Political Liberalism (Against Radicalism)

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Murali

Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Kim
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    Article suffers from a lack of reading on radical feminism.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Kim
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      how? The criticism I raised was actually famously raised by Susan Okin against Rawls.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Murali
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        A radical feminist would give a completely different critique of liberalism, and a more broad-spectrumed one than the one you pose.

        I’m not saying what you’re writing is wrong in any way, just that it surprised me to look at feminism being addressed under “The Radicals”… and for it not to be about radical feminism.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali
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        I’m sure there are more radical feminist criticisms. But if liberalism fails according to even not so radical standards, mentioning the radical criticisms would be superfluous right? But point takenReport

  2. Avatar Michael Drew
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    Good post. Of course, if you adopt the strictly Euro/non-American understanding of the term liberalism, then it doesn’t quite go to quite the same issues that the moderate/center-left and the more uncompromising (or aspirational) left have with each other, both here and in Britain Europe (I think) – it more just compares classical liberalism with Leftism. I actually can’t quite tell which you are adopting here, or whether it might be inclusive of such variants (which is a conception of liberalism I wholeheartedly endorse, though, as I say, it moves the discussion slightly away from what Ethan and Shawn are getting to, which is really more of an intra-Left tactical/strategic discussion). But it’s still a fine post.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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      Britain slash Europe (and elsewhere).Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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      Sorry; I skimmed.

      This is very good on the point:

      I will like to give a rough outline of what liberalism looks like in academia. This is not to give a normative or linguistic criterion of liberalism, but just to try as best as I can to give a brief survey of the field. Liberalism refers to a range of views ranging from a more right of centre libertarianism and classical liberalism to a more left of centre high or sometimes called left liberalism. These ranges of views all share some central features

      They all provide some kind of priority, though not necessarily a strict or lexical priority to some traditional list of basic liberties such as conscience, association, speech as well as freedom of occupation and to some limited private property rights in so far as they concern personal possessions. With very few exceptions, academic liberal theorists are sceptical of group rights, though they do not necessarily subscribe to any substantive underlying individualism. Liberalism also makes a distinction between private and public where it is the latter which is appropriately governed by justice. As a whole, liberalism is only weakly paternalistic. Not all liberalisms are paternalistic, but those that are do not consider it acceptable to coerce people in order to benefit them in ways that they would not count themselves benefited. Thus liberal paternalism limits itself to coercively helping people achieve goals that they themselves acknowledge as worth pursuing, but does not treat coercion of people to achieve goals that they do not accept as being any kind of paternalism at all. Liberalism in general also tends to have a stronger commitment to the rule of law.

      Much of leftism is liberal in these regards, but some of it is radical and not liberal.

      I would say, though, that most leftism, even what I would say is a liberal leftism, does not eschew coercion for paternalistic ends if the goals of a policy in question are rejected by any individual in a group at all. At the level of nations, this functionally would make illegitimate any coercive policy at all. For liberal leftists, this kind of acceptance or rejection is done at the democratic level, by majorities and supermajorities. And for someone who is serious about the meaning of liberalism and not steeped in the American shift in the meaning of that term, that might be a problem.

      This is where, ultimately, philosophical liberalism and Leftism/American liberalism may not work out together on paper the way they seem to do pretty well in practice. Some fudging has to – and does – get done somewhere along the way.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Michael Drew
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      I generally think that the issues the center-left and the aspirational (I prefer traditional) left have with each other are more about economic justice issues than social issues. At least in the United States and Britain.

      It is the difference between Clinton centrism and New Labor vs people who are more sympathetic to Old Labor and pre-Clinton liberalism. Or the difference between neo-liberals and traditional liberals. Hence my frequent annoyance at Josh Baro and Matt Y.

      Here I tend to be a kind of split the difference type of person that ends up annoying both sides of the camp:

      http://grist.org/cities/the-dark-side-of-startup-city/

      The traditional liberal in me is certainly concerned about people being priced out of their neighborhoods especially if they have been living in the city for decades. I think housing is a basic human right and so is being able to stay in an area that you think of as home. Cities should be for everyone, not just the upper class or young rich. Ellis Actions concern me and I find it to be piss-poor legislation. And I am skeptical of neo-liberal and libertarian claims that build, build, build will eventually making housing stock more affordable for non-techies. The only thing that is being build are condos for the Silicon Valley tech crowd.
      Landlords seem willing to let their buildings be fallow for up to decade in order to term them into TICs or Condos.

      On the other hand, I think that the comments about San Francisco being a permanent radical enclave and stuck in a 1970s and 80s Amber are naive at best. Kind of like rich old bohos who wax nostalgic for the old Times Square. The old Times Square was a very dangerous place.

