Monday, April 17, 2006

Liberals and Leftists Redux

by Joe Miller

A couple of weeks ago, a threw together a post in which I attempted to distinguish liberals from leftists. Or at least that's how the post started; looking back, I'm not sure that I really did say all that much, other than to offer some vague claims about anti-Americanism and a soapboxy rant that while criticism is important, so too is remembering all the things that the U.S. does pretty well. The post, however, drew a number of comments (see here, here, here, and here), several of which deserve some following up. That's not to say that I'm actually going to follow up on all of them; hell, lots of people don't get what they deserve. Besides, following up on comments is hard work. Instead, I'm going to try to offer a slightly more rigorous formulation of what I take (as of today anyway) to be the difference between liberals and the left.

A few caveats first. Matt McIntosh offers a couple of rough and ready ways of distinguishing between liberals and leftists. His suggestion: leftists are anti-wealth while liberals are anti-poverty. Another: leftists tend to sneer at the very mention of Adam Smith while liberals are generally pretty fond of the guy. Matt's definitions are not meant to be philosophically rigorous. Indeed, as he responds to one commenter:
I explicitly was shooting for something less aridly philosophical; this litmus test is more geared toward operational attitudes. Does someone seem motivated more by sincere desire to see everyone do well, or are they motivated more by resentment of the wealthy? (A related test might be to ask whether they basically see all of society as “in this together” or if they frame everything in terms of oppressors vs oppressed.) It’s intended to be more anthropological than philosophical.
I'm going to aim at something slightly different here. I want something slightly more theoretical than Matt's definition (not because I disagree with his characterization; I am a political theorist, though). At the same time, I'm not going to give anything all that rigorous. Not that this should be much of a surprise. This is a blog, you know. Anyone looking for detailed analytic rigor should look to a different forum. I'd suggest here for a start.

Let me start by saying what my view is not. Jeremy, of Social Memory Complex, objects that my distinction between liberals and the left is better characterized as a distinction between radicalism and incrementalism. As he puts the point:
In the context of the topics Miller discusses, therefore, I think it makes more sense to talk about radicalism vs. incrementalism. The left he’s describing seeks a more “in your face” approach to reform, while the liberals you describe seek more gradual change within the system. There is both a theoretical and strategic distinction there that informs the differences you point out. Both sides have advantages and drawbacks, and indeed both sides may have different goals from time to time. I’m just saying that if you’re going to fault the left for their rhetoric, you should fault the “liberals” for theirs as well. It’s my opinion that neither group is served by the image they project, and that is the real problem with realizing actual reformist goals. I’m all for uniting behind those goals, but until liberals can be a little more left and vice versa, established interests are not likely to be successfully defeated - or even convinced to compromise.
If I gave the impression that what I really object to about leftists is that their approach is more radical than the one I prefer, then I'm worse at this whole communication thing than I thought. My objection to leftists is not with their methods. It's their goals that I dislike. I don't, for example, view the welfare state as a small step on the way toward some eventual socialist utopia. I don't think that socialism works...unless what you want is for everyone to be poor together. Hell, I think that the welfare state lowers overall wealth; I just think that we are a rich enough society that we can sacrifice some rate of growth to help out the poor sods who currently are struggling. Incidentally, this is a still-developing view on my part. I've been slowly moving from a sort-of Rawlsian liberal to what I guess one might call a Clintonite neo-liberal. I suspect that it has something to do with spending way too much time interacting with libertarians. I hate it when my cherished theoretical arguments fail to correspond with, you know, actual science. Damn you economists! But I digress.

So if I'm not really a slow-moving leftist, then what am I? That's a bit harder to say. Indeed, this is a part of Jeremy's challenge: if I want to distinguish liberalism from leftism, then I really ought to start by explaining what I take liberalism to be. Roughly, then, I take liberalism to consist of three main theses:
  • Respect for individual autonomy.
  • A commitment to equality of opportunity.
  • State neutrality.
What these theses boil down to is that I have to allow people the freedom to choose for themselves how they will live their lives (that is, allow each person to determine her own conception of the good), treat each person equally regardless of those choices, and not use the state to privilege some conceptions of the good over others. Pretty straightforward, right?

