand for the “progress” made in U.S. constitutionalism toward liberalism—the replacement of natural with positive law, and the replacement of rights with entitlements.  It is the practical arm of liberal theory.  (I briefly explain here why I think the same cannot be said about conservatism.)

Written by Tim Kowal

January 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm