Political labels and moral agency

Liberal democracy is an open stage on which we, as moral actors, play out our lives for good or evil.  Other political systems dictate behavior at the point of a gun.  They achieve a sort of morality by means of power and terror.  Liberal democracy leaves the question for the individual to answer.  Freedom means the people must supply, from ground level, the virtues necessary to hold a community together.

Those are the only two systems of government which have ever existed:  the power of the few or the virtue of the many.  For the people, the difference is between being cogs in a machine or players in an unscripted drama.

The question arises of what to call these incompatible systems:  which labels to apply.  Because tyrants and elites hide their hunger for authority behind glorious and seductive  names, this is not a trivial matter.  We must each know who we are.

Current political labels, I think, have had their edges eroded by time and events.  Most Americans refer to two spectrums, indifferently:  right-left and conservative-liberal.  Both wear the outlandish costume of another age.

Left and right named positions in France’s revolutionary National Convention.  The first leftists were republican radicals.  The original rightists wanted a constitutional monarchy – the English-style system so admired by Enlightenment thinkers.

Today, long after Robespierre, Marx, and Lenin, being a “person of the left” is still an honorable calling in Europe – witness Bernard-Henry Levy, who desperately wishes to be thought of as one.  For him, the left entails a keen sensitivity to social injustice, and the wish to mobilize politics, or state power, to impose solutions.  Unfortunately, what counts as injustice and what’s tolerated in state power vary immensely:  it is difficult to see what Levy’s politics have in common with, say, those of Kim Jung Il.

In the US, left and right are often used pejoratively, to imply fanaticism.  It’s what one side calls the other.  A notable exception was the New Left which coalesced around a group of college kids in the Sixties.  While not entirely irrelevant to present-day politics, New Left ideas were more preoccupied with the romance of personal liberation than the hard slog of political work.  Today, the aging heirs of this sect prefer academia to the proletariat, cultural demolition to charging the barricades.

The political right has been in a sense a creature of the left, sliding along in opposition.  It lacks historical definition or coherence, having been composed, at one time or another, of economic interests, unyielding traditionalists, nationalists, racialists, corporatists, clericalists, fascists, and more.

Right and left have nothing useful to say about the many and the few.

Liberal and conservative fare no better.  Unlike left and right, Americans identify with these labels:  about 40 percent call themselves conservatives and slightly more than 20 percent liberal.  The meaning of both terms, however, has been unstable over time.

When the word was first coined in the nineteenth century, liberal meant a believer in limited government and free trade.  If this meaning could be rescued, it would be a clarifier, standing  for the distribution of power among the many:  what we have in mind when we say “liberal democracy.”  But by the twentieth century liberal referred to an advocate of state intervention – again, with huge variation on the limits of intervention.

Classic liberals signaled the need for an open political space in which moral agency could play out; liberals today dwell in a confusion of statist and narcissistic ideas.

This is due in part to the collision between the liberalism of FDR and JFK, with its focus on economics and support of labor, and the New Left ideas of racial and sexual identity and personal liberation.  The result has been a bipolar politics that at once embraces government regulation and untrammeled self-expression.

American conservatism, if not bipolar, has certainly behaved erratically in pursuit of its ideal of small government.  The term implies a defensive posture, and that was the reality of the early history of conservatism, which “stood athwart history” on questions like  states’ rights, balanced budgets, and anti-union legislation.

At moments, conservatism has claimed the standard of classical liberalism:  limited government and free markets.  Yet presidents who called themselves conservatives have inflated the size of the government and expanded its reach.  When terror struck and the economy wobbled, former president Bush, a “compassionate conservative,” placed his faith entirely on bureaucracy and regulation – on the wise elites – and declined to see in the citizen a moral adult.

We now speak of social conservatives, who engage New Left radicalism on the cultural front, and economic conservatives, who want a cheaper, less intrusive government.  The two groups need not agree on any point.  Neoconservatives, on the other hand, are really economic conservatives with an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

It is possible for a liberal to favor the many, and a conservative to empower the few.  The trend runs in the other direction, but not irresistibly so.

The inadequacy of our political labels has inspired the invention of new ones.  The most popular is libertarianism – part classical liberalism, part New Left self-expression.  Libertarians rule the internet:  representative sites are Instapundit and Reason.  I find them enjoyable because they challenge Leviathan at every point of every domain, even those which were swallowed long ago.  It’s a healthy instinct.

But the libertarian posture is mired down in paradox.  Its only rule – do no harm – is frequently wielded by government to regulate behavior, and breaks down in a universal conflict of victimhoods.  At that point, the libertarian must either appeal to traditional values, surrendering the dream of total social freedom, or spiral off toward anarchism and nihilism.

Beyond the libertarians, I find it notable that the “tea party” movement, so much in the news, has consciously distanced itself from our habitual labels.  This may be a brilliant political maneuver, allowing people to fill in the blank, but it also denotes a lack of identity with the given categories of American politics.

Our problem isn’t one of nomenclature but of understanding.  We don’t have names for the two great systems of the many and the few because our thinking has run aground on obsolete categories – we are confused about what is important, and unable to push ahead.  Liberal democracy is primarily an instrument of moral agency.  That this isn’t seen with clarity is just another scandal of a blindly political age.

Few thinkers have turned their attention to the fundamental divide between political systems.  A notable exception is Thomas Sowell, who distilled two clashing visions from most of the world’s ideologies.  One is the unconstrained vision, in which a few brilliant minds employ their dazzling rationality to invent the world anew; the other is the constrained vision, which aggregates many personal decisions made in a condition of freedom.

Sowell’s two visions are my two nameless but ever-present systems.  Think of them as the party of rationalism, based on coercion, and the party of experience, based on private and public virtue.

Now, I have in the past called myself an unlabeled man – but on this clearly-marked landscape, I  know where I stand.

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