      I can’t be the only person who thinks you can have something that is not Disney or a playground for the rich and also not a super-violent hellhole. Why does our city development seem stuck between these two choices?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to NewDealer
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        Not to snark or anything too harsh but don’t landlords let their buildings fallow for up to a decade -because- of rent controls and other such schemes?
        I mean at least neo-liberals try and get affordable housing included and promoted (usually through subsidies) even as they allow the builders to build build build. In a non-rent controlled market there’s usually more housing stock to turn into affordable housing. In rent controlled markets the liberals and students talk to each other about their virtue to the poor while the poor sleep under boxes/overpasses (or commute for two hours in from affordable non-rent controlled areas) and the well connected who have scored one of the rent controlled properties sublet them out and become a weird new rentier class of aristocracy.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP
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    I’m trying to work out what’s implied by Liberal in all this. Look, Liberal is an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns. Liberal economic policy, liberal foreign policy, liberal ethics.

    Let’s put some names on this concept of Liberalism. John Stuart Mill. The Liberal. The liberal isn’t anything in particular, he demands an explanation from anyone who wants to restrict him from doing what he wants. He’s not against such restrictions, he might advocate for restrictions himself. But he’s not a Conservative, arguing from the sense of the axiomatic past. Nor is he a Libertarian, against restrictions per-se as some tyrannous offence, preferring that people should voluntarily accept restrictions. The Liberal wants an explanation.

    I strongly disagree with your assessment that Liberals have few formal limits. Liberals accept the most byzantine and corrugated sorts of limits, again provided it may be demonstrated such limits solve a problem. We Liberals believe the better a problem is defined to everyone’s satisfaction, the closer we shall all come to its solution.

    Liberalism isn’t collectivist. It simply views the Individual in the context of Society. This we share with the Conservatives, who are guided by the axioms of Society in preference to those of the Individual, though they’d loudly denounce anyone who said that’s how they think. But actions speak louder than words: the Conservative will not question axioms where the Liberal will.

    Centrism is just a shibboleth. If the centrist can be damned for his lack of principles, a theory never fed a child a hot meal or paid for a diabetic girl’s insulin. Given half a loaf, the centrist is grateful enough and his opponent does not think him a complete idiot.

    Liberalism works where societies are either small or uniform. As a crowd approaches a certain size, the individual in that crowd become detached from the whole and will look to his own interests rather than the whole. But within his own family, the very idea that everyone must make tea in his own pot is absurd. The individual drinks from his own cup from a common pot, yet every family has a teapot.

    The Conservative is much-given to the concept of Family, but only on his terms, his definition of Family. Where his own family is a sacred thing, other families must fend for themselves — unless they’re part of his Church Family. They deserve the benefits of mutual aid. They damn Liberals for their Socialistic Predilections but they understand this socialist sentiment very well indeed and are practitioners of it, to a fault. Just on their terms.

    In political terms, in the USA, it’s hard to find a genuine Liberal in the spirit of JS Mill in elected office. Americans grow ever more alienated from each other.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to BlaiseP
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      Liberalism works where societies are either small or uniform

      Nothing else but liberalism would work in larger pluralistic societies.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali
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        In political terms, I don’t see it. In every large, pluralistic society, there’s a dominant guiding ethos. The larger a society becomes, the more conservative it becomes to preserve that ethos. The USA, surely the world’s largest and most pluralistic society, is increasingly conservative where other, more homogeneous societies are not. Observe the Nordic countries, long held up as exemplars of socialist liberalism. As they’ve become more diverse, they’ve become more reactionary in defence of that dominant guiding ethos. That’s a conservative response.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali
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        There may be a conservative impulse, but that conservative impulse can be ultimately mistaken* and futile. Futile because one may as well try to stop the tide as slow the burgeoning pluralism. Mistaken because if the conservatives had their way, they would enact social structures that would be unacceptable to some, and their efforts to impose homogeneiety could involve terrible subjugation and tyranny of others. Only a liberal order can cope with the pluralism because only a liberal order has something significant for everyone. Thus everyone has buy-in. Once they have a functioning liberal order, then since the rules are not unacceptable to anyone, and rocking the boat would be dangerously risky for everyone, the chance of such happening would be smaller under a liberal order than in a non-liberal one.

