Monday, October 20, 2008

Dr. Strangelove OR How I learned to Stop Worrying and Learn to love Liberalism

The other night I got into an intense discussion about politics with a person that I admire and respect. We do not share the same opinion on . . . well, anything; but our discussions are engaging and interesting nonetheless. When I got off the phone I was a bit bothered by something.

During the course of our telephone conversation I was called both a liberal AND a socialist. Now being called these things does not really bother me. What bothered me was that it is impossible to be both at the same time.

Let us take a look for a moment at these two "buzz words," which have perked up during the election campaign over the past two weeks. Because I am trying to make and important point, this discussion will take place over three different posts.

First, I will start with liberalism. Second, I will turn to socialism. Finally, I will demonstrate how the two are philosophically opposed to each other, and I will reflect on which of these boxes that I belong in.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines liberalism as:

A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. An economic theory in favor of laissez-faire, the free market, and the gold

The Online Etymology Dictionary also discusses liberalism's long history:
c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal "befitting free men, noble, generous," from L. liberalis "noble, generous," lit. "pertaining to a free man," from liber "free," probably originally "belonging to the people" (though the precise semantic development is obscure), from *leudho- "people" (cf. O.C.S. ljudu, Lith. liaudis, O.E. leod, Ger. Leute "nation, people").
Earliest reference in Eng. is to the liberal arts (L. artes liberales; see art (n.)), the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, not immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a free man (the word in this sense was opposed to servile or mechanical). Sense of "free in bestowing" is from 1387.

In order to brush up on my political philosophy, I turned to John Gray's book Liberalism. Liberalism developed as a political philosophy around the mid-1600s. Although many political philosophers debate about any ancient notions regarding liberalism, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is regarded as one of the first. Hobbes's view of human nature, however, is different from the positivist notion that is popular with classical liberal philosophers. Hobbes argues that humans exist in a state of war, but come together in a civil association in order to ensure peace.

What made Hobbes's theory so radical, as well as continues to tie him to liberalism, is his "uncompromising individualism" (Gray 1995: 10). Benedict de Spinoza (1632 - 1677) also placed the individual in the center of his political theory. Gray draws an interesting contrast between the two:
Whereas, for Hobbes, civil society was always likely to fall back into a barbarous natural condition of warfare, for Spinoza the free man would always be a rarity; most human individuals and most societies would always be ruled by passion and illusion rather than reason.
John Locke (1632 - 1704) brought together the important elements of liberalism in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. In contrast to Hobbes, he thought humans were more reasonable and tolerant. In a natural state all men are free and have the right to defend his “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This sounds vaguely familiar . . .

Also important to American liberalism was the French Enlightenment, including the works of Montesquieu (1689 - 1755; i.e. The Spirit of the Laws) and Rousseau (1712 - 1778; i.e. The Social Contract). Rousseau's opening line in The Social Contract is significant for many liberals: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

Essentially, liberal theorists emphasized the individual; that all men are free and equal, and that freedom means freedom from coercion. Therefore, government must be limited in its powers and responsibilities because a strong government would threaten individual rights. I am really condensing a lot of political philosophy here, and I am sure that some of my grad school friends would disagree with me, but I only have a blog here and not a dissertation, so I am trying to keep it short.

As mentioned above, liberalism is also an economic philosophy made famous by Adam Smith (1723 - 1790; i.e. The Wealth of Nations). Liberal economics emphasizes the importance of a free market economy. A lassize-faire economy regulates itself and distributes goods most efficiently when left alone.

As time passed and the industrial revolution and governments of the U.S., France and England got older, liberals got a little worried. When they looked at the world around them, it appeared that perhaps the invisible hand was not so efficient. Although technically free, poverty and inequality were rampant. This led to a strain of liberalism often called "social liberalism." Social liberals believe that some market regulation is necessary in order to ensure the survival of capitalism (i.e. John Maynard Keynes). Furthermore, man can only be free when greater equality exists and therefore governments should promote health care, education, and a minimum wage, which reflects the philosophical influence of the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

I think that it is this strain of liberalism is what McCain is accusing Obama of being. However, as I will demonstrate tomorrow, social liberalism is NOT "Socialism" (please note the big S). Although advocating some regulation by the government, social liberals are still dedicated to the idea of a free market economy and a non-coercive government.

If you read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, you can clearly see the influence of liberal political philosophy on the founding fathers. All of the founding fathers were liberals. Big ones in fact.