Yeah, right. There is a whole hell of a lot of wiggle room within those three theses. Enough so that people with pretty radically different political positions can still claim to be liberals. When we start trying to cash out what these three theses really entail, we can get a lot of different results. Perhaps, for example, equality of opportunity is merely formal: we have equal opportunity as long as the law specifies that all of us are equal. On the other hand, maybe it is impossible to have real equality of opportunity as long as some parents have more money than others which will in turn entail that capitalism is inconsistent with equality of opportunity. In short, my three theses distinguish small-l liberalism from non-liberal theories, but doesn't really do much to distinguish Liberals (in the contemporary everyday sense) from Leftists.

Here's another shot then. Liberals accept that there are certain universal truths, while (most?) leftists deny the idea of Objective Truth. For example, I think that there are certain basic rights and that all humans have those rights regardless of time or culture. Thus, I think that everyone has a right to not be killed unjustly, to not be interfered with without his consent, to acquire property, and to do as one pleases (provided that doing so interferes with no one else). Roughly these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuits of property and happiness. I think, too, that human nature is more-or-less fixed, that humans are naturally rationally self-interested (i.e., I think that the 'homo economus' model, while obviously oversimplified, is nonetheless basically accurate). Moreover, I think that one can use reason to determine these truths. And I think that it's a good thing to export these sorts of views to societies that do not currently hold them (not by force necessarily, though in extreme cases, I don't rule that out of bounds).

Now no one of those views would exclude all leftists. But if we take a liberal to mean someone who is committed to the three theses that I outlined above and who also accepts all (or at least most) of the Objective Truths that I offered in the above paragraph, then I think that we have a position that will accurately characterize what I take to be the distinction between liberals and leftists. Marxists, for example, will object to the fixed-human-nature claim. And the right-to-property claim. Deconstructionists will object to the discoverable-by-reason claim. Post-colonialists object to exporting views. And so on.

Again, I make no claims that this distinction will hold up under a sustained, rigorous assault. Indeed, perhaps it's not particularly theoretical at all, but is rather just a more detailed anthropological account. But then you are probably all better judges of those sorts of questions than I.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Now, I'd like to understand how it is that there is this Objective Truth and all sorts of niceties such as rights to l,l&tpoh when, according to what you have said in the past, there is no such creature as Natural Rights.

I know this is OT, but damn it... I want to know. :)

9:56 PM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

As Cornelius said in the comments to my more recent post, I don't think you really can provide a totally rigorous definition here. The sorts of broad outlines you draw here are about as good as it generally gets in something so multidimensional as politics.

Those three basic bullet points you use pretty adequately describe what it means to be a liberal, and you're right about wiggle room -- they encompass everyone from David Friedman to John Rawls (in his more lucid moments). But that's a feature, not a bug. At least the competing flavours of liberalism share a common meta-context and can hash out their differences within it.

Leftists on the other hand are much more prone to chip away at those common premises in various ways -- espousing epistemic subjectivism is one way, but others include the rhetoric of class conflict, generous use of well-poisoning tactics, and other such means of throwing sand in the gears of rational discussion.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...


An excellent post. I think the heart of the matter lies in this statement:

"Roughly, then, I take liberalism to consist of three main theses:

* Respect for individual autonomy.
* A commitment to equality of opportunity.
* State neutrality."

Liberalism (of the classical variety, which I call libertarianism) differs from Leftism mainly in that libertarians favor process over outcome. Your formulation fits that description. Leftists, on the other hand, do not respect individual autonomy, are not committed to equality of opportunity (they want to slant the playing field in a certain direction), and they definitely do not want a neutral state. What they want is for certain "classes" and ideas to triumph over others, and they will violate autonomy, equality, and neutrality to get their wishes.


10:20 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Why should the existence of Objective Truth be tied to the existence of natural rights? There are lots of things that are just objectively true: that the earth revolves around the sun, that objects with mass attract one another and that said attraction grows as mass increases, that organisms that can adapt to their surroundings survive while those that cannot adapt die out, etc. All of these things are true regardless of your beliefs about the matter.

Similarly, I hold that certain philosophical truths are objective, regardless of a person's particular beliefs about the matter. Of course, when I talk about rights, I don't mean natural rights. Rather, what I hold is that it is objectively true that one ought to maximize happiness and that, given the way human beings are, protecting certain rights maximizes happiness.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Joe says- I think that there are certain basic rights and that ALL HUMANS HAVE THOSE RIGHTS REGARDLESS OF TIME OR CULTURE.

