Politics without Foundations

“Why,” Beverly Gage and Steven Hayward ask, “is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” Arguably, there are several: Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, John dos Passos, and John Steinbeck—though none inspires the devotion that Rand’s followers feel for her. But their real question isn’t about literature. It’s about philosophy. The conservative movement rests on a series of great thinkers: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, Mill, Hayek, von Mises, etc. Where are the intellectual foundations of the Left?

Gage herself provides an answer:

Once upon a time, the Old Left had “movement culture” par excellence: to be considered a serious activist, you had to read Marx and Lenin until your eyes bled. For better or worse, that never resulted in much electoral power (nor was it intended to) and within a few decades became the hallmark of pedantry rater than intellectual vitality.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

There is an intellectual tradition behind the contemporary Left, stretching back to Plato’s Republic and including Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse, Alinsky, etc. But it’s a deeply totalitarian tradition. It’s the political philosophy that dares not speak its name in an election season, for it would garner few votes, and for good reason.

The real intellectual vacuum underlies not the Left as such but people who style themselves liberals, but not socialists—i.e., I’m guessing, most Democrats. Where are their intellectual roots?

Hayward points out that there are some:

Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Noam Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics on the Left such as Michael Sandel.  However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism.

He’s right about the attenuation, but wrong, I think, about the reason. It’s not just that these thinkers are highly abstract; so are Plato and Aristotle. It’s not that they don’t take part in contemporary debates; neither did Aquinas and Hegel. It’s that they don’t tap into anything deep or abiding about the human condition.

For about a decade I team-taught a course on Contemporary Moral Problems with a prominent philosopher of language. He argued the liberal side of each issue; I argued the conservative side. I had no shortage of philosophical material on which to rely. He and I both assumed, since liberalism is supposedly the position that informed, intelligent people occupy, that there were similar philosophical foundations for liberalism. We were both astounded that there were not. For someone who seeks to be a liberal, but not a totalitarian, there is Rousseau, on one interpretation of his thought. And that’s about it.

Of course, there are people trying to provide such intellectual foundations. But we were startled at how thin their theoretical constructs really are. Any competent philosopher can think of a dozen serious objections to Rawls before breakfast, even on hearing his views for the first time. We base our conception of justice on what people would do if in some hypothetical situation satisfying certain constraints? Really? The actual circumstance, the actual history, what people actually want and need—these don’t matter at all? Why that hypothetical situation, anyway? Why those constraints? Would people really reach agreement? Would they even individually come to any “reflective equilibrium” at all? And why would people choose those principles of justice? Is there actually any research indicating that people would choose those principles? People would divide liberties into basic ones, which matter, and others, which don’t? Everything in the end rests on the welfare of the least advantaged in society? Who’s that? Mental patients and prisoners, probably. So, we’re to judge a society solely on how it treats its mental patients and prisoners? And the welfare of everyone else in society ought to be sacrificed to improve their lot even a tiny bit? Why think, moreover, that liberalism maximizes the welfare of the least advantaged? Rawls speaks as if well-being is static, as if we can speak simply of what happens at some equilibrium state without worrying about dynamic aspects of the economy or of a person’s life trajectory. But that leads him to confuse well-being at a moment with well-being over a life. An extensive welfare state might maximize the well-being of the least advantaged at the lowest points of their life trajectories without thereby maximizing their long-term well-being. In fact, preventing people from experiencing real lows might undermine their well-being as measured over a life.

I don’t mean to pick on Rawls especially; the same is true of other liberal theorists. Their theoretical constructs don’t connect with deep-seated features of human nature or of human societies. Their theoretical assumptions seem arbitrary and open to overwhelming objections.

That’s why most liberals can’t conduct political discussions at a very high level. They have no one to read who can give them an intellectual foundation for their political views. They therefore have no way to justify their claims that taxes on the wealthy are too low, or that health care, or contraceptives, or anything else ought to be provided as a matter of right, or that our current welfare system is too stingy, etc. Still less do they have any theoretical basis on which rest foreign policy decisions.