        *Of course, when society reaches a point where it has a long history of liberalism, that conservative impulse can be harnessed to further stabilise the liberal regime.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali
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        Whatever conservatism is not, it is not futile. The tide doesn’t have to be stopped. The conservatives think in geologically-long time frames. Tide tables mean nothing to them. In the USA, they’re hell bent on attacking abortion and they’ve been at it since Roe v Wade. They’re winning, if you haven’t been keeping score.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Murali
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        Murali,

        My general view is that the far-left and far-right have more in common than they want to think or believe. I tend to see politics as a circle more than a line.

        The far-left and far-right both tend to be distrustful of big things. Big cities, big corporations, big solutions, etc. They both seem to have a pastoral and utopian streak but the utopias might be different. The far-right seems to think of their pastroal-utopia in something that resembles Tolkien’s Shire. The Far left as in an America that is pre-European colonization or a hippie commune. The Far Right is likely to fear the sinfulness of cities like NYC, SF, and Portland. The Far Left has conspiracies that go against Big Pharma and embraces things like anti-Vaxx or non-chemical medication*

        TLDR: Some of my far-left friends can sound an awful lot like Rod Dreher sometimes.

        *I remember one internet meme that said Big Pharma does not want you to know that most illnesses can be cured with cinnamon and honey. My innate response to this was an eyeroll. I’m all about better living through chemistry. My other heresy is not to really care about the end of the family farm.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Murali
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        @newdealer ” I tend to see politics as a circle more than a line.” I’m with you here. I’m at least socially liberal or libertine but I find many of the paleocon arguments very compelling. I also like Dreher. I think I went far enough left to peek out the other side.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Murali
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        Political ideas are neither on a line nor a circle, nor like a sphere. You can’t getting more and more eastward and then suddenly find yourself in the far west. Simple geometric analogies fail, often and repeatedly.

        I think Blaise and some others would agree that a fractal would be a far more likely representation, with self-similarity and repeating themes and patterns showing up again and again.

        They would better describe why, as you venture to the extreme left (say in the Soviet Union), you might find severe laws against treason and disloyalty that were similar, yet worse than, the most conservative royalists. Why a liberal institution like academia would set itself up as a protected ruling class, vote itself continuous pay raises and perks, while enslaving the student population to a lifetime of debt bondage – and thinking that’s the natural order of things and the kids are better off for it.

        Why on some issues like bike trails, frisbee parks, or golf cart rentals, or nature preserves, liberals might spawn a bunch of conservative positions, or conservatives might spawn liberal positions.

        You could argue that one of the basins of attraction of modern liberalism was its prior flirtation with and often acceptance of Marxism, a black hole of lunacy that pulled many liberals into advocating for self-defeating policies and banished many others into irrelevance, often hijacking what would otherwise be broad social movements with wide acceptance and turning them into divisive proxy battlefields in the culture wars.

        A fractal representation would also do a better job of explaining why a pattern over there shows up over here, where it wouldn’t seem to make any sense, like when left-wing radical feminists go out and essentially march for sharia in the name of cultural diversity.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali
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        Marxism? That’s a joke, yes? Those who would discuss Marx ought first to read him. It’s been my observation most people who try to scare the rubes with talk of Marxism have not read Marx, as most Libertarians have not read Hayek. If they had, they would be singing very different tunes. Marxism is not a liberal sentiment. The unlettered, uneducated American conservative prides himself on not knowing such things, preferring simplistic tropes to the study of history. Mankind changeth not.

        Marxism has only thrived as a weed in the field of feudalism. Where feudalism appeared in American society, it quickly produced fruit exactly as Marx had described. But Rousseau and Adam Smith had predicted the exact same phenomenon long before. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.

        Marxism will make a resurgence in the USA when we’ve come to the terminus of the GOP’s vision for America, aided and abetted by the same Useful Idiots who have been pulling out the tent poles since the 1970s. The GOP simply cannot see the future — for they never saw the past. When Marxism appears again, and I predict it will within 20 years, a firebrand ideologue will seize the reins of American populism and he will do what Huey Long could not, engender enough fear and hatred in ordinary people for the federal government to lose credence. Won’t take much, really. American faith in Congress approaches the zero asymptote. Confronted by some tectonic shift in American politics, my guess it will be yet another pointless war, Americans will revolt, as they did in the later years of the Vietnam War.

        There will probably be two of them, these ideologues. One will stand in for Trotsky, the other will be a Lenin. It will all play out as in Russia all those years ago.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer
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    Based on the various things you label as “lefty” critiques of liberalism, I think American liberals tend to fall under weird categories.

    I certainly support non-Patriarchial family structures. At least to the extent that I don’t think it is important for their to be a “man in the house”. Children probably benefit from having two parents or parent-like figures (the parents probably benefit for the support structure as well) but I think two women or two men can do a good to excellent job at raising kids. They could also do a really horrible job. It all depends on who they are and the circumstances.

