Political Series: What Modern Liberalism Gets Right

In a previous post, I outlined the fundamental truths on which my political views are built.  In this post, I want to describe some of the things I find useful or correct in the views an arguments of today’s liberals.  (I am not going to do something similar with “the general conservative outlook” because that matches my own much more closely.  I have problems with some common assumptions but not in such a way as to fit into a generalizing post.)

First of all, I want to outline roughly what I am here referring to as liberalism.  I am talking about the strain of thought increasingly common in academic, media, and popular arenas.  It might be dubbed “egalitarian identity-focused interventionism” (or “EIFI” for short).  The philosophical axioms underlying much of this movement could be described as follows: that all persons are in all essential respects of equal value (thus “egalitarian”); and that a “person” necessarily is self-identified (thus “identity”) to some larger or smaller extent, generally in accord with emotions, perceived ideals, or desires.  It appears (at least from the outside) that social groups are understood generally as naturally coalescing from sets of these self-identified persons.

In fact these two axioms seem to be held equally by many who might be called “libertarian” (and thus often “conservative” rather than “liberal” in the modern political dialogue), but on the whole this interpretation of humanity tends to be more commonly associated with political programs which expect the machinery of the state to be the chief means by which society collectively works to correct problems (thus adding “interventionism” to my description, whether the intervention is the commonly discussed economic regulation and redistribution or more directed towards social structures and institutions).  The appeal of such a model given the personhood axioms is fairly simple to understand, and it is possible to summarize the outline of the argument, though perhaps not its details and qualifications, as follows: that persons are (essentially) equal; but in the world we find their circumstances actually (if accidentally) unequal; thus government (whether defined as “force” or “social will” or by some other formulation) must have as a priority the maintenance of the essential reality of equality against such things (entropic or malevolent) which disrupt it.

In the abstract, this is a fairly cohesive social model or ideal.  I believe that, even in the abstract, it faces certain internal paradoxes; certainly when it encounters reality, it proves insufficient to explain actual behavior and even when correctly identifying social flaws, tends to prescribe “solutions” which, at best, only address symptoms.  In the worst case (which I believe we see to some extent even today) this results in those holding this view attempting to coerce unrealistic conformation to their ideal.  But apart from this qualification, I want to move on to talk about some of the things this kind of egalitarian identity-focused interventionist tends to get right.  I divide them into three major categories.

Perhaps its chief virtue is awareness.  At least partly because they find personhood itself defined by identity, the EIFI tends to be very much aware of certain kinds of problems that others, even other activists, miss or ignore.  Particularly in the modern context this has led to a concern about “identities” marginalized or even dehumanized by society generally.  This puts them in a much better position, at least in theory, to address real problems and concerns.

The second main positive of this attitude I am going to call activism.  That is a little inaccurate or incomplete, but because the general expectation of this worldview is that somebody in charge should do something, there is a built in incentive to get that something done.  That can keep a cause driven, even if initial returns are discouraging – the general belief that the problem ought to be fixable is quite powerful.

My final big category I am going to call politism, after Chesterton’s observation that “politeness” and “police” share the same linguistic roots, in the Greek concept of the city.  Chesterton would of course hardly be an EIFI himself, but he would I think be somewhat distressed at the extent to which American conservatives, with whom he otherwise would have much in common, tend to view government as, at best, a necessary evil.  Along with other liberals the EIFI tends to overestimate the good of particular governments, but certainly the idea that governments, speaking generally, exist at all primarily for good purposes is one not to lose sight of.