 

UPDATE: Instalanche! Thanks, Glenn!

48 thoughts on “Politics without Foundations

  1. Absolutely right. One quibble, though: I wouldn’t leave the impression that Plato was a totalitarian. For one thing, it is only the guardians who live in a communistic state: ordinary people enjoy property and marriage. Second, it’s not at all clear that the Republic was intended as a political blueprint at all, as opposed to an allegory about the soul. Finally, Plato’s later work, especially The Laws, is firmly in the conservative tradition.

    1. While you are correct about Plato-the-Actual, you seem to be ignoring Plato-the-Idealized… who has had his work cherry-picked and misrepresented for centuries in support of this exact sort of totalitarian agenda.

      After all, if we can have a “living document” in the merely two-centuries old Consitution, why should Plato get anymore accuracy?

    2. Good point, but to clarify: J.S. Mill (I presume the author doesn’t mean his father), most widely known for his tract “On Liberty,” is certainly not a part of the genealogical history of conservatism (as Locke and Burke decidedly are). Indeed, much of modern liberalism (in the American sense of the term), which derives from early twentieth century progressivism and, before that, socialism, may ultimately be traced back to Mill.

  2. It is said by Libertarians that “your freedom of action ends at the tip of my nose”; which is appropriate when talking to liberals, since most of them can’t seem to think beyond the tip of their nose.

  3. Plato’s Republic is only relevant to ants. Indeed, I suspect that he studied an anthill prior to writing. Look to, the Epicurians and Stoics for rationality.

  4. The problem is that liberalism is firmly rooted in Marx, and Marx was a raving, sociopathic madman whose every thought was completely disconnected from reality. So of course it can’t be expressed in a comprehensive, intellectual way. The problem is not all ideas are created equal, and Marx’s ideas were genuinely idiotic. So it’s best for liberalism to stay away from core principles and logic, and instead focus on individual issues which can elicit an emotional response and motivate political action.

    1. I disagree with Marx and Marxists, but you’re giving liberals too much credit and marx too little. Marxism, for all its flaws, has at least some philosophical consistency to it. In other words, they at least believe *something*.

      Liberalism’s problem is that it’s plainly socialist in nature. Its language, its organization, its policies, its approach at any given moment is always precisely as socialist as is electable in a society violently hostile to socialism. Liberals widely admire socialism, both in theory and as practiced overseas. Their principal critique of socialists here in America is that they’re going too far too fast– that is, a practical rather than principled objection. They go by liberal rather than socialist because it’s bad politics, not mistaken identity. Hence the rebranding as “progressives” (itself a reference to the Marxist theory of historical determinism).

      Notice that liberals critique the existing society, demand reforms, but never envision an endpoint. Conservatives have an endpoint in mind– preservation of the existing culture. Libertarians paint a pretty vivid picture of life in a libertarian utopia. Liberalism, meanwhile, is oddly mute on just what the world would look like if all their reforms were enacted. Because that endpoint is pretty much doctrinaire socialism. Most liberals aren’t lying, they just see themselves as tinkering around the edges of culture to move the dial ever leftward, but myopically, with no end in sight. Ask questions — specific questions — about the liberal utopia and you’ll see. You might get dismissiveness, you might get outrage, but one thing you won’t get is answers. The one movement liberal who could paint me a genuine endpoint realized halfway through that he was describing socialism. To his credit, he stood by it.

      Rawls understood this. In fact, he pretty explicitly worked to develop his Theory of Justice precisely because he felt that liberalism should be more than just socialism practicing predatory mimicry. It’s to his credit that he got as far as he did– he was starting from a party platform (one that shifts from year to year) and trying to work backwards to a philosophical foundation. My question is this: even if Rawls had succeeded, would the Left have changed? I doubt it. The first moment that Rawls and Marx came into conflict, Rawls would have either been re-written or cast aside. Because deny it as they may, liberalism already has a philosophical foundation: Marx.

