The Open Mind III: a Liberal’s Principles Defended and Further Propounded

by A. Jay Adler on December 16, 2009

The idea of Principia Liberalis was to explore the roots of those partly different perceptions of reality ShrinkWrapped and I have of the world. I say partly because, of course, like most humans, we share a lot in our perceptions. I think he and I may even share more than that. But there are profound political differences. Shrink and I can play Cross Fire with each other. It had a pretty good run on CNN, and we all know what a lasting contribution it made to political discourse and to the deepening of our political understanding. Why not, instead, as some readers had suggested, see if we can determine where we part ways, which entails, as fundamental to the process, reaching back far enough in our grounded or ungrounded beliefs about the world to some ground we might actually share. Otherwise we are still suspended in the ideological air shouting at each other, with no idea how I came to hang here, and he got to floating over there, from the ground, wherever it is, on which we both began.

Now, it is abundantly clear from our exercises in posting thus far that some conservatives reading along believe they already have the various answers to that, accordingly, not so open question. Engagement, then, with any ideas I proffer, is not required. This is unfortunate, because in those instances, where people have engaged me, there have been some interesting exchanges, some modest agreements, and even surprising discoveries. Others, however, are content to rant the rants they’ve got down about as good as The Boss has got his 70’s playlist down, with their versions of “Born to Run” ready to play in their sleep. So it is that, while I write at the end of the introduction to my list of principles

I offer one closing, guiding principle for reception of this effort: note its subtitled denotation of “a” liberal. Your humble and fallible servant is neither the face nor the voice of “liberalism.”…There are others willing to play that role; I think and speak for myself

we hear quickly from one reader, “Number 24 says terror and tyranny must be opposed and freedom and democracy defended. Liberals do not believe any of that” and I am upbraided by another – suffering from a loss of faith in the whole endeavor and, oh, dear, me – “And who died and put AJA in charge of speaking for liberals?”


One complainant for whom complaint is like an attempted take down at the knees, to avoid confronting the ideas head on, pretends to counter by noting that I did not define “justice,” as if a blog post intended to spark discussion were an essay in political philosophy. It is worth noting, against this devastating take down, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

You will search in vain through the Constitution – a pretty substantial document, I hear tell – for a definition of justice, or for that matter of “the general welfare,” though the authors were rather clear about the meaning of “people,” in whole or in part – so that while the Constitution set forth a wide range of principles of government that so many Americans found disappointingly agreeable at the time, history reports they found enough to fight about later on.

Similarly, to charge my principles with being a “jumble” or my thinking with being “sloppy” without offering reasoned analysis of the principles in order to demonstrate the incoherence of the jumble or the slapdash of the sloppy – and I am, I assure my valued readers, quite prepared to argue to the contrary – is to offer only the pretence of argument. It is not argument, particularly as it shifts focus to me and my generic liberal intellectual inadequacies and the assertion of my objectionable personal qualities. It is, instead, beer spritzing from the cheap seats. The beer drinkers may think the beer a fine conservative Doppelbock – all seriously bottled in disdainful condescension and advertisement of pedigree – but it is a spritz nonetheless. It’s okay that there are cheap seats and that people spritz from them – a full, rowdy stadium makes the contest more exciting. But cheap-seaters do not win the game. They do not even play in it. I am grateful, however, for current, lively examples of what is referred to in logic as shifting the ground and simple evasion, that I may offer them to my students, along with clear representations of ideocentrism.*

I am, of course, equally appreciative of the patronizing compliments for my willingness to discuss my beliefs, so unlike, it is claimed, the typical boorish liberal – as if I were Kasper Hauser being readied for A Report to an Academy. As many of us are likely to entreat at the moment of ultimate extremity: “Spare me.”

The ideas, ladies and gentlemen, the ideas.

SW rightly observes of many of my principles that the proverbial devil will be in the details. We needn’t necessarily look too far, however. Of my second and third principles –

2. Human beings aspire to the good and are drawn to the bad. They are both. There is no evidence to conclude which will ultimately rule in them.

3. Human history is both sublime and horrific.

Shrink responds “Who could disagree?” In fact, I think he will agree on reflection, with regard to 2, many people. Many people believe in the essential goodness of human beings. Many people of various religious traditions so believe, that despite human weakness, the essence is good. The utopian tendencies that lead, at an even more modest level, to what conservatives tend to believe is an inordinate trust by liberals in the efficacy of big government begin in this faith. Just the other day, in responding to my post Obama Abroad: Liberal, Moderate, Careful Shrink cited Richard Landes’s definition of Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism:

The projection of good faith and fair-mindedness onto others, the assumption that “other” shares the same human values, that everyone prefers positive sum interactions. In a slightly more redemptive mode, LCE holds that all people are good, and if only we treat them right, they will respond well (emphasis added).

Principle 2 asserts none of this.

In relation, regarding principle 3, while it may appear to offer a self-canceling form of balance – as is the presentation of many of the principles – this is not the case. Much debate between the left and the right is conducted at either/or extremes. The balanced ideation of these principles is intended, meaningfully, to avoid that unproductive procedure. To assert that human history, and the humans who produced it, as agents, has been horrific, sensibly requires of us that despite any countervailing sublimity in human achievement, the awful tendencies of humans be invariably considered in our political and other thinking, without illusion. In his post yesterday A world well saved, Norm Geras at Normblog makes the parallel argument with regard to our better graces.

Principle 5 states

5. There is such a thing as evil. It often conceives of itself as a good.

SW replies that “the statements seem pretty self evident” and that “one must inquire by what guidelines would Jay delineate  good versus evil?”

