Friday, February 24, 2012

A Brief History of Liberals

My esteemed colleague in blogging over at Heathen Republican recommended an article which I found as fascinating as it was voluminous. It might seem daunting to a casual reader, but if you have any interest in the history of liberalism from the 17th century to the present, “The Once and Future Liberalism” does a good job, with particular emphasis being placed on the present crisis of liberal identity.

In case you don’t read it (or would like a primer), the ideas presented are thankfully rather simple. Liberalism as a whole is never truly defined in the article, partly because it is a difficult task defining something that changes so often. In fact… I think that ought to be what liberalism is defined as: change. While Obama is no liberal, he (or his campaign) did a flawless job of distilling the very essence of what liberalism is into one simple word we all understand.

The origins of liberalism date back to ancient times and there is a near continuous tradition that weaves its way into the Golden Era of the Muslim world from as early as the 8th century, but liberalism as we know it in the English-speaking world does not come about until the 1600s during the Enlightenment. Liberalism then went through, according to Walter Russell Mead, 4-5 changes, or “versions.”

Liberalism 1.0: Brought on by a whole political and religious sea change which included the Copernican Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, liberalism was essentially the search for a better way. It’s major political accomplishment was ending the autonomous rule of monarchs and the implementation of parliamentary systems of legislation.

Liberalism 2.0: The liberalism of the American founding fathers and France in the late 1700s outright opposed the idea of a king, and their legacy is arguably that of democracy.

Liberalism 3.0: This changed into a more recognizably modern liberalism in the 1800s, with a rise in individualism and the slow process of extending rights to all people, regardless of skin color or gender. In this era, you see the ending of slavery, the push for universal suffrage, and a general view that the “government is best which governs least.” (Thoreau, 1849) This is where modern Republicanism gets its roots, and though the party changes quite a bit, this is still a mindset common among Republicans.

Liberalism 4.0: By the turn of the century, you see that people stop fearing the government so much as they fear big business. The rise of the robber barons results in a truly difficult economic time, and liberalism changes radically under the hand of both Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Democrats like FDR (whose New Deal essentially ushered in Liberalism 4.1). By the end of WWII, liberalism was almost indistinguishable from socialism, and each was an attempt to hold off the spread of full-blown communism.

In this article, Mead does a good job of outlining these forms of liberalism, but I think he misses a step when analyzing the current situation. Still, he’s not making outrageous claims I disagree with… I think he is looking at it differently than I am, and as a result, he doesn’t see what I see.

Liberalism is not aimless, it is only half aimless. Socially, we know what needs to change. Gay people should be allowed to marry. Healthcare is a basic human right all are entitled to. The environment will not defend itself, so we need to do it. We need to close the pay gap between men and women. There’s really a whole host of social justice issues liberals are already rallying behind which are not obsolete with the times. If anything, we have fallen behind the rest of the developed world in this regard.

At this point, I want to point out that Democrats, while occasionally talking a big game on social issues, are largely conservatives who are willing to begrudgingly back gradualism. When I talk about liberalism, I’m going to avoid party distinction.

While I wouldn’t call it a weakness, economic policy is the area in which modern liberalism is at its weakest, and also least focused or principled. While the social sphere is a place where liberals tend to feel comfortable and hold a fair amount of superior ground, most liberals wouldn’t know a free market from a command economy, and the average liberal doesn’t know the first thing about the complications of a modern economy. I know the first thing… not much else.

And yet, the economics of the various versions of Liberalism are really where the interesting changes occur. The social aspects just move in a predictable fashion, but the economics is much more complicated.

The economics of liberalism are impossible to pin down, largely because the economic situation has changed so much and so many times since the 1600s. We have gone from monarchist mercantilism to slave-dependent agrarianism to free agrarianism to laissez-faire industrialism to regulated-industrialism to international corporatism. We also see similar strains of policies played out in different systems.

Take, for example, the spoils system of 3.0 Liberalism, whereby politicians amassed support through organized groups, unions, causes, etc. A sub-leader organizes a large chunk of voters, linked by anything from race to profession, and has them vote as one in support of a politician who promises to not only benefit the group as a whole, but also grant privileges to the sub-leader (many of those at the heads of a large voting bloc could expect a cabinet position if they were important enough, or possibly appointment to a judicial position).

Compare this to cronyism in the 4.0-4.1 system, with government contracts going to donors and preferential legislation or tax loopholes for major corporate supporters. It’s essentially one in the same, only instead of obedience on the part of voters for a sub-leader, money is used to sell candidates through the effective medium of advertising.

What you see is a natural relationship growing between business interests and the government. It reminds me of a problem inherent in Liberalism 1.0 and 2.0: the need to separate church and state (and for that matter, the prohibition of state control of the press).

There needs to be a clear barrier between business and politicians, a separation of work and state. It’s not that I think putting up restrictions will end all corruption, just as religion still weasels its way into the public debate. Rather, putting up a ban is meant to deter and provide recourse in the event of an infraction. Making murder illegal doesn’t stop all murder, but people would be nuts to think we should just let it go unpunished.

There is also a problem in wealth distribution, and I am of the strong opinion we can look to our own past to see how to fight this.

Highly progressive income taxes are not about paying off deficits or expanding government. Rather, the effective reason for taxing income over a certain high plateau is to prevent the accumulation of mega-wealthy individuals who amass generational fortunes, often using that wealth to unfairly influence the political process (or exploit workers, or legally intimidate opposition or competitors, or… really, nothing good seems to come out of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few).