  5. “That’s why most liberals can’t conduct political discussions at a very high level. They have no one to read who can give them an intellectual foundation for their political views. ”

    Then why have liberals had such great success in selling their ideas in the last fifty years? If there is no foundation, there should be none of the success. Perhaps the analysis is wrong, or perhaps the people in this country are fools, following the lead of charlatans.

    1. Or rather that it offers its adherents a wide array of freebies while positioning itself as the ideology of urban cosmopolitanism.

    2. Liberal success has been based not on arguing the case for a set of ideas (there aren’t any), but on elaborate strategies of vote-buying. Their line, in a nutshell is, “You [the voter] are indeed a poor victim of , and we sensitive, educated, nice liberals want to help you by providing you and other victims of with appropriate and deserved entitlements. Nice, caring people therefore must vote for us.” You see the difference, between idea selling and vote buying? I do.

    3. They don’t sell their ideas. They can’t. Their ideas don’t stand up to scrutiny. So instead they do the same thing that beer commercials do; market to people based on emotion, psychological manipulation, and the elusive quality known as “cool.”

      The most recent Heineken commercial has an ordinary man partaking in an adventure with James Bond, all thanks to the beer. In real life drinking Heineken will not make you 007’s sidekick, it will just make you fat.

      Another commercial in a similar vein features an exceptionally seductive actress drinking scotch and calling out to a man, off-screen, named Angus. The implication being that by buying this scotch you will become Angus, whom this irresistibly desirable woman is clearly having sexual relations with. In real life Claire Forlani is not going to come to your bed. In real life you don’t get laid, you just get drunk.

      Liberalism is sold on the premise that by embracing its sentiments and assorted affectations, you will become an enlightened and wise individual. A kind and knowing person, a better person, and get to sit at the cool kids’ table. Those who do not embrace Liberalism are cast as selfish and uncaring, greedy and bigoted, emotionally grotesque, shortsighted, foolish, stupid, blind, and most of all uncool.

      In real life those who embrace Liberalism end up parroting cliches and earnestly promoting half-baked nonsense that ranges from the frivolous to the intensely destructive. Meanwhile those who are not beholden to Liberalism tend lead happier and more productive lives.

      1. Ah, but if you consume enough alcohol, the woman you are sitting next to will eventually seem as appealing as Claire Forlani.

        😉

    4. Because their main idea (New Deal, Great Society, etc) is “I’m going to give you something and make other people pay for it”.

      It’s the kind of offer that appeals to just about everyone who isn’t “other people”.

  6. You are mistaken to suggest Dos Passos as a candidate for the “liberal Rand.” Dos Passos became extremely disillusioned with socialism and liberalism, and his later writings show this. He was also an early contributor to the National Review and supported Barry Goldwater.

  7. Trouble is, though, that the liberal’s / leftist’s so called low information voters care little or not at all for the philosophical underpinnings of the people they vote for. Emotional “arguments,” popular media sound bites, and the promise of “Obama phones” and food stamps get their votes. Add Democrat party vote fraud to do the rest.

    What the conservative side is to do to counter is difficult to see.

  8. Notice Alinsky is not so much about political philosophy as it is tactics for winning arguments and elections. I don’t know where I saw the study, but they asked open ended questions to conservatives and liberals about what to do to boost their brand. Most of the conservative answers were about explaining conservatism, and most of the liberal answers were about tactics to get power. I think this is mostly because liberalism is not about thinking. It is about feeling. Liberal positions are assumed to be right because they are more caring, and more sensitive. If the position is assumed to be correct, all that is left to discuss is how to get power.

    1. Well said.

      But again, it comes back to liberalism as predatory mimicry: a totalitarian political philosophy masquerading as a democratic one.

      There’s an old science fiction short story, called “Hail to the Chief”, long out of print. In it, America was a totalitarian system run by a shadowy Chief. Elections still happened, but the elites and power players in both parties were in on the game. The Chief made the decisions, and his co-conspirators manipulated the media circus to get the public to vote for the policies he’d already decided on.

