Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Autonomy?

Though the name of this blog was sort of a last minute panic to have some place to announce while I still could, I did pick it because it means something to me (though considered some kind of irreverent or semi-comedic name but nothing funny or original enough came to mind).  I first explored the concept of autonomy in my post "One Liberalism through the ages" where I used Alan Wolfe's definition for liberalism:  "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take."  

Baked into that phrase is the need not just for "freedom" or "liberty" but the need for something beyond the mere absence of formal restraint those concepts entail.  That extra thing is the positive means to act on goals in addition to the negation of barriers.  That's what one needs to have that say over the direction taken in life. That's what autonomy is, and I think it is at the heart of liberalism.

I thought then and think now that autonomy is a powerful concept that liberals* should promote more often.  As it is a superset of freedom or liberty, we could dispense with those terms as insuffient to describe our goals. As I noted in the piece linked above, I have never liked the term "liberty" very much.  At least partly because it is abused so insincerely by right wing demagogues but also because it really is loved by the powerful as the absence of restrictions on their ability to take from the powerless.

This peculiar use of "liberty" by conservatives could be better broadcast to the public if liberals had a competing and powerful concept to promote, one which allowed them to critique the limits of liberty and point out how it allows conservatives to insist on deregulating business and regulating women's bodies or which consenting adults can get married.  This isn't inconsistent for them:  They're powerful (or wish to be) and regulations on business harm them.  Regulations on women or gays do not (and even empower them in some ways).

One of the powerful tools of persuasion employed by conservatives all these years is the ease with which their pundits and spokespeople can easily link complex policy discussions to simple principles.  They're often wrong or deliberately misleading, but they're good at it, and leave liberals in the disadvantaged position of trying to demonstrate how some small sacrifice of nominal personal choice or money would lead to disproportionately greater net social benefits.  So let them have freedom and liberty and instead sell autonomy.  Does policy X sacrifice autonomy for many to support freedom for a few?  Having comprehensible philisophical grounds to say why right wing policy ideas generally do just that can only help win the message war without trying to fight it the way conservatives do.

Finally, just being able to demonstrate and explain what liberalism is, while challenging conservatives to do the same would make for an important constrast.  One of the themes at Open Left was this idea that most self described conservatives and moderates actually believe in a lot of liberal policy ideas.  Decades of rigorous social science research undoubtedly bears this out, but now after listening to moderate and centrists beat the left up for two years that we can't expect too much from Obama because the country is so right wing, maybe it's time to try and change that imbalance.  We hoped to convert the persuadables by demonstrating the power of liberal ideas in practice (the whole "governing well" thing), but we didn't really get to implement the good ideas that would measurably improve their lot in life.  The New Deal model is a pipe dream for the time being, and America really can't afford to wait for another collapse caused by implementing right wing ideas.  We need a better option than waiting for another Great Depression in order to persuade America to try again for a Great Society.  Autonomy probably isn't the end-all of that but I had to start somewhere, and an attempt at a first principle seemed like the place.
* - I generally use liberal and progressive synonymously even though I know some see a distinction.  I slightly prefer liberal so I tend to use it for both.


  1. I do like the idea of autonomy as a core liberal idea. I suspect in general it will appeal more to those who identify as liberal than as progressive. Those who, like me, prefer the progressive label tend to focus on a less individualistic core. (I don't intend that to be pejorative - if it sounds that way, I'm open to making the point differently). But I can easily move from the ideas I put at the heart of my worldview to autonomy.

    That aside I wonder about abandoning an term because it has been abused by conservatives. Any term that gets wide currency will no doubt meet the same fate. (This includes neoliberals using it to try and legitimize their unpopular agenda). What's more, it is the emotional connection to words like freedom, liberty or equality that make them powerful.

    My suggestion would be to think about freedom-as-autonomy and equality-as-autonomy. This might still allow us to connect our ideas to terms people already positively associate with, while allowing for a fundamental differentiation between the conservative versions.

  2. According to Wiki, autonomy from the Greek is "self law." In that regard, it carries a whiff of the individualism that would appeal to someone's libertarian instincts, and the self in conjunction with community is moved to the background. But, there is a powerful aspect to autonomy that is quite consistent with the ideas of economic and social justice when it intersects with what some refer to as a choice set. Can one be autonomous - immune from arbitrary exercise of authority or politically independent - if ones choice set is narrowed with regard to their health and well being? I would argue that any meaningful sense of autonomy is the ability to choose from among an array, and when basic elements are unavailable in an array, such as the ability to provision for oneself, autonomy is extremely limited if not utterly absent. This is the notion that is missing from most discussions in economics that rely on the rational actor, and appears only in those discussions which have been marginalized within the profession. Autonomy and choice set seem to go hand in hand to me, and it seems unlikely that one can meaningfully talk about economic or social justice without talking about the choices available to individuals. When the choices available to the many are constrained - made artificially unavailable - by the privileged array of choices held by the few, then immunity from the arbitrary exercise of authority and politically independence are illusory. Human dignity exercised through autonomy, or autonomous choices, cannot be found independent of the prevailing conditions for social and economic justice.

