Tag Archives: political philosophy

Back To Basics

There is one basic question that every society must answer: what is government for? What is its purpose and what are its proper limits?

Whether you want to call America’s current, vicious civic battles a “culture war,” or an assault by theocrats on the rest of us, one thing is clear: those waging that battle–the “warriors” who are intent upon using the power of the state to impose their beliefs on everyone else–have utterly rejected the libertarian premise upon which American government rests.

Libertarian, in this usage, refers to the nature of liberty, not today’s political ideology.

There is great wisdom in what has been dubbed the “libertarian principle.” Those who crafted America’s constituent documents were significantly influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and its then-new approach to the proper role of the state. That approach rejected notions of monarchy and the “divine right” of kings (the overwhelming authority of the state) in favor of the principle that Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they did not thereby harm the person or property of another, and so long as they were willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.

Government was tasked with protecting that liberty.

The libertarian principle undergirds the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and its operation has been persuasive world-wide. (If we really wanted to make America great again, we would revisit and revive our allegiance to it.)

Those who crafted America’s Bill of Rights believed that individuals are entitled to basic human rights simply by virtue of being human–and they understood human rights to require respect for individual moral autonomy. The term “limited government” is recognition of that principle–“limited” isn’t a description of size, it is a limit on authority, a limit on the power of the state to invade and disregard the individual’s right to self-determination.

Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty.  If those in positions of power and authority can prescribe your life choices, and punish any deviation from officially sanctioned personal conduct, you are a subject, not a citizen–and you definitely are not exercising moral choice.

So what role should government play? What is implied by that libertarian construct?

Allow me to restate it: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–free to “do their own thing”–so long as they do not harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to others.

Those caveats are important, and they require both action and restraint by government.

One of the most obvious purposes of government is to prevent some people from harming the person or property of others. What constitutes “harm,” of course, can be a contentious matter: does my use of profanity constitute a harm to society? What about pornography? Books with “anti-social” content? “Wrong” religious beliefs? (Contemporary Republicans insist that teaching accurate history constitutes a harm.)

Then, of course, there is that little matter of government’s responsibility for ensuring civic and legal equality….

As difficult as our arguments about the nature of the “harms” that justify government action continue to be, Americans have really balked at that second “so long as”–the one requiring those of us who insist on our own right to self-government to “accord an equal liberty to others.” Far too many of us prefer something along the lines of “liberty for me but not for thee.”

The problem with a system in which only some people have rights is that a government with the power to deny me my rights today can use that authority to deny you your rights tomorrow. Actually, a government with the power to grant and/or withdraw rights isn’t dealing with”rights” at all–it’s doling out privileges, and privileges can be withdrawn when the political environment changes.

As a wise man once told me, we’re equally free, or no one really is. Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

 

 

 

Can Conservatives With Integrity Save Us?

Many thanks to all the readers who posted kind thoughts yesterday. They are much appreciated!

Among the regular readers of this blog are several people I came to know through Republican politics. Even then–“back in the day”–I had philosophical differences with a couple of them. (I generally described myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, but even in my politically-active days, I defined “fiscal conservatism” as prudence, as “pay as you go”–not as ignoring the needs of the poor while being generous to wealthy purported “job creators.”)

The thing is, philosophical differences are philosophical. Rational adults can discuss them, agree or disagree about what the evidence tells us, and even find middle ground. As anyone who is following today’s political environment can attest, today’s GOP is neither rational nor philosophical. Its members bear virtually no resemblance to the center-right, generally Conservative party of which I was once a part.

The liberals and Democrats who dismiss help from the so-called Never Trumpers point out that many of them actively worked for the GOP for years and continue to hold very conservative political views. True–and that is their strategic virtue. The crazies who currently control the GOP and its various propaganda arms certainly aren’t going to listen to people like me; they most definitely aren’t going to listen to AOC and think, “you know, she has a point.” When the New York Times or the Washington Post reports that something from Fox News is false, they aren’t going to believe it.

However, when people who are known to be principled conservatives refuse to engage in the propaganda, some who are not entirely lost to the cult may pay attention. So when longtime commentators resign from Fox in protest, it is a hopeful sign.Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg just did that very thing.

We joined Fox News as contributors in early 2009. Combined, that’s more than 20 years of experience, relationships, and friendships. For most of that time, we were proud to be associated with the network, if not necessarily with every program, opinion, or scandal that aroused controversy. We believed, sincerely, that the country needed Fox News. Whether you call it liberal media bias or simply a form of groupthink around certain narratives, having a news network that brought different assumptions and asked different questions—while still providing real reporting and insightful conservative analysis and opinion—was good for the country and journalism.