I do not think the statements, particularly the second, to be so self-evident. After 9/11, from some of the very quarters that Shrink would criticize (and in which criticism I would join him) came much oddly sanctimonious and ironic derision of the notion of evil. The idea of evil is frequently conceived – and then extended into caricature – as a self-knowingly malevolent force, in the manner, for instance, of Milton’s Satan: “Myself am Hell.” If not quite so definitively self-aware, there is, indeed, such evil in the world. However, the history of Utopian totalitarianism, as well as of military coups and tyranny and the theft by leaders of the liberties of their people in order to “save them,” they often sincerely believe, from some greater threat is a history of a far more complex and insidious form of evil.

The guidelines I rely on, with my fellows, in delineating good from evil – without being required to transform a blog post into a treatise – are the patient practice of reason in conjunction with natural human empathy. Shrink raises the concern of “moral equivalence and moral relativism” and claims that “one clear difference between Liberals and Libertarian/Conservatives resides in just this fact, the Libertarian/Conservatives do believe there is an absolute basis for distinguishing good and evil.” I think this is counterproductive generalization. I agree that the area of his concern is to be found predominantly (not exclusively – relativistic ideas have become pervasive within many poorly conceived sets of beliefs) on the left. However, while an absolute grounding of morality in religious belief is found throughout the political spectrum, I think it fair to claim that it predominates on the right, and moral absolutism founded in religious belief – unless God speaks to one in a manner the rest of us can overhear, or one was present at the deliverance of the tablets to Moses – is a faith casting a shadow far longer and larger than any faith in big government.

Shrink cites my principles 7-14:

7. Nations, like people, are responsible for their actions. They act as historically and legally conceived and constituted entities, and they are responsible as historical and legal entities.

8. The animating determinant of historic national responsibility is in the living consequences of past acts: no continuing consequences, no conceivable responsibility.

9. The past cannot be undone, but the future can be different; this is accomplished through understanding and acknowledgement of the past and accountability for it.

10. Accountability for the past is policy for the future.

11. The colonial epoch is ended. Its consequences are not.

12. Victors record history. This does not make the history false. Neither does it make it true.

13. Conquerors leave the past behind more easily than the conquered. This is because the conqueror owns the future.

14. To have been conquered or oppressed, to be weak, does not ennoble a people before or after the fact; the acts of a conquered, oppressed, or weak people are not legitimized by those conditions. Neither is the injustice of their conquest, oppression, or weakness abused, or the justness of redress, negated by their imperfection.

He sees in them a reflection of my interest in Native American issues (and, in fact, the issues of indigenous peoples in general). He is right to see this, but the principles go beyond them to encompass the continuing political ramifications, worldwide, of the colonial era. Shrink states, “Again, there is little to object to on the surface.” I think otherwise.

Principle 7 asserts the well established notion, internationally, of national responsibility. Principle 8, further, states that the responsibility is enacted by the “living consequences” of past acts. Principle 9 calls for acknowledgement of the past, leading to accountability, and principle 10 affirms that this accountability is the basis for future policy. Principle 11 turns from what might be a more limited national sphere to a wider, international realm. Principle 12, while balanced in form, challenges any notion that victory affirms the truth of its narrative or the values that inform it. Principle 13 is a partial response to the historically simplistic “move on” argument regarding the cultural condition of conquered and colonized populations. In some contrast, principle 14 avers, contrary to the animating sympathies of much anti-imperialist and postcolonial ideology, that disadvantaged (for whatever reason) populations are not by virtue of that relation to power ennobled and affirmed in their political actions and programs.

In truth nearly all of those principles, particularly the first four, which received focus then, were problematic, even strongly objectionable to many of the conservative readers who commented during The Open Mind 1 discussion of Native America.

In his first response to my principles, SW referred to 22 and 23:

22. Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it. Government is best assigned those responsibilities that are necessary to the commonweal above what is necessarily optimally efficient, though it need not be an enemy of efficiency. Sources of optimal efficiency cannot concern themselves with the common good whilst remaining optimally efficient; they must be managed when applied to the common good so that a balance is achieved between efficiency and the breadth of the benefit they deliver.

23. A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.

Wrote SW, Jay “imagines a government designed to solve certain problems, with enough power and size to adequately address the particular issue, with minimal interests of its own which might skew its ability to act in the dispassionate service of its people.”

If such is the appearance, I correct it. SW asserts that I somewhat contradict 22 with 23; however, I was not focused on, nationally, the size of government in 23, but, internationally, a tendency toward a form of empire. I addressed this subject at somewhat greater length in Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire.

Shrink is right, of course, to perceive the same application to government size. I agree with it. However, the tendency among conservatives is to focus on human imperfection in the practice of government, and the accretive nature of power in the hands of government, while remaining far more sanguine about the same issues in the marketplace. As principle 22 suggests, as governments tend toward the accumulation of power, theoretically optimally efficient systems tend only toward optimal efficiency, and when they involve human beings are subject to the influence of the same human imperfections. Note today’s report on Intel’s monopolistic practices.

Finally, for now, on the matter of justice:

18. The greater the justice, the greater the harmony. All oppositions are not enemies; the reconciliation of many oppositions leads to greater harmony and greater justice.  This does not mean that all claims are valid, all positions legitimate, or that all demands should be met: many claims, positions, and demands are themselves unjust and destructive of harmony.

My interest here was in opening up discussion on a single issue – a belief in an inherent opposition between the interests of the individual and the group that appears to be, in fact, a shaky common ground for many on the left and the right. I think that a belief worth challenging.


*ideocentrism (a neologism devised independently by me and others): a belief in the superiority of one’s ideas so fixed that one is unable to credit opposing ideas as worthy even of sustained exploration. An ideocentric individual might make, for example, the fatuous statement that “Conservatives believe in human reason,” implying, in the context, that liberals do not believe in reason, or perhaps only, one might presume, in monkey or canine reason.


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