Posts Tagged liberalism

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Amazing Scenes From Iron Jawed Angels: A stinking corpse on your doorstep? What will the neighbors think?

Starting at about 4:10 – her explanation of the power of the hunger strike.

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The Continuous Liberal Tradition

A favorite meme of conservatives is the “classical liberal” meme – it usually sounds like:

I’m a classical liberal who believes in [fill in the blank] unlike those modern liberals who  . . .

The “classical” liberal meme holds that speaker (who usually parades a host of right wing talking points before the audience) is the real guardian of the liberal legacy, while his/her opponents, those nefarious modern liberals, have abandoned true liberalism in the name of something else, usually whatever the speaker imagines socialism to be. 

The “classical liberal” works from a set of flawed understandings about the liberal project; it is a fundamentalist perspective on politics and policy, one that proposes there was in the past a “pure” version of liberalism from which the modern world has fallen and if only we could return to it, all would be well.  It’s a nice fantasy but at the end of the day, it requires we ignore reality or turn back time.

Classical liberalism was formulated in a specific time in response to specific historical circumstances.

In the 18th century the two most powerful institutions were church and state.  Enlightenment liberals sought to control both (and to limit the damange they could do).  First they de-authorized the official church through by separating church and state.  If the state could no longer pick and choose sides in religious debate, then the church would be thoroughly privatized; without access to the tools of the state (armies, police, jails and so on) the church would have to survive on its own as a matter of intellectual persuasion; if it could convince its believers and nonbelievers, then it could hold sway but it could not have access to the power of the state to either coerce belief or behavior. 

Controlling the state was a more complex problem, one solved through overt and covert means.  The most important component of the overt side of control was democracy.  Without the consent of the governed, government lacked legitimacy.  Representative democracy (however imperfect) nevertheless provides a means by which governmental power is restrained – if government is formed by and answerable to the people, it will behave differently. 

Other overt means of controlling government were systems of checks and balances as written into the US Constitution.  Checks and balances directly limit the power of government by dividing governmental power in such a way that the judicial, executive and legislative branches are deliberately at odds with one another.  The executive can limit legislative power through the veto; the judicial branch has the power to overturn laws but is chosen by the executive with consent of the legislative branche; the legislative branch has the most important powers, taxation and spending, but are limited by the other two branches.  Checks and balances limit governmental power by engaging government in a permanent, ongoing internal power struggle.

Covertly, the founders tried to limit the power of the state through through establishing a system that limited the powers of the central government and those of the state governments, but also which set them against one another.  The intent was simple – if government at no level had too much power, it could not engage in dangerous or oppressive actions.  The historical experience of the Articles of Confederation is ignored by people who make the “small government” argument.  The Articles established a very weak central government, one which proved in practice utterly incapable of governing a nation (IIRC, the Articles did not even grant the central government the right to levy taxes).  In response to that failed experiment, they held a Constitutional Convention which vastly exceeded its authority (they were supposed to fix the existing articles, not propose an entirely new constitution).  The Constitution created a central government with a broad and vaguely defined charter, established a structure for the government but much else that was crucial was left undefined (hence the Bill of Rights).  The result was a central government which could and would evolve over time.

Often unaddressed is the notion of government as a means of preserving rights – that governments must protect the rights of individuals through restraining their own actions and by preventing other people and institutions from attacking individual rights.  I think it’s safe to point out that much of the anger in the US at government right now is rooted in the perception that our elected officials are too beholden to corporate interests and are making choices that are good for corporations and bad for people.  The liberal answer simply is that government MUST confront and control corporate power rather than ally itself with it, it must contain corporate power in the name of real people.

At the time, these contructs were eminently reasonable; they effectively tamed the most powerful forces in society.  Read the rest of this entry »


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