Fox News still does real reporting, and there are still responsible conservatives providing valuable opinion and analysis. But the voices of the responsible are being drowned out by the irresponsible.

A case in point: Patriot Purge, a three-part series hosted by Tucker Carlson.

As they write, the Carlson piece is not the “hard-hitting expose” Fox is promoting.

it is a collection of incoherent conspiracy-mongering, riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, deceptive imagery, and damning omissions. And its message is clear: The U.S. government is targeting patriotic Americans in the same manner —and with the same tools—that it used to target al Qaeda….

This is not happening. And we think it’s dangerous to pretend it is. If a person with such a platform shares such misinformation loud enough and long enough, there are Americans who will believe—and act upon—it.

This isn’t theoretical. This is what actually happened on January 6, 2021.

The two of them defend the news programming on Fox, which they say “routinely does what it is supposed to do.” If one only turned Fox on for the news, they’d be told that COVID-19 is deadly, vaccines work, Joe Biden won Arizona, the election wasn’t stolen, and January 6 wasn’t a “false flag” operation. But the news side of Fox has been buried by commentary masquerading as reporting, and they’ve had enough.

As they conclude:

With the release of Patriot Purge, we felt we could no longer “do right as we see it” and remain at Fox News. So we resigned.

We remain grateful for the opportunities we’ve had at Fox and we continue to admire many of the hard-working journalists who work there. This is our last recourse. We do not regret our decision, even if we find it regrettably necessary.

We often hear people bemoan the GOP’s “move to the right.” That isn’t really accurate. I don’t know where insanity falls on the political spectrum, but a collection of conspiracy theories and racial and religious animosities are not a political philosophy. Genuine conservatives with integrity understand that the Republican Party is no longer home to people holding genuinely conservative beliefs.Just ask Liz Cheney.

Ultimately, whether our “backsliding democracy” survives may depend on how many principled conservatives are willing to join Cheney, Goldberg, et al. and draw a line in the sand.

 

 

Continuing Important Conversations

There is a Yiddish word that describes how I feel when former students take discussions started in class and extend and elaborate on them: “kvelling.” The closest English translation is probably “taking extreme pride in something.”

I found myself “kvelling” when Matt Greenwood, a former student, contacted me about a blog he was launching; he calls it “Politicology” (which is, I admit, a mouthful). Why the name?

I named this blog Politicology because it will focus on political theories. Living in a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, and when the very language of political discourse has become barriers to civil and fruitful conversations, I feel political theorists have much to contribute.

Matt proposes to address issues of media literacy and the various attempts underway to explain American polarization–as he puts it, to “get to the core ideological differences underlying the controversies of our day.”

As stated in the Politicology mission statement the approach taken in this blog is that of being evidence-driven, non-partisan, and objective. However, it does not make one partisan to comment on how one party breaks democratic norms with greater intent and regularity than another. In fact, it would be irresponsible to disregard truth in the pursuit of balance and false equivalency.

Unlike this blog, which peppers your email in-boxes with daily rants, Matt proposes to post a thoughtful disputation once a month. I encourage you to visit.

Matt was certainly one of my better students, but I have been surprised and gratified by the recent enthusiasm of undergraduate students for political philosophy–and by their engagement with the political system. Our Student Services counselors tell me that the number of graduate students focusing on public policy has also increased substantially.

The apparent reason for these extremely positive changes in student behavior is concern over the democratic institutions of our country–and a recognition of the dangers posed by ignorance and racial and religious animosities.

A few years ago, I developed a class in political philosophy titled “Individual Rights and The Common Good.” It was an exploration of the roots of American constitutionalism, and the inevitable conflict between individual liberty and what the Founders called “popular passions.” It was originally offered every other year, and until last year,  I think the largest enrollment was 15 or so. (It isn’t a required class.)

I’m teaching it again this year, and I have 25 students. Not only that, they are engaged–class discussions are lively, and–importantly–civil; and students “get into” the readings, which begin with Aristotle, and go through Locke, Mill and other Enlightenment figures, and include some pretty dense contemporary writers, including Rawls and his critics, before we consider how that philosophy applies to current constitutional debates.

If we can just keep the ship of state afloat until this generation takes over, I think we’ll be fine.

Go take a look at my former student’s blog!