      But is liberalism any different? The foundation of liberalism is that decisions are best made by intellectual elites. How do you square that with democratic governance? “Hail to the Chief” provides the answer. Ordinary people lack the intellect to make decisions for themselves. The Elite makes the decisions for them. The hoi polloi’s role is to vote their feelings, and ratify the reign of the elite.

      Put another way, liberals accept the argument that government is by the consent of the governed, if nothing else as a pragmatic matter. But they also believe that the public isn’t competent (collectively or individually) to make good decisions for themselves– they must be governed. They can’t even be trusted to pick good leaders for themselves (“What’s the Matter With Kansas?”). Making a philosophical argument to a prole would work about as well, they argue, as making one to the family dog. For a Marxist, this means the public must be coerced into supporting the Movement. For a liberal, it means they must be deceived.

      Hence Alinsky, who passionately argues that ends justify any means, and that the ethics of tactics should be judged purely on which side they favor. Hence the perennial anointing of their presidential candidate as a fated, Chosen leader (before Obama the “Messiah” was “war hero” JFK in 2004, then Gore the “secular saint”, then The Man From Hope, and so on). Hence the constant (baseless but deeply held) accusations of bad faith, hence the constant appeals to emotion. Hence the divisiveness in matters of race, religion, gender. Appeals to emotion are necessary because the public isn’t equipped to make rational decisions for themselves, even about whom to vote for. So any tactic that puts the Right People in charge is justified, and any tactic that puts the Wrong People in charge is unethical by definition.

  9. Then why have liberals had such great success in selling their ideas in the last fifty years? If there is no foundation, there should be none of the success.

    It’s the lure of free stuff, for the most part.

  10. The vast majority of what is called Liberalism is nothing more than the effort and desire to make human beings equal. I don’t mean equal before the law, or possessing equal rights, I mean equal period.

    This is quite impossible because human beings are fundamentally unequal.

    Some people are smarter than others. Some people are of better character than others. Some people possess specific traits and abilities that others lack. In general, if there is a way in which people CAN differ from one another, they DO differ from one another. We are defined as a species by the variance of our individual abilities and inclinations.

    Liberalism is the heartfelt desire to wish all that away and replace it with a universe in which everyone is cut from the same cloth.

    This is why Liberals tend to focus so much on the dregs of society. They wish to pretend that mental patients and convicts are the same as the rest of us, just unlucky.

    This is why we hear so much from Liberals about the “less fortunate.” This term was not fashioned as a polite euphemism for idiots and losers, but represents how Liberals truly see people whose deficits of ability or character prevent them from meeting the challenges of life.

    This is also why Liberals are so keen to endorse environmental or social explanations for human differences. If a difference is the result of an external influence upon a person, then this difference can be eliminated by altering or removing that influence. In contrast, a difference that is innate cannot be.

    Unfortunately 80% or more of our differences are innate. Who we are is who we are, not what happens to us. Our nature is not malleable. The axe murderer didn’t chop up people because his daddy didn’t love him enough, he chopped up people because that is his nature.

    But that doesn’t stop Liberals from trying. Hence the recent promotion of gender-neutral toys, especially in places like Sweden. These futile efforts will not make boys and girls the same. Furthermore, the children subjected to them will be harmed in the process.

    This is also why Liberals are so keen to bestow the appurtenances of a middle class existence to those who are not capable of middle class behavior. The most famous example of this was their effort to give mortgages to people who didn’t have what it took to qualify for one. The hope and belief was that home ownership would somehow magically bestow these new homeowners with the characteristics and abilities that traditionally defined someone who owned their home. Instead we wound up with “liar loans,” the housing bubble, starving animals locked away to die in foreclosed houses sold to human trash, and all of the other ill effects and externalities for which Liberals still so strenuously seek to blame others for.