  3. David: I actually cut a paragraph that didn't fit that started to address the tension between autonomy and the individual/collective spectrum. It's worth more discussion certainly because I am not a reflexive individualist and am happy to have the collective decide certain things for me. Autonomy does seem to lean towards individualism but maybe that concern is resolved in the realm of pragmatic and empirical measurements of how to maximize autonomy collectively - that we allow the individual as much choice as is feasible while prohibiting unduly socially burdensome choices from the menu. A bit of Mill's harm principle.

    bystander: Yes. Shorter you : It's hard to give a crap about "choice" when your only choice is whether you starve or freeze to death. Maslow's hierarchy wasn't a perfect model for human preferences and needs, but it does express something legitimate - also always loved Anatole France's comment that went something like "the law in its majestic equality forbids both the rich and the poor from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges."

  4. Personally, I don't like the word autonomy, even though I generally approve of the way Daniel is using it here. Bystander's take is closer to mine, although I would add that to be effective, the relationship between the individual and the collective has to be a) a sort of feedback loop, and b) mindful of the group dynamics which act to devalue the contributions of the majority of individuals, and ultimately the individuals themselves.

    This was what democracy -- and its republican derivatives -- were supposed to do for us. That over the long run, neither has done anything of the sort is a puzzle which has tied every honest political thinker from Marx to MLK (and, of course, Anatole France) into knots.

    Until liberal social democracy comes up with some alternative to dialectical materialism on the one hand, or social Darwinism on the other, to explain why most of us always wind up as slaves, then I'll have more respect for autonomy as a political concept. Until then, I remain as skeptical as ever about bumper-sticker advocacies left OR right.

  5. Don't know where to put this, but I guess here will do:

    You seem to have left an H out of the link to Atrios.

  6. Thanks William, fixed. Opening night jitters and such.

  7. @Daniel

    I suspect the individualism / social distinction, for the purposes of our conversation here, are more issues of emphasis for rhetorical effect. The key is to unite the two. I tend to focus on what I consider to be the twin principles behind the US Constitution - equal personhood and popular sovereignty. (This may, of course, not work for anyone else.)

    That said, any core idea has similar dilemmas, i.e. if there are no curbs on action, then no one is free. That doesn't mean these concepts are incoherent, only that we have to get beyond surface meanings to better articulate what we're getting at.


    Until liberal social democracy comes up with some alternative to dialectical materialism on the one hand, or social Darwinism on the other, to explain why most of us always wind up as slaves, then I'll have more respect for autonomy as a political concept.

    I tend to think the issue is this. Exclusionary, partial democracy is unsustainable, and therefore no democracy at all. We need democratic principles in all areas - i.e. economic too, and extended to all people.

  8. William:

    I agree there are certainly limits to bumpersticker slogans, but we currently have the disadvantages inherent to bumpersticker politics, and our bumpersticker either sucks inherently or is conflicted and confusing. I think I will say a bit more about this because it gets into the topic of what ideas the public is ready for, that maybe you can't go from 0 to utopia even if you know how utopia should work, that you have to route through better-than-shitty, meh, meh-plus and pretty-good before the ideas that make utopia can be even discussed. So having a foundation of some kind of more enlightened view of human potential is better than "each for himself and the devil take the hindmost."

    I definitely don't have the wider answer to a sustainable and equitable economic system. Managed capitalism is the least worst of the ones we've tried, but I will rally to the flag of a better one the moment I find it.

  9. David:

    It's more than that. It's psychology, i.e. the kink in human thought which always seems to produce the same results no matter how hard rationality tries to fence in the known propensity for evil. What I always loved about Paul's writing was that he acknowledged the failure of the Enlightenment on the one hand, while on the other, found in the social sciences a reason for optimism which, frankly escapes me, however much I'd like to believe in it. My view is darker, even if my allegiances are the same as his. Compare Paul's analysis to that of Francis Fukuyama or Brad DeLong, though, and you begin to see a) how shallow they are, for all of their obvious brilliance, and b) how radical -- and, I think essentially correct -- Paul is to cast his analytic net as wide as he does.


    Yeah, I know. Ain't it a bitch? We none of us have found what we're looking for yet, but at least we know where to look, and more importantly, where NOT to look. Smart fellas, and rich fellas especially, point at us and laugh. To which I reply, in my best Lord Whorfin voice: Laugh while you can, monkey boy.

  10. Mmm...come to think of it, that line may not have one of Lord Whorfin's after all. I'd have to go look it up, but I suspect that it was really spoken by John Bigbooty (BigbooTAY).

    God, is that movie actually 25 years old? I guess it is. Forgive me, but I sometimes refer to carriage returns and phono cartridges too. (It seems that old and quaint are more or less synonymous.)

  11. Like it or not, the individual is the basis of society and therefore, "autonomy" is relevant to human endeavor. Of course, the simplistic notions of "individualism" as characterized by Libertarians fails because there is little, or no, expectation that the individual participate in building the communities in which they exist and which benefit them in many ways (often unacknowledged).

  12. @William,

    It's more than that.

    Right you are. It's one thing to be optimistic. I'm afraid my comment bordered on glib.

    That said, I don't think psychology ever is determinative. It can shape tendencies, but it never determines how those are manifested. We all have innate propensities for evil, but also for good. But most of us take for granted that people feel close to their family, to those who are conventionally seen as close to them. Others of us identify with a group of people in a larger group. Where these lines are drawn differ across cultures, over time, and between individuals. As a result, I feel they are not inevitable.