Sounds like "natural rights" to me. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of the "natural rights" theory and I've made the comment before that there is only one "natural right": the right to *preserve* your life. Not property, not liberty, maybe not even Life (with a big L) itself. These are legal rights and dependent upon others recognizing your legitimate claim to them.
Anyway, has anyone noticed that in the last few decades, American legal rights have become basic human rights? Hence, the protests in support of illegal immigration claiming that we are denying basic human rights to illegals by not granting them American legal rights.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

This is a bit unfair, but I'm going to respond to the part of your comment that you left off here but did include at Liberty Corner, namely:

The question remains whether there is such a thing as a middle ground, in which "liberalism" (of the modern variety) can be distinguished from Leftism. Joe seems to think that there is such a middle ground. I do not.

Yes, I do think that there is a stable position between what you describe as leftism and the libertarianism. Actually, I think that there is probably a whole range of stable positions. As Matt says, both David Friedman and John Rawls fall under the three theses that I offer. Your own position would, I take it, fall in between those points, closer to the Friedman line, but stopping short of anarcho-capitalism. My position likewise falls in there, closer to Rawls' position, but with more respect for the market.

The differences lie in how we cash out the three theses I offer. I allude to this in the post, but I do so pretty quickly. Here, I take it, is the really big difference between libertarians and liberals (in the modern sense). A libertarian will, in general, interpret 'autonomy' to mean 'freedom from external constraints.' For a libertarian, in other words, autonomy is negative freedom.

Liberals, however, interpret 'autonomy' differently. For a liberal, 'autonomy' means something like 'the freedom to live one's life in accord with one's own particular conception of the good.' That may sound similar, but there is, I think, an important difference. To say that I am free to do something is not to say that no one is stopping me from doing it. I'm really free to do something only to the extent that the necessary conditions for my doing so have been met. There are certain basic requirements that are going to be necessary conditions for living out my life as I see fit. Food, for example. Shelter. Good health. An education.

Liberals, then, think that a real respect for autonomy will require that we provide those certain basic necessities for those who cannot otherwise afford them. We can then argue about who ought to provide them. Liberals argue that private charities will not be sufficient. That's an empirical question, and it's one that would be hard to answer short of actually trying it. Personally, I tend to think that a wealthy society ought to provide a safety net. Yes, it will slow the growth of the economy, but that's a small price to pay for catching people who need help now. Hayek takes this same line, so at the margins, liberals (in the modern sense) and libertarians aren't all that different. We just disagree on how big the safety net should be.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

Actually, I'm going to propose the mirror image of Joe's original point and suggest that some kinds of libertarian aren't actually liberals. (I know I'm not the first to say this, but it escapes me at the moment who originally argued this. Jeff Friedman?)

Again, we can propose a litmus test: would you still favour a capitalist society if it demonstrably made people worse off in general than some other institutional arrangement? J.S. Mill, Hayek and the Friedman family would say "no", but I suspect Rothbard and Rand would say "yes". (Actually, Rand would just go off on a hand-waving lecture on how such a thing is conceptually impossible as a way of refusing to actually answer the question.) Liberals think "positive liberty" matters politically, absolutist libertarians don't.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...


Not unfair at all. The point I made at my blog was an afterthought, and I'm glad you have responded to it.

I think you've zeroed in on the key difference between libertarians and (modern) liberals, which lies in positive vs. negative rights. Moreover, I think Matt McIntosh's second comment gets at the essential gap between my kind of Hayekian, consequentialist libertarianism and the absolutist brand of libertarianism espoused by Rothbard et al.

All of this deserves much more discussion, so I will probably be back with a longer comment.


10:30 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Rick: bingo. If something is naturally occuring in the world, I'm going to call it nature. Call me crazy (I don't mind), but if you are talking about something that isn't merely convention... it is nature. Just like things such as happiness being the good, et cetera.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Mitch and Rick,
If by 'natural rights' you want to mean something like, 'grounded in the nature of human beings,' then yes, I suppose that I am defending some version of natural rights. That, however, is not really what the term usually means.

