Semantics, or, Why I’m a Liberal (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at some of the major principles informing political discourse in the United States today, and examined some of the flaws with conservatism. Today, I wanted to turn to libertarianism, and then move on to the school of thought I currently align most with, liberalism.

Libertarian – Libertarians hold fast to one main principle: the government should get out of the way and let Americans have the maximum amount of freedom. And, as they say, some of my best friends are libertarians. The idea is certainly persuasive – if we can believe in the sanctity of contracts and only punish people who imperil life, liberty, or contractual agreements, then we can all pursue any kind of good life that we see fit. The idea is that government should get out of our bedrooms and our pocketbooks, and if we can trust that people will keep their word, then we can all live whatever life we want, without coercion from any source.

Unfortunately, the definition of freedom is kind of hazy, and there’s plenty of evidence that in a world like the one described by libertarians, people still might not be free. By enshrining the contract as the primary and natural relationship between persons, libertarians run the risk of hiding the abdication of responsibility behind the principle of absolute freedom. The facts of life – geographical, economic, and educational – will limit the types of contracts available to people. With no other principle behind government and an elastic definition of “consensual” contracts, the potential for exploitation is immense, and in fact the economic incentives will tend to run toward ever-greater inequality – when you hold the power in negotiations, and all interactions are governed by negotiation, what kind of person would weaken his/her position?

Liberal – That brings us to liberals, who, as I understand it, hold the conviction that freedom and justice are two sides of the same coin. Without the ability to make our own choices and follow our own conceptions of a whole and fulfilling life, we risk marginalizing entire populations and fostering resentment between favored and unfavored peoples. Similarly, a commitment to justice ensures that all people not only have freedoms, but can also access, exercise, and enjoy those freedoms.

I choose the word ‘justice’ because it carries less of the baggage of the word equality. Some opponents of liberalism point to the “equality trap” of trying to determine whether liberals are interested in equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Choosing equality of opportunity implies that liberals favor the “same playing field” and that they believe that everyone plays on the same field. This view is actually much closer to fiscal conservatism, with its rosy assumption that more growth equals more opportunity for all. The danger here is the implication of an objective, meritocratic economy that was not built to favor certain kinds or backgrounds of people – something most liberals do not believe in. It’s not enough to tell an inner-city kid that he has to go to college and get a practical degree for access to a middle-class life; for one thing, he may have been taught since birth not to trust the middle class. In a just society, we have to provide more than just availability – we have to provide true access and obvious avenues to material and social success.

Choosing equality of outcome makes liberals sound like Harrison Bergeron-style Handicappers General and implies one-size-fits-all, soul-stifling misery for everyone. This characterization not only ignores the respect for diversity implied by a freedom-and-justice conception of a good society, but also seems to obviate the rewards of hard work: it makes liberals sound like idiot Robin Hoods, stealing from the conscientious to give to the lazy. Sure, there are lazy people, but I’ve written before about how eliminating all moochers still won’t get us much closer to closing the budget deficit.

A better conception of equality is that of an equitable society, one that helps people reach a level where they can conceivably compete and then lets people pursue their natural inclinations and excellences. Despite the disingenuous attacks of his opponent’s supporters, President Obama’s comment that “you didn’t build that” correctly observes that there’s really no such thing as succeeding on one’s own merits – an equitable society creates social structures that support all-around success, and does not accept “you failed” as a legitimate outcome.

This is the major flaw that I see in most political discourse this election cycle: the insistence that participation in the economy is like a game implies that winners and losers are natural extensions of that model. We don’t need to accept failure in the economy or in the marketplace. Failure is only natural if we accept that our main goal in negotiations and politics should be defeating another team. That line of reasoning will get us nowhere, and will only succeed in dividing Americans into team partisans whose success can only come at the expense of the other half.


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