In an age of fake news and misleading headlines, it’s so refreshing to hear someone simply come out and state their personal biases, don’t you think? I plan on posting quite a bit of political content to this lovely site, and I wouldn’t have you think that I’m holding out on you, or hiding my true colors. Dear me, no. If someone reads something I’ve written and agrees with me (or not), it behooves both of us to understand where I’m coming from and why I think what I think. And so, I confess, I am a liberal.
Drat. You’ve set the hounds and groundsmen loose, haven’t you? Well, while I’m running away with the rest of the proles, please feel free to read on, that you might better understand how I could say such a thing.
I classify myself as a moderate liberal, which is to say that I believe conservative ideology to be fundamentally flawed, Libertarianism to be foolish, and socialism to be a pipe dream (possibly of the opioid variety, which Marx really should have anticipated). As such, I will argue that the purpose of government is, and must always be in any stable state, to provide necessary services for the common good while protecting personal freedoms as much as possible. I base this argument on seven fundamental points. I will address these one by one.
You may be forgiven for quitting this article in mental self-defense at any point; political philosophy can be so tiresomely onerous, especially when your author has the decency to warn you that he intends to drag you through it. No? Very well.
First, I would argue that human society can and should be better than a state of nature. Whether you are a student of Hobbes, Mill, Locke, or any of the other Enlightenment-era thinkers, all of those philosophers agreed that society is a preferable alternative to a state of nature. So, if society is supposed to be better than a state of nature, what would this state of nature entail? I would argue that a state of nature is one in which everyone is placed in direct competition for the same staple resources, where cooperation is impossible due to mutual antagonism, where mercy is a weakness, where might makes right, and where the individual’s sole focus of attention is on themselves and their survival to the exclusion of all other concerns. In such a state life is nasty, brutish, short, and generally characterized by wasted potential.
This is Hobbes’ “war of all against all;” it is the condition that society reverts to when social order collapses and there’s looting in the streets. The state of nature is anathema to a prosperous humanity, if only because we lack the advantages possessed by most other land mammals; our only successful survival trait as a species is our ability to work together to solve problems and support one another in times of hardship. As such, the state of nature in man represents a social vacuum, and the first natural thing that happens is that it is filled by a society of one sort or another.
What, then, does it mean for a society to be better than a state of nature? Quite simply, that cooperation and tolerance are the norms, and the lowly and downtrodden are not left to rot. I place a lot of emphasis on the latter point, the merciful focus, simply because I believe that every person has the potential to contribute to the progress of society in some form or fashion, and it is arguable that people cannot fulfill their full potential when their sole overriding concern is not dying at any particular moment. I feel that the other points are reasonably self-explanatory; cooperation is necessary to overcome large obstacles, and tolerance is necessary to keep neighbors from killing each other over trifling differences of opinion (which we have been known to do, from time to time — such is history).
Thus, I would argue that cooperation, tolerance and mercy are the hallmarks of a successful human society, a society where people work together with minimal conflict to build a better future. Based on this thought, my version of a utopian society would be one where all citizens have the opportunity to realize their full potential as creative, unique human beings, without having to watch over their shoulder in fear that their neighbor might stab them in the back.
I bloody well warned you. It doesn’t get any less dry. Flee, dear reader, that your eyeballs will not cross themselves just to derive some small shred of entertainment from looking at that pimple on your nose. You know the one I mean. Ah well, if we must press on…
Second, I would argue that in order to work towards this utopian objective (for one never truly accomplishes utopia) people must live with rules and restrictions. As the old saying goes, one person’s freedom ends at their neighbor’s nose. In other words, the basic foundation of a community is the mutual recognition by that community’s residents that certain rules govern civil behavior (such as “thou shalt not murder,” to take an example from a commonly, if quite frequently imprecisely, cited Book). The precise form that these rules take, to my mind, is somewhat immaterial, so long as they exist to reinforce tendencies of cooperation, tolerance, and merciful action.
Furthermore, I think we can all agree that rules must be enforced in order to serve as a guide for appropriate behavior in society and a limitation on those who don’t care for guides. Rules that are not enforced are useless, and enforcement requires an authority backed by force — people can be so willful when they genuinely wish to break their neighbor’s face and steal all of his things, after all, and sometimes the carrot must give way to the stick. Thus, rules require an authority with the ability to enforce them.
