Sunday, October 5, 2014


[UPDATE, 10-18-14:  A version of this post is reprinted at the Ordinary Times Blog, broken up into two posts.  The version printed there is a lot longer, as I have gone into some very specific policies/laws I support.  It's also a bit less edited than the post here on this blog, and isn't as clear about the extent to which I see my neoliberalism as coming from an "inductive" approach to politics.  Still, I'm grateful for the opportunity to discuss my ideas there, and urge any readers to hop on over to see the comments and/or participate in the discussion.  The first post is here.  The second is here.] 

I've come lately to calling myself a "neo-liberal."  I want to define what I mean.  I'll say it's early twenty-first century liberalism strongly informed and checked by libertarian assumptions and in particular what James Hanley calls "marginal libertarianism."  Or in other words, a robust welfare state plus free markets and maximum civil liberties.  That's an overly simplified view of what I mean by neo-liberalism, but I think that's a good shorthand.

I wish my neo-liberalism to be a "pragmatic" or "inductive" approach to politics.  By "pragmatic" and "inductive," I mean that I determine first which policies I support and then organize my political views and alignments accordingly.  For example, I decided early on that I support the ACA, "Obamacare," and from that support, and the reasons for which I support it, I derive my views about government involvement in health care provision.

That's the approach to which I aspire.  But there are some real problems with it. 

For example, if taken to extremes, my approach becomes a "just-so" story about what I believe and about what is right, regardless of how one gets there.  It can be an invitation to arbitrariness and a denial or belittling of process.  In other words, the danger is I might come up with notions of what I support, and then make up reasons to support it.

Take the ACA, also known as "Obamacare".  There are some pretty severe practical and constitutional problems with the law.  I might say it's all to the greater good, and I do not concede that the problems obviate the potential good.  But I should be wary of ignoring altogether the constitutional objections its opponents have raised.  The same leaps of logic that I am tempted to use to justify the ACA bear a family resemblance to the leaps of logic that at times in our history has lent support to "criminal syndicalism" laws, to the internment of Japanese Americans, or to a peacetime draft--all of which I see as denials of basic and essential liberties.

A further problem with my approach.  When I say "I determine first which policies I support and then organize my political views and alignments accordingly," I should add the words "or at least I try to."  I too have prior assumptions on which I act and which can be construed as an "ideology."  And worse, I choose to indulge non-rational or spiteful approaches to policy issues.  I have, for instance, a knee-jerk sympathy for claims made in opposition to the teaching of evolution, to vaccinations, and to doing much of anything to stem what has been called "anthropogenic global warning," or "human-made global warming."  It's not that I really believe those claims deserve defending.  I don't.  But I admit I feel a sympathy for those stances that is hard to explain.
I would not eschew first principles altogether.  If I would, I'm not sure I could.  I also need to make allowances for the non-rational and intuitive.  Not all that is non-rational is wrong, and sometimes we have to decide based on our gut..  But the goal--again, it's one I aspire to, not one I always or even usually honor in practice--is to continually inform those principles and to question them.  Therefore, I do have a set of what I'll call provisional principles, or guidelines:

1.  Individual autonomy is a good thing, and it usually ought to be maximized.

2.  Coercion is automatically suspect and needs to be justified before it is invoked.

3.  Not all coercion is created equal.  The coercive power of the state to regulate driving is different from and requires less justification than the coercion inherent in the war of drugs.

4.  It's usually better to have more choices than fewer, and choices usually should be expanded and not restricted.

5.  Economic liberty is a desirable thing and ought to be expanded.  That includes, among other things, fewer restrictions on market transactions, especially inasmuch as "market transactions" is a shorthand for choices of voluntary exchange.

6.  People need to be economically secure, and if at all possible, that security ought not be limited to the bare minimum of survival.

7.  War is sometimes necessary and therefore sometimes justified.  But it is never good. 

8.  There are a lot of faults with what is called the "nation state," including whether and in what ways we can define something called a "national interest" both as opposed to "local interest" and to international relations.  Still, my starting assumption is to look at things through the lens of the nation-state.  In practice, that means  most policies I support tend to be national ones, and the foreign policy I support tends to be grounded in what I consider "realist" terms.  I don't wish to ignore all the problems with that focus.  But that's my starting assumption.

9.   Complexity and social organization come essentially from below, not from above and not from central planning.  Planning and policy can inform the shape and can nudge things from one direction to another.  Maybe, and even then with unpredictable consequences.  I sign on, mostly in full, to the quotation from Virginia Postrel that Jason Kuzknicki adds as a motto/guide to his unfortunately named blog:
A dynamic system, whether a single organization or an entire civilization, requires rules. But those rules must be compatible with knowledge, with learning, and with surprise. They must allow the tree to grow, not chop it into timbers. Finding those rules is the greatest challenge a dynamic civilization confronts.
10.  When I adopt policy preference or stance, I need to keep in mind at least the best counterargument to it, if not several good counterarguments.  Ideally, I ought to identify the point of view that I cannot satisfactorily answer and keep it front and center, lest I grow too attached to my own ideology.

There are probably more principles, but ten is a good round number.  I'm open to revising them.  I'll note also that they tend to contradict each other.  That's a feature, not a bug.  If there are no contradictions here, then I'm doing it wrong.  I must underscore again that these are all provisional and ad hoc. I come up with those principles partially based on my sense of right and wrong and partially based on rationalizations about the types of programs or policies I support.

In later posts, I may go over what specific policies I do support.  I also may go over some of the very dark connotations of what is known as "neo-liberalism" and try to explore the ways in which I can counteract them.