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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Jonah Goldberg on the heart of liberalism

Jonah Goldberg, of National Review, discusses his view of the "heart of liberalism", specifically on removing instinctive notions of libertarianism from the leftist ideology.
I guess where I’d disagree with Siegel’s formulation (and Vin’s) is the idea that liberalism is necessarily “radically civil-libertarian” about much of anything. Of course, individual liberals may be civil-libertarians. I can certainly think of plenty who are. But as an intellectual, cultural and political project, I think liberalism is better understood as a competing value system. Think of it this way. Social conservatism is very libertarian about all sorts of things, and not libertarian about other things. Constitutional considerations aside, where it believes the State shouldn’t interfere it is because non-interference advances a cultural agenda of traditional conservatism.
The same goes for liberalism. It celebrates certain lifestyles or cultural choices because it likes the content or fruits of those choices. It is a mistake, it seems to me, to say liberals are libertarian about much of anything. They are outraged about alleged intrusions into our privacy when it comes to the NSA, but utterly dismissive of potentially far greater intrusions into our private lives via things like Obamacare. 
Consider gun rights. Yes, conservatives believe in second amendment rights because they are in the Constitution. But they also value a culture of self-sufficiency, self-defense and a traditional understanding of individual sovereignty. (Relatedly, I think it’s fair to say that hunting culture is inherently conservative and, very broadly speaking, anathema to much of liberal culture). Liberals dislike gun rights, because they detest gun culture (their Constitutional arguments in this regard have always struck me as nearest-weapon-to-hand debating points and rationalizations given their general disdain for Constitutional literalism in nearly every other regard) and see gun violence as a kind of public health issue, which means the State should have an unlimited license to deal with it. The right of armed self-defense also offends the State’s monopoly on violence, and liberalism is a jealous guardian of State power. Liberals talk a great game about being libertarian when it comes to sexual politics, but have no problem politicizing other, equally personal, choices: like what you can eat, or what you can say (I’m thinking of things like campus speech codes). Moreover, the recent push to socialize the provision of birth control (and abortion) is hardly a libertarian enterprise.
Margaret Sanger seems like a good illustration of this point. Sanger was vocal proponent of sexual rebellion. As the founding mother of reproductive rights, she argued vociferously for the de-coupling of sex from procreation. But she was no libertarian. Aside from advocating sterilization of the unfit, she also believed that women should be required to obtain a license from the state before they could have a baby. Anyone who reads her “Code for American Babies” (which she pitched as an add-on to the New Deal codes) who still thinks there’s anything libertarian about her doesn’t know what a libertarian is:
Article 3. A marriage license shall in itself give husband and wife only the right to a common household and not the right to parenthood.
Article 4. No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit for parenthood.
Article 5. Permits for parenthood shall be issued upon application by city, county, or state authorities to married couples, providing they are financially able to support the expected child, have the qualifications needed for proper rearing of the child, have no transmissible diseases, and, on the woman’s part, no medical indication that maternity is likely to result in death or permanent injury to health.
Article 6. No permit for parenthood shall be valid for more than one birth.
This is a cultural and statist agenda. That she often sold it in the language of liberation speaks to the fact that she understood that the American people are receptive to offers of expanded liberty (even, alas, when it comes in the form of a subsidy). Once you keep in mind that the “civil libertarian” aspects of progressivism-liberalism have more to do with marketing a cultural agenda than actually expanded the sphere of freedom, the contradictions Cannato and Siegel write about largely (though obviously not entirely) melt away. 
Oh, a quick addendum, lest I be greeted with the usual scoffing at the suggestion that social conservatism is more libertarian than liberalism.
I would argue — and have argued for years — that mainstream conservatism is vastly more libertarian than liberalism for a number of reasons. I’ll list four. Law, Metaphysics, Economics and the Family.
1) Mainstream conservatism actually takes the Constitution seriously, which means that written into conservatism is a very real limit on what the State can do to advance a cultural agenda.
2) Metaphysically, conservatism draws heavily on Judeo-Christian values, and therefore has a constrained vision about the limits of social and individual perfectibility and the power of the State to achieve such things.   Liberalism, as Bill Voegeli, Thomas Sowell and others have argued, has no such limiting principles because at its core it is an unconstrained vision.
3) Economically, conservatism and libertarianism while not entirely identical overlap considerably. This means we actually believe that there’s a very limited positive role for the State to second guess the allocation of resources in the market place or to spend money better than the people who earn it.
4) Conservatism, unlike liberalism, considers the family a near-sacrosanct institution that should be an oasis from government meddling (barring instances of abuse and the like). The family, for liberals is the last nut to crack. Which is why people like Melissa Harris Perry can talk about “public ownership” of children or in the words of  Hillary Clinton talk about how we need to move away from the idea there is any such thing as somebody else’s child.
I could go on, but I think those four should do for now.
The ideology of the leftist leans towards empowering the State, not removing power from the State. While on a cultural level a leftist certainly wants libertarian results on certain things, by and large they would not apply that attitude on wide level.

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