Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Andrew Sullivan does a point-by-point rebuttal of Rick Hertzberg's defense of why he's a liberal, then suggests we all discuss. Here's Hertzberg:
I value political liberty and political rights (freedom of thought, speech, conscience, and the press, the right to vote, civil equality) more highly than economic liberty and economic rights (property rights, freedom of enterprise, freedom from want, economic equality). I’m in favor of progressive taxation and generous public provision of education, pensions, and health care. I think people should have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, even if they haven’t done much to deserve it. I reject the idea that the market is the singular bedrock of society while everything else is a parasitical growth. I want government to do something about environmental degradation and gross social and economic inequality. I’m a secularist and a supporter of equal rights for women and gays. And when it comes to wanting World Peace, I’m practically a Miss America contestant. So I’m a liberal.

Here's Andrew:

I also revere political rights (freedom of thought, speech, conscience, and the press, the right to vote, civil equality) but regard them as underpinned by the emergence of the autonomous individual that modern economic liberty made possible. I believe in simple and flat taxation of income and consumption and a generous public provision of education (the key to opportunity), but I think the welfare state should remain a minimal safety net and means-test benefits for those who are in real need, not grant them to everyone regardless of wealth. I believe in universal better-than-bare-bones healthcare, but oppose the government controlling it, and would be fine with the wealthier buying more of it and thereby getting better treatment.

I don't believe in mandatory provision of food and shelter to those who have decided to be free-loaders, as opposed to the unlucky or incapable. I think the market is the least worst system of allocating wealth and creating growth without which no welfare safety net can be afforded. I think the government absolutely has a role in protecting
public goods like the environment, but should do so with great modesty about the limits of its own wisdom. I believe government should only try to redress economic inequality if such inequality becomes so great it threatens social cohesion and stability. I'm a secularist because I am also a believer, think the state hurts faith, rather than enables it, and that Christianity is more authentic the further from actual power it gets. I believe in world peace but also believe that this can only be achieved by the threat of war at times, and that military action should be a very last resort - but a real one, against those who would threaten us or destabilize the world.

And here's me, point by point:

I am with both in their love of political rights (freedom of speech, expression, thought, press, and conscience, voting, civil equality), but I disagree with Andrew that they are underpinned by "the emergence of the autonomous individual that modern economic liberty made possible." I believe that the reality of the "autonomous individual" makes economic liberty necessary, and makes political and personal freedoms essential. However, I reject Hertzberg's freedom heirarchy. I would not sacrifice economic liberty to have political liberty, or vice versa, because all freedoms are interdependent. I think taxing income and consumption with a flat tax is a good idea in principle, but it has to confront the reality that the poor and lower middle classes spend a lot more of their incomes in order to meet their daily needs, so, like Hertzberg, taxes need to be somewhat progressive so that higher earners take some of the proportional burden off lower earners. I don't believe that the government should be the sole source of education, pensions, or health care, but that it should be in those businesses as a way to keep the private sector reasonably honest and competitive, as well as provide a safety net for those who can't access those services through the market.

Like Andrew, I believe that the welfare state needs to be means-tested and minimal, but I also believe that food and shelter, being basic human needs, ought to be provided regardless of whether or not people have done anything to deserve it. Further, if a person earns an honest wage, he ought to be able to count on solvent and efficient Social Security and efficient Medicare systems. Andrew wants the recipients of the welfare state to be only people who deserve it, and for the system to be able to weed out the free-loaders. It's a reasonable approach but it's not pragmatic. I believe that we can't build a system that prevents free-loading; in other words, the locked door only keeps out the honest man. People are gonna get through no matter what the system looks like. So you just have to build waste into the budget to account for it.

The market provides the most efficient and reliable method for creating and spreading wealth, but capitalism, racism, elitism, and xenophobia renders the market dishonest and unfair. It's stacked against people who actually have to start at the starting line, in favor of those who were born with a healthy head start of family, academic and business connections. I think the market is the best way to confront environmental degradation, but I think politics and religion have infiltrated the market to such a degree that reality has become elusive. In those cases, a secularist government must step in and provide controls, guidance, and laws to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in the private sector, as well as spend large amounts of taxpayer funds in infrastructure building and public education to foster a mind-set in the populace that we are dealing with a real problem. Andrew might believe that the government needs to be modest about the limits of its wisdom in this area, and I would agree; but in today's hyper-politicized debate about climate change, and when we're dealing with a significant number of elected officials who believe the planet is only 6,000 years old, a modest amount of wisdom is likely the most wisdom we're going to get.

Andrew wants the government to step in to redress economic inequality only "if such inequality becomes so great it threatens social cohesion and stability." Well, we're already there; we've been there for a long time, and inattention to this inequality during the first decade of this new century/millenium has only exacerbated this problem.

Above I mentioned the need for a "secularist" government. The government can't completely prevent its own workers from letting their religious beliefs influence their conduct, but I agree with Andrew that the government needs to be religion-neutral as much as it can, realizing at the same time that 95% of the people in this country believe in God. And as for world peace, I'm a pacifist. I don't think war really serves any useful purposes other than killing people on both sides and ruining society. We will always have to confront people and/or nations who believe that armed conflict is the solution to whatever problems they may have, and we have to be ready to confront those threats. But I think fantastic groundwork can be laid to prevent those threats from surfacing with effective diplomacy, diplomacy that isn't rooted in American exceptionalism and/or the fear of another terrorist attack on our soil. We are a great nation, but we have to agree to share the stage again with other great nations, some of whom have great ideas, great people, and a great wealth of knowledge and traditions to share.

Finally, I believe that government should have no role in legislating morality of any kind, other than to insure that American citizens are free to exercise their rights and enjoy their privacy without government intrusion.

So, after reading both Hertzberg and Sullivan, I can't say I'm either a liberal or a conservative. I'm a pragmatist, a realist, very liberal in some ways, and very conservative in others. I could be considered a libertarian to some degree, but today's libertarians want to shrink government to an unreasonably small size, leaving every American to fend for himself in a freewheeling market that will likely not react quickly enough to provide opportunities for he who can't create his own opportunities.

Reading Andrew's blog is so great because he provides so much information in his space that allows people (like me) to synthesize my own perspective, and to allow it to be influenced and honed as more information becomes known.

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