The big political news of the day, of course, is the video released by Mother Jones of Mitt Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors in which he essentially wrote off half the American public as moochers who will never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.
Romney’s remarks are a version of an increasingly popular conservative narrative according to which 47 percent of the American public allegedly pay no taxes and are living off the largesse of the welfare state at the expense of the hard-working “makers.”
There have been a number of debunkings of Romney’s comments today, not all of them from liberals. Ezra Klein wrote about it with his usual wonky detail, but National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and First Things‘ Matthew Schmitz also pushed back. The New York Times’ David Brooks pointed out that these “freeloaders” include war veterans, students getting loans to go to college, and senior citizens (who disproportionately vote Republican!). The reality is that there’s no clear sense in which the political coalitions of Right and Left can be divided into “makers” and “takers.”
I’m not trying to make a tu quoque argument that Republicans benefit from government spending too. The point I’d rather make is that the self-made man who inherits nothing and doesn’t owe anybody anything is a myth. Luck is as large a determinant of where you end up as individual initiative is. And liberals believe that government is the only entity in society with the ability to level the playing field a bit and make sure as many people as possible have a shot at a decent life. It does this through redistribution, regulation, and provision of public services, among other functions. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I became disenchanted with libertarianism was that I realized my life wouldn’t be possible without “big government.”
We all probably have a tendency to exaggerate our own contributions to our successes and to minimize what we owe to others, to circumstances, or to dumb luck. But is that something to base a governing philosophy on?
Continuing the grand congressional tradition of monkeying with local D.C. affairs, supposedly libertarian G.O.P. senator Rand Paul has introduced amendments to a bill granting the District budget autonomy that would dictate city policies on guns, abortion, and unions.
From the Washington Post:
One Paul amendment would require the District to allow residents to obtain concealed weapon permits for handguns, and would require the city to honor permits issued to residents of other states. Another amendment would make the District “establish an office for the purpose of facilitating the purchase and registration of firearms by DC residents,” in response to reports that there is only one licensed gun dealer in the city.
Paul has also submitted an amendment to codify the city-funded abortion ban. The prohibition — a continuing source of frustration for local leaders that is strongly supported by anti-abortion groups — has been extended via appropriations bills every year that Republicans have controlled one or both chambers of Congress since the mid-1990s.
Paul proposed another amendment saying “membership in a labor organization may not be applied as a precondition for employment” in the District, and protecting employees “from discrimination on the basis of their membership status” in a union.
Note that what’s at issue in this bill is whether or not the District gets to decide how to spend its own money raised by local taxes. (“Wait,” you say, “D.C. doesn’t already have that authority? But that’s crazy!” Indeed.) But for freedom-loving Rand Paul, it’s an opportunity to engage in some social engineering, conservative-style.
Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.
In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:
It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.
It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.
Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:
I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.
If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).
I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.
In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.
It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.
Jim Henley, who’s long been one of my favorite bloggers, has been writing a really interesting series of posts touching on aspects of his defection from libertarianism toward a more liberal/social-democratic politics. In his most recent post, Jim wonders if libertarianism is “an inevitably temporary political outlook.” He notes that many people seem to “outgrow” libertarianism as they age or have kids, or when some other particular circumstance seems to call for deviation from the True Faith, even if they still call themselves libertarians (e.g., pro-war libertarians, pro-welfare-state libertarians). He goes on to admit that part of what moved him away from it was a realization of the concrete effects that some of the policies he’d formerly advocated–Social Security privatization in his case–would have on his family and families less well off than his once they seemed to enjoy some real chance of being enacted.
I was never a “professional” or even semi-professional libertarian, but I did identify with libertarianism for much of my mid-20s. I read Nozick, Friedman, Sowell, Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, etc., and even penned a handful of articles for some libertarian websites. I think that, like Jim, my disaffection was partly intellectual and partly personal. On the intellectual side, I came to see the logical endpoint of libertarianism as a society in which your status is ultimately determined by your ability to pay. In the anarcho-capitalist utopia, for example, people’s rights are supposed to be secured by competing private protection agencies, which presumably operate according to the profit motive. Consequently, anyone unable to pay their way is at the mercy of others. Conversely, the most compelling case for a robust government is precisely the protection of the interests of the weak, and a leveling of the playing field between the weak and the strong. Moreover, the intellectual foundations of rights-based libertarianism (Lockean views of property rights, a strong distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom, etc.) revealed themselves to be much shakier than I thought.
