Sunday, April 5, 2009

On being a liberal

I am a liberal. I don’t mean that I am a leftist. That’s a separate question. The “left-right” frame was an artifact of industrial capitalism, which is dying. Neither am I using the “classic” sense of an economic liberal – i.e., libertarian. This isn't a matter of whether or to what degree one favors state involvement in the economy.

I’m talking about basic disposition. Saying that one is a liberal or a conservative is, most fundamentally, I think, a statement about which end of the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty spectrum one finds oneself.

If you’re a liberal, you tend toward glass-half-full. You’re inclined to take risks, because you have an underlying, unconscious expectation that things will work out, will get better. You’re more excited about than fearful of the future. You think our species is evolving toward something better, and you’re willing to take the chance that that’ll work out even in your own and your children’s lifetimes.

If you’re a conservative, you tend toward glass-half-empty. Being a conservative is an entirely respectable thing to be. It, too, is not at all identical with being a right-winger. Being a conservative means that you are deeply grateful for the discoveries, sacrifices and progress of our predecessors – so grateful that you’re hyper-aware of their vulnerability. You believe that we have always hung on by the skin of our teeth. You know that “human nature” is a mix of the beautiful and the horrific. You look around you, and at history, and all over the face of it you see the evidence of humans’ reptilian brains at work. You see the Holocaust, you see Stalin, and Pol Pot, and Mao. You know that power corrupts, that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and you want to architect things to reduce the possibility of anything “absolute” taking shape. Sacrificing rapid progress seems an acceptable price to pay for avoiding catastrophe. (By the way, one of the ways you attempt to architect things is to disperse power as widely as possible – precisely to avert the concentration of political power that Lord Acton feared. And your supreme achievement in that respect – so far, pre-Internet – is the Constitution of the United States.)

It’s impossible to prove which of these dispositions is “right.” I, of course, would be inclined to argue that evolution – even “thinking” itself – is fundamentally grounded in what I’m calling the liberal, glass-half-full, forward-leaning disposition. After all, where is natural selection among genes (and memes, and all replicators) projecting its efforts, if not into the future? But I suppose a conservative, glass-half-empty, momentum-slowing type would argue that nature is providing all the trajectory of that sort that we need, thank you very much. He or she might say that the Big Bang is doing just fine propelling the universe into the “future,” and that humanity’s part in that future is, after all, tiny – i.e., that we shouldn’t get big-headed about our own role. No, this wise conservative would say, we appeared, we will disappear, we will not turn out to have mattered much in the scheme of things… but while we’re here, we can seek to make the best of it – and that requires being grown-ups, not teenagers.

Both liberal and conservative dispositions are very different from radical dispositions. Radicals are far less modest, far more certain, far more willing to go “all the way,” far more self-indulgent. Sometimes they perceive crucial truths – things that liberal and conservative dispositions are ill-equipped to understand. But it’s usually dangerous for radicals to come to power.

So making good political judgments is not about simply "We're right and you're wrong" -- though surely that is often the case, in both directions. And it's not a matter, obviously, of "choosing" the right disposition. We do not choose them, they choose us. What we can do is to do our best to understand the times we live in, within the limits of our impulses and intelligence (of all kinds, emotional as well as intellectual) -- and then take actions that are based on those present realities.

In some respects, the Obama Administration is oozing toward actions that I think are grounded in the present and the era that's now taking shape. But in one very important respect -- tackling the financial mess -- they're not. And it's not because they're too far left or too far right. It's because, I believe, our president is not liberal enough, in the dispositional sense I am using here. More on this in a later post.

1 comment:

David Berger said...

Interesting frame. Under this construct, I think you could say someone like Ronald reagan was a dispositional liberal, and someone like post-1994 Bill Clinton was a dispositional conservative. And I agree that this construct is very useful in assessing a macro-political ebb and flow.

The thing is, however, Barack Obama's 2008 appeal lay in the public's belief that he was a liberal as you define it. He mollified the party insiders by appealing to their innately conservative dispositions. The question is, which Obama was the "real" Obama? (of course, as you've alluded to before, the scary thing is that there may not be a "real" Obama.) But it's hard to get past the fact that Obama has political capital precisely because he positioned himself as a transformational leader.