Obama and Libertarian Paternalism

Obama has been called a left-libertarian by some. While this is a little bit of a stretch, there is certainly a tremendous difference between him and the nanny-state views of Hillary Clinton and some other Democrats. George Will hopes that Obama is being influenced by the ” “libertarian paternalism” philosphy of two of his advisers from the University of Chicago, Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein:

Beginning this autumn, Sunstein, while retaining a connection with Chicago, will teach primarily at Harvard, an act of downward mobility that illustrates a central tenet of “Nudge,” that even intelligent and analytical people often make foolish choices. Thaler and Sunstein correctly assume that people are busy, their lives are increasingly complicated and they have neither time nor inclination nor, often, the ability to think through even all important choices, from health care plans to retirement options. Therefore the framing of choices matters, particularly using the enormous power of the default option—the option that goes into effect if the chooser chooses not to make a choice.

For example, Obama advocates that where defined contribution savings plans such as 401(k)s are offered, there should be automatic—note well: not mandatory—enrollment by employers of new workers. Contributions to such plans are tax deductible, taxes are deferred on the accumulating money and often employers match part of the employees’ contributions. What is at stake is, essentially, free money. Yet when an employee must affirmatively opt in, participation falls far below 100 percent. Obama’s proposal would simply change the default option: Employees are in unless they choose to opt out, which they would be free to do.

Will later gives this definition of a nudge:

By a “nudge” Thaler and Sunstein mean a policy intervention into choice architecture that is easy and inexpensive to avoid and that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing an individual’s economic incentives. “Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

He concludes with comments on the libertarian aspects of this view:

Thaler and Sunstein say the premise of libertarian policy is that people should be generally free to do what they please. Paternalistic policy “tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” So “libertarian paternalism is a relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive type of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened.”

Thaler and Sunstein stress that if “incentives and nudges replace requirements and bans, government will be both smaller and more modest.” So nudges have the additional virtue of annoying those busybody, nanny-state liberals who, as the saying goes, do not care what people do as long as it is compulsory.

Clinton the Wrong Choice For Obama

I don’t imagine that George Will is tops on the reading list for most readers here. Therefore it might be worth pointing out his current column as it pretty much echoes what I’ve written in the past about the prospect of picking Hillary Clinton to be Obama’s running mate. The key point is that, while Obama must look to unify the party, this is not the only consideration. The election will largely be fought over independents, and those former Republicans who are began voting Democratic in 2006. Obama can find other candidates who will appeal to Clinton’s voters without needing to accept all the negatives Clinton brings to a ticket. Will wrote:

Obama’s choice of a running mate will be the first important decision he makes with the whole country watching, so it will be a momentous act of self-definition. If he chooses her, it will be an act of self-diminishment, especially now that some of her acolytes are aggressively suggesting that some unwritten rule of American politics stipulates that anyone who finishes a strong second in the nomination contest is entitled to second place on the ticket.

Behind the idea that Obama should run in harness with Clinton is this wobbly theory: Because the Republican Party is in such bad odor, if you unify the Democratic Party, that will suffice to win the election, and she is a necessary and sufficient catalyst of unity. But she is neither. She would be a potent unifier of John McCain’s party, thereby setting the stage for exactly what the nation does not need, another angry campaign of mere mobilization rather than persuasion.

Surely she, the most polarizing Democrat, is not the only Democrat who can help Obama appeal to the voters who rejected him in Kentucky and West Virginia. And as his running mate, she would nullify his narrative. The candidate embracing the “future” should not glue himself to Washington circa 1993. Someone promising to “turn the page” should not revert to an earlier chapter. Someone whose mantra is “change” should not embrace her theme of restoration — that the 1990s were paradise and Democrats promise paradise regained.

She, whose experiences as First Spouse have not impressed Obama as acquisitions of national security expertise, would not help him deflect McCain’s predictable attack on his thin curriculum vitae. And the more she seems to be pushing Obama to choose her, the more resolutely he must resist. Otherwise, at the beginning of a contest in which McCain will portray him as a flimsy figure, Obama will define himself as someone who can be pushed around.

Clinton certainly will not help Obama on national security matters, unless the race comes down to who is most qualified to fend off imaginary sniper fire. Clinton has no match on that one. Unfortunately she also has few matches for dishonesty in politics, having morphed into a virtual clone of George W. Bush. Beyond fighting such imaginary sniper fire, her national security credentials are highly exaggerated, along with all her other claims of being the more experienced candidate.