    Though I do roll my eyes a bit at Gaia-types who believe that there was some kind of pre-history utopia built upon Matriarchial tribes and groups. Any appeal to “pre-history” is just making stuff up in my mind. It is too convenient to appeal to pre-history.

    I suppose where American liberals (or at least many American liberals) differ from the radicals is on the hate speech issue. I’m a rather strong free speech advocate and will firmly argue that most prohibitions of speech do more harm than good. There are exceptions I think it is important to have non-discriminatory workplaces and educational structures. A public school teacher who makes racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic comments has no place in a classroom. Nor should those comments be tolerated when students inflict them on other students. A person cannot learn in an discriminatory environment. The same goes for workplaces. However when it comes to the private and public sphere in other places, free speech steps in. Plus my general view is that people do more damage to themselves than any government censorship could.

    My general view of the First Amendment is that it allows idiots to shoot themselves in the foot.

    However discussions with members of the Canadian and European left make me think that this is a bit unique to the American view of liberalism. Many of them have the communitarian view and they are not super-radical necessarily. Free speech in Europe and Canada seems to be associated with the nativist and anti-immigrant right-wing for some reason.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to NewDealer
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      Its more than mere support of non-patriarchal family structures. Do you think public schools should socialise people to accept such structures as the proper way to do things and patriarchal structures as some atavistic rapine throwback?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Murali
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        Neither. I think public schools should teach that there are all sorts of families. Mom-Dad and kids, Single Moms, Single Dads, Two Moms, Two Dads, sometimes people without kids, or not related communal groups. All are just choices that people make.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali
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        All are just choices that people make

        So, you want public schools to take a stand on the correctness of a particular religious doctrine.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Murali
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        NopeReport

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali
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        @newdealer
        Imagine that you are a public school teacher and you say the following:

        there are all sorts of families. Mom-Dad and kids, Single Moms, Single Dads, Two Moms, Two Dads, sometimes people without kids, or not related communal groups. All are just choices that people make

        And then little Timmy comes raises his hand and says:

        “Pastor John said that homosexuality is sinful. Is he wrong?”

        What are you going to say?

        I would say something along the lines of this: “it’s not for me to say whether Pastor John is right or wrong, but since we live in a society where people have different views on right or worng, we’re often going to have to tolerate these differences and live and let live so long as they live and let live too.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali
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        Heh. Pastor John says everyone’s a sinner, including Pastor John himself. Actually, that’s what a Christian pastor or priest would say. And Jesus was a friend of sinners, at least that’s what his enemies called him. So it doesn’t matter what Pastor John says behind the pulpit of his church. Jesus loved homosexuals and many people other people hated.

        This is a public school, where everyone’s welcome. That means even Pastor John and his kids, too. Jesus told us to love each other and that seems like pretty good advice for anyone. Pastor John would tell you that, too. It’s hard to love people who aren’t quite like us but it’s hard for them to love us too. Perfect love casts out fear. Fear is why people can’t love each other. When people say terrible things about homosexuals, they’re fearful. You must be brave and think for yourself. Homosexuals are no different than anyone else but nobody’s quite the same as anyone else. They love each other as we love the people we love.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali
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        Pastor John says everyone’s a sinner, including Pastor John himself. Actually, that’s what a Christian pastor or priest would say. And Jesus was a friend of sinners, at least that’s what his enemies called him. So it doesn’t matter what Pastor John says behind the pulpit of his church. Jesus loved homosexuals and many people other people hated.

        Jesus told us to love each other and that seems like pretty good advice for anyone. Pastor John would tell you that, too. It’s hard to love people who aren’t quite like us but it’s hard for them to love us too. Perfect love casts out fear. Fear is why people can’t love each other. When people say terrible things about homosexuals, they’re fearful. You must be brave and think for yourself. Homosexuals are no different than anyone else but nobody’s quite the same as anyone else. They love each other as we love the people we love

        Blaise, these are precisely the wrong kinds of things to say. Because this sounds like the state is getting involved in the proper interpretation of the Bible. And that is just as bad as the state dissing the Bible.

        Blaise,that’sReport

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to NewDealer
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      “Though I do roll my eyes a bit at Gaia-types who believe that there was some kind of pre-history utopia built upon Matriarchial tribes and groups. Any appeal to “pre-history” is just making stuff up in my mind. It is too convenient to appeal to pre-history.”

      I agree, and even if they are not making it up (and not romanticizing what may have actually been a society marked by brutality and/or scarcity, however matrarchal it was), the proposition that “pre-history” was as it was is not really an argument for how we ought to do things today.Report

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