    So it is no surprise that Liberalism is without any sort of intellectual foundation. Liberalism is the obsessive denial of human difference, which cannot be substantiated or justified in the real world. It isn’t so much a house of cards as it is wishful thinking masquerading as a philosophy.

    1. I would disagree with you about the equality thing. Equality to a liberal is merely a rhetorical and political device. They have no particular attachment to the actual art of treating individuals the same under a rule of law entailing equal rights for all. If they did they would lose their mechanism for control by elites (themselves).

      1. You are onto something real and important, Lee, but teapartydoc gets closer. Equality is an abstraction to liberals, sort of like a garment they put on to Look Their Best and feel good about themselves. In actual practice, the “liberal” neo-gentry will never let equality get to the point where their own children will be facing competition from the talented poor. Actual social mobility is a real threat to any ruling class, especially one claiming to be a pure meritocracy, and is dealt with by bestowing tokens of achievement rather than real opportunity (like the example you provide of the housing bubble). These tokens often end up leaving the poor even more dependent than before, and those who would have had a chance to rise in the world instead fall back into their “proper” places – win-win for the neo-gentry. Here’s how it can work:

  11. While I see inklings of Ayn Rand in some circles on the right, I think it’s too diluted with other foundations to keep to any consistent structure. I’m hoping that will improve — by a lot — in my lifetime.

  12. Welcome the era of hyper-reality.
    French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, writes,
    “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referrential being, or a substance. It is the generation of models of the a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”

    Marshall McLuhan wrote, “It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

    Umberto Eco writes that “the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”

    This explains, for me, the current state of politics. Rationalist intellectual constructs have no bearing.

    From Blaise Pascal,
    “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. … Despite these afflictions man wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. … But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.”

    We live in an unthinking age because to think requires personal responsibility. The issues are so large, that people intellectually retreat into being as small minded as possible. Ultimately, that kills the soul.

    Our problem is not simply intellectual, but spiritual. To be spiritual begins with simply being willing to engage in the pain and suffering that comes with life, and to live in the midst of it as a society, with integrity and resolution.

  13. The article and Lee Reynolds’ comments provide some Christmas solace for a depressed guy who has this overwhelming feeling that “we lost,” that common sense has taken a society-wide drubbing and is down for the count. Gramsci’s “long march” was prescient and, ultimately successful. I sorely hope I am wrong.

  14. Liberalism is not so much *for* a philosophical position, it is *anything but* personal philosophy based on God’s Law. In a secular world, the aspects of that Law that are most frequently attacked are those that protect property from theft and coveting. Liberal personal ideology always leads to advocating socialist public policies.

    Socialism, is the belief that we will all be better off when we are all forced to live at the expense of everyone else. By its very nature this must begin with institutionalized coveting of the assets and incomes of citizens government.

    That society will be better off on the whole if we all are forced to live at the expense of each other is a lie. Coveting, theft and lies are points of the Ten Commandments and thus God stands in opposition to the natural course of liberalism.

    The liberal person supports this in part because they see themselves as either being in charge of the disposition of these collective assets or in a position to influence or at least approve of that disposition. But, as F.A. Hayek proved in his Nobel Lecture, the central planners of an economy can never allocate resources as efficiently as can individuals allocate their own resources. So, wealth is, on balance, destroyed and not built under socialism. The only arrangement where wealth is mutually increased is during free exchange outside of intrusive forces. Thus liberals can never achieve the Utopia they seek. As Thatcher quipped, they only succeed until they run out of other people’s money.

  15. I’ve heard no discussion here of Immanuel Kant – who Ayn Rand herself identified as an arch philosophical antagonist. His notion that the good consisted in doing one’s duty independent of any seflish benefit one derived is fundamental to most moral discussions today and to liberalism. The fact that most liberals/progressives seem to accept that the practical benefits of capitalism for everyone are BESIDE THE POINT – gives you some insight into why discussions of economics won’t convince liberals. Their morality does not include practicality or self-interest. This is fundamental to their world view and it comes from Kant.