Thomas Frank Responds on Elitism and Bitterness

Barack Obama’s recent comments on small town American voters have been compared to the writings of Thomas Frank. I discussed these views at length yesterday in this post. Today The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed from Thomas Frank.

Frank looks at whether Obama, and Hillary Clinton, are elitist:

Consider, for example, the one fateful charge that the punditry and the other candidates have fastened upon Mr. Obama – “elitism.” No one means by this term that Mr. Obama is a wealthy person (he wasn’t until last year), or even that he is an ally of the wealthy (although he might be that). What they mean is that he has committed a crime of attitude, and revealed his disdain for the common folk.

It is a stereotype you have heard many times before: Besotted with latte-fueled arrogance, the liberal looks down on average people, confident that he is a superior being. He scoffs at religion because he finds it to be a form of false consciousness. He believes in regulation because he thinks he knows better than the market.

“Elitism” is thus a crime not of society’s actual elite, but of its intellectuals. Mr. Obama has “a dash of Harvard disease,” proclaims the Weekly Standard. Mr. Obama reminds columnist George Will of Adlai Stevenson, rolled together with the sinister historian Richard Hofstadter and the diabolical economist J.K. Galbraith, contemptuous eggheads all. Mr. Obama strikes Bill Kristol as some kind of “supercilious” Marxist. Mr. Obama reminds Maureen Dowd of an . . . anthropologist.

Ah, but Hillary Clinton: Here’s a woman who drinks shots of Crown Royal, a luxury brand that at least one confused pundit believes to be another name for Old Prole Rotgut Rye. And when the former first lady talks about her marksmanship as a youth, who cares about the cool hundred million she and her husband have mysteriously piled up since he left office? Or her years of loyal service to Sam Walton, that crusher of small towns and enemy of workers’ organizations? And who really cares about Sam Walton’s own sins, when these are our standards? Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.

It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world – the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes’ folks, the most populist fellows of them all.

Frank notes which party is the champion of encouraging and taking advantage of bitterness:

Conservatism, on the other hand, has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement’s job is to “organize discontent.” And organize they have. They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial. There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry.

Consider the shower of right-wing love that descended in February on small-town newspaper columnist Gary Hubbell, who penned this year’s great eulogy of the “angry white man,” the “man’s man” who “works hard,” who “knows that his wife is more emotional than rational,” and who also, happily, knows how to “change his own oil and build things.”

Frank concludes with a summary of his views:

If Barack Obama or anyone else really cares to know what I think, I will simplify it all down to this. The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy. If some candidate has a scheme to reverse this trend, they’ve got my vote, whether they prefer Courvoisier or beer bongs spiked with cough syrup. I don’t care whether they enjoy my books, or would rather have every scrap of paper bearing my writing loaded into a C-47 and dumped into Lake Michigan. If it will help restore the land of relative equality I was born in, I’ll fly the plane myself.

Voting on Values and The Working Class

Obama’s “bitter-gate” comment led to a lot of controversy over very little. Obama gave a brief answer to a complex question at a fund raiser,  which the Clinton and McCain camps tried to distort to earn their own political capital. The attempt was to suggest that Obama was insulting voters in small town America, but so far there is little evidence that anyone has taken this very seriously.

After all the political posturing began to die down, there has been some more serious discussion as to whether Obama was right. This is actually difficult to give a definitive answer on as Obama was giving a very brief response in answer to a complex question, and even Obama later stated he was displeased with the wording used. It is hardly remarkable that an attempt to give a brief answer to a very complex question without advanced preparation would not turn out to be a definitive response on the issue.

Paul Krugman, whose blind Obama-hatred has seriously compromised his ability to think straight and write coherently,  has attempted to look at the actual issues in a recent column. Krugman has at least finally been convinced, partially by a recent column by Larry Bartels, that Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s the Matter With Kansas? is incorrect. Franks argues that Democrats have been losing because they have abandoned economic populism, allowing lower-income voters to vote Republican, against their economic interests, based upon values issues.

