I’m a liberal

This is a post I keep meaning to write, but keep putting off writing because it isn’t tied to any particular events and therefore isn’t time-sensitive. But increasingly, I’m finding I wish I had it written and out there so I can refer back to it in other posts more narrowly focused on particular events or recent internet chatter. So here it goes.

When I first took the OK Cupid Politics Test, it came out as relatively centrist and ever so slightly to the “libertarian” side of the “libertarian”/”Democrat” divide. I’ve never been comfortable with the “libertarian” label, though, as self-identified libertarians have a strong tendency to be extreme Randians or Nozickians, which I’ve never been. On the other hand, the not placing me in the “Democrat” camp felt right too, since I could think of some economic issues where I favored less intervention than the Democratic party line.

Then something changed. I blame Matt Yglesias, partly because he comfortably uses the “liberal” label without being a party-line Democrat (he once embraced the term “neoliberal”) but also partly because he’s brought me around on particular issues, like Keynesianism and health care. But whatever happened, one day I look around and notice that my political views are reasonably well-aligned with the platform of the US Democratic Party… the biggest exceptions being when, according to current mapping, they’re well “to the left,” like on war and civil liberties.

Oh, you could find a few narrow economic issues where I’d go in for the more permissive view, but the “liberal” label now seems to fit quite comfortably. Upon retaking the Politics Test to write this post, I found that my score had shifted just enough to be solidly in the “Democrat” camp.

There’s a point of view–which I used to share–that says I should find this suspicious. It’s one thing for one political party (i.e. the Republican party) to temporarily end up with a significantly greater proportion of crazies, but at first glance it still looks like the in the US today, “liberal” and “conservative” just mean “the positions of the [Democratic/Republican] party,” and the collection of positions of the parties is basically random.

I know longer think that’s right, for reasons I alluded to here. Here’s a quote from the interview with Yglesias which had I originally just linked to:

People sometimes feel that there is a disjoint between economic issues on the one hand, and social and cultural politics on the other. That these are in tension with one another, or that there is some kind of trade-off between them. One of the main messages of Dworkin’s concept of equality is the idea that government needs to be equally concerned with the welfare of everybody. It sounds almost banal. But actually it has quite radical implications for what constitutes a fair society and a just political order.

Give me an example.

OK. So we’re having this very intense debate about the budget right now. There’s a lot of talk about taxes and a lot of talk about spending programmes, the consensus now being that the retirement age for social security will have to be raised. If you really drill down and look at it, what does it mean to raise the retirement age for social security? You see that for some people, it’s actually a relatively modest change. We are living long lives nowadays, thanks to advanced medicine. We have comfortable jobs, we’re bloggers or lawyers or whatnot. But for other people – a substantial minority of the population – who have low income, much lower life expectancy, who are doing more physical labour and have much worse career prospects, it’s a giant change. For some of the worst-off people it’s a very real blow to their living standards. So if your starting point is “I’m seriously considering the interests of everybody equally”, then this idea – which now passes as common sense in Washington – suddenly starts to look quite horrifyin. There is a consensus around this small change, but it’s a change that has a drastically differential impact on people, with the most negative impact on the most vulnerable.

A more detailed analysis that pretty much ends up at the same conclusion is Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory,  which divides morality into six foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt has found evidence that liberals tend to mainly care about the first three (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression); only conservatives care much about all six. (See more comments on Haidt’s theory from Greta Christina here.)

In many cases, it’s easy to see the application to specific political issues. If you don’t buy attempts to brand gays and lesbians as Them (an appeal to the “loyalty” value), don’t buy the claim that homosexuality is forbidden by God (authority), and don’t buy the idea that it’s unnatural in some sense that has nothing to do with whether it’s hurting anyone (sanctity/degradation), then our other values–the ones liberals and conservatives share–make a pretty clear case for saying gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples.

And lest you think social and economic issues come apart, it’s almost as clear that the value of caring for others leads to the conclusion that some kind of universal heath care is a good idea. Yeah, there are some people who disagree with this on empirical grounds, but it’s still pretty clear that the health care systems of most rich democracies work better than the one the US had prior to the Affordable Care Act.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for disagreement on a lot of specifics, that the process of translating values and empirical evidence into policy isn’t very complicated, or keep even good policies from having some drawbacks. But it does mean that if you start from the values of a Yglesias or liberals as understood by Haidt, and have a non-idiosyncratic reading of the relevant evidence, you’re going to end up with policy views that are broadly liberal across the board.

This also has very little to do with the political theory of John Rawls. Yglesias stresses the idea of equality, a word which in philosophy is most strongly associated with Rawls, but you can like equality a lot without caring for the details of Rawls’ philosophy (much of which I find problematic).

The realizations I’ve described above are a large part of why I don’t find Daniel Dennett’s statement of his sacred values pointless. Just because we all share a set of values doesn’t mean its significance isn’t profound. It also gives me a different perspective on the seeming banalities of the various Humanist Manifestos. When I first saw them, I shrugged, because they do little more than state the near-universal values of liberal democratic societies. Now I don’t see that as such a problem.

In fact, my only objection now to the humanist manifestos is that, because they are so universal, calling them “humanist manifestos” may be misleading. Nor is there anything specifically non-supernatural about the values (though I do think atheism goes particularly well with them, as it gets rid of the idea that God’s commandments override all other morality, as well as the need to minimize the world’s suffering to explain how it could be the work of an all-powerful, loving God.)

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