  16. Excellent exposition on foundations of philosophy.
    Alas, that matters not to the “low-information” voters whom Obama seduced.
    (By the way, when did we decide not to use the term “ignorant?”)

  17. This lack of intellectual foundation might also be why liberals are constantly screeching about how they are the party of “science”, so they can grab some of the credibility that the scientific method has earned over the past few centuries.

    They also like to smuggle their totalitarian urges into the body politic via use of some selected sections of the Constitution, such as talk of the “general welfare” or “regulating interstate commerce”, as if the Founders would agree with the Left if they were around today, but since the Founders lacked the technical means to implement Leftist ideology, they didn’t.

    Neither of these “foundations” is particularly intellectually convincing, but seems to do well enough to convince people who might be able to stop the Left from pushing forward its agenda to not bother doing so, as well as providing the Left’s activists just enough intellectual cover to be able to do their jobs.

  18. Interesting discussion. I drifted in from the link on Instapundit.com.

    Submitted for consideration is this observation: The rise of the Left has coincided with the rise of the Youth Culture.

    Two of the key features of the youthful mind are poor decision making ability and a lack of a “sense of past”; nothing much happened prior to their birth. For anything – fashion, music, art, or haircuts – to to be marketable to kids all it has to be is cool and hip, as several have already stated. The problem with this is that as we grow and take on responsibility – job, house, kids, etc. – we begin to make more reasoned decisions… and we learn that what our grandparents did often represented quite an accomplishment.

    Hence, the negative side of Think Young. Voting age used to be 21… which is another point. The age was lowered to 18 during the Viet Nam era. This change was sold to the American public with the argument that if a soldier is able to die for his country at age 18 he ought to be able to vote. And now? The government schemes to make sure that military votes aren’t counted or arrive too late. And while the military is excluded notice that a lot of campaigning is done on university campuses.

    1. “Voting age used to be 21… which is another point. The age was lowered to 18 during the Viet Nam era. This change was sold to the American public with the argument that if a soldier is able to die for his country at age 18 he ought to be able to vote.”
      –Jed Skillman

      Explain to me why the voting age was lowered to 18 for girls too. They were never subject to the military draft and sent to die for her country at age 18 – or any other age.

      1. A logical question. But of course logic had nothing to do with it. The idea was to bring more emotionally led “low information” voters into the system.

  19. Oh, that Glenn Beck’s film of George Bernard Shaw advocating killing off useless eaters would make it to the MFM. Shaw was just as cold and ruthless as Marx and Hitler. Let’s hear it for “the collective”! Not.

  20. I’m not sure Rand is an especially sound bulwark to this observation/argument/accusation, whichever. She is quite sound on economics. Moral philosophy? Serviceable yet so is a claw hammer. Or a rock. As literature Rand is a disgrace. Those searching for “conservative” foundations stare at a cornucopia, in my view, of which Rand is far from the leading exemplar.

  21. I disagree with Ayn Rand’s definition and critique of “altruism,” but, no one can deny that Rand dealt with ideas AS IDEAS, as an honest philosopher should, and therefore she contributes to the human struggle for understanding. The liberals and communists in contrast are on the side of confusion, ignorance, and stupidity by comparison.

  22. Perhaps the best blog entry I’ve read all year. Excellent comments, as well. But is that because it reinforces my point of view?

    I’ve had many discussions with liberals who blame “society” and “corrupt institutions” for man’s evil. If man, however, is responsible for society and its institutional failings, doesn’t this become a circular argument? Of course, not, liberals say: conservatives are responsible for all the evil things.

    Our politics in a nutshell.

  23. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    My blog has a lot of completely unique content
    I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my authorization. Do you know any techniques to help reduce content from being ripped off? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

    1. I’m not aware of anyone having plagiarized me, but I never thought about it. If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.

  24. Everything in the end rests on the welfare of the least advantaged in society? Who’s that?
    –Philo

    The unborn surely qualify as “least advantaged”.

    Behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, could even a feminist reasonably agree to permit abortion? I doubt it.

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