There is some truth to this but I disagree with Frank’s inherent assumption that voting should be based upon economic issues as opposed to on values. Franks also fails to recognize, as Bartels argued, that there are many of us affluent liberals who could also be said to be voting against our economic interests. From the perspective of electoral politics, Franks might be right that Democrats could regain some voters on economic issues by shifting to the left, but this would also cost them the support of many other voters.

Both economics and values are considered in voting. People will vote against their economic interests, but only to a certain degree. For affluent liberal voters there are things in life which are more important than dwelling on a few percentage difference in the marginal tax rate or the capital gains rate. Making money, at least for those of us who already have it, is relatively easy and I’m not going to compromise principles in voting out of fear that taxes might go up a little. I’ve rebalanced my portfolio in response to the decreased rates on capital gains in the past, and this year I’m looking at changes under the assumption that capital gains rates will increase next year. (As an aside, such investment strategy is why the Laffer-curve absolutists are incorrect in their claims a decrease in the capital gains tax definately results in increased tax revenue, and an increase will result in decreased tax revenue. A lower capital gains tax will lead to  shifts in investments to take advantage of the lower rate, but the more important question is not tax revenue gained by lowering the capital gains tax but tax revenue lost on other investment income.)

With regards to the current election, there is reason for affluent liberal voters to support Obama. On the other hand, I see no reason to support a candidate such as Hillary Clinton who is conservative on social and civil liberties issues and populist on economic issues. Krugman, preferring the more economically populists candidates such as Clinton and Edwards, tries to put a negative spin on both Obama’s comments on class and voting as well as on his supporters:

Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book, which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class.

Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while “dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Obama campaign?

This raises the question of whether Obama is really making the Thomas Frank argument as Krugman and Bartels suggest. For Obama to be making this argument really is counter to what Obama has said at other times, and is counter to the reason why “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” back Obama. Krugman, again blinded by his Obama-hatred, is content with assuming there is a contradiction in Obama’s beliefs as opposed to looking further. If he was willing to actually consider Obama’s views he might realize that his interpretation of what Obama said was incorrect.

Jonathan Chait does the best job I’ve seen of actually evaluating Obama’s comments.  Recognizing that the issue is far more complex than can be analyzed based upon Obama’s brief answer in San Francisco, Chait looks at the issue by reviewing past comments from both Obama and Bill Clinton:

Obama’s offense, as we all know, was to call white working-class voters “bitter” over their economic misfortune during the last few decades, and thus prone to “cling to” guns and religion. Taken literally, Obama was saying that these voters have taken up religion and gun ownership only over the last few decades–a notion so transparently false that he surely couldn’t believe it. And, in fact, he doesn’t: In a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, Obama described how traditions of hunting and churchgoing stretch back generations. He proceeded to argue that, in the absence of plausible economic improvement, people in small towns will vote on the basis of those traditions that give their lives stability. This is not a controversial view among Democrats. Bill Clinton once said that Republicans “find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them”–a less respectful expression of the same analysis.

Chait provides a further look at voting based upon economics versus values:

To urge the white working class to vote on the basis of economic policy is itself considered an act of elitism. When Obama and other liberals reproach blue-collar whites for voting their values over their wallet, argues Will, they are accusing those workers of “false consciousness.” A Wall Street Journal editorial took umbrage that Obama “diminishes the convictions of those voters who care more about the right to bear arms, or faith in God, than they do about the AFL-CIO’s agenda.”

But nobody’s challenging the validity of caring more about your religion, or even your right to hunt, than your income. The objection is whether it makes sense to vote on that basis. There are, after all, stark differences between the two parties on economic matters. Republicans do want to make working-class voters pay a higher proportion of the tax burden, restrain popular social programs, erode the value of the minimum wage, and so on.

Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting. A few years ago, their gun-control agenda revolved around issues like safety locks, banning assault weapons, and other restrictions carefully designed to have virtually no impact on hunters or average gun owners. Now Democrats have abandoned even those meager steps. The GOP’s appeal on those “issues” rests on cultural pandering rather than any concrete legislative program.

And, while it may be elitist to say so, voting for a politician merely because he can mimic your lifestyle is not a very good idea. George Will and the Journal editors would never dream of voting on the basis of which candidate related best to their culture. They support the candidates who share their policy goals, not those who share their passion for watching baseball, or flogging the servants, or whatever other pastimes they may enjoy.

