The last few weeks brought a number of “Why I’m not a _____” posts from several of the web’s most prominent philosophically-sophisticated bloggers. Quick recap:
• Freddie deBoer is NOT a progressive.
• Will Wilkinson is NOT a “Bleeding Heart Libertarian,” a libertarian more generally, or a “liberaltarian.”
• E.D. Kain (responding to W.W.) is NOT just a libertarian or a liberal—he’s both.
• Christine O’Donnell is NOT a witch. She’s you.
I’m just kidding about the last one—though Ms. O’Donnell is deadly serious.
Why the sudden uptick in self-categorization posts? It’s probably a function of passing into the New Year. Arbitrary though it may be, January 1st is a convenient spur for reflection. Nothing wrong with that—we all need categories to anchor our selves (or our identities, or our consciousnesses, etc. The specific terminology isn’t crucial in this case).
Here’s the interesting bit (I think): Even if they’re protesting against different categories, they’re defining themselves identically. Everyone wants to count themselves as “liberals.” Freddie’s defining his brand of social democratic leftism as “liberal,” which is what Will and E.D. are calling their brand of market-based individualism.
If you’re at all savvy to the history of liberalism, you probably recognize that this can’t quite be right. Big tent it may be, but liberalism can’t really cover all that ground, can it? (Freddie’s charted the substantial distance between him and Will in a previous post). These aren’t two camps who “both believe in the free market but differ a little on the specifics of how it should be regulated.” Freddie is more than a little skeptical of the fundamentals underlying market systems, and Will/E.D. believe that individual economic freedom is something like the primal political good worth protecting. The only thing that they all appear to share is a preference for anti-imperial foreign policy.
But if that’s the case, then someone has to be mistaken. They can’t ALL be liberals—not, at least, in the sophisticated way that they want to use the term.† What’s so wrong with the crowds they’re jettisoning?
Why aren’t Will and E.D. libertarians (et al) anymore? At the most fundamental level, Will says, it’s about clarity:
What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.
Libertarianism doesn’t—at least at the moment—match the content of his convictions, so he gives it up for good old liberalism. This is particularly in light of the hegemony of Ron Paul’s “right-fusionism” currently dominating the public view of libertarianism. Kain agrees, more or less, that the problem with libertarianism is that it’s full of wild-eyed jackasses who call themselves libertarians. Guys like him and Will tried “to put [Ron Paul-esque] fusionism to the sword and start fresh,” but it turns out that there was no taking the term from the loons.‡
And honestly, that’s about right. Their primary concern with economic individualism puts them squarely in the the classical liberal camp, à la Locke, Smith, Hume, and Co. Libertarianism’s short history is replete with instances of weird reactionary cultishness. It has always been a fringe movement parasitic upon the classical liberal tradition, rather than a credible extension or alternative.
American liberalism has always been concerned with protecting individuals from government, first and foremost. I’m happy to be corrected, but I’ve always gotten the impression that Freddie is as concerned with using government as a means to sustain individualism. It’s part of what I find so congenial about his writing. Insofar as he believes that government can intentionally and actively enhance community life, he’s stepping beyond liberalism. He’s sounding much more like a progressive.
But Freddie need not despair. Progressivism is, to paraphrase Ms. O’Donnell, “nothing you’ve heard.” It’s much better.
Why does he think that he isn’t a progressive? Two reasons: 1) if leftists re-appropriate that moniker, they’re capitulating to the 1990s conservatives that hung the welfare state’s failures as millstones around “liberalism’s” neck, and 2) “progressive” has different semantic implications than “liberal.” In other words, how we describe ourselves politically says volumes about both the content of our convictions (#2) and the intensity with which we defend them (#1).
Frankly, I don’t get why it’s a capitulation to the Right to readopt an old leftist term—unless the content of American progressivism is really weak and delinquent in comparison with American liberalism. Fortunately, that’s Freddie’s second charge: the core claim is that “progressivism had some good and a lot of bad—in the comments he reveals that the latter consists of “eugenics” and “a general attitude that the way to improve the country was to avoid/remove/marginalize the ‘wrong sort.’”
A few things on that: There were progressives in the United States interested in eugenics. But to blame the progressives for eugenics is empirically false. There were also conservatives interested in eugenics—including Winston Churchill. Progressivism is as little to blame for eugenics as early liberals were to blame for their ambivalence on questions of slavery.
But what about this alleged marginalization? I have no idea what he’s referring to. The progressives led the fight for women’s suffrage. From John Dewey to Jane Addams to Walter Rauschenbusch and beyond, they defended the nation’s underserved as the victims of an unjust system of economic forces. For much, much more on this, see my essay with John Halpin, “The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America.”
* Don’t get the title? Cf. Don Quixote.
† It’s true that contemporary usage groups everything left of Sen. Scott Brown as “liberal” and everything right of Max Baucus as “conservative.” I get that, but guys who parse the difference between progressive and liberal or libertarian and “liberaltarian” don’t get to fall back on this kind of oversimplification.
‡ I should note that Freddie predicted Wilkinson’s recent move way back in August, in his post that I link several times above:
Wilkinson’s corpus is very odd to me, but it’s odd in a way that’s keeping with many other bohemian, culturally liberal libertarian writers. They have profound policy and political disagreements with American liberals and leftists, but on fundamental cultural and philosophical levels, they are far closer to the average American liberal than the average American conservative.