On the more personal side, I had to admit that most of the (modest) success I’ve enjoyed in life wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many of the public institutions that libertarians scorn. My family weathered the storms of Reaganomics partly through the benefit of public assistance; after that, my father was disabled by an accident at work, and our family survived through a combination of worker’s compensation and Social Security benefits; I went to public schools and public universities, partly with the assistance of government-guaranteed student loans and Pell grants. How could I consistently advocate the dismantling of these institutions that had made my life possible? A society without them would be meaner, less equal, and less just than one with them–or so I now believe.
As I’ve gotten older and started a family, my political views have been more informed by what I like to think is a greater appreciation for human frailty. People are not, in general, rugged individualists, including those who think they are. Each one of us is just one accident or piece of bad luck away from becoming utterly dependent on others. The idea that you could tear down the institutions that we’ve built for collective support–rickety and ad hoc though they are–without causing a lot of human suffering is not remotely plausible. And the view that private institutions would spontaneously arise to take their place strikes me as naive.
But at the same time, because of that very fragility, I’ve become more tolerant of human difference and diversity. I’m less convinced than ever that there’s one “right” way to live which can be prescribed for everybody.* As often as not, people are simply making the best they can of whatever hand nature/society/luck has dealt them. Parenting is a good example: there is no end of advice on how to raise the “perfect” kid (however you define that); but in practice, you end up just muddling through a great deal, hoping not to damge your kids too much in the process. Trying to impose a one-size-fits-all model onto human life is likely to do more damage than good. A welfare-liberalism that respects pluralism best approximates the politics appropriate to such a view.
*This isn’t moral relativism, but rather an admission that there can be a variety of legitimate forms of life or “experiments in living,” to use J.S. Mill’s phrase.
Former senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon passed away this week at the age of 89. He was one of the last of the liberal Republicans–someone who bucked his party on many issues.
But Hatfield wasn’t simply a liberal Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller mold. He was a devout evangelical Christian, a virtual pacifist, and a “seamless garment” pro-lifer who opposed abortion and capital punishment.
Hatfield played an important role in the rise of the nascent evangelical Left in the ’70s. This article from Religion Dispatches describes his unique political outlook:
Hatfield did not embody the evangelical left perfectly; he was, after all, an anti-New Deal fiscal conservative in the Republican Party. But he pursued its unorthodox agenda in most respects. He was an unambiguous social conservative on abortion, but against capital punishment. He was an anti-war environmentalist. His populist call for “genuine political, economic, and ecological self-determination” meant reducing “excessive concentration of power” everywhere—not only in the executive branch of government and labor unions, but also in big corporations and the military.
At Reason magazine, Jesse Walker points out that Hatfield once expressed sympathy with the ultra-libertarianism of economist Murray Rothbard, even reading one of Rothbard’s articles into the Congressional Record. Hatfield was so admired on the Right and the Left that both George McGovern and Richard Nixon considered him as a potential running mate!
Hatfield’s outlook seemed to be equal parts evangelical Christianity and New Left counterculturalism. I’m not sure what larger lessons should be drawn from this except to note that there were times when the boundaries between Left and Right seemed much more fluid then they are now, and the role of Christianity in U.S. politics was up for grabs. An alternate history where the most influential version of Christian politics was decentralist, anti-war, environmentalist, and consistently pro-life would certainly be an interesting one.
–Ludwig von Mises versus Christianity.
–20-plus years of Willie Nelson’s political endorsements.
–The media has stopped covering the unemployement crisis.
–The Stockholm Syndrome theory of long novels.
–Why universal salvation is an evangelical option.
–A debate over Intelligent Design ensares an academic journal of philosophy.
–Goodbye birtherism, hello “otherism“?
–Chain restaurants try to adapt to the classic-cocktail renaissance.
–Everything you need to know about the apocalypse.
–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.
–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.
–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.
–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)
–An end to “bad guys.”
–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1″ album.
–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.
–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.
–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.
–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.
–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.
–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.
ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.