In Which I Learn That I Am Not a Liberal

I am grateful to James Taranto for writing his most recent post explaining why progressives are no longer liberals, Jonathan Chait in particular not because I’m interested in Jonathan Chait’s ideological or political orientation but because he reminded me of James Burnham’s litmus test for liberals from Suicide of the West, a work I hadn’t revisited in decades. The list of thirty-nine questions was thoughtfully reproduced by James Panero.

Since I believe the questions serve as a good springboard to further discussion (not to mention their ability to bolster things I’ve been writing about around here for a long time), I’ll answer them in color code form. Green means I agree; red means I disagree; black means I can neither agree nor disagree without further remarks which I’ll make after answering the questions.

  1. All forms of racial segregation and discrimination are wrong.
  2. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.
  3. Everyone has a right to free, public education.
  4. Political, economic or social discrimination based on religious belief is wrong.
  5. In political or military conflict it is wrong to use methods of torture and physical terror.
  6. A popular movement or revolt against a tyranny or dictatorship is right, and deserves approval.
  7. The government has a duty to provide for the ill, aged, unemployed and poor if they cannot take care of themselves.
  8. Progressive income and inheritance taxes are the fairest form of taxation.
  9. If reasonable compensation is made, the government of a nation has the legal and moral right to expropriate private property within its borders, whether owned by citizens or foreigners.
  10. We have a duty to mankind; that is, to men in general.
  11. The United Nations, even if limited in accomplishment, is a step in the right direction.
  12. Any interference with free speech and free assembly, except for cases of immediate public danger or juvenile corruption, is wrong.
  13. Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.
  14. Colonialism and imperialism are wrong.
  15. Hotels, motels, stores and restaurants in southern United States ought to be obliged by law to allow Negroes to use all of their facilities on the same basis as whites.
  16. The chief sources of delinquency and crime are ignorance, discrimination, poverty and exploitation.
  17. Communists have a right to express their opinions.
  18. We should always be ready to negotiate with the Soviet Union and other communist nations.
  19. Corporal punishment, except possibly for small children, is wrong.
  20. All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.
  21. We always ought to respect the religious beliefs of others.
  22. The primary goal of international policy in the nuclear age ought to be peace.
  23. Except in cases of a clear threat to national security or, possibly, to juvenile morals, censorship is wrong.
  24. Congressional investigating committees are dangerous institutions, and need to be watched and curbed if they are not to become a serious threat to freedom.
  25. The money amount of school and university scholarships ought to be decided primarily by need.
  26. Qualified teachers, at least at the university level, are entitled to academic freedom: that is, the right to express their own beliefs and opinions, in or out of the classroom, without interference from administrators, trustees, parents or public bodies.
  27. In determining who is to be admitted to schools and universities, quota systems based on color, religion, family or similar factors are wrong.
  28. The national government should guarantee that all adult citizens, except for criminals and the insane, should have the right to vote.
  29. Joseph McCarthy was probably the most dangerous man in American public life during the fifteen years following the Second World War.
  30. There are no significant differences in intellectual, moral or civilizing capacity among human races and ethnic types.
  31. Steps toward world disarmament would be a good thing.
  32. Everyone is entitled to political and social rights without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  33. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression.
  34. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
  35. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.
  36. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.
  37. Everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  38. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions.
  39. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

I would claim that today’s progressives would agree with fewer of those than the liberals of a half century ago would have and that today’s conservatives would agree with more of them than conservatives of a half century ago. That at least provides some credible support for my skepticism about the very idea of progress.

These are the issues I can’t answer without further qualification.

Everyone has a right to free, public education.

Primary education. We’ve signed an international accord to that effect so it’s a right. Beyond that I disagree.

A popular movement or revolt against a tyranny or dictatorship is right, and deserves approval.

There are just too many weasel words in that statement. What makes a movement “popular”? That there are people behind it? That there are a majority of people? And what does “approval” mean? I do not think we should support foreign political movements of any kind even in countries governed by dictatorships.

Progressive income and inheritance taxes are the fairest form of taxation.

A progressive consumption tax, especially one that exempts food and medicine, is just as fair as an income or inheritance tax and economically more sound.

We have a duty to mankind; that is, to men in general.

I think that we as individuals have an obligation to other individuals and an obligation to society more generally. I don’t think that poor people in rich countries have an obligation to rich people in poor countries.

The United Nations, even if limited in accomplishment, is a step in the right direction.

I think that world government requires world consensus and that isn’t remotely foreseeable. I agree with Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s wisecrack that the UN is a Third World debating society.

Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.

See above.

Corporal punishment, except possibly for small children, is wrong.

I think that corporal punishment is wrong especially for small children.

All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.

