Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Future of the Democratic Party: A Liberal Manifesto

All the pundits are speculating on what Democrats should do to win on the next round so here are my $.02:

(1) Take back the VISION--of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Reaffirm Liberalism's core value: minimizing the extent to which peoples' freedom and opportunities are constrained by dumb luck, e.g. by morally arbitrary, unchosen characteristics and circumstances like race, sex, ethnicity and disability or the social and economic circumstances of one's family of origin.

We can't eliminate the constraints or even come close, but we can move a little ways in that direction: liberals believe that it's worth moving as far as we can in the direction of neutralizing the effects of dumb luck and that the most effective way to do it is through government programs. Good, free public education and income transfers to poor families go some way toward neutralizing the effects of family poverty on children. Health insurance schemes prevent people from being wiped out financially if they have the bad luck to get sick. Anti-discrimination regulations aim to minimize the constraints on individuals the are a consequence of race, sex and ethnic origin.

Some conservatives think that liberals fail to recognize that people are responsible for their actions. The opposite is the case. Liberals distinguish between the consequences of individual's choices for which they are responsible and the consequences of conditions that they did not choose for which they are not responsible. Liberalism is not about care and compassion--it is about fighting against Nature (red in tooth and claw) which deals out people's hands arbitrarily and limits their options. It is about making the world a more rational place by fighting against the arbitrary constraints imposed by dumb luck, in the interest of expanding individual freedom so that individuals, insofar as possible, can live the kinds of lives they choose.

(2) Don't commit to policies that are outside of the VISION.
There's no reason why Liberals understood as keepers of the VISION should be doves rather than hawks (or vice versa). "Peace" got tacked onto the Liberal agenda during the war in Vietnam when, ironically, the Left demonized Johnson, the most liberal of American presidents, for promoting the war in Vietnam. Now Americans misperceive dovishness and, more broadly, wimpiness as the core of liberalism--and Kerry has suffered for it.

There's also no reason why keepers of the Liberal VISION should be environmentalists or take any particular position on most "lifestyle issues." Environmentalism. Some environmental concerns are fundamentally elitist: there's a real conflict of interests between urban professionals who want to preserve wilderness and loggers, factory workers and others whose livelihood depends on industries that encroach on wilderness and degrade the environment.

I'm not suggesting that Democrats should adopt the Republicans' positions on these issues but just that the party should remain neutral on them, as it is on a variety of other controversial issues like the the development of genetically modified foods, animal rights or capital punishment. Democratic candidates shouldn't be required to tow any party line on environmental issues, abortion or any other issues that aren't directly and uncontroversially connected to the core Liberal program which is fundamentally economic: equal opportunity in employment, borrowing and housing, social safety nets, public services and income transfers.

(3) Don't care about don't-cares
A creche in the park for Christmas, prayer in the public schools and "under God" in the Pledge of Allegience? Big deal. Reciting religious formulas in school won't make anyone religious or traumatize anyone.--it's meaningless BS. Planting two ton boulders with the 10 Commandments inscribed won't have any more influence on people than putting buddha staatues in Chinese restaurants. Fundamentalists may have the superstitions idea that these things work ex opera operato but people who object to them presumably should know that they don't have magical power.

Whatever is the problem? Leave it alone.


Matt Zwolinski said...

The first element of the vision sounds like a winner, given a sufficiently conservative notion of what counts as "dumb luck." Nobody likes to see people suffer because of cyclical changes in the economy, catastrophic accidents/illness, and the like. But liberals would be well-advised to break ranks with Rawls who claimed that even one's propensity to work hard, think about the future, and make prudent choices is essentially a matter of "dumb luck." a) That's just not going to resonate with the public, and b) Trying to minimize the effects of *that* kind of dumb luck would be a disaster.

And liberals would also do well to realize that dumb luck comes in all shapes and sizes. Being laid off because one's company is unable to compete in the global market is a kind of dumb (bad) luck. But living in a wealthy society with lots of opportunities to go around is also a kind of dumb (good) luck. We should take care in our quest to alleviate the former sort of dumb luck not to undermine the system that produces the latter.

Anonymous said...

There are two ways to promote the liberal project.
1. Prostitute oneself to religion and magic.
2. Let the deists go to hell in a bucket, and take some of us with them, until the only option they have left is some kind of rational materialism.
I trust that you are not opting for the former?

Unknown said...

Matt, I don't think there was ever a serious disagreement on principles at the grass roots level so much as a disagreement about strategies and plain empirical facts.

Grassroots conservatives believe that regular folks--as distinct from lawyers, politicians and other slick talkers--are basically nice and that, left to their own devices, will be fair, compassionate, generous and neighborly. I think everyone stinks and that without heavy government regulation and extensive social safety nets funded by coercive taxation, will turn the country into something approaching a "traditional society," an upscale Afghanistan or Somalia.

Grassroots conservatives don't see any real connection between the taxes they pay and the social benefits they expect. They imagine that taxation is tribute to corrupt rulers, as it was until fairly recently in human history and still is in most of the developing world, and that any "tax relief" they get is a pure, cost-free benefit.

Most importantly, grassroots conservatives are fatalistic. They see poverty, drudgery and economic insecurity as facts of life no more amenable to change than the laws of nature; they believe that liberal programs aimed at improving quality of life can't succeed, will impoverish them without producing any benefits, and will either create social chaos or lock them into a Stalinist police state.

I'm only exaggerating slightly, but hyperbole is fun and this is my blog so I get to do it.

bls said...

I like that thing about "fighting against Nature." That's the best, most robust argument in favor of liberalism that I've ever heard.

But, so sorry, no prayer in school, please. You can pray in church and you can pray at home and you can pray on the sidewalk outside the school and you can pray by yourself sitting at your desk anytime you'd like. But school is for learning trigonometry and the important exports of Belize. Church is where you pray. Matter of fact I've met some conservative Christians who don't want just any old prayer in school; they see their kids as a "captive audience," too, and want to decide what kind of praying they do. So, no prayer at all, please; it does have significance to many people.

Unknown said...

Nope. This assumes falsely that there are no effective contraceptives and that as a matter of biological necessity women who have babies must keep them, act as "primary parents" and disrupt their lives and careers. They can dump them and get on with their lives just like men do.

Liberals have shot themselves in the foot by taking the position that no compromise on the abortion issue is possible on the assumption that any restrictions on the availability of abortion in any circumstances, at any time in pregnancy are just a ploy to move toward a total ban. This isn't what voters want. All evidence suggests is that what most Americans who oppose unrestricted access to abortion want is just (1) restrictions on late-term abortions and (2) control over adolescent daughters.

Abortion is an animal rights issue. I have no compunction about killing bugs, slugs or other invertebrates. It doesn't bother me when the cats kill lizards--but mice are another thing. I'm a mammal chauvanist. I wouldn't have unwanted kittens or healthy adult dogs or cats put down for convenience. My veterinary bills run close to $4000 a year cuz I'm nuts about my beasts: I had expensive cancer surgery for our late rat, Stinker, and have been dosing our 16 year old cat, Tom, with antibiotics twice daily for the past 3 years--for which he is not grateful: I have the scars to prove it.

Like most Americans I don't have any problem with early term abortions or stem-cell research. Embryos and early term fetuses are more or less like invertebrates, fish, amphibians or reptiles. After that it starts to look more like exterminating rats or drowning newborn kittens and, eventually, like putting down adult dogs.