Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Closing of the Liberal Mind

Krugman is not such a fan of "reformish" conservatives.  Krugman lists several issues on which conservatives are allegedly not allowed to dissent from the party line, on pain of expulsion from the movement:
1.The existence of anthropogenic climate change
2.The effects of fiscal stimulus/austerity
3.The effects of monetary expansion, and the risks of inflation
4.The revenue effects of tax cuts
5.The workability of universal health care
I am not so sure about these - there is a big difference between the conservative movement and the conservative base (which is, yes, downright crazy on these and any number of other points).  But anyway here is a list of issues on which it seems to me liberals are at least equally conformist (that is, you can't be a liberal while dissenting on any of these questions):

1.  That fetuses are not people (or, if they are people, that it is morally permissible to kill them).  (You do see the occasional pro-life Democrat, but then again, you also see the occasional Romneycare-supporting Republican.)

2.  That there is no role for religious beliefs or authority in public life (not just in the law, but in norms of behavior).

3.  That the family has no social value beyond the material advantages it brings to its adult members (that is, it is always better to dissolve a family in any case in which at least one adult member of the family would be made better off by its dissolution).

4.  That society has no legitimate interest in the sex lives of its constituents (note:  this principle can, and in fact must, be put aside when it conflicts with a punitive child-support regime).

5.  That there are no social benefits to one parent (of either gender) staying at home to raise children.

6.  That working-class people can be made better off through a government subsidy but never through cheaper goods and services facilitated by deregulation and low taxes.  (Similarly, I don't think a liberal is allowed to believe that a person who cannot afford to live in New York City should be expected to move to a location with a lower cost of living - people are equally entitled to a "living wage" in Manhattan, New York and Manhattan, Kansas, even if this requires far greater public expenditure in New York.)

Now these are all debatable points, and I don't mean to imply that the conservative movement is open-minded about any or all of them.  But it's worth considering whether modern liberalism has any flexibility when it comes to different conceptions of human thriving.

Or to put it another way:  There are people who can do very well with minimal support from public institutions.  A core tenet of traditional liberalism is that it is not good enough for this kind of person to do well - society must work for everyone.  But while this has (rightly) remained a key liberal commitment in the economic area, it has fallen away with respect to other important areas of life such as family, faith, and sexuality.  There are a lot of conservatives very thoughtfully engaged with these questions, and liberals would do well to join the discussion.  In many ways, these ideas ought to fit better with liberalism than with conservatism, which has too little respect for human differences and, I think it is fair to say, too little grounding in reality.  Liberals should not repeat those mistakes - liberalism should work for everyone.

5 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

Well Krugman's point is that these are in principle factual questions on which you can, in principle, hold either view without having it affect your core tenets. Your list isn't parallel; it includes at least one item (4) and maybe another (2) that are, and have historically been, tenets of liberalism. To say liberals are conformist about 4. is as vacuous as to say that flat-earthers are conformist about believing the earth is flat. Also, Yglesias, for one, loudly disagrees with (6).

I do not believe that you're right about (5) either, unless you're defining liberalism extremely narrowly. Personally I take no view on the empirical Q. of whether there are _benefits_; it's a question I just don't have to reach. As I see it the only way to have more stay-at-home parents is to coerce more people into staying in unhappy relationships who would otherwise have left them, and this seems to me a prohibitive cost.

More generally I don't think it is strange that liberals dislike coercive norms that would marginalize smallish groups of people even if such norms would be good for the average person (a lot of Douthat's arguments, if you want to grant the premises, come down to this). I certainly don't think it is a detachable part of liberalism; I think a society in which 10% of the population are told they are second-class citizens is a bad society essentially regardless of how much this improves the lives of the other 90%. You can construct a trade-union based populism that is essentially communitarian and disrespectful of rights, but this is a completely different political orientation than that of (it seems to be) most present-day liberals. (You could argue that such a view can't be called liberalism anyway but I'm not interested in arguing about terminology)

4:06 PM  
Blogger James said...

I mean I think these comments illustrate my point better than I could ever have done. Labeling dissent as bigotry is a favorite tactic of liberals, one of the more disreputable ones I think.

I am also not so sure that liberalism is defined by opposition to religion - Denmark has a state church, for God's sake. There was once a strand of liberal Catholicism in American life, now very much diminished, but not yet extinct. And liberalism once included fairly significant anti-pornography sentiment, though that strand of feminism is perhaps also on the way out.

