Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We Built This City on Peace, Love, and Understanding: Why I Am Not a Liberal

Many months ago I had a discussion with a liberal-minded man I shall simply refer to, in homage to Aquinas' Aristotle, The Professor. In this discussion, we proposed different aims of government. I was passionately defending wisdom as the chief virtue of government officials, appealing to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. I took my time, pressing the point to its fullest, and as I did, The Professor slowly gathered a glimmer in his eye like a power-hitter about to slug one out of the ballpark. As I was wrapping up my plea to sophia, I was offset by a feeling that my argument was going to receive a mortal blow. As I finished my breath, asking – I thought rhetorically – is anything superior to wisdom, with unflappable gravitas he responded he could think of something better: love. This brilliant move of disputative judo left me winded and contentedly acquiescent: the master had landed his pedagogical blow and the only way to win is not to play.

I want to revisit the idea of a government that seeks to love its citizens and persuade my readers that this is perhaps the most fundamental proposition put forth by liberal political theory. To begin, I use the term liberalism as shorthand for 'Social liberalism' and thus distinguish it from classical liberal thought. Expanding on this notion, my working definition of liberal will tacitly assume that liberal proponents have favorable notions of Positive Rights. A definition of love also deserves to be raised. By love, I take The Professor to mean a government which wants the best for its citizens (and thus, does not seek its own self interest). This love is best expressed in the political philosophy of John Rawls, most specifically in his Veil of Ignorance thought experiment. As simply as I can put it, the Veil of Ignorance states that we ought to build a society that all people would agree upon if we had no idea beforehand what station we would have in life.

Ostensibly, a government wanting the best for its citizenry is a noble thing. Jonah Goldberg summed up modern liberal thought by saying on

At the philosophical level, at the level of Rawls…the fundamental dogma is…government should do good where it can, when it can, whatever it can. That's liberalism. The only principled restraint on liberalism is the pragmatic judgment of really smart liberals. And if really smart liberals think they can make the country better, or fix the country, or improve the lot of people, then there's no reason the government shouldn't do it. (1:09:00)

Here, I become sympathetic to their cause. Liberals are in favor of things that sound really great: universal healthcare, education and welfare sound like pretty great things to me. But Goldberg goes on to say that liberals provide a false dichotomy and like Goldberg, I have a different vision for the role of government contra The Professor.

Earlier in the Goldberg/Beinart Debate, Jonah elucidates on how, during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, John McCain wanted to fix the government, while Barack Obama wanted to fix America's soul – [which are] "two different things." Implicit in the notion of a "loving government" is the idea that there is no limit in which the government ought not to extend its caritas. (One caveat: liberals say, as did Beinart, government ought to stay out of people's bedrooms, which as far as I can ascertain, is because the greatest good a liberal can imagine in sexual relationships is one unencumbered by the regulations of the state. I would argue that this cannot sustain itself if the government introduces itself into the health of its citizens, but I won't address that unless asked.) If the government really loves you, like a mother it will want to keep you healthy with medicare; if the government really loves you, like a father it will want to keep you safe and away from guns; if the government really loves you, like a church and a friend it will give you a bed to sleep on and food to eat when you fall on hard times.

My problem with all of this is that we have some pretty dark words in our language for love that is forced and unrequested. What I want to impress upon my readers is that liberalism has an ends and means problem. The end is uncomfortable: There is no free lunch. All this love comes at the cost of the taxpayer. We have become quite docile with the idea of government taking money from its citizens without their approval. This leads to the means problem: they do this at the end of a gun barrel. Contrary to what Harry Reid might have you believe, taxes are coercive. There's an old joke told at my family's dinner table that says that if you don't believe the government cares about you, try not paying your taxes and see how quickly they take notice. The government loves you so much they will take from the rich and give to the poor. Don't forget to tip them for the service. This all assumes that the government is both less corrupt and more efficient than the efforts of private citizens – it is not.

I want the government works on the opposite principle: I want a government to fear its citizens, not love them. Keep people safe, enforce contracts, and I'll find my own love. If the government wants to love me, I want a restraining order. Returning to my beginning argument, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and in politics the people ought to be Lord God Almighty.

Occasionally when having this discussion with Christians, they justify government taxation and wealth redistribution by saying the Old Testament concerns itself with the poor, allowing them to glean the fields for leftovers (Lev 19:9-10;
23:22; Deut 24:19-22
) so they might have something. Yet, they never discuss something much more fundamental: the Tenth Commandment.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Why, when God was presumably short on space and wanted to keep things concise, mention the neighbor's donkey? I think the answer is quite obvious: if you want your neighbor's donkey, get one of your own!


You'll Shoot Your Eye Out: A Political Philosophy Unto Death

The Professor had another comment for me. He said I would not do well in my "ideal" world, that is, a sink or swim world where the losers of society are dependent on the goodwill of other individuals and winners are not determined by governments. He's correct, I would not do well in that system – which is why I'm right. Tertullian said of Christianity that he believed because it was absurd. Likewise, I am not a liberal because it appeals to my disposition. Robert Nozick predicted in Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? that "intellectuals who were 'late bloomers' in school would not have developed the same sense of entitlement to the very highest rewards; therefore, a lower percentage of the late-bloomer intellectuals will be anti-capitalist than of the early bloomers." I won't claim I am an intellectual, but I will claim this is true for me.


Jake said...

I really liked this post, Joel. My favorite part: "If the government wants to love me, I want a restraining order." Thanks. :)

Toolbit said...

Thanks Jake. Yeah, that was probably the most poignant thing I wrote. Good to know I now have a total readership of one. :)

Toolbit out.