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October 11, 2006

What Makes a Liberal?

So various folks are taking well-deserved swings at Geoffrey Stone's "What It Means To Be A Liberal." I find most all such exercises to be tedious and unilluminating, a halfhearted recitation of broadly supportable platitudes and generalities that really boils down to what it means to be a good person, at least politically speaking. The meaning of liberalism, at least so far as it seeks to separate from conservatism, needs to offer points of disagreement between the two. Stone's piece doesn't do much of that -- it doesn't create a liberalism most conservatives would reject. So I'll give it a shot.

Before I do, however, a caveat: There are many types of Democrat, and many of their beliefs conflict with each other. I'm going to use liberal in the sense that it denotes leftists descended from the Progressives and New Dealers, not as it's used to group everyone from Clintonian neoliberals to newly embraced neorealists. So really, this is a rather personal list, and I encourage folks to add their items in comments:

  • People Make Mistakes: Personal responsibility is important to encourage, but pursuing it shouldn't blind us to human frailty and error. Folks are not always logical, rational actors able to balance long-term interests and short-term rewards. So if someone doesn't contribute enough to their pension fund, or their health savings account, or whatever, they shouldn't face financial ruin when they get sick or retire. We can craft a society that allows good behaviors to reward, but refuses to abandon those who showed insufficient vision.
  • Luck Matters: This is a traditionally Rawlsian viewpoint, and folks interested in it should seek out the source. But the conservative idea that we truly control our destiny is bunk. At this moment in time, with all that you are and have, you may feel pretty autonomous. But intelligence, temperament, looks, and health are, in large part, genetically predetermined. Who you're born to is, assumedly, luck, as is which peer group you fall into. Whether you attend a good school, live in a nice neighborhood, make a stupid mistake, have parents who instill the right routines, and all the rest largely decide whether you're the type of person who, when grown, will work hard, save money, invest in your future, and all the rest. If you are that type of person, it is not necessarily an expression of your virtues, but of your luck -- unfortunately, we see who we are now, not what made us, and so overemphasize our autonomy. Our society too often comforts itself by assuming meritocracy is a fair ideal, rather than an arbitrary sorting mechanism that values certain character traits and intrinsic abilities, some of which we achieve through hard work, but some of which are hardwired or learned before we exercise any autonomy or virtue at all. Because we want a good and vibrant economy, we should always encourage the behaviors which contribute. But we should have a high social floor and expansive safety net in the recognition that there but for fortune go we.
  • The Economy isn't All Powerful: The Harvard medical economist Rashi Fein likes to say that we live in a society, not an economy. Liberals should take that dictum seriously. It routinely seems to me that the right assumes whatever boosts economic growth is prima facie beneficial. If corporations are lowering prices by creating efficiencies, that's terrific. If they're doing it by cutting wages, destroying health care, polluting, or a variety of other cost-saving but society-poisoning methods, that's not. Economic growth is important, but so are its roots and distribution. What matters, in the end, aren't the macroeconomic statistics, but the sort of society we live in.
  • War Sucks: Lord knows many liberals forget this too, but on the heels of the new Lancet study showing more than 650,000 Iraqis have died as a result of our invasion and occupation, it's worth reminding ourselves the burden of proof should always be against war. The atrocities, cruelties, and uncertainties inherent in all armed conflicts should eternally be pitted against whatever heroic or humanitarian visions we may have of clean interventions and grateful villagers.
  • Government is Good and Necessary: Or it should be. Or can be. In a world of massive, multinational corporations and unbelievably wealthy individuals, government is the single force able to aggregate citizen power and advocate for their interests. In an economy that needs countervailing powers, government should be the one on our side. Currently, it's occupied by folks who profess to hate it, but actually press it into serving their corporatist agendas. The answer to that isn't buying into antigovernment rhetoric and hoping to enact social programs by stealth, but to argue for an alternate, positive, and populist conception of what government should be and what it can do.
  • Worker Power and Autonomy Matters: Unions are important. Employers already own salaries and self-respect, they shouldn't also control access to medical treatment and secure retirements. The interests of corporations are different, though related, to those of their employees, and so workers need institutions and protections that aid self-advocacy.

So those are a couple, jotted down, and sure to be full of holes and overstatements, But given that I think most conservatives envision a good society that, on some level, looks relatively similar to mine, these are spots where we often differ. But folks should feel free to prove me wrong, or offer more.