Now, it’s true that many working-class whites also vote on social issues that do have some political relevance, like abortion or gay marriage. It’s certainly not irrational on its face to vote your values over your wallet. (Democratic billionaires do it, too.) On the other hand, conservatives routinely express their fury that a majority of Jews stubbornly flout their own “self-interest”–defined as low tax rates and a maximally hawkish Middle East policy–to vote Democratic. The process of trying to persuade others to reconsider the nature of their self-interest is not some Marxist exercise or an accusation of false consciousness. It’s what we call “democracy.”

One problem with many appeals to vote Republican is that it is based upon falsehoods and scare tactics. As Chait notes, “Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting.” Despite this, Republicans have based many campaigns upon using scare tactics to tell voters that Democrats planned to take away their guns, and even bibles. The support by liberal Democrats of our heritage of separation of church and state is distorted as representing an attack on religion, ignoring the fact that historically it has often been religious leaders who argued for the importance of such separation to preserve their religious freedom. It is voting based upon such scare tactics, not voting based upon their values, which I believe Obama was really trying to get at in his answer in San Francisco.

The Libertarianism of Barack Obama

While Paul supporters have made the most noise, Barack Obama has received the support from many libertarians. This has especially been the case as it became apparent that Bill Richardson, who was the first choice of many libertarians, had no chance at the nomination. I’ve often noted Obama’s appeal to libertarians. I’ve argued that Obama is not a libertarian, but with his exposure to free market viewpoints at the University of Chicago and elsewhere he at least shows signs of understanding and respecting views ignored by many Democrats.With Ron Paul finally exposed as a right wing extermist and not a true libertarian, Obama remains the only sensible choice for opponents of the war who lean libertarian. As a former professor of Constitutional law, Obama has stood up for defending the Constitution, including separation of church and state.

Daniel Koffler goes even further than I have in actually calling Obama a left-libertarian, along with noting that those who see little philosophical differences between the Democratic candidates are in error. Koffler finds that “there is a deep and profound disagreement between the candidates on how to approach public policy questions, one that implies highly discrepant visions of governance.”

Obama’s preference for reducing healthcare costs while preserving the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in the healthcare system, as against Clinton’s (and Edwards’s) insistence on mandating participation, is not a one-off discrepancy without broader implications. Rather, Obama’s language of personal choice and incentive is a reflection of the ideas of his lead economic advisor, Austin Goolsbee, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago, who agrees with the liberal consensus on the need to address concerns such as income inequality, disparate educational opportunities and, of course, disparate access to healthcare, but breaks sharply from liberal orthodoxy on both the causes of these social ills and the optimal strategy for ameliorating them.

Instead of recommending traditional welfare-state liberalism as a solvent for socioeconomic inequalities and dislocations, Goolsbee promotes programmes to essentially democratise the market, protecting and where possible expanding freedom of choice, while simultaneously creating rational, self-interested incentives for individuals to participate in solving collective problems. No wonder, then, that Obama’s healthcare plan is specifically designed to give people good reason to buy in, without coercing them. Likewise, as George Will reported in a column from October, Goolsbee’s proposal for reducing income inequality is to lower barriers to higher education, the primary factor in determining future earnings, and noticeably does not rely on state interventions in the market, which can succeed at equalising income at the price of reducing it across the board.

Goolsbee and Obama’s understanding of the free market as a useful means of promoting social justice, rather than an obstacle to it, contrasts most starkly with the rest of the Democratic field on issues of competition, free trade and financial liberalism. Back in the spring of 2007, when the term “subprime mortgage” was beginning its ascent to ubiquity, Goolsbee composed an impressive op-ed in the New York Times, noting that – fraudulent lending practices aside – subprime products are a powerful tool for democratising the credit market and opening it up to lower socioeconomic strata, and had been substantially successful in reducing financial constraints on working-class people. Crack down on fraud by all means, but don’t cut off an important avenue of economic empowerment for working people, and most of all don’t do so in the name of working people.

The evidence that Obama heeds Goolsbee’s lessons is ample, his healthcare plan being but one of many prominent examples. Whereas Clinton has recently taken to pulling protectionist stunts and rethinking the fundamental theoretical soundness of free trade, and Edwards is behaving like the love child of Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, Obama instinctively supports free trade and grasps the universe of possibilities that globalisation opens up, and seamlessly integrates it into his “audacity of hope” theme. As he remarked in a recent debate: “Globalisation is here, and I don’t think Americans are afraid to compete. And we have the goods and the services and the skills and the innovation to compete anywhere in the world.”

