The Open Mind III: Principia Liberalis*

by A. Jay Adler on November 30, 2009

When ShrinkWrapped and I announced the inception of “The Open Mind,” we each cited as a motivation behind it the interest, in his words to me, of exploring “how two reasonably bright, reasonably decent people can disagree so significantly in their perception of reality.” One commenter, on one of our posts, suggested that we avoid more general philosophical arguments and address ourselves to specific issues that so often divide left from right, in the hope of attempting some common ground. This was a most reasonable suggestion, and even though, inevitably, it is those issues with which most of our exchanges are bound to concern themselves, it did seem to overlook a compelling truth: except in instances of the most truly open minds – a genuinely common intellectual exploration of ideas, rather than the rigidly maintained battle lines of contest in debate – a forum such as this is not where people tend to find common ground. For nothing is at stake.

As much as we all, left and right alike (ah, here’s common ground) tend to deride the practice of our legislators, when they haggle – excuse me, I mean debate – there are actual gains and losses to be exchanged in the chambers, as in the making of peace between enemies. Real stakes motivate people toward real compromise in real policy action. Under the conditions here, there is no such motivation, and without a spirit of real intellectual generosity and openness, there is no coming together. Perhaps we will encounter that openness at times. In any event there are benefits in clarifying and (I offer this word with very tender care) respecting differences.

Another commenter offered a contrary opinion:

Without delving into the details of either your or his posts, or either ripostes, I feel I must address what I see as the bigger issue: You have not resolved the underlying, fundamental differences between the two of you….

My larger point is that the two of you have differences of belief far more fundamental than what is being discussed here. Until and unless you not only identify, but resolve these differences, you will make no progress in discussing these more specific topics. All you are doing is putting ice packs on a feverish forehead, without attacking the infection.

I agree. Or at least it’s worth a go. So, with plenty of future opportunity for debate on cap and trade (please let’s not), I offer a first attempt at laying a foundation for identifying fundamental beliefs and differences. Accept it not, I beg, as comprehensive. The ending number and idea are determined as much by late night fatigue and the press of deadline as by the cozy comfort of systematic completeness. There may yet be a First Blood Part II. 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.” (“I am not a number,” our beloved, original The Prisoner cried, “I am a free man!”) There are others willing to play that role; I think and speak for myself. You want to argue with “liberals,” knock yourself out. I’ll be elsewhere, but it’s a free cyberspace.

As of this writing.

Principia Liberalis*

a liberal’s manifesto, conservatively conceived

  1. Our time is spent: Pushing a rock up a hill. Contemplating the rock. Playing on and around the rock. Sitting beside the rock. All are important, none more so than another, each sometimes more pressing than the others.
  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.
  4. We should be guided in our aspirations by what is best in us while always protecting against what is worst in us.
  5. There is such a thing as evil. It often conceives of itself as a good.
  6. While civilizations and nations are aimed at the future, they are driven by the past.
  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.
  15. We are a common human race and should approach the future in that belief; however, human affections are stronger the more closely experienced, more abstract the farther afield.
  16. Cosmopolitanism is good, affording wide-ranging experience of human culture and a deeper knowledge of humanity; in its absence people are prone to parochialism, ignorant fears, and prejudice.
  17. Close fields of association and concern are natural. Without them human sympathies are intellectual creations and not affective connections. One must love one’s neighbor before one can love the world. One should love the world. (But is free not to.)
  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.
  19. Extremism in the defense of liberty or any other idea leads to terror and tyranny. Liberty is best ensured through moderation, including the distance between the people and the ensuring authority of the people: too close and a narrowness of interest and intolerance will prevail; too far and the oppressive abstraction of bureaucracy will rule.
  20. The human species is a technological species. Technology creates meaning in life. However, the consequences of this essential nature are not an unqualified good. The greatest human happiness is not the product of the greatest prevalence of technology. There is no evidence of human capacity to judiciously guide its technological nature.
  21. Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.
  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.
  24. Terror and tyranny must be opposed, freedom and democracy defended, in more than mere word, not only by might. All efforts to confuse these ideas must be combated.
  25. Yankees rule. (The baseball team.)

*Anything worth saying is worth puffing up in Latin.



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