However, the word "liberalism" has gotten twisted within the American media and is now regarded as a pejorative term. Why is being a liberal a bad thing? Liberalism is the basis of the U.S. constitution. If you are pro-America, wouldn't you consider yourself a liberal too?

I will leave you pondering that thought. Come back tomorrow and we will discover whether or not Obama is a socialist and why McCain need to take a closer look at "socialist Europe."

PS One last great quote that I found on the internet:

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." [Ambrose Bierce, "Devil's Dictionary," 1911]


Diane Mandy said...

The S-word appears to be Republican's latest line of attack. It's as if the have some sort of discussion forum: Baseless Attack of the Week.

Anonymous said...

Well now, I guess that we are all wrong. However, look up the word socialism, and that my dear is what your pal Obama is preaching. Income redistribution, and goverment control is socialism. To bad, that centuries ago, things were much different that today. This country was and currently is a free market, capitalist society. And yes, we want to keep it that way! If you really look at what happens when the goverment gets involved, things go to hell in a hand basket. The US used to have one of the finest educational systems in the world, now it's crap! The more goverment involvement the worse things get. Public schools in this country suck!!! That is why Kayla is now in private school. Small business is the backbone of our ecomony, and if Obama has his way, they will not be able to stay in business. Higher taxes, univeral health care are not what this country needs. It is time for us, the "no bodies" to take back our country!!! You might not like that but that is what needs to be done!!!
That said, I still love you!

Anonymous said...

If the US is a free market, capitalist society, why are the goverment asking society/the US taxpayer to pay for the banking sector's losses?

Additionally, if the government hadn't exerted control on the situation to bail the banks out, would the situation not have deteriorated?

Finally, labelling a 3% increase on taxation of incomes over 250K as income redistribution seems to try to paint the picture in black and white in terms of free market versus socialist, when it just isn't that simple. Are you saying that a 33% tax at the top end isn't income redistribution, but 36% is? If that isn't the case, then it would seem to be the argument that all federal tax is unnecessary.
Federal taxes pay for many of the elements required for a decent, civilised and functioning society. Things like education, veterans benefits, highways, defense, and yes, healthcare.

Great blog Claire, keep it up!
Regards, Brendan

Oh, and one last thing to people who think Obama's policies amount to socialism: Try living in a socialist country for a few years. You'll never mention Obama and socialism in the same sentence again.

Anonymous said...

Well, first of all, no one got a voice in bailing out anything, that includes the banks. Any increase in taxes will not help stop a recession, which yes we are in, but which is worse a depression. That is what will happen if Obama is elected. As far as bail outs working, there is no guarantee. Yes, I think we shouldn't have done it and let the cards fall where they may. That doesn't make me or those who think this way wrong!
And no, I don't need to live in a socialist county to understand what it would be like, and yes Obama is preaching socialism.

Claire said...

Alright now, everyone settle down.

If you read my post then you will see I did not say anybody was wrong about anything.

The point I am trying to make is if you are going to call someone a liberal, then you should know what you are talking about.

Is Obama a socialist? Well, read again tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

ok, I understand the definition of a "liberal", but that said, you would be a republican not a democrat. Like many other words in the english language meanings change. A liberal in the US is for larger goverment, higher taxes and more control of ones rights and lives. So, hear we sit, one computer to another trying to figure out what is right and what is wrong. The important thing is to have a dialoge where all have the right to exprss their own thoughts. Any yes, no matter what I love you, and always will. You are one of the brightes points of light in my life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Claire, and Claire's Mom, I absolutely agree that a good vigourous dialogue is the best way by which to research an issue and to arrive at a conclusion, one way or the other. I also agree, Claire, that you did not attach any labels to anyone, I guess my primary frustration stems from the Republican tactic of attaching a label to people, and repeat thereafter. Basically, if we say it enough, people will believe it.
I mentioned the current state of the economy in the US to make the point that there are no absolutes; the (Republican) administration in the US had no choice but to socialize the banks' losses, to do otherwise would have resulted in disaster in my opinion, and the opinion of a great many eminent economists. My point about living in a socialist country , such as Venezuela, is that it would clearly illustrate to you how far removed from this the policies of Obama are. He's not proposing the nationalizing of any of the big companies, he's not even trying to close down Fox News!
I look forward to your contribution tomorrow Claire! I predict a finding of social democrat, but far to the right of those we see in Europe....
Cheers, Brendan

Carrie said...

Um, someone called you a liberal and a socialist? Hrm- talk about your oxymorons...I still find it funny that I really didn't know what side you stood on until maybe 6-8 months ago.