At the moment, Obama’s and Clinton’s positions on trade are roughly equivalent – both deserve credit for taking initial steps toward dismantling the obscene US government-supported agricultural cartels – but the present dynamic is Obama moving more and more in the direction of economic freedom, competition and individual choice, and Clinton wavering if not moving away from it. Obama proposes to address the “actuarial gap” in entitlement programs – actuarial gap being a term congenial to if not lifted straight from Niall Ferguson‘s analysis of generational accounting – in part by raising the cap on payroll taxes, but in part by creating incentives for personal retirement accounts, fostering, if you’ll pardon the term, an ownership society. The idea, as with his approach to healthcare, is to bring individual self-interest and collective needs into harmony, and let rationality do the work from there. (Hillary Clinton, in case you’re wondering, disagrees.)

Similarly, while Obama’s support of immigration and immigrants undoubtedly derives in part from straightforward internationalism and humanitarianism – Obama’s lead foreign policy advisor is Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell, under whose guidance Obama has directed far more attention to the Darfur genocide than any other candidate – it’s likely that part of Obama’s embrace of immigration stems from a Goolsbeean view of free movement of labour as inextricable from and essential to a free global market.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Obama’s belief in freedom in labour markets and freedom in capital markets, sets him apart from the Republican field as well as the Democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect Republicans at least to respect free trade, but alas, they are inconsistent at best. As for freedom in immigration, even in politically propitious times, the modern GOP makes tactical concessions toward its xenophobic wing; in this season of famine, the Republican candidates, even those who have supported immigration in the past, have set up their nominating contest as a race to see who can take the most thuggish and contemptuous possible attitude toward Mexicans (the euphemism for this posture is “out-Tancredo-ing Tancredo”).

Ironically, the nativist lunacy sweeping through the GOP underscores the conceptual connection between free trade and immigration, as mutually supporting pillars of economic freedom. Obama properly understands economic freedom as the best vehicle for accomplishing the historic goals of the left, which Irving Howe and Lewis Coser long ago described as wanting “simply to do away with those sources of conflict which are the cause of material deprivation and which, in turn, help create psychological and moral suffering.”

In other words and in short, Obama’s slogan, “stand for change”, is not a vacuous message of uplift, but a content-laden token of dissent from the old-style liberal orthodoxy on which Clinton and Edwards have been campaigning. At the same time, Obama is not offering a retread of (Bill) Clintonism, Liebermanism, triangulation, neoliberalism, the Third Way or whatever we might wish to call the business-friendly centrism of the 1990s. For all its lofty talk of new paradigms and boundary shifting, the Third Way in practice amounted to taking a little of column A, a little of column B, and marketing the result as something new and innovative. Obama and Goolsbee propose something entirely different – not a triangulation, but a basis for crafting public policy orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis.

If this approach needs a name, call it left-libertarianism. Advancements in behavioural economics, public and rational choice theory, and game theory provide us with an opportunity to attend to inequality without crippling the economy, enhancing the coercive power of the state, or infringing on personal liberty (at least not to any extent greater than the welfare state already does; and as much as my libertarian friends might wish otherwise, the welfare state isn’t going anywhere). The cost – higher marginal tax rates – is real, but eminently justified by the benefits.

George Will on Obama

The amazing thing about Barack Obama is the manner in which he is receiving praise from conservatives as well as liberals. George Will compared Obama to the two populist candidates, John Edwards and Mike Huckabee:

Barack Obama, who might be mercifully closing the Clinton parenthesis in presidential history, is refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee — an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic “fights” against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.

Sam Donaldson Warns of Excessive Influence of Religion in Government

Newsbusters and other conservatives are upset that Sam Donaldson warned about the increased influence of religion on public policy in recent years. Donaldson hedged on the actual terminology of Christian theocracy. What Donaldson is speaking of falls far short of total theocracy with government based completely on religious rule. Donaldson is correct in his warnings about increased religious influence on public policy. The transcript from the discussion on This Week is below the fold.