Update:

  • Equal Rights: Conservatives believe in this as an ideal, but liberals understand that America has a legacy -- and present-day reality -- of discrimination against minorities, women, gays that often requires the coercive power of the state to overcome. To imagine that, as currently constructed, society offers African-Americans equal opportunities, or women equality in the workforce, is a pleasant, but poisonous, delusion.

Update 2: It's probably worth saying that the emphasis on this list is much of the message. On point one, for instance, certainly most conservatives don't believe we should just abandon anyone who slips up. But I think government's emphasis should be on protecting folks from consequences and risks, not increasing their "skin in the game" or vulnerability to the market or financial exposure if they don't save. Indeed, I think only by protecting from risk can we sufficiently encourage risk-taking. See, for instance, my argument that health care should be guaranteed so no one need ever squelch their entrepreneurial instinct because they fear their ability to get antibiotics if they quit their job.

October 11, 2006 in Democrats | Permalink

Comments

It seems to revolve around the notion of "fairness", or your version of it, especially when it comes to money and one's paycheck. However, the reality is that people get paid more according to their utility to others. A good example would be a ballplayer or famous actor. They provide services to millions, instead of just a few and get paid much much more.

Can you "fix" the marketplace of utility?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 3:03:01 PM

I think this is a better list than Stone's; however, as a conservative, I still find that it is a bit too "I think that too, but"...for me.

Taking the points 1 at a time:

1) People make mistakes, but we should focus on encouraging them not to do so, and not discourage institutions that pressure them in good directions.

2) Luck matters, but character/choices matters more; over-compensating for bad luck will just encourage bad choices.

3 and 4--you won't get much disagreement from anyone.

5) Government is good and necessary, but only when it's within proper bounds, and it is never trustworthy. Proper bounds include respect for property and social norms.

6) Worker power and autonomy matters. Maybe. I don't see anyone whose policies appear likely to change the power of non-government workers in the short or medium term.

Posted by: SamChevre | Oct 11, 2006 3:32:14 PM

I think it's a good list. Seems to me that it takes the liberal side on each of a number of basic points where liberals and conservatives tend to disagree, as promised. Offhand, I don't see what's missing (though I won't be surprised if someone else does).

Can you "fix" the marketplace of utility?

You can tweak it and supplement it without too much damage, I think. If everything that had value were adequately represented in the marketplace, less tweaking would be needed. (But I'm not sure that would be better.)

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 11, 2006 3:33:26 PM

A good example would be a ballplayer or famous actor. They provide services to millions, instead of just a few and get paid much much more.

Classically wrong. A short history of the MLBPA...

The union hired Marvin Miller, a great labor organizer, as their new head in the late 60s. He was eventually responsible for the breaking of the "reserve clause" - which made players indentured servants to the team that held their contract - and establishing the free agent market that led to players making millions.

Miller also completely changed the situation of the average and replacement-level ballplayer. When he took over in the late 60s, the minimum salary was $6000, about $33,000 in today's dollars. That minimum salary had not been increased for two decades, which constituted a nearly 50% pay cut over twenty years. The minimum salary has now increased to over $300,000, and increase of an order of magnitude.

Simply put, without a union, there would be no way that a great ballplayer would make millions for his special skill, and there would definitely be no way that a player of professional ability, but who did not stand out among professionals, could ever make serious money in MLB.

I would bet that the history of the Screen Actors Guild follows a not totally dissimilar narrative, but baseball is what I know. No union, no big salaries.

Posted by: DivGuy | Oct 11, 2006 3:38:45 PM

I happen to agree with all of the bolded items presented, although I have some disagreement on what they mean and how we best address those issue.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 11, 2006 3:45:51 PM

DivGuy, you're right about SAG. Very briefly, the old studio system relied on actors held under arduous contracts, and the studios colluded against competitive bidding.

Posted by: jhupp | Oct 11, 2006 3:47:17 PM

In my first semester as a philosophy TA at Texas, I was teaching Rawls and I went over the arguments you've presented in the "Luck Matters" section above. The students stayed for a few minutes after the bell rang to keep arguing about how it is that people can deserve things. It was a really special teaching experience because the youth of Texas tend to come to things with a fairly libertarian perspective on economic issues, and Rawls' arguments were a powerful challenge to things they believed.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 11, 2006 3:49:52 PM

Simply put, without a union, there would be no way that a great ballplayer would make millions for his special skill...

Water seeks its own level, with or without a union. What really increased the compensation of ball players is the massive money from television rights which allowed owners to compete with higher amounts in the contracts.

Unions, like cartels, are an artificial skewing of the economics of an industry and seldom last all that long. A good example of this would be the domestic car industry that is getting their heads handed to them on plates from foreign competition that don't have to pay $40-$50 hour to assemble a door.