I do not believe that one half plus one of the people is enough to base a society on. I think that consensus is required. If the above is an anti-colonialism statement, I agree with it. If it’s an argument in favor of strict majoritarianism, I’m against it.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.

Despite that being the state motto of my native state, I’m suspicious of it. It depends on what is meant by “will of the people”, “basis”, and “authority”. I think that tradition, consensus, and the common law have roles as well.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

I think that everybody capable of working and not of independent means has an obligation to work. Otherwise I agree with the statement.

27 comments… add one
  • Jimbino

    Liberals seem to agree with:

    It’s OK for the government to take wealth and income from its citizens to buy and maintain national parks and forests and other fabulous national treasures in spite of the fact that Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans almost never set foot in them.

    In the name of welfare for needy citizens, it’s OK for the gummint to tax poor singles and the childfree, and other social combinations like grandmother-grandson, brother-sister, and use the funds to support the middle-class breeders, however well-off, in the name of marriage and pro-natalism.

  • Barry

    #26 will need to be updated to include students and student organization, especially after the commencement protests of 2014

  • PD Shaw

    1. “All forms of racial segregation and discrimination are wrong.”

    Do liberals believe this? Affirmative action is a form of discrimination. There is a very important “wrong” here, but I am not opposed to remedial affirmative action and certain targeted preferences in places like the police force, and taking race into account where there are solid biological grounds.

    3. “Everyone has a right to free, public education.”

    I don’t think of education this way. A certain level of education is required by society, and as a result society should be required to pay for it. I agree that society should require some level of education, unless the individual is incapable.

    5. “In political or military conflict it is wrong to use methods of torture and physical terror.”

    Depends on the circumstances. I don’t have to believe the ticking time-bomb scenario is plausible to also believe that there are scenarios where the use of violence is justified and may be proportionate to the problem.

    6. “A popular movement or revolt against a tyranny or dictatorship is right, and deserves approval.”

    I agree with Dave’s comments, but the concern I have is whether or not such a popular movement, however morally justified, can be foreseen to fail. I don’t want to see all of the “good” people die needlessly and silently, if the time is not right.

    8. “Progressive income and inheritance taxes are the fairest form of taxation.”

    I support both, but agree with Dave’s comment.

    9. “If reasonable compensation is made, the government of a nation has the legal and moral right to expropriate private property within its borders, whether owned by citizens or foreigners.”

    Kelo may be a legal decision, but not moral. I reserve my right to think so. (I don’t get the thrust of this issue, is this about Israel?)

    10. “We have a duty to mankind; that is, to men in general.”

    I don’t know what it means.

  • PD Shaw

    13. “Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.”

    Don’t really see this as a duty. I can see that the U.S. can have an interest in helping people in other countries to the extent practical. This is primarily the duty of a hegemon.

    14. “Colonialism and imperialism are wrong.”

    Depends, or at least these are not unvarnished wrongs. A lot of this is wrong. But historically was it wrong for a people to cross the river to live a better life, say the German barbarians? Is it wrong for Mexicans? Movement and securing trade are historical realities, but I think implied in the moral condemnation is the emergence of nation-states. And nation-states are not universal.

    15. “Hotels, motels, stores and restaurants in southern United States ought to be obliged by law to allow Negroes to use all of their facilities on the same basis as whites.”

    Why is this solely Southern?

    16. “The chief sources of delinquency and crime are ignorance, discrimination, poverty and exploitation.”

    I’m not sure I know the answer, but I think youth and the fun of it all are important sources. Discrimination? You would think there would have been more crime when discrimination was worse.

    19. “Corporal punishment, except possibly for small children, is wrong.”

    I don’t support corporate punishment at any age, but I don’t feel this must always be true, or that objectionable.

    20. “All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.”

    I would accept a right not to be a colony with the equivalent obligation of the majority not to “colonize” the minority in the new state.

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    The book was written in 1964, and the statements are a reflection of the US at the time. As you point out in #14, they are also 19th or 20th century centric. I will go further. To the 23rd Century man/woman, we will seem like unsophisticated savages.

  • TastyBits

    I would answer most of them with a qualified agree, but my qualified agree might disqualify me for some (many).

    Philosophically, I am a libertarian, but I am also a hard-core realist. The world does not work the way it must in order for libertarianism to function properly. Libertarians exist within a well ordered world, and they believe that the world must necessarily be well ordered. Alas, it is not.

    The world is based upon power and money. Humans have an unlimited capacity to rationalize away this use of power and money, and libertarians are some of the best at it. Regulations, taxes, social programs, etc. are necessary. They should be limited, but if their legitimacy is denied, they cannot be limited.

    I do not like them, but the reality is that few libertarians would be able to survive in the world they would create. I have been there and done that. You have to be on guard all the time, or you become somebody’s bitch. Then, daddy takes care of the bullshit, and you take care of daddy. Frankly, I am a man, but I have seen my share of bitches.

