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Ten Principles of Liberalism

[digg-reddit-me]Barack Obama’s incipient presidency has set off a furious debate over what his administration’s principles are. George Will described Obama’s administration on this past Sunday morning as the Third Wave of government intervention and expansion (with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society being the first two. Will, for some reason, declined to mention TR’s introduction of the regulatory state, as does almost everyone.) Right-wingers from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin have described Barack Obama as a “socialist.” Meaghan McCain and Niall Ferguson deride what they characterize as a leftist agenda. On the other hand, supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy have criticized him for betraying his progressive vision and defending the status quo. Others have defended him against charges of socialism and suggested he stands for good old-fashioned liberalism.

At this moment in history, as capitalism seems to have failed, as American international power is at an ebb, as globalization seems destined to continue, as the threat of terrorism continues to grow – evident both in our vulnerability and in the number of our enemies, as the nation-state which derives its legitimacy from providing for the needs of its citizens seems to be evolving into a market-state which is legitimated by the opportunities it offers its citizens – at this moment in history, Barack Obama has become president. The liberalism I am attempting to describe in this post is merely a sketch – but it is a sketch of what I see to be the right approach in this world – which as I have commented before, seems to have much in common with what I identified in the summer of 2007 as the Obama approach. As liberalism tends to be pragmatic rather than theoretical, many of these principles have regained prominence most specifically in response to recent problems in the world and with the Bush administration. I am focusing here on those aspects of principles which distinguish liberalism from other political philosophies – specifically, progressivism, various leftist movements, conservatives, libertarians, and extreme right-wingers. 

Here are the 10 principles of liberalism – whose three goals are to allow individuals liberty, opportunity, and community.

  1. Doubt v. Action. These two competing impulses are at the heart of all the rest of these principles. A Hayekian doubt about the efficacy of centralized planning coupled with a Rooseveltian (TR or FDR) need to act – to conduct “bold, persistent experimentation” while acknowledging that our “grasp on the truth is always provisional.” This balance was best articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote that while “We must exercise our power,” we must be remain aware that power corrupts even ourselves. Hayek similarly explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.” Liberalism was never utopian, but today’s liberalism has been tempered by the failures of big-state liberalism – as well as the failures of anti-regulatory “free” market fetishism. Only conservatism, properly defined historically, attempts a similar balance.
  2. The Market & the Government. Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.
  3. Empower individuals. One of the key roles of government then – in creating a free market – is to empower individuals to participate in market freely, as individuals. A market is less than free if employees can be held hostage by large corporations and health care burdens1. To empower individuals then, the government must ensure that there is sufficient technological and transportational infrastructure; the government must ensure that basic needs can be met by individuals – for example access to health care; and the government must ensure that every individual has the opportunity to get an education. At the same time, individuals must be empowered to shape and control government more directly. Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.
  4. Predictability & stability. Government in a market-state must be predictable and the economy and society must be stable. Neither of these is an absolute good – both are contingent goods – as without predictability and stability, economic growth is impeded and liberty is impossible. Related concepts are sustainability and resilience.
  5. Reform. (Not revolution.) Liberalism has embraced a policy of reform – presuming that the status quo is not perfect yet acknowledging that rapid change could lead to worse. Reform is the balance liberalism strikes between stability and progress. This distinguishes them from conservatives who embrace the status quo over any change (standing athwart history yelling stop!) and leftists and right-wingers who embrace revolutions of various types to overthrow the current order as fundamentally wrong. The focus on reform is informed by the balance between doubt and action. Perhaps the best understanding of what reform means for a liberal can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advocation of the word “tinkering.”
  6. Preventing destabilizing concentrations of power and encouraging fair processes of distribution. Liberalism acknowledges that power tends to become concentrated – sometimes in particular branches of the government (for example, in the presidency in the unitary executive theory); sometimes in corporations (as they become too big to fail); sometimes in a particular class of individuals (as they control more and more wealth.) Liberalism sees that such concentrations of power are incompatible with democracy and liberty – and that while such concentrations of power will empower certain individuals – they do so at the expense of most people. While socialists and communists and other utopians believe equality must be created – liberals merely seek to prevent extreme concentrations of power in the hands of any minority. At the same time, as Confucius said, “In a country well governed poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.” Which is why liberals must ensure that power is distributed through a fair process. Political power has been distributed by a constitutional order that needs to be tweaked now and then – and sometimes shaken up, as with the abolition of slavery. Economic power similarly is distributed in a market that sometimes is entirely unjust – as pollution imposes costs on some that are paid by others; and of course with the issue of slavery again. Government must step in to ensure that such unfair practices are not allowed. The goal is not to prevent someone like Bill Gates from having so much wealth, as his wealth is small enough to pose little threat to stability no matter what he does (almost) – it is to prevent 75% of the power from being controlled by 5% of the population – which does pose such a threat.
  7. The Rule of Law. Liberals embrace the fact that our nation was founded “as a nation of laws, not men” and that laws, while sometimes inconvenient are the foundation of our social bargain. Our leaders swear to uphold the law and to remain subject to it. That means if say, a President authorizing wiretapping in direct contravention of federal law, then he must be prosecuted.
  8. Aid to the disadvantaged. Liberals believe in the moral principle that a society and a government cannot be judged without taking into account how it deals with the disadvantaged – especially those who are disadvantaged as a result of the inevitable flaws in the system we choose to embrace. Liberals subscribe to the idea that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
  9. First among equals. Liberals acknowledge that America has often been and remains a force for good in the world – but they believe that it detracts from this when it considers itself unrestrained by any law or treaty and unilaterally imposes its will. This creates instability and unpredictability – as well as encouraging other nations to form collectives against us and to obtain weapons of mass destruction to prevent an invasion and provoke a standoff. Instead, liberals see that America has been most effective and done the most good when it acted as “first among equals” in the community of nations. As technologicaland macro-economic forces have been rapidly decentralizing power, America remains the single most potent force in a non-polar world – but it detracts from it’s power when it acts alone and delegitimizes the trust the world has given it to act responsibly.
  10. Diversity and federalism. Liberals – embracing their fallibility as human beings, and acknowledging that their grasp of the truth is always provisional – embrace diversity and federalism. Diverse viewpoints, diverse cultural, cultural, economic, etc. backgrounds all should be welcome and protected so long as they do not attempt to impose their specific view on those not willing. This is why liberals must embrace federalism – which has traditionally been a conservative principle. Liberals seem to be embracing the idea of federalism – at least with regards to the issues of gay marriage and medical marijuana.

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    1. As Daniel Gross explained in Slate, “An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.” []

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