Jacob Weisberg of Slate has written one of those typical, independent-minded, liberal attacks on the nanny state that crop up when the Democrats are perceived to have a monopoly on power. This type of piece always bothers me even as I agree with most of it on substance – in part because it is only written when Democrats are in power, and in part it has a hidden thesis: a moral equivalence between the liberal and right wing positions. Here’s Weisberg:
The underlying left-right divide is not about whether government has the right to promote private virtue but, rather, about what kind of virtue it should promote. Republicans demand paternalistic policies that uphold morality or social order. In Indiana, where I recently spent my vacation, you can pick up fireworks or a handgun anywhere, but good luck buying a six-pack on Sunday. Democrats, by contrast, deploy paternalism for health and safety reasons, yielding a different set of absurdities. In California, pot is on the verge of becoming more permissible than cigarettes. Both left and right take pleasure in mildly persecuting those who fail to meet their civic ideals.
There’s certainly an insight here – but it does not get to the heart of the liberal-right wing divide. It doesn’t attempt to deal with the civil libertarian strain in the Democratic Party which contrasts with the support for a national security apparatus above the law supported by the Republican Party. It doesn’t address the various mild strains of populist economic and social libertarianism in the Republican Party which are at war both with the economic royal-ism in the party and with the Democratic Party’s focus on regulation and government involvement in ensuring a fair process and/or preventing unfair ends.
In other words, Weisberg takes on this loaded topic but only discusses the “mild persecutions” that we can see changing rather than the structural positions that affect us far more deeply. The caricatures of the left and the right that Weisberg draws then aren’t very persuasive because they ignore the base of these competing political views.
Weisberg is actually conflating two different points in his attempt to even-handedly criticize the left and right. Liberals – especially urban liberals – tend to focus on policies which improve the collective status of most of their constituents. At best, they are – as Weisberg says, quoting Cass Sunstein – “nudges” towards healthier, safer activities. At worst, they are annoying and unnecessary constrictions on minor everyday freedoms like where you can smoke, what you can buy at a restaurant. Suburban, exurban, and rural areas tend to have less of this – whether they are dominated by liberals or conservatives.
On the other hand, the right wing claims it is against government encroachment and in favor of a more libertarian society; but this is a falsehood, as the bulk of the right supports right wing government encroachment and opposes liberal government vehemently. This is what is driving the Tea Partiers – not a fear of all government, but a fear of liberals in charge of the government.
If Weisberg had picked apart these two conceptions – of a right wing that claims to be against government, but instead is only against liberals in the government – and of the differences in the role of government in urban versus non-urban areas, he might have had two pieces rather than one – though neither would have fit as easily into the “pox on both their houses” mentality that independent-minded observers in both observers tend to adopt.
[Image by hegarty_david licensed under Creative Commons.]