  • ...

    (I don’t get the thrust of this issue, is this about Israel?)

    Maybe it’s about that time we stole half of Mexico and then paid them for it later.

  • The world does not work the way it must in order for libertarianism to function properly.

    That’s the core of the Jeffersonians’ world view. The Jeffersonian strategy is to create a small well-ordered, largely libertarian world as separate as practical from the big, chaotic, largely authoritarian one. Jeffersonian foreign policy isn’t isolationist but it is suspicious.

  • PD Shaw

    31. “Steps toward world disarmament would be a good thing.”

    I’m actually surprised that I agree w/ this, moreso than Dave. I think we could use fewer nukes and other WMD. I take it that Dave thinks the goal itself is not that good. I think a few steps in that direction would be good, particularly in negotiation with the Russians.

    35. “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

    I find this an odd claim, following several claims to “rights.” If the will of the people is that some shall be slaves, is that liberal? That’s just what is popular.

    36. “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.”

    Perhaps I am not liberal because I am suspect of a lot of “rights” language. I would say one has a right to Social Security if one pays into social security or has some incapacity.

    37. “Everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

    Few of us make widgets on the assembly-line any more so that our work could be evaluated qualitatively with another.

    39. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

    Again, don’t like “rights” language. I would say it’s a proper role of government to provide welfare for those with substantial need brought about by circumstances beyond his control.

  • I’m actually surprised that I agree w/ this, moreso than Dave.

    “World disarmament” would mean that non-state actors would continue to be armed while the actual states disarm. Does that sound like a good idea?

    I also think that to support “steps” you must intellectually support complete success, i.e. disarmament which I think is a poor idea for the reason above. If someone were to ask me if I supported the U. S. and Russia cutting their nuclear arsenals in half, I’d agree. If someone were to ask if I supported eliminating their nuclear arsenals altogether, I’d say “No”.

  • PD Shaw

    @Tastybits, I forgot about the publication date. I thought the reference to the Soviet Union was a mistake, and assumed they meant Putin’s Russia.

    I hate historical anachronisms like judging the distant past by today’s realities.

  • TastyBits

    The world is more than authoritarian. Unless I am mistaken, Jeffersonians still misunderstand (refuse to accept) that power and money are the basis for human action.

    Your neighbor wants to bash your skull in with a rock, and he would if he had the opportunity. More than likely you would do the same, but most people refuse to accept this possibility.

    Very few people are total pacifists. Most people can be lured into violence, and as such, they will rationalize this use of violence. If you are capable of rationalizing one small action, you are capable of rationalizing one larger action.

    The capacity to act does not require you to act nor does it imply that you will act, but the capacity is universal. The king, corporation, or dog catcher will try to expand their power, but the individual will as well. They will all abuse what power they have, and they will abuse whomever and whatever they need to obtain more.

    Within a Western liberal democratic framework, power is not accepted as a basis for governing, but for most of the world, it is the basis. This poses a problem for the US, and this includes the delusional hawks. They believe that the sheep can don the wolf’s clothes, and this will fool the wolf. To the sheep, all wolves look the same, but to the wolves, all sheep look like tasty meals.

    These power based governments are not anomalies. They are the natural product of the region. This is being proven by the experiments of toppling dictators and attempting to install Western liberal democracies.

    Afghanistan will fall apart when the US exits whether it is a year, a decade, or a century. Unless a strong hard leader is in place to unite the disparate people, it will be dis-united, or the country can somehow become industrialized. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, Egypt, etc. all need strong rulers.

    The best solution was probably using espionage during the Cold War. (This is the torture point.) It is not great, but it is a hell of a lot better than what we have now.

  • jan

    PD, I found many of your personal comments, added below the questions, to be discerning. Also, your objections to the broad usage of “rights’ is something I too find problematic.

  • Ben Wolf

    If answering yes to these questions defines a liberal, then as I have suspected they’re much more conservative than I am.

  • Ben Wolf

    Also, it suggests many today who would be labeled extreme conservatives have internalized ideas from the radical left.

  • Gray Shambler

    When you use the pronoun “we”, you always seem to mean the Federal Government. We organize in many ways, and the Federal Government may be the least helpful way to “help” the poor or aged or disadvantaged. And I think mostly because it allows the rest of society to assume those needs are being met and don’t consider helping each other.

  • Look more closely at what I’ve written, Gray Shambler. As is clear from the body of the post, the list of questions was written by James Burnham, not me. In my responses in every instance in which I’ve written “we” it refers to foreign policy or I further qualify it as “we as individuals”. Foreign policy is the sole province of the federal government. We have state governments, local governments, clubs, affiliations, and all sorts of organizations. They are not authorized to enact treaties or to make war (the mechanisms of foreign policy).

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