Similarly, in order to ensure that a society’s rules are not tampered with, the authority must be prepared to defend the society from outside interference. Of course, the people who make the rules are the same people who ultimately control society. Thus, control of the authority is central to the greater purpose of ensuring cooperation and compassion in a society. The self-interest of rulers and the horrific social consequences thereof is one long, drawn-out constant in the narrative of human history.
Dear reader, if you’re still here, you are a champ. Kindly take a short break to go outside and scream general imprecations against the author’s long-windedness, and then, if you still care, return for more sophistry.
Third, based on the preceding arguments, I would argue that democratic governance is a more desirable form of authority than tyranny as a governmental system. Even philosopher-kings are mortal, after all, and the successor to such a king might not want to be so philosophic. Furthermore, the ability to gain access to the rule-making class has been one of the constant flashpoints of conflict in human history. Democracy is the only system of government devised thus far which adequately rectifies these problems (although an exact definition of democracy is extremely elusive, but that’s another topic). As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government… aside from all the others. Of all the forms of government invented by humanity, only democracies have the potential to allow citizens equal access to and control over the levers of government, and thus equal access to rule-making power.
And here, if I might take a moment for a brief aside — I have no patience whatsoever for whatever pedant might at this point interject, “Ah, but we don’t live in a democracy! We live in a republic! Fnah fnah!” immediately prior to returning to moderate the local high school’s Grammatical Punctuation Correctness Team. The term “democracy” is ridiculously ambiguous and easily stretches to cover republics. Thank you kindly for the interruption, and if your brain has not yet demanded that you adjourn for a self-preservative scotch and scotch, with a side of bourbon, please read on.
Fourth, I would argue that democracy is based on fairness. Without equal access to law-making power, it is an inevitable and foregone conclusion that democracy will devolve into oligarchy (a great number of political scientists believe this has already happened in the US, to no one’s great surprise). Thus, in a democracy, fairness hinges on three distinct points. One, that all adults are allowed to vote. Two, that all adults are allowed to run for office. And three, that every citizen has relatively equal power over elected officials, or to put it another way, that all votes are counted equally. If these three conditions are not satisfied, the system will come unbalanced and oligarchy will be the order of the day, oligarchy being characterized by a large power disparity between groups of citizens. I do not argue that all people should be perfectly economically equal in every way; such a goal is not only impossible under our current economic system, but also demonstrably impossible to implement fairly (the communists had their chance) and dangerous in the sense that it removes incentives.
Dear reader, you could be forgiven for assuming that all liberals are rabid communists, but to many a Red-fisted cadre’s chagrin, this is simply not the case. Communists are delusional in the sense that they willfully misinterpret human nature (i.e., banal short-sighted nastiness and a tendency towards inertia, interspersed with moments of genius and virtue) and therefore always seem to forget to create institutions to compensate for it. Moving swiftly along…
Fifth, I would argue that democratic fairness depends on balances of power in society. I define power as the availability of choices which can impact a person’s world. Choices like these depend on having sufficient resources to implement them. Power disparity implies drastically unequal access to resources, and therefore drastically unequal access to choices. Such inequality is the predicate for poverty; if one group has all the resources, another group cannot partake of those resources (this is what is known as a zero-sum problem). Poverty is destabilizing and a source of conflict (every man wants bread, and a starving man is not averse to killing for it), which at the very least limits cooperation, more frequently relegates a large percentage of a population to survival mechanics, and at worst is the spark for revolution. Poverty indicates a lack of power, which indicates an inability to make choices which can impact one’s world, and prevents an individual from attaining even a shred of their true potential as a human being. Therefore, in order for a good society to exist, or true democracy to exist, power disparity, and by extension poverty, must be kept to a minimum.
If you are still reading, o infinitely patient reader, I’ll let you keep reading without further distraction, since you are obviously here for meat. Well, no further distractions aside from that sentence… and this one. Apologies, I seem to have caught myself on my own line there.
Sixth, I would argue that power tends to accrue in small concentrations when left alone. Another way to say this is that power, when left unrestrained, acts to gather more power. Still another way to say this is that power corrupts. People with control want more control. People with wealth want more wealth. People with influence want more influence. Often this occurs for the most saintly of reasons, but the net effect is toxic. Yet another way to look at this would be to say that the magnitude of error a person is capable of committing is proportional to the magnitude of the choices available to that person. People with less power make proportionally smaller errors; people with lots of power can perpetrate disaster with one bad choice. Add base human nature to the equation, and small concentrations of power look very, very bad for a society’s long-term survival potential.
