Thursday, September 25, 2003

Bad Labels, or What's an "Authoritarian" to Do?

This morning Will Baude issued a mighty libertarian yawp, in which he pronounced a plague on both the "left" and the "right," and mournfully asked "what's a Libertarian to do?" "When I'm with liberal friends," he writes, "I'm conservative (most of the time). With conservative friends, I'm liberal. With moderates, I'm an extremist." His conclusion is that, while he is certainly capable to picking and choosing how to align himself politically on any given particular issue, when confronted with the whole conservative/liberal continuum, he rather just "abstain."

I can remember having a conversation some years ago with Christopher Duncan, of the University of Dayton, that ended in a complaint he and I shared which we expressed in almost exactly the same terms as Will's, except that the positions we discussed were, I suspect, near perfect opposites of his. Rather than economic "conservatism" bothering our "liberal" friends, it was our social conservatism. Rather than our social "liberalism" bothering our "conservative" friends, it was our economic liberalism. We were, in other words, Christian socialists, conservative communitarians, Reagan Democrats, progressive traditionalists, call us what you will. And we too wondered if it wouldn't just be easier to "abstain" from the political game.

Perhaps inspired by Will's rant, I wasted a bunch of time this morning trying to see if I could come across blogs written by self-described communitarians or culturally conservative social democrats. Besides Amitai Etzioni's always valuable website, I couldn't find anything, though perhaps I was looking in the wrong places. Basically, I find perspectives that agree with my own piecemeal. (Traditionalist religious attacks on modernity? Try Paul Cella. Social justice oriented attacks on the unregulated market? Try Amy Sullivan.) And I suppose that shouldn't be surprising: whenever I take one of those innumerable internet political quizzes, I always end up in the "Authoritarian" quandrant, and am told that I idealize Vladimir Lenin. When the very idea of constructing and conserving a just and moral society through collective action has dropped almost entirely out of public discourse, and anyone who attempts to resurrect such gets labeled a totalitarian, what else should I expect?

I suppose "conservatism" is most to blame for this; as John Holbo wrote just today (hey, maybe a lot of people are thinking about all this...), there is perhaps no crazier presumption out there than the "conservative" one which holds that the statement "economic laissez faire is good" and the statement "cultural laissez faire is bad" are compatible. I wish more people would think about this perfectly obvious point. Or rather, since many people (partisans of all stripes, mostly) do, in fact, think and talk about it a lot (usually with the aim of exposing politically useful faultlines and inconsistencies in whatever group or ideology they oppose), I should say that I wish more people were willing to think about how we should rework our political labels, groupings, ideological clusters and so forth, and then act upon those thoughts. Of course, I suppose a comment like that shortchanges libertarians like Will, who have been trying to pull together this sort of rethinking for years. But on the opposite, communitarian side of things, little headway has been made, or even attempted. Try to find a social conservative who is willing follow through on their cultural beliefs to a demand for stability and equity in the fabric of the economic order. Or worse, try to find an economic redistributivist who understands that achieving fairness in society requires a collective concern for the moral prerequsites for said society. I'm afraid you probably won't have much luck.