Monday, October 20, 2008

Dave: Good Guy or Evil Socialist?

I'm going to borrow a phrase my cowriter used in his last post: "As a caveat, this is an exploration more than an argument."

In the last week, I have been reading Dave's posts in conjunction with a myriad of essays on political theory (shudder), and more specifically, the primary political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, and socialism.  It is essential to read this post knowing that I am an infant when it comes to these topics, and therefore, it's likely that I'm quite a bit off.  With this context in mind, I would like to cautiously respond to Dave's last two posts.

In "Achieving Community," Dave stated:

"Our ability to experience social justice as individuals depends on our belonging to a community, as it is only in community that our basic human needs are met."

Forthright declaration that human needs can only be met via the community is the foundation of Socialist ideology.  With this assumed, Socialists prioritize the community instead of the individual.  Thus the state equates the importance of individuals; people are but "cogs of a machine" working for the ultimate success of the entire community.

In stark contrast, Liberalism, which comes from the Latin "liber" meaning "free," is based upon the liberty and rights of the individual: the freedom to speak, write, assemble, earn, trade, and own, all in the pursuit of individual desires, needs, and success.  The state must respect its citizens as people, not treating them as mere "cogs."  State power must be both: (1) limited as much as possible wherever it infringes upon an individual's freedoms, and (2) utilized to protect its citizens from such infringements.

In "To and Fro: The Failure of Libertarianism," Dave stated:

"Libertarianism fails because it is premised on...the centrality of self-interest." 

In actuality, self-interest is the centrality of the aforementioned Liberalism, of which Libertarianism is but one of many schools.  And by no means has Liberalism "failed."  Quite the opposite, Liberalism is the foundation of the American political discourse.

It should be noted that Socialism is not rooted in Christian thought.  Socialists do not view cooperation and redistribution of wealth through a lens of "good" or "holy" the way Jesus Christ might have (remember: "It's easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"), but through one of social justice and communal empowerment.  Dave's realization regarding the selfishness of Liberalism was reached via the writings of a pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was therefore founded on the Christian ideals of love ("agape") and faith.

I'd like to make it perfectly clear that I do not disagree with Dave.  Instead, I'm attempting to explore the notion that Christian religion (or perhaps "love") and American politics--the latter of which, Dave never explicitly mentions in "Achieving Community"--may very well be inherently opposed to one another.  Hence the absolutely essential need for separation of Church and State.

So: What's the point?

I suppose I would argue that self-interest and individual competition, as encouraged by Liberalism, are not cause for worry.  If anything, these tenants are precisely what make modern, Western governance and economy work well.  As contradictory as it may seem, strides towards a "world community" should be taken only insofar as these foundations are--at all costs--protected.

And since I stated from the outset that this post wasn't an argument, but an exploration, I'd like to ask the brave souls still reading: How?


Dave said...

Interesting post Adam, of course, I have a few thoughts and retorts:

Jim Wallis said recently that being a person of social action involves engaging with change at three distinct (though overlapping) levels, individual, community, and political.

The socialism you describe here doesn’t fit with my understanding of community because, in your socialist system, the state defines the “Community” instead of empowering communities. The state’s role should be to support communities and build positive linkages between them. Garrett Dickins once told me that the primary role of government is to help communities internalize responsibility, maybe that’s true. Regardless, community cannot be imposed on people as it is in your socialist project; it is consensual interdependence. Consent is a core liberal value and a constitutive component of community.

Community and liberalism are not opposed. According to Jean Vanier, philosopher and founder of L’arche, “Community exists to bring people freedom. What is freedom? It is freedom from fear of any kind: compulsion, prejudice, loneliness, failure, suffering, guilt, etc.” Whether or not you agree with Vanier, it should be apparent that freedom and real community are possibly complementary.

However, Adam, your point on self interest is well-received. Upon thinking further, libertarianism doesn’t fail because it is centered on self-interest, it fails because of an overly narrow understanding of freedom that stems from an obsession with and worship of self-interest.

As Amartya Sen forcefully argues, human freedom is both positive and negative. Negative human freedom means freedom from undue aggression, unfair taxation, coercion, censorship, etc., in other words, to NOT have certain things done to you. On the other hand, positive human freedom is freedom to live a life you can value, which requires economic empowerment, basic public health, and primary education. Basic unfreedoms, such as malnutrition, widespread disability caused by preventable disease, illiteracy, and economic exclusion strip people of their ability to live lives they can value, their positive freedom. Can we gather freely and engage in public dialogue if we are debilitated by malnutrition or malaria? Can we gain meaningful employment without basic health provisions or literacy? No matter how free you are from government intervention, there are constitutive components of being human that must also be in place in order for liberal society to thrive.

So libertarianism fails because it does not account for positive human freedoms, for the provision and security of basic human needs. Governments must help people, and their communities, secure both positive and negative freedoms, which the libertarian philosophy is not prepared to accept.

I wholeheartedly agree that liberalism has not failed; it has thankfully thrived. I would suggest that agape love can and should be incorporated into individual, community-level, and political efforts at restoring justice in the world. We must vote, being freely engaged in public dialogue and freely pursuing our respective traditions, for governments who secure the positive freedoms of our brothers. Through a free and fair liberal democracy, a thriving market economy, and social structures that secure basic human needs, we can indeed build what King would call “the beloved community.”

Adam said...

Good post, Dave. Your idea of community seems to be founded more in a sense of multiculturalism, a world where communities can cooperate with one another no matter their differences, without actually altering the groups themselves--at least not fundamentally. Right? This is certainly a liberal concept.

I recently read an article which argued that this very multiculturalism, however, is a danger. The author said that by practicing the politics of inclusion, politically left parties have unintentionally legitimized radical right parties. Basically, by way of endorsing collective identity, the left has theoretically traded the group for the individual, and thus, has given a voice to all groups, even those with remarkably different (wrong?) value systems.

Does that make sense?

I know this has very little to do with what you were initially talking about, but I'd like to hear your opinion on this point, specifically in regard to how we, as individuals committed to social justice, are supposed to decide which communities are worth helping and which are not.

Dave said...

There are two pretty different questions here, I think:

One is whether politics of inclusion legitimizes and exacerbates dangerous viewpoints. That doesn't seem empirically true to me, at least in American politics. Well-functioning democracies tend toward the median voter, toward compromise, not radicalization. Politicians have to compete for the middle, not the extremes. Theoretically, I could see how your scenario would hold true. I could also see how a politics of exclusion could legitimize the claims of excluded groups... I'm not sure about multiculturalism is dangerous argument-

The second question is how we, as individuals committed to social justice, are supposed to decide which communities are worth helping and which are not. First, all communities are worth helping. But, we have to make choices and thus tradeoffs, so a better question might be, which communities are most worth helping now?

This is a question I struggle with all the time. Utilitarians would argue that we should help those with with the greatest need because they would derive the most utility.

For me personally, it seems that we ought to help those who are being most deprived of basic human livelihood (food, health, shelter, literacy, etc). We cannot deny their humanity without also denying our own, and if we affirm their humanity and have the capacity to secure their basic livelihood, then we must do so.

I am not sure where I fall, a friend once said that you have to love the people you want to help, like, actually fall in love with them. That's provocative-