Furthermore, people with lots of power tend to assume that they deserve it, and are almost universally opposed to sharing power once it has been acquired. This attitude, in turn, reduces the ability of a society to engage in cooperative action or actions benefiting marginalized groups, since any significant action requires power, and is thus subject to the whim of those who hold that power. A very small concentration of power within a society (say, on the order of a 90/10 split with 90% of the power held by 10% of the population) indicates a definite and dangerous lack of fairness in the society, not because the people with power are necessarily undeserving, but because they are people, and therefore subject to the whims of emotion, the weaknesses of insufficient information and personal ability, and the very real possibility of being total and complete jackasses.
Seventh, I would argue that democratic government is, if not the best, certainly the only system with sufficient reach, transparency, accountability and legitimacy to balance out power concentrations in society. Charities do not fulfill this function; people will only give as much as they want to give to a charity organization, and charities have terrible problems keeping a war chest in case of emergencies. Religion does not fulfill this function; in all but the most homogenous societies there are multiple religions, will multiple aims and goals independent of their peers. Capitalism certainly does not fulfill this function; the very aim of capitalism is the accrual and concentration of power via wealth.
In a capitalist society, then, where wealth is naturally the most transferable form of power, the most efficient way to ensure a balance of power is via taxation. The rich should contribute more to the upkeep of society, not because they are inherently bad people, not because they didn’t work hard for what they have, and not because they are being “punished for success,” but simply because a small concentration of power in inimical to the ability of a democratic state to thrive. “Sharing the wealth” is a toxic phrase in political discourse, but I believe it is absolutely necessary to the survival of democracy, in the sense that balancing power is necessary to the survival of democracy.
So, to recap, in my view the purpose of government is to create rules, enforce the rules, and balance power in society for the purpose of ensuring a cooperative, tolerant and benevolent social atmosphere in which individuals can thrive and grow. I believe that only democratic government can accomplish these goals in any kind of long-term fashion, and democratic governments must enforce a minimal level of fairness in their societies in order to accomplish this purpose. Part of this function entails providing a social safety net to catch those who fall, that they might rise again. Another part of this function necessitates allocation of resources for those goods and services which benefit the community and are unlikely to arise from the marketplace, or which are unfairly allocated by the marketplace. Finally, the functions of democratic government can only operate successfully when all persons can access the government, which necessitates democracy and virtually requires some active measures of targeted taxation.
To my mind, the true purpose of government is therefore to allow the greatest individual freedom possible, while promoting cooperative action via legislation and keeping the social balance of power in check. What marks me as a liberal is my contention that keeping power in balance via the government is necessary, my emphasis on the necessity of fairness in society, and my belief that freedom is only valuable so long as an individual possesses sufficient power to enjoy it. All of these opinions are predicated on the belief that our species can only thrive under conditions of cooperation, tolerance and mercy. This in turn is predicated on my historical knowledge that humanity’s sole survival advantage lies in our being able to work together toward common goals — to quote a wise old man, one man by himself ain’t worth a Tinker’s damn.
And the goal of all of this? Not just survival — any bushman can survive. Nor yet just rule of law — any tinpot dictator can enforce that. And not just upholding such a nebulous thing as “freedom” — a man living in a tin shack on scrub-land in the midst of anarchy may be free, but his options are far too limited for him to enjoy. No, the goal of a liberal state in my mind is, not to put too fine a point on it, being able to enjoy life in the reasonable certainty that you will live to see the morning, with as many of the advantages conferred by available goods and services as possible, and in the knowledge that the inevitable problems of life will meet the resolved and stalwart ranks of you and your countrymen and break upon your mass like a wave upon the cliff side.
That, friends and readers (and frankly, if you’ve got this far, you may as well be a friend), is why I’m liberal — because I believe that government must be involved in life in order to make life better for as many people as possible. It is therefore my political goal as a liberal to ensure that government operates with proper oversight, efficient actions, enough resources to be effective, and with reasonable, rational people at the helm. It is also my goal to oppose those who believe that government should not support the people, or that people can do without government — neither statement holds water with me. My grey area is the precise extent to which government must be involved in personal life; there’s enough wiggle room there to have just about any political discussion in modern-day America.
And there you have it, friend. You’re a sport for making it to the end. You have my thanks and appreciation.