Donaldson was speaking most directly about Mitt Romney’s recent speech along with the emergence of Mike Huckabee as a front runner. It should also be recalled that two other Republican candidates, John McCain and Ron Paul, have also made claims that this is a Christian nation. Conservatives have increasingly been promoting a revisionist history which denies our heritage of separation of church and state and the intention of the founding fathers to create a secular government. We have a president who believes God chose him to be president and advised him to go to war in Iraq. Some have also claimed that Rumsfeld’s decisions on the war were also inspired by God.

There are many examples of the increased influence of religion on public policy. Conservative challenges to abortion rights, funding of stem cell research, intrusion in end of life decisions in the Terri Schiavo case, and opposition to the rights of homosexuals are the most prominent examples in recent years. Republicans have also attempted to set by legislation the moment when a fetus can feel pain regardless of the medical facts.

In education there have been the attempts to sneak in teaching on creationism (even if called intelligent design) and limit teaching of evolution. However it is not only biology that faces attacks. Religious fundamentalists attack established science on cosmology when they disagree about the origins of the universe, and object to geology when they disagree over the age of the earth. Many believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. The Bush administration has even backed religious fundamentalists who object to the geological age of the Grand Canyon, preferring the view that it was created in the biblical flood. Many Republicans insist upon teaching abstinence-based sex education in place of effective sex education.


Questions for Obama

George Will poses seventeen questions for Barack Obama. These aren’t the top questions I would ask him, and I don’t share some of the assumptions behind some of his questions, but I wouldn’t mind a more detailed explanation from Obama as to his beliefs on these issues.

This got me thinking about what I would ask Obama if I had the opportunity to question him. If I had the opportunity for follow up questions, I would begin with just two questions which might get to the heart of a major theme of the Obama campaign to get beyond the current partisan stalemate and change the direction of American politics.

My first question would be, “Which beliefs which are more commonly accepted by conservatives and Republicans do you agree with and would be seen in the policies you would pursue as president?” My second would be, “Which ideas which are commonly accepted by Democrats (if any) do you reject?”

In 2003, John Kerry could have answered these questions with satisfactory answers. Kerry supported balanced budgets before it became popular among Democrats. Kerry has a long history of supporting small business. Kerry made opposing the trial lawyers and backing malpractice reform a part of his health care proposals. Unfortunately in 2004 far less was heard of these ideas as he listened too much to his handlers and simplified his message.

I’ve also seen traces of answers to these questions from Obama, but I also fear that as the campaign goes on he will increasingly become a generic Democrat as Kerry did in 2004. Hopefully Obama proves me wrong on this prediction.

The Meaning of Liberalism

During the past few years there was considerable unity among those of us with a wide variety of beliefs in opposing the reactionary policies of the Republican Party. Labels of liberal and conservative have become partially redefined by where one stands on the Iraq War and a handful of social issues, with economics, which used to be a primary distinction, no longer being as significant. Patricia Cohen tackles the question of what liberalism now means in The New York Times.

Political labels are necessary in political discussion but have many faults. They frequently lump people together who have quite disparate beliefs, and can even separate those who are in agreement on many issues. The right has become particularly skilled at using labels as weapons, as they redefine liberalism to be something derogatory and define conservativism to mean something quite different from what has been practiced when conservatives have been in power.

Recently I’ve discussed more what liberals are not than what they are. In April I wrote that the characteristics of liberals described by John Hawkins has no relationship to my actual views. I dismissed George Will’s description of liberals more recently.

Cohen’s attempts to find a definition for liberalism is complicated by the fact that attempts to divide most opinions outside of the extremes as liberal or conservative will lump many people together with diverse views. While I can define what liberalism means to me, there may be others who define their views in a very different manner.

Liberalism stems from liberty, and above all else liberalism stands for individual liberty. Therefore liberals are united in opposing the violations of civil liberties seen under the Republicans who believe that the Bill of Rights is limited to the Second Amendment and see the American Civil Liberties Union as their enemy. Liberals defend both the basic liberties defended by the founding fathers, and seek to restore the checks and balances on government power were eroded under Republican one party rule.

Liberals are concerned about fundamental liberties including freedom of speech, the press, and religion. There is no uniform position with regards to the right to own guns, with many liberals supporting reasonable precautions as opposed to abolition. Liberals understand, as did the founding father and religious leaders of the past, that freedom of religion is only possible with strict separation of church and state. This is not an anti-religion viewpoint as the propagandists of the right would claim. Nor does this represent a lack of values as liberals may be religious, or may hold moral and ethical values outside of a religious framework. Liberal support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, or for homosexuals to marry, stems from a belief in individual liberties, not out of a lack of morals as conservative propagandists would claim.