But anyway this effort to define liberalism narrowly and excommunicate the heretics is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the post.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

It is a waste of time to respond as you're trolling (your original post is trolling, too, given the implication that views on the existence of global warming are ideologically equivalent to views on sexual morality, and I am embarrassed to have taken the bait), but: 1. It is irritating to be accused of bigotry for stating the _admitted_ consequences of certain conservative ideas. Douthat on feminism explicitly thinks that (a) a few women have done well out of it who would have suffered under traditional gender roles, (b) the majority of women were better off under traditional gender roles. Under coercive norms, some people are ostracized because they can't conform, some others are kept on the straight and narrow who might not otherwise have conformed, and yet others are entirely unaffected; I _think_ this much is widely admitted. The question is how you weigh the costs of marginalization against the benefits to the unmarginalized. If you think social conservatism can be defended under dominance reasoning you should admit that this is not a common view. 2. Your choice of "liberal" as a synonym for "left-wing" is unfortunate. I think there is a left-liberal tradition and a left-communitarian tradition, and while they overlap on some causes they are fundamentally different worldviews. I am closer philosophically to libertarians than to Michael Lind or Russell Arben Fox, although I would agree w/ the latter on many more policy issues.

Under your notion of heresy-hunting it is probably illegitimate for a conservative to say libertarians aren't conservatives.

It is not a coincidence that most of your litmus tests are from the culture war; I would argue that modern liberalism is _defined_ by its positions on these issues, and that its economic aspects are secondary. In this sense it is a natural successor to classical liberalism. (The Danish church is about as relevant to this discussion as the Danish monarchy.)

8:49 PM  
Blogger James said...

You seem to be making this an argument about terminology, despite your professed lack of interest in the subject. If you prefer to think of my argument as applying to "the thing that Americans call liberalism," rather than to "liberalism," then my point will perhaps be more clear. I have to say I don't think the original post was unclear - if I say that the Northwest is better for harvesting seafood than for growing corn, then it would seem more than a little silly to respond that corn is much more plentiful than seafood in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, states have at times been referred to as "the Northwest" (hence Northwestern University's otherwise inexplicable presence in Chicago/Evanston). Must I really explain that I am referring to the Pacific Northwest? (Anyway I am not so sure that classical liberalism was anti-religion - if anything I imagine classical liberalism was less vulnerable than modern liberalism to my criticism.)

And I am not trolling. I earnestly believe that liberalism has a blind spot when it comes to decentralized social institutions. And I think liberals enforce their consensus with roughly the same vigor that conservatives enforce theirs (or at least, to much the same effect).

I don't think the 90%/10% point has much traction. All the time liberals support policies that hurt some fraction of the population in service of the greater good. In fact I would go so far as to say that, in general, liberals are more inclined to make this kind of trade-off than conservatives are. You might say that "classical liberals" would have despised Social Security, but that means nothing in the context of modern American liberalism. (I also don't think it would be true.)

Social conservatism is not just a matter of imposing a bunch of constraints on behavior. It is about using social institutions to promote human welfare. Because liberals have a stunted vision of what non-state institutions can accomplish, they take an unduly narrow view of the role of those institutions in a good society. This is not tautological - liberalism does not entail the elevation of the state above all other social institutions - it is just a matter of the path American liberalism has taken.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

1. The way I see it: you said American liberals hold certain positions because they're closed-minded. I said no, it's because holding those positions is what it means to be liberal. You now say, well no, it's not part of what it means to be "what Americans call liberal" -- presumably, egalitarian-in-terms-of-average-outcomes over all else. I think the economical reading of all this is that you've manufactured a false puzzle for yourself by misunderstanding liberalism, at least as far as it refers to intellectuals.

2. What (non-terminological) enforcement mechanisms do you impute to liberals? What examples do you have?

3. You're misunderstanding my 90% remark, which is Rawlsian. Social security is permissible under maximin; sodomy bans, or effective bans on working women, are not. There is a difference between wanting things to work "for everyone" (which people tend to read in median terms, "the middle class" etc.) and not wanting things to fail too badly for anyone, even if the price is a lower median level.

4. The main problem with decentralized institutions is that they are exclusionary and someone will always get excluded. This is a basic concern if you have Rawlsian intuitions, and it is not something that social conservatives seem to worry about -- perhaps because none of them are at all Rawlsian.

5. "Social conservatism is not just a matter of imposing a bunch of constraints on behavior. It is about using social institutions to promote human welfare." -- I think it would be fairer to say that it is about asserting that said social institutions promote human welfare in intangible ways, and this compensates for their shortcomings vis a vis the state, notably the lack of universality. For which, again, see 4.

6. I guess I think there's an extremely clear line of descent, intellectually, from Locke to Mill to Rawls, and that most modern liberals are working in roughly this tradition. It is also clear why social conservatism is a bad fit with this tradition.

5:39 PM  

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