Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Liberalism?

In early January, Paul Krugman wrote something that actually cuts to the heart of perhaps the most important distinction between liberalism and other ideologies, particularly right wing ideologies like conservativism and libertarianism.  Discussing the idea of minting a platinum coin in order to circumvent the Republicans' ability cause a US debt default, Krugman writes:
For many people on the right, value is something handed down from on high It should be measured in terms of eternal standards, mainly gold; I have, for example, often seen people claiming that stocks are actually down, not up, over the past couple of generations because the Dow hasn’t kept up with the gold price, never mind what it buys in terms of the goods and services people actually consume. 
And given that the laws of value are basically divine, not human, any human meddling in the process is not just foolish but immoral. Printing money that isn’t tied to gold is a kind of theft, not to mention blasphemy. 
For people like me, on the other hand, the economy is a social system, created by and for people. Money is a social contrivance and convenience that makes this social system work better — and should be adjusted, both in quantity and in characteristics, whenever there is compelling evidence that this would lead to better outcomes. It often makes sense to put constraints on our actions, e.g. by pegging to another currency or granting the central bank a high degree of independence, but these are things done for operational convenience or to improve policy credibility, not moral commitments — and they are always up for reconsideration when circumstances change.
I submit that this pattern is not unique to the issue of monetary policy.  Krugman has hit upon a nearly ubiquitous theme that underlies the debate between ideological schools over the ages.  Whatever you call these sets of ideas (liberal, progressive, conservative, traditional etc.), and allowing for individuals who evade the norms while still realizing there are meaningful norms, you end up seeing that again and again, the ideologies of the right (though not solely, them, Marxism for example falls into this trap) start with a notion of what "should" be that is abstract and supposedly self-evidently correct, and then insist that policy and sometimes reality itself should conform to that ideal.

So, money should be permanent, fixed value, unchanging (or even growing in value over time) and never mind how the policies that come closest to meeting this ideal (gold standard) don't work very well for the real people and societies they're tried on, that's the ideal, and it should be adhered to whatever the costs.

Liberalism doesn't work this way.  It does not start from a sacred writ that outlines all outcomes and presupposes all solutions.  It attempts to understand how real humans actually behave, and what motivates them and goes from there to find the best available policy options to bring about the desired outcomes in terms of widespread happiness and prosperity, of, as the title of this blog says, autonomy for all.

First:  What is Ideology?

It's impossible to discuss ideology without first defining the thing.  People have a lot of notions about this, and I find most of them wrong.  But this is not the place to debate it.   For my purposes, ideology is simply your view of how the world works, and to some extent your desired organization for it, that best meets your goals for the world.  How do you decide whether tax cuts would be a good policy?  Or mandatory minimum sentences?  Or drug prohibition?  All this must be based on some view you have about how people think and act (either individually or in large groups) that tells you whether human responses to these policies will be desirable or detrimental to your pre-existing goals for societal organization.  If you think lowering taxes leads to increased economic activity and growth, and think "growth is good for society" than you are ideologically in favour of lowering taxes (absent other details like how much, and what government services might need to be cut and so forth).

Even if you think there is a hard, true "pragmatic" set of policies that "work" - you still need ideology to tell you what goals to have for those policies.  A hammer is good for driving nails, but without a plan for what to build, it does not itself build a barn or a doghouse.  Goals matter, and are intricately linked to ideology.  Two people agreeing a hammer is the best tool for building do not share "ideology" if one wishes to build a barn, and the other a doghouse.

Next:  What is Liberalism?

This is another major topic with many plausible perspectives.  Hopefully you need not wholly agree with my definition in order to follow the remainder of this essay.  I have previously borrowed the definition of liberalism supplied by political scientist Alan Wolfe, who supplies a definition I will summarize as "as many people as feasible should have as much autonomy as possible."  But I wish to extend this somewhat today, as that is merely a statement of goals and values - it doesn't specify how liberals approach this problem.  That is a vital and necessary part of what comprises a liberal.

In my last post at Open Left, I hit upon this other side of the issue.  I posit that what brought humanity out of the Dark Ages of ignorance, fear, witch burning and lethal leechcraft was what we now call "the scientific method" - the process by which those we call "scientists" examine evidence, posit explanations for phenomena, contrive repeatable experiments that could invalidate those hypotheses, and analyze the results, ready to modify their theories if the experiments provide a different result than the hypothesized outcome.  Science has no special name for this.  It is not called the "Davinci method" or the "Newton method" - there is no competing or alternative scientific method that tries to grow the field of human knowledge of nature in some alternative way.  It is simply the scientific method.  If you are not employing this method, you are simply not doing science, and anything you discover or learn is sheer happenstance and of dubious value until confirmed by someone using the scientific method.

Science does not claim to have a perfect understanding of anything.  It is always open to revision upon presentation of new evidence.  Even such things that are sometimes called "laws" (like thermodynamics, or gravity) are in fact merely highly regarded theories for which there is no current evidence providing any reason to doubt them.

Liberalism, in short, is that, but applied to ideology, as I wrote:
In the field of pursuing the ideal human society, liberalism is the science of pursuing human well being.  It combines the empiricism and rationalism of science with the goal of maximizing human happiness.  The process is iterative and the specific means change as well meaning ideas are found wanting, and as science improves our understanding of humans themselves and what it takes to make them happy.  There is no other school of thought that both seeks to improve the lot of all, and actually can do it.  The ultimate goal of liberalism is that we should not need the word "liberalism" because no one would need a special word to describe the self-evident way people determine solutions to societal problems.  That's what liberalism is, and why it must win or all humanity will fall back into ruin, scarcity, ignorance and fear.
That is the twofold definition of liberalism's means and ends I wish to employ and distinguish from the primary ideological schools of right wing thought.

This essay will be continued in a second post.

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