Liberals support a free market economy, but this leaves room for a variety of interpretations ranging from classical liberals supporting laissez-fair capitalism to those supporting increased government action. Liberals oppose both socialism and the system of government/corporate collusion promoted by conservatives, and I see neither as capitalist system. If not for the many other negative connotations of the word, fascism would be a far more accurate description of the economic policies being promoted by many Republicans, but using this label would denote an extremism which even the Bush administration has not reached.

Conservative propagandists would define liberalism based upon the most extreme advocates of big government, but I see this as more of an aberration in liberal belief. My position is sometimes referred to as a big tent libertarianism, or as being socially liberal and economically conservative. This label has failings too as I might agree with conservatives on some economic issues and disagree on others.

In reality there is considerable pragmatism as opposed to ideology on economic issues among liberals. Liberals do not necessarily desire higher taxes as conservatives would argue, but neither would liberals accept a Grover Norquist pledge against raising taxes regardless of the situation. While Cohen considers a support for proactive government to be a fundamental belief of liberals, this is more a matter of pragmatism. Liberals will utilize government where necessary, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism about government. Liberals neither must advocate bigger government in all cases as conservative propagandists would claim, or oppose government in virtually all situations as many conservatives do. Liberals can support the necessary social safety net for those who need it without supporting a net so big that it strangles us all.

This pragmatism comes as liberalism is largely a way in which problems are viewed as opposed to holding a strict set of unchangeable beliefs. Liberals have a reality-based viewpoint, where conservatives view the world biased by ideology and their religious beliefs. Liberals accept the findings of science on evolution and climate change, where conservatives believe they can ignore scientific evidence which conflicts with their beliefs.

This failure to accept a reality-based outlook also intrudes upon politics, with many conservatives continuing to claim that Saddam threatened us with WMD and had ties to 9/11. These views are largely fed by conservatives obtaining their information from propaganda outfits of the right, leading them to see anything which presents facts conflicting with their imaginary world view as liberal bias. In this context, Stephen Colbert was right about reality having “a well-known liberal bias.”

Views on foreign policy are harder to divide based upon the liberal versus conservative spectrum. Liberals are fairly united in opposing the current war, but I would differ with Cohen’s quotes of some anti-war liberals that “dislike of the Bush administration colored their judgment of the war and affirm that ‘we are not realists.'” While this may be true of some, for many of us it was the realization that the war was such a tremendous blunder which led to our dislike and distrust of George Bush. As time has gone on, the facts have only strengthened the case that opposition to the war was the correct position for those of us who are realists.

Viewing past wars makes the distinctions between liberals and conservatives less clear. Vietnam was escalated by Lyndon Johnson and other liberals, but many claim that John Kennedy would have never done this. Ultimately the war was opposed by most liberals and backed by most conservatives. Therefore the Vietnam war cannot easily be used to differentiate liberals from conservatives but might demonstrate another important difference. While some liberals may have supported the war initially, many learned from this mistake. Conservatives attack “flip-flopping” as a great evil, while liberals will change their policies as new information is available and conditions change. The desire to “stay the course,” even when clear that the course is wrong, far too often defines conservative thought.

Cohen refers to many additional works on the meaning of liberalism which will sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with my definition. This diversity of thought is yet another important element of liberalism.

Update: Further discussion from Michael P.F. van der Galiën

George Will’s Case For Conservativism

George Will has an op-ed on The Case For Conservativism but he never makes a case for, or even clearly defines what he is defending. He begins with a description of conservatives versus liberals which I’ve seen used frequently in the past by conservatives, but not by liberals:

Today conservatives tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Liberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome.

I’ve had many posts here in which I discussed core liberal values. Freedom generally headed the list. While perhaps I should have considered it, equality of opportunity never even made it onto my lists. With a start such as this, it came as no surprise that the bulk of Will’s column described a liberalism which has very little to do with my beliefs.

Will discusses his version of liberalism throughout the column, and conservativism is generally defined to be that which opposes this faux-liberalism. Just as Will’s version of liberalism differs tremendously from my views, his conservativism as anti-faux-liberalism sometimes is actually closer to liberal beliefs.