Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Philosophy of Being A Liberal

It's pretty simple, actually, and doesn't take a whole book to elucidate.

You accept imperfection in yourself and others. You believe in alleviating suffering, wherever it exists. You reject the notion that some people don't "deserve" help.

The world is an interesting place and you're curious about it. You like to learn and can change your mind if you get something wrong -- and even admit it.

You don't regard your own personal comfort as the defining characteristic of the value of a thing to you. You don't regard personal wealth as the measure of an individual's value.  Having achieved some material success, you worry that it might corrupt you.

You're not afraid to mix it up with individuals who have contrary views. But, you don't regard them ipso facto as inferior or corrupt. We can want  fundamentally the same things and have different views of how to get them.

You understand that economics and politics are means to an end, that they do not exist independently of the individuals that use them; and that the end they serve is "the greatest good for the greatest number." "The economy," like "the Market," is an abstraction useful for describing a subset of human activities; it is not the purpose of human existence.
It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spirit
Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness.
-- Robinson Jeffers, "Apology for Bad Dreams"
Dogma is the enemy of liberal thought (though even liberals can be cornered by it). The essence of the liberal paradigm is that one never arrives at the solution to a given problem, but only at a resolution. That is, problem-solving (social, economic, political) is like viewing a distant object through a telescope. You gradually adjust the view to make the object come into focus, resolving the image. But you never achieve perfect focus, so resolution is a process rather than a stationary endpoint, goal or final result. Further, everyone who looks through the telescope has a different optical paradigm, so what appears to be well-focussed for one viewer is decidedly out of focus for another. So the process of resolution contains not only the viewing but the social interaction necessary to determine the "reality" or "truth" contained in the act of viewing.

Read John Dewey's The Public and Its Problems for a succinct, dense and brilliant account of this concept and process.

You believe that personal liberty is the most significant aspect of the social structure. You can be a successful businessman in a totalitarian state. Personal liberty is not a requirement for economic liberty. Therefore, economic liberty does not guarantee or even imply personal liberty. On the other hand, having personal liberty creates conditions for economic liberty.

You believe that the rights of personal liberty are absolute, that the state has no countervailing right to arbitrarily restrict a citizen's liberty. You believe that the best defense of liberty is living free.  You understand that the government has no vested interest in preserving liberty; liberty only persists as long as citizens demand it, refuse to live without it.

Liberal thought, in summary, is not static, is not a box from which one extracts the appropriate answer to any question; but rather a process of examining the question and formulating an answer based on what is known. As the known expands, the answer changes.  Liberal thought thereby encompasses the unknown in a changing landscape of a perfectible world.

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