Progressive taxes don’t work by a mechanism of the government “redistributing wealth,” either. It’s not like the government takes the money and just gives it to poor people. Rather, under a highly progressive tax, the private individuals receive diminished returns on their income over a certain point, causing a natural private distribution of wealth. Progressive taxes historically raise the income of all earners except those making most of their yearly income above the threshold of the highest quintile.

These measures were under effect during our 50s, 60s and 70s, when the highest income tax rate was over 70% (sometimes over 90%). While liberalism is about progress and trying new things, that policy worked, and it was only repealed by Reagan, a 3.0 Liberal, who did so under the auspices of 3.0 Liberal ideology, namely, that less government is better. I wouldn’t rollback the separation of church and state, and I think it was a huge mistake the rollback progressive taxes of ~70% at the highest rate.

I would also eliminate corporate taxes and replace them with regulation on the use of corporate property. The reasoning here is that with a proper progressive income tax, it isn’t right or beneficial to double-tax corporate earnings. When a company makes a million dollars, that million dollars should go to pay employees, increase capital, fund research, and basically be productive for those who earned it. However, there needs to be restrictions on CEOs buying “corporate jets” that are used as their own personal toys.

I think the easiest way to handle this might be to enfranchise the workers in the process. If the workers at your company vote to buy you a corporate jet… who am I to judge? Maybe it’s necessary for the business. Who better than the company’s or corporation’s employees to decide whether a luxury yacht named after the owner’s wife is a justified purchase, perhaps even more important than employee bonuses or dental coverage?

This sort of brings up an important point I changed my mind on recently. I used to be very opposed to unions, but it’s become obvious we need them. However, the old idea of unions needs to change.

Just as government does not function well unless it is highly restricted, so it is with unions. Until recently, I found unions to be redundant in an effective democracy, so I’m not coming from a place of glorifying organized labor. There need to be strict limits (maybe even a ban) on union dues. Unions should not wield financial clout; the very concept of a union is that it ought to be about the little guy, but lately it has become hopelessly entangled in elitist glad-handing with the very interests that unions were created to keep in check.

But there’s a lot of stuff about our economic policy I wouldn’t know the first thing about. I couldn’t begin to tell you how we should regulate the financial sector. I know there needs to be more transparency and restrictions on predatory lending practices, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.

I don’t know what the answer is for low-income jobs leaving the US. I think the answer is education and the creation of specialized jobs in advanced field… but we’ll always have people who can’t cut it in a modern intellectually driven economy.

I don’t know what we’re going to do if we turn off the military industrial complex; we basically rely on war to employ millions of people.

These are just a couple of the problems we face, and as the article I read stated time and again, we can’t turn back the clock. We can try to use old policies, but if they fail to work in these circumstances, we should abandon them and try something new, because our situation isn’t going to revert back to the past. We need to adapt, to evolve, to reinvent liberal economics. We need Economic Liberalism 5.0 Beta.

And I’m not the one to do that. Liberalism can do better than me.

1 comment:

  1. I think a ghost of the past in Thomas Paine is a good voice for all these liberalisms. Have you ever read Agrarian Justice? There's a reason the Social Security Administration hosts a copy of that pamphlet:

    Also, there hasn't been a good public case made in the US public sphere for John Rawls's veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance best justifies Paine's government as a guarantor of individual opportunity (as well as liberty which he saw as insufficient in even those days). It can let us reason about which rights should be absolute, and which rights may be forfeited by who to make society bearable. If non-rich people talk about raising taxes on the wealthy, it's class warfare. When Warren Buffett makes a case for raise taxes on his own bracket, he's told to shut up and give on his own (respect private liberty). Every time I present the veil of ignorance as a justification for some kind of contract theory, I'm just flat out ignored (though they respond to other comments).

    I think you're somewhat on to something about corporations here, and I would like to say that we have been helped positively by corporations. The Dutch East India company marked the first time a non-monarchy or non-government ran a very large business organization. It was profoundly democratic considering that other interests at the time often only had 1 or 2 monarchs as the owners/investors. Economic opportunity blossomed for many more than the monarchs, and the floor of wealth was slightly raised (though many were still left dirt poor). I do agree with structuring corporate taxes to a certain goal, though. One would be requirements that compensation be tied to long term performance goals, not short term. Another would be that money goes into a corporation without taxation, but does get taxed upon leaving. The corporation as its own entity (hopefully with the right to free speech revoked) needs to be incentivized to be maintained instead of gutted for wealth. The democratization of corporations to employees is also something I support as a means of removing corporate feudalism. In the realm of personal responsibility and good decision-making, situations where consequences and decision-making responsibility are asymmetric should be fixed. It's a very unliberal and unlibertarian notion to be in a situation where someone else's decision unilaterally upheaves your entire life without at least some input.

    Early liberal/libertarian thought said that man laid claim to property by improving it from its natural state. That by his work, man has rights to property. In a similar way, could labor in a corporation be seen morally as implying some kind of moral duty to assign some ownership? Though absent from modern libertarianism, libertarians of the past even considered that one could not abdicate natural rights. Though some modern anarchistic libertarians claim that one could assent to slavery, the first libertarians fundamentally reject this notion. There are things that categorically cannot be made subject to economics. Could these arguments be made available to Republicans who do believe in strict inviolable rights?

    I think I've incoherently ranted enough. It's hard to read how this flows in the tiny comment box...but these are just some thoughts I've been meaning to flesh out.


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