If the union had not changed the ball players contracts, most likely the huge money infusion by television rights would have drawn the new young talent into another league that could pay them the big bux.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 3:50:47 PM

On the update--Equal Rights--the understandings of this is a big key difference.

A conservative (me) would say, equal rights apply to rights; you have no right unless I have an obligation. You have no right to have me marry you, hang out with you, buy from you, sell to you, hire you, or work for you--so forcing me to do any of those things is a violation of my rights, not a granting of yours.

Posted by: SamChevre | Oct 11, 2006 3:54:46 PM

SamChevre wrote:

Luck matters, but character/choices matters more; over-compensating for bad luck will just encourage bad choices.

The assertion that choices matter more than luck is interesting, but is it true? I suspect that a person's choices matter more in some circumstances while the person's luck matters more in others.

All sorts of questions come to mind: How does one test this assertion? What sorts of measurements or quantification can be made? Are the actions of others part of "choices" or "luck"? What happens when choices are made in situations of imperfect information? How imperfect can the information be before "choices" become "luck"? What about choices that are good in the short-run, but may be disastrous in the long-run if an unlikely event occurs? Can a person really insure against every possible unfortunate event? How soon does this become over-insurance?

Posted by: Kenneth Fair | Oct 11, 2006 3:59:04 PM

"Water seeks its own level, with or without a union."

Now that's an excellent example of precisely the sort of opinion I don't agree with, and think dangerously naive.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 11, 2006 4:00:53 PM

Religion:
One's belief, as long as it harms none, can survive on its own, is uninterpretable, should always, and forever, be divorced and separate from government, except in the case of any underlining common virtues which help the common good.

or something like that

Posted by: marcus | Oct 11, 2006 4:02:43 PM

Water seeks its own level, with or without a union. What really increased the compensation of ball players is the massive money from television rights which allowed owners to compete with higher amounts in the contracts.

But as I showed, the minimum salary had not increased for 20 years before the union came into being. Are you really arguing that baseball was making 50% less money in the 60s? That's silly.

The influx of tv money is far smaller than the increase in salaries, and the stagnation of salaries before the institution of the union shows that they were not going to rise naturally.

I put all the counter-evidence in the initial post, and you baldly ignored it and asserted the opposite. That's pretty sad. I hope your next try is a better one.

Posted by: DivGuy | Oct 11, 2006 4:06:48 PM

Fred, what you say might be true, except MLB is, to extend your water metaphor, a closed system. Baseball skills do not apply to other industries, and the number of competing employers in this particular industry is limited by the approval of the already existing employers. Start-up leagues, as has been demonstrated throughout the history of sports, are all but guaranteed to fail; the only successful league was the AFL. The others were good for a while, but they lost. Their players were poached by the extant leagues. Once a player is in the dominant league, there's no reason to continue paying him a higher salary or to use his salary to set the market for the salaries of other players in the league. The dominant league could basically wait out the startup's poor finances, and that's it. If a) the teams collude and b) there is no union, the players would have no bargaining power; the league itself could set the water level.

If two leagues begin at the same time, that would be one thing. But so long as one league begins in a financially dominant place, it has all the accompanying tools of domination on its side already.

You're right, the TV money enables players to get higher compensation, but it doesn't create higher compensation. In modern business, we're seeing a similar principle to the pre-union baseball days. Higher and higher percentages of corporate profits are paying shareholders rather than improving the corporate infrastructure or worker salaries. Revenue enables higher wages, but it does not create higher wages.

Posted by: jhupp | Oct 11, 2006 4:13:19 PM

Now that's an excellent example of precisely the sort of opinion I don't agree with, and think dangerously naive.

The "water seeks its own level" was a representation of natural economic and social laws, both discovered and undiscovered.

To hold Ezra's opinion that this is a dangerous position to take, one must first believe that there are no natural laws to discover and understand and that everything, instead, is malleable for your social designs.


Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 4:22:26 PM

Wait, the economy is natural?? Even Milton Friedman doesn't believe that. No one believes that. That's stupid.

Posted by: DivGuy | Oct 11, 2006 4:26:47 PM

To hold Ezra's opinion that this is a dangerous position to take, one must first believe that there are no natural laws to discover and understand and that everything, instead, is malleable for your social designs.

Ummm, no. One must first believe that this limited natural law does not necessarily apply to economics. Two hydrogens plus one oxygen do not a labor force make.