What I hold is that utilitarianism is grounded in the nature of human beings. And given the truth of utilitarianism and given further the way that human beings happen to be, certain basic rights are utility maximizing regardless of culture. If you want to call that a natural rights account, then I suppose that you're welcome to do so. I think that philosophers at least will tend to look at you rather oddly when you do so, especially since 'natural rights' (and 'natural law') usually get associated with some sort of theism (i.e., God ordained a certain law of nature and that law includes this set of rights).

1:19 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Sayeth Joe- To say that I am free to do something is not to say that no one is stopping me from doing it. I'm really free to do something only to the extent that the necessary conditions for my doing so have been met.

I'm not so sure about the libertarian=negative and liberal=positve liberty. Or maybe I'm just a liberal libertarian. I apply both positive and negative to liberties. I agree that liberty is 'the freedom to live one's life in accord with ONE'S OWN particular conception of the good' (to the point where I am a quasi-relativist) and yet without "negative" liberty you are still not free to do it. When your particular conception of the good is in direct conflict with another's conception of the good, it is the "freedom from external constraints" aspect that protects that liberty.
As far as necessary conditions needing to met for one to be free to do something...having the freedom to do something and having the means to do something are two entirely different things.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I am going to make a major distinction between natural right and natural law. Natural law, is the divine right bullshit that has been handed down by generations of theist tyrants. Natural right, on the other hand, is a right that is derived from the actual nature of society/man. For instance: "the truth of utilitarianism and given further the way that human beings happen to be, certain basic rights are utility maximizing regardless of culture."

Whether or not anyone likes my terminology means pretty much nothing to me so long as I am able to explain the meaning of said terms. I like to use terms that actually have some sort of real, explainable correlation to the meaning of the terms, unlike most philosophical terms that appear, at least to me, to be nearly arbitrary. That is not to say that I don't understand why a deity would be associated with nature, given the proclivity of societies to generate so-called narratives in order to lend authority to law, et cetera. However, given the existence of such a creature (whether it is a toga wearing old coot or a pink unicorn matters not) is something of a non starter, for me, why would I (or most thinking beings that can evaluate reality without pasting on some ridiculous causality such as a deity) associate nature with a god?

If it would suit the 'philosophers,' I can come up with some sort of other term... how about 'rights derived from the nature of society and/or man'? I sort of like it, but it is a tad lengthy, no? I like natural rights; it sort of rolls off the tongue.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I like tackling the topic of negative vs. positive liberties/freedoms. And one thing got said that I think should be explored further.

rick: having the freedom to do something and having the means to do something are two entirely different things.

I think this is a significant difference between libertarians, classic liberal and modern liberals. In my mind (and I generally fall somewhere between hardcore anarchist and classic liberal), just because you want to do something, it might be considered good and it doesn't hurt anyone else doesn't mean you should be enabled to do it. In general, most people who talk of positive freedom are talking about the group or the state empowering someone to do something, not just providing neutrality.

From a utilitarian perspective I also happen to think that more people would be enabled to live better lives in a post-industrial, advanced economy by getting government out of the mix than by keeping the government in the mix, economically speaking.

So, that makes two strikes, for me anyhow. The first being the coercion of others that is involved in providing positive freedoms. Like taking money from me to give to someone else. The second being the probability that state intervention to provide positive freedom is not the most utilitarian approach to empowering people.

The third, and final, strike is that generally speaking, and making a broad generalization, modern liberalism leads towards statism.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Joe: Liberals argue that private charities will not be sufficient. That's an empirical question, and it's one that would be hard to answer short of actually trying it.

These premises aren't sufficient to make the liberal case for the welfare state against libertarian objections, unless you add the further premise (or a more rigorous formulation thereof):

If voluntary charity isn't sufficient to provide for autonomy, then people can legitimately be coerced into making up the difference.

But that's not an empirical claim, and it doesn't just fall out of a "respect for autonomy," either: after all, it involves sacrificing at least one person's autonomy, putatively to bolster another person's autonomy; and it involves sacrificing one form of autonomy, putatively to bolster another form. Libertarians could very well regard charity as a duty, and could hold, empirically, that voluntary charity won't in fact be "sufficient" (by whatever standards) for everyone to count as having lived up to that duty. The only thing they would need to maintain, to remain consistently libertarian, is that you also have a duty not to coerce anybody to make it "sufficient."

4:48 PM  

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