Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Something more useful than liberal versus conservative.

Like most people, I'm dissatisfied with the usual conservative-liberal dichotomy. I was intrigued, therefore, when Noah Millman wrote "Notes Toward a New Political Taxonomy" several weeks ago.

He begins by noting that several terms which should be differentiated are treated as synonyms. They are:
  • Left
  • Liberal
  • Progressive
  • Right
  • Conservative
  • Reactionary
Millman suggests that if we clarify the meaning of these terms we will have a more accurate way of describing our political views. First, liberal versus conservative:
The core of the difference between a liberal and a conservative outlook relates to one’s basic assumptions about human capacities. A liberal is someone who is generally impressed with the capacities of an individual, and who therefore wants individuals to be free to develop those capacities. ... A conservative by temperament takes the opposite side in this dispute. Most human beings are naturally afraid of freedom, eager to hand over decision making power to some authority. They frequently do not – cannot – know what is best for them. ... Put simply: a liberal outlook trusts individuals and questions authority; a conservative outlook distrusts individuals and defers to authority.
Next, left versus right, which is defined by attitudes toward success:
A left-wing perspective is animated by failure and the consequences thereof. Whether we’re talking about Rawlsian liberals or Christian socialists or orthodox Marxist-Leninists, the ultimate object of concern is the miserable of the earth. ... A right-wing perspective is opposite to this. How to design a system that adequately rewards success is the essence of the right-wing political project. ... Put simply: a right-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the winners and their interests, while a left-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the losers and their interests.
Lastly, progressive versus reactionary, which is defined by attitudes toward history:
The progressive is future-oriented. Things will – or could – be better in the future than they are now. But more than this, history has a direction that can be discerned, and that one must be cognizant of in constructing one’s politics. ... The reactionary, by contrast, is past-oriented. Things will – likely – be worse in the future than they are now, just as they were better in the past. Apparent progress masks the loss of things that were more valuable than the novelties acquired. Moreover, in the deepest sense, the real truth is that there is nothing new under the sun.
This strikes me as very useful. So where do I fit? On liberal versus conservative, it's hard to say. As a Christian who believes in the continuing power of original sin I am not too optimistic about the capacities of individuals. But, then, I'm not one who is terribly impressed with the track record of the traditional authorities. I want the individual to be free but I also want tradition to be respected and listened to. If God came to me and said I had to choose, on behalf of the whole human race and for the entirety of its future, between freedom for individuals or adherence to traditional authorities, I'd have to come down on the side of freedom. But I'd ask God if I could go live on another planet after he executed my choice.

Left versus right is easy: I'm on the left wing. I do not say that Christianity requires us to be left-wingers. I will say, however, that Christianity is the major driving force behind my lefty-ness. I know that, for example, the biblical demand to provide for the poor does not automatically mean support for the welfare state. I know about intermediate institutions and private charity and all that. But I do not see how Christianity's concern for the poor and the outcast can be reconciled with free market profiteering and the cult of success.

On reactionary versus progressive spectrum I'd say I'm mildly progressive. I do not believe in utopias and I see no reason to believe that progress is inevitable. With those caveats in mind, however, I believe life now is better than it has been in the past. There are ways in which it is worse, to be sure. It seems to me that there is good and bad mixed in every age. There are no golden ages past or future. But I'd choose the time in which we live over most times in the past, if for no other reason than technological advances. My assumption is that the quality of our lives will improve in the future, not inevitably, but more likely than not.

In sum, I'm (reluctantly) liberal, (decidedly) left-wing, and (mildly) progressive. Where would you place yourself?


  1. "Put simply: a right-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the winners and their interests, while a left-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the losers and their interests."

    While this may accurately describe why SOME people are right-wing, and therefore not be a straw man, it is not the reason for ALL who are right wing. I would feel affinity for the right wing because it means not taking money away from people because the money is theirs by right. (Where it can be proved otherwise, say where it was gotten through force or fraud, I'm fine with seeing it taken.) For some of us, liberty is a value in itself, irrespective of what its results may be.

  2. I see what you're saying, but isn't that view of liberty (the absolutism of property rights) itself in the interest of the "winners"?


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.