Posted by: jhupp | Oct 11, 2006 4:27:15 PM

Ezra's hit point 1 from a perspective of health care and pension, as is his wont, but it's really a much, much larger part of the liberal worldview and deserves a wider treatment. It would be nice if more liberals could explicitly make this point when they talk about their beliefs.

Liberals are pro-choice. This is because women have the right to make decisions for themselves, but also because as liberals we understand that someone can make a mistake. Aside from the more involuntary methods of getting pregnant, even a woman who doesn't want children may well have unprotected sex in the heat of the moment. This may be a bad decision, but that woman shouldn't be forced to live through nine months of trauma, risk illness and death, and spend the rest of her life caring for another person just because she made one mistake.

Liberals believe in reforming the justice system. This is partly because of racial disparities, excessive penalties for nonviolent offenders, and the horrible, abusive condition of our prisons. It's also because liberals don't believe in punishing a person for the rest of his or her life because of one bad act, unless that act is so heinous that the risk of repeating it can't be tolerated. Liberals oppose the death penalty in large part because it's irreversible, and because the government, as well as individuals, can certainly make mistakes. "Three strikes and you're out" laws can punish a young man for the rest of his life for a handful of mistakes, well after he may have become a different person entirely.

Posted by: Nick | Oct 11, 2006 4:28:54 PM

Good lists as these things go.

I'd have emphasized two related words/concepts that animate my own liberalism: power and freedom.

Power corrupts, thus needs to be restrained, and concentrated power, be it governmental or commerical, needs to be fought. This might sound like a classic libertarian viewpoint, but I believe that a strong government is needed to balance Big Money, and that government, so that it doesn't become corrupt and corrupting, needs to be responsive to people and contain built-in checks on itself. Dispersing power: that's one ideal that should animate practice.

Another ideal that should animate pratice is freedom for all. This is true in foreign policy: freedom from all forms of tyranny, including terrorism and occupation. And domestic policy: freedom from the oppressive tendencies (remember: power corrupts) of both government and corporate power. "You're full of shit," a libertarian conservative would say. "Liberals believe in taxes, not freedom from government." But the society that they would create--with commerical power unchecked--would result in diminished freedom (and power) for most people. Conversely, taxes and regulations--while frustrating to everyone--don't inhibit the wealthy from "the pursuit of happiness." A more equitable society gives more people liberty. The left shouldn't cede the concept of freedom to the right.

Posted by: david mizner | Oct 11, 2006 4:53:18 PM

One must first believe that this limited natural law does not necessarily apply to economics.

I guess that's why they call it the strong suggestion of supply and demand.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 5:01:20 PM

One more thing, re. Rawls and Neil's comment. I think this is really important and true and should be part of any serious effort to sell liberalism. In some ways it cuts against what people want to believe, that they can do anything and are in control of their own destinies. But people get it, I think. After all: there but for the grace..."

Posted by: david mizner | Oct 11, 2006 5:01:23 PM

Slightly OT, but would someone (Ezra? Neil?) reccommend a good place to start if one were interested in Rawls and his theories?

Posted by: Pooh | Oct 11, 2006 5:02:12 PM

I guess that's why they call it the strong suggestion of supply and demand.

You're ignoring the influence of market power of course...(Anti-trust exemptions, etc...)

Posted by: Pooh | Oct 11, 2006 5:04:58 PM

2) Luck matters, but character/choices matters more; over-compensating for bad luck will just encourage bad choices.

This is simply counterfactual. Cancer much? And Erza didn't say anything about over-compensating, he said 'not abandon', which is just about right.

We are all at risk for cancer. Some of us will have awful things happen to us for no particular reason. The question is if we will let the devil take the hindmost and worry every night in our beds that we will be the next to stumble, or spend some of our stupendous wealth to ensure that everybody is part of our collective good fortune.

Also, Fred Jones' economist comedy act is hilarious. Remember, kids, monopolies (baseball or 'use of force') allow 'water to find its own level', but unions are cartels that represent a market failure. Apparently the only carter Fred doesn't like is one on labor.

Posted by: NBarnes | Oct 11, 2006 5:11:32 PM

You're ignoring the influence of market power of course...(Anti-trust exemptions, etc...)

So far as I can tell, Fred, like most Republicans, read The Wealth of Nations in the Clif Notes and now believes that he knows everything he needs to about economics. The phrase 'market failure' and the fact that 20th century economic theory was overwhelmingly focused on understanding the hows and whys of them passed the entire Republican party by.

Posted by: NBarnes | Oct 11, 2006 5:14:00 PM

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