Blog: Why I consider myself a Liberal

Why I consider myself a Liberal
Why I consider myself a Liberal
Date: 2018-Feb-11 22:19:10 EST

Liberal is not a term I've worn for my entire politically-aware life. In childhood I took an early interest in political philosophy, and like a lot of younger geeks I wanted to squeeze complexity out of the system until solidity emerged. I think I lacked the safeguard against letting that shape my ends, but it's hard to project judgements like that back across so many years. In high school I was more outspoken than most in social studies and a professor labelled me libertarian; I looked into it and the label fit. I carried that forward into late college, hanging out with others who saw the world as I did, believing that its ideas could solidly solve all the problems I cared about while also being ecologically radical. Eventually this conflict came to a head after a formal debate where I represented libertarian positions, but my answers to some questions about ecological protections came to rang false in the weeks following the debate as I digested the discussion. My faith in its ability to solve all the questions broke my ability to feel that it stood over other perspectives in offering workable certainty, unleashing me from that perspective. And over time my values shifted, no longer bound to a unitary sense of right and wrong tied to libertarian ethics (although to be fair there were disagreements within libertarian camps, they were just relatively small and felt nonthreatening). I became a Trotskyite Marxist for a time, then abandoned it when I found I didn't believe in Marxian economics and I actually appreciated (constrained and nuanced and probably compatible with socialist intuitions) markets. I came to appreciate academic expertise and technocracy even though I also believe that values enter into it. And so I arrived at a kind of technocratic socialism, which has adequately characterised my beliefs for a good while now.

So why do I call myself a liberal? Are all socialists liberal? Maybe on a battlefield map, but it's a bit more than that for me. I have ideas of the shape of liberal thought that I think describe my thought reasonably well. Liberal is a broad label, but to me it indicates:

  • A belief that having fairly wide autonomy in life is valuable
  • A belief that a social safety net increases rather than decreases economic autonomy, in that it increases actual options (I have come to prefer tangible options for autonomy like this over a preference for lack of formal rules blocking autonomy)
  • A strong belief in freedom of conscience, and lack of rules directly blocking that expression based on the content of the expression (meaning artists don't get carte blanche to mess with things because they're doing art, but in an area where people can express themselves the content of their expression should not generally be grounds for going after them)
  • A belief that while there are good things about past forms of society worth preserving and there is always risk in upending a system, a better system is constructed rather than recovered from the past. And that the past is, taken as a whole and viewed across all my values, a shitter place than now and that we should aim towards careful improvement towards a new and better future.
  • I believe the purpose of the state is to, broadly, promote the public good
That last point was a fairly conservative expression of a liberal end. I have some conservative or centrist philosophical beliefs too, namely:
  • I believe in rule of law as a general principle and that one had better have a damned good reason to step outside of it on anything big (there's a lot more nuance to this)
  • I believe that we should try to make it so those that break decent laws do not benefit from their actions
  • I distrust grand narratives, and oppose them when they become too dominant even if I otherwise like them. I expect them to get ugly when they get enough power.
  • I believe in fairness and truth independent of my political ends, and I believe that until we get enough people directly believing in it and faithfully approaching it (and maybe even if that is attained), a vibrant political system is necessary to keep a society from going to shit. A permanent win by any one side is to be opposed.
  • I believe that societies are built through civics, good institutions, and inculturation. I am skeptical of things that lessen the civilising effects of these (including immigration)
All this taken together, alongside some of my market-socialism ideas, puts me in what I'd call the liberal camp. Not because of cultural affinity; I am not blue tribe and some of my leanings mean I'm going to continually be stepping in the taboos of that tribe. But at least so far I pretty solidly vote democrat or green, with only occasional centrist or republican votes. It's not hard to get me to decide not to vote for particular candidates though - if they seem corrupt, or they oppose free speech, or otherwise are objectionable in certain ways. I did not vote for Hillary (or Trump) in this past election, and I don't regret that (I think they were both incredibly shitty candidates, and the Democratic party lost my presidential vote over a few fairly non-negotiable choices they made).