How to be a Liberal-Conservative-Socialist (Anarchist)
Having spent a little time a week ago with the Wall Street Occupiers got me thinking about the moral and personal appeal of anarchism, which I wrote about in my last post. Talking about OWS with others, thinking about the ideological hodge-podge of good intentions I encountered there, and observing the general decline of the US into partisan animosity – these all have me thinking about political disagreement.
This essay is a very short attempt to sketch how intractable political disagreement can persist where (1) no one is simply wrong; and (2) the disagreement is really about something, that is, everyone is responding to real facts and genuine values, not engaged in crude psychological projection or superstition. I think this is important because so much of our politics is insubstantive or irrational, and so much our way of discussing it is psychological or otherwise about personalities and tastes, that it’s easy, even natural, to become nihilistic about it all. I think that would be a mistake – a misreading of what’s at stake in the disagreements.
What I’ve tried to say is what each approach to politics, treated as a tradition of thought and action, most prominently perceives about human life. This is quick, crude, and polemical, so I apologize in advance for half a hundred disputable points and a baker’s dozen of simple errors.
-Our power to take responsibility for our own lives by thinking and choosing, rather than take dictation from tradition, is both precious and heroic. Individual rights, political democracy, and market economics are all expressions of this power.
-Many social distinctions, such as those based on race, sex, and sexual orientation, are prejudices that obscure an underlying moral equality. We should work to make those distinctions less important in the name of our moral equality dignity, which various people call freedom, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness.
-At least some of life’s benefits and burdens should be distributed according to effort, talent, achievement, or some combination of those. This only makes sense, though, if there is some real equality in people’s opportunities to develop their talents.
-Laws that enforce equal treatment can change people’s likes and change the whole society. Reforms like desegregating schools and forbidding employment discrimination are worthwhile even though they sometimes run aground on deep-seated social attitudes or raw economic power.
-Consciousness is an important force in history. Changed consciousness can change lives, and history is just all the lives that have been and will be. Because the ways that people understand themselves and see one another affect the whole social world, moral reform and appeals to conscience matter.
-Tradition matters. Sometimes what is familiar is, for just that reason, better than what is new. It is legitimate to prefer what you know, for better and worse, to an abstract promise of something better.
-A pair of threats haunts social and political life, rooted in the underbelly sides of human nature. One of these is disorder: people recurrently hurt one another, often in brutal ways, when conventional constraints give way (and radical efforts at reform, signally revolutions, sometime break those constraints). The other threat is abuse of power: big modern states and big ideologies provide new opportunities to take advantage of others and new rationales for doing so.
-When a majority cannot recognize itself in the exercise of the political power it lives under, legitimacy is at risk, disorder may follow, and abuse of power becomes more likely. This is why it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to appeal to tradition and sentimental ties that join individuals in group and national solidarity.
-People may not always want to be “free” or do well under what liberals and socialists prize as freedom. People are often piggish, directionless, addictive, self-immolating. They are also superstitious, and seemingly superstition-seeking.
-In light of this bad evidence about how we are, it is not quite reassuring enough to explain it away all human depravity as the product of unjust circumstances. All reform has to be alert to the constant dangers of doing more harm than good, of inadvertently breaking important sources of order or solidarity. Reform needs self-correcting mechanisms, steady attention to abuses of power, and a willingness to admit that sometimes slowness and caution are virtues.
-Maybe it is just as important for people to be built as to be freed. This is the work of discipline and tradition.
-Equality matters. Perfect equality may be unreachable and undesirable, but the inequality of wealth and opportunity today leaves vast human potential undeveloped for no little reason. This is a form of brutality.
-An important part of individual freedom is control over work, which is how most of us spend many of our best hours and years. A society should be judged not just by the rights it gives its people, but the work it makes possible for them. Although there are hopeful counter-examples, in any labor market there are plenty of people whose goals are get more time and effort out of others for less reward. In this respect, “free markets” are bad as well as good for freedom.
-Left to their own devices, markets concentrate wealth in individuals, families, and corporations. Concentrated wealth undermines equality, of course, but it also feeds back into politics and undermines democracy.
-Market crises, like the one we are living through now, shape people’s lives and opportunities in ways that are too important to be left to bankers and billionaires.
-For all these reasons, political control over key features of economic life is important. This may include regulating finance, guaranteeing high-quality education independent of the market, strengthening unions, and regulating labor markets for both fairness and mobility. Without this sort of regulation, both liberal rights and conservative traditions will have less and less real value.
-Human nature contains as much promise as threat. We are deeply products of our circumstances, so the future might be as different from the present as we are from our medieval ancestors. Moreover, history gives examples of solidarity, creativity, and the invention of new and viable forms of order – proof of the human power to recreate ourselves. Considering the disadvantages that weighed down on these efforts, we should take them all the more seriously as lights for the future.
-There is a human appetite for cooperation and reciprocity that is just as basic as the appetites of self-interest. Sometimes working together is better than working separately, just because it means being together.
-Coercion is subtle, multifarious, and awful. We spend much of life in relationships and interactions that are structured by differences in power and by mandatory roles. This costs us the chance to know more about one another and about ourselves.
-The ideal of arranging social life without coercion and hierarchy is not a lazy fantasy: anyone who has had any involvement in it knows that it takes tremendous discipline.
-This ideal deepens and tries to perfect some of the most basic commitments of modern social life. Any voluntary and non-destructive act that gets us closer to it is worthwhile for its own sake.
You may deny that some of these “truths” are true, or give some much more weight than others. You may want to reclassify some of them: certainly they overlap, and some are shared. Taken together, though, they strike me as plausible and as a making a reasonable case that we need all four lines of thinking to grapple with our very confusing times.
 Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish Catholic philosopher, wrote a very essay with a similar title and form several decades ago. I didn’t share many of his emphases, but I admired the concept and thought it captured something important.