Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Recently, Prof. Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune attempting to define what it meant to be a liberal. He asks for debate in response to his "Top 10" list. Debate it is. These thoughts are a bit general, as I am attempting to tackle entire systems of governance in this post, but I do believe that there is some substance to my words.

To start off, I have been troubled for awhile by the hijacking of the term "liberal" by the political left. In the 20th century, political leftism has largely stood for statism - an ever-expanding state, intruding into the lives of its citizens, depriving citizens of their individual freedom in pursuit of an ill-defined conception of "equality." The liberty-equality tension continues to fascinate me, but that's another topic for another time. "Liberal" in its most basic form means "free" - and I fail to understand how the statism of the left does anything but suppress freedom. "Conservatives" have a shameful record on this matter of late, to be sure, but their philosophical skepticism of government generally does more to foster freedom than the left's love for government.

In any event, Stone claims initially that the first tenet of liberalism is, broadly, free speech. The first tenet of just about any reasonable person should be free speech - no argument here. However, reason demands that untruths be confronted and debated. Free speech demands responsibility. Everyone has the right hold an opinion, but reason dictates that not all opinions are legitimate. All too often liberalism seems to deem all statements equal, when reason shows that is not the case. There is no place for government suppression, but there is a case for individuals speaking out against untruths.

Stone then claims that liberals are champions of tolerance and respect for difference, pointing to their cupport of affirmative action and the Equal Rights Amendment. I fail to see how being a champion of tolerance leads directly to support for affirmative action. In many ways, policies like affirmative action aggravate differences among citizens. Affirmative action has its merits, but it is false to claim that respect for differences naturally leads to support for affirmative action. (Oh, and the Equal Rights Amendment already exists - it's called the 14th amendment, and it was ratified in 1868. It's insulting to women to argue that they need their own amendment for protection.)

Third, Stone claims that liberals believe individuals have the right to participate in public debate, a notion consistent with the first point. He then points to liberal efforts to expand the franchise - a noble cause, although it must be noted that the franchise must be a valued portion of citizenship, and therefore it is incumbent on societies to determine what citizenship means. For example, if an individual withdraws from the social contract by committing a felony crime against society, it is perfectly reasonable for that society to deny him that citizenly right of voting, as he showed little regard for the tenets of society when committing his felony. Obviously, state suppression of votes is morally wrong, and vigilance over the integrity of elections is very important. But elections are also dependent upon law and must be administered according to the laws settled upon beforehand.

Stone contradicts his stance on free speech, however, with his embracing of campaign-finance reofrm. The arguments against campaign-finance reform on free speech grounds are prevalent, but it seems quite obvious to me that the censorship of political speech before elections is slightly inconsistent with the first principle. And perhaps even the third principle, advocating participation in democracy.

Stone's sixth point is the proverbial "road paved with good intentions." History has shown that government is quite bad at "helping those who are less fortunate." I believe that society and individuals have a categorical imperative to help those who are troubled, but government is usually least effective at this mission. It is individuals who are best at pursuing their own interests, given the freedom to do so. Government simply does not have the same set of incentives as each individual, and to assume that its actions are best is to insult and disserve wide swaths of the population. The sixth point runs largely contrary to free market economics.

Stone appeals to populism in his eighth point, eulogizing "liberal" judges, who have protected individual freedoms and due process, while demonizing "conservative" judges, who, in his words, have "protect[ed] propoerty rights and the interests of corporations, commercial advertisers, and the wealthy." Funny, I was not aware that the property rights of the wealthy were less important than the property rights of the poor. Western governance is based on a fundamental understanding of the sanctity of private property, and to assign a relative value to property based on the nature of the owner is to undermine that entire system. And it is actually liberal judges who trampled on the individual freedoms of the citizens of New London, CT, when they approved the confiscation of middle-class homes by the state in the Kelo decision. Some protection of individual liberty.

Stone's ninth point makes no sense, which he himself admits, calling his argument for government protection of the people "less a tenet of liberalism than a reply to those who attack liberalism." This seems to be a point devoted to basically saying that liberals aren't wimps. Fine. But there's a big difference in the history - just contrast the statements of John F. Kennedy or Harry Truman, liberal - and American - heroes with those of the political left today. Something tells me that the American left today would not issue an ultimatum to Cuba threatening nuclear war against the USSR if missiles were launched, as Kennedy did.

In sum, Stone attempts to claim for liberalism many tenets which are shared by all reasonable people in a democracy. He admits that his list is not exhaustive, nor is it propietary solely to liberals. His error, in my view, is his connection of abstract principles - which are largely shared by all - to current applications, which often don't rationally follow.

Oh, and I just found this at TCS Daily, which was similarly inspired - and much more worthy of publication.