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The End of Liberalism as We Knew It July 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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Jim DeMint (R, SC) said last week that health care was Obama’s waterloo. Republicans, who at the moment seem to lack resources, ammunition, and leadership, probably should not draw comparisons with Napoleon, but DeMint’s remarks were in one respect prescient.

Health care is unlikely to be Obama’s waterloo, but it may mark liberalism’s waterloo, at least the liberalism to which we have been accustomed.

Anyone paying attention to political news last week was aware of two events: (1) Health care reform is stymied in the House and Senate over disagreements about how to pay for the program, and (2) the California legislature passed a budget bill that contains draconian cuts to education, social services, and local governments.

These two events are related in that they reveal the essential outlines of political strategies going forward.

In Washington, the Democratic health care reform proposals are held up by intransigent Republicans, who want no part of health care reform, and conservative Democrats who worry about costs, taxes and the withdrawal of affection from insurance industry lobbyists and their money.

This despite overwhelming public support for health care reform.

Although it seems irrational to stand in the way of a popular program that solves problems, Republicans know that if Obama succeeds with health care reform, they lose the argument that government is always the problem, never the solution. If they lose that argument, they lose the war.

Meanwhile, in California, because budget rules give a minority veto power, a few Republicans along with the Governator were able to convince the Democratic legislature to vote for severe cuts to education, home health services, and local governments—all popular recipients of state revenues. And without question this budget will worsen the recession in California.

It seems a bit of madness for a struggling minority party to cancel popular programs that will hurt voters, but, unfortunately, there is logic to their madness. The common denominator in both Washington and Sacramento is the willingness of Republicans to make it impossible for government to function. This is the aim of Republican strategy and it is rational because a dysfunctional government benefits Republicans.

The political calculation is this. Roughly 30% of the voting public self-identify as conservative and reliably vote Republican. Republicans can count on them, but their numbers are not sufficient to win many elections.

However, Republicans also know that there are legions of voters, Republican, Independent, and Democrat who, while acknowledging the importance of government, fret about whether government is competent to do anything worthwhile.  Mistrust of government, politicians, and bureaucracy, along with doubts about whether they can really solve problems, runs deep in this country. Years of Republican misrule have reinforced those doubts. If that is followed by drift and inertia while the Democrats are in charge, voters will be even more demoralized and cynical despite Obama’s hopeful rhetoric.

Cynicism and demoralization always play into conservative hands because they reinforce the belief that government is powerless to do good—the antithesis of modern liberalism.

Thus, the Republican strategy in the U.S. as well as California is to gum up the works, make the Democrats own the mess, and hope that enough people will be arbitrarily angry at the party in power to put Republicans back in control.

This strategy makes liberalism as we have known it irrelevant.

Contemporary  liberalism has always tended to attribute good intentions to its adversaries. It has been much enamored with the task of achieving “overlapping consensus” * by invoking Deweyan notions of “come let us reason together” in order to achieve common goals.

The liberal assumption was that our political community shares sufficient commitment to liberty, equality, and a well-ordered society so that we all have an interest in finding fair rules of governance despite our substantial differences.

These philosophical ideas about public reason suggest that bipartisanship and the compromise of more “extreme” positions by occupying the middle ground is the most fruitful approach to politics because it enables opposing sides to discover points of agreement on which to move forward that exist because we share the goal of good governance.

This is the intellectual tradition inherited by moderate Democrats who congenitally  prefer to govern from the center and make a fetish of bipartisanship.

Yet, in both Sacramento and Washington, Republicans are playing moderate Democrats like a Stradivarius. The fact that Democrats cannot count on any Republican votes means the Dems need strict party discipline to accomplish their goals. But on health care, the so called “centrist” Democrats are eviscerating the real reforms in the progressive proposals, and in California, there was little stomach among Democrats for standing up to the Republicans and refusing to go along with their death march.

In both cases, the moderate Democrats enabled the Republican dream of destroying government.

The problem is that centrist Democrats are still playing by the old rules, trying to govern effectively in a context in which the opposition is no longer a loyal opposition but a cancer trying to destroy the body politic from within.

Once upon a time, common goals and a shared interest in governing did exist. In post-WWII America, most Republicans and Democrats were seeking widely distributed prosperity and debates were about whether that prosperity could be achieved by relatively minor shifts in the balance between public and private goods. Compromise along that single continuum was easy to achieve.

Many Democratic politicians and especially many journalists who report on politics (David Broder of the Washington Post and George Skelton of the LA Times in particular) still think these are the rules of the political game. But the rules have changed. Liberals want to use government to solve problems; Republicans want to destroy government.

But you cannot reason with a cancer or compromise with a predator. Thus, centrist Democrats face an existential choice. They can negotiate with themselves, try on the predatory garb which Republicans now display, or join their more principled liberal Democrats in solving problems. What they can no longer do is help themselves to the tranquil center of American politics where liberalism used to reside.

In the 60’s, the left had a slogan—you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. That smacked of youthful arrogance then—but it ages well.


* Political philosopher John Rawls coined this phrase to describe the aim of public reason in a liberal democracy.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


Reviving the Left March 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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As some of you know, I have been working on a book for the past few years. It is entitled Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. The book has just been released.

The aim of the book is to describe a new moral vision for liberalism, one that rests less on social contract theory and more on the ethics of care. It is a book of popular philosophy intended for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Hopefully, a quick but informative read.

I have a new website devoted to the book that includes two new blogs—one devoted to liberal theory, values, and politics, and the other devoted to liberal activism (maintained by my son who has considerable activist experience). So head on over and check us out.

I will, of course, continue to blog here, but with some of the more political material moving to the new site.

With two blogs to feed, when will I sleep? I’m not sure.

Singer Vs. Cowen March 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Bloggerheads has a terrific video of an interview with Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher. The interviewer is Tyler Cowen, a widely respected economist. The interview is in part devoted to Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save, in which Singer argues that as individuals we have an obligation to do more to end world poverty.

But the discussion ranges over a variety of topics that capture the flavor of utilitarianism, and to my mind, expose some of its flaws. Cowen’s questions are sharp and well-informed—it you’re interested in applying ethics to real world problems, the video is worth checking out.

I was surprised that at one point Cowen attributes to Singer the view that “people whether we like it or not will be committed to working on their own life projects rather than giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint…” Cowen asks whether Singer is comfortable with that fact or if he thinks it is a human imperfection.

This has always been one of my pet peeves against utilitarianism—its tendency to ignore human psychology and our need to devote substantial resources and attention to our own projects. Apparently, Singer is addressing the issue in his new book. (To be fair, he may have addressed the issue in earlier work. I am not familiar with all of it.)

In the interview, Singer’s response was to hope that people would adopt aid to others as part of their personal projects, and he suggests that individuals should do so only if it makes them happy. But this is not really a utilitarian response since it puts such a premium on individual human happiness.

Utilitarianism asserts that our actions should advance the general welfare. Our personal happiness is only one very small component of the general welfare, and thus utilitarians cannot be motivated primarily by the pursuit of personal happiness. That is psychologically implausible. But some utilitarians argue that we can best advance the general welfare when we focus on personal happiness. But then they are conceding defeat. If that is the case, utilitarianism no longer provides us with a theory of practical reason.

If there is a coherent utilitarian position that places such a premium on individual happiness, utilitarianism is inching closer to an ethic of care (or at least my version of it).