Sunday, June 05, 2005

A New Opportunity

I've never really had it in me to read the Huffington Post. Too many names, too many of which are folks you couldn't pay me to hear from. But when The VC links to a post over there, I'm willing to give it a shot.

The post in question is by U. Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone (so already it's a bit beyond normal HP fare), and it is on the current status of liberalism. Stone makes a common claim: Liberalism has no overarching vision by which it can attract voters any more. We have policies, sure, many of which are quite popular. But there is no theory behind it--voters don't know the parameters of what it means to be liberal.

Todd Zywicki picks up on this theme and argue that liberalism is in even greater trouble because the ideas that it has are mutually exclusive.
Looking at liberalism today, I honestly don't see how liberalism can replenish itself. Assuming that liberalism can articulate an overarching vision, I am at a loss to see what this vision possibly could look like, especially in light of the failure of liberalism in the 1970s. Most fundamentally, I don't see how liberalism it can simultaneously stand for its traditional focus on individualism as well as the rise of modern "identity politics," which is focused on group rights. Stone says, for instance, "In truth, it is much easier to see the injustice in racial segregation than it is to justify affirmative action." Of course it is--the two positions are inherently contradictory. Either one's rights flow from their status as individuals, or as members of particular racial or other groups--it can't be both. This isn't a question that can be compromised or finessed. And even this dichotomy leaves aside other movements within liberalism such things as radical environmentalism, with its deep pessimism, elitism, casual attitude toward coercion, and dismissal of economic prosperity.

In contrast to Zywicki, I think that these values are indeed in congruence, and that liberalism can bring them all together in one word: opportunity. Liberals should frame their politics on equality of opportunity for all citizens, and phrase their proposals as ways to eliminate illegitimate barriers to success that exist in society.

Let's start at the beginning. Classical liberalism (John Stuart Mill) begins from the premise that individuals all have a right to pursue their own diverse life paths. The coercive structures of the feudal period, for example, are illegitimate because they serve to suppress the desires of individuals. Hence, a proper political body would seek to enable as much choice as it can. And, according to Mill and modern day libertarians, the way it does that is by leaving as much to the private sector (the "marketplace") as possible, letting people bargain and negotiate over what's most important to them.

The nice thing about this theory is that it justifies inequality. If everybody is given a "fair shot" by society, then it is perfectly reasonable that the best get to become winners and certain underperformers become losers. This belief has morphed into the mantra of personal responsibility; since the coercive power of government is officially neutral to one's class or status, one's life position is entirely of one's own making and is the success or failure of nobody but oneself.

On the most abstract level, I don't think even contemporary liberals disagree with this. What they do disagree with, however, is the policy premise that government non-intervention maximizes the equal opportunity of individuals. Man is a social animal, and society imposes certain meanings and constructions upon people without their consent, without coercion, and without any single individual doing anything at all to precipitate it. Specifically, they claim (correctly, in my opinion), that social constructions which prevent certain groups of persons from reaching their full potential need to be addressed by the government if we are to be serious about equality of opportunity.

The most obvious place where this comes into play is class. Simply put, someone who is born rich and someone who is born poor are not playing on a level field. Differences in schools, contacts, resources, programs--all of these have real effects on real children in the real world that are entirely unrelated to the merits of the actors. What is important to note here is that this inequality grows out of non-intervention but acts to the detriment of merit--a bright but economically poor student with a crumbling building and no extra-curriculars is likely to underperform a richer student who is not as "smart" in an objective sense but has access to more academic resources. Furthermore, even if the disadvantaged student does perform at an equal or higher level, he or she still has other obstacles to overcome. Maybe he doesn't have enough money to go to college (and loans aren't enough). Maybe he has younger siblings to take care of, and needs to stay at home. And even if he manages to get to the elite school that he "deserves," he'll still have to do work more jobs than other students, will have to make friends with Polo wearing preps when he only has hand-me-downs, will have to find internships without the contacts of his wealthier peers, the list goes on.

On race, there is a similar nexus of problems. Certainly, opportunities that one can simply buy are open to minorities (at least those of means). But that hardly means the playing field is equal. They still need role models--absent, as long as minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in business and professional jobs. They need contacts to find jobs--same problem. They need to be able to interact with their peers on an equal basis--often difficult, where stereotyping and discrimination still exists (and it does). None of these can be remedied where government simply sits out and allows private contracts and private interactions to occur entirely unmolested. And more importantly, to end at least some inequalities (the dearth of black role models, for example), government needs to pay attention to race. We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether that is the ideal role for government or not, but it doesn't change the fact that it is a social reality that needs to be dealt with.

So when liberals are defending, say, universal health care, they might note that one can only work to the best of their ability when healthy. A competition between a sick man and a healthy man is not equal--and especially not so when one party can afford to stay well and one has no resources to prevent himself from getting sick. As Benjamin Healy notes:
The situation is...most dire...for the unemployed, who can find themselves in a vicious cycle...a 'death spiral'--in which the loss of a job...deprives a worker of [health] insurance, leading his health to decline, thereby weakening his prospects of finding another job, and leaving him in danger of becoming chronically unemployable because he is ill and chronically ill because he is unemployable. As the effects radiate to his dependents, and as related catalysts or byproducts like depression, obesity, and drug abuse take their toll, entire families are drawn into the spiral.

...rising premiums, the changing nature of work, and the successful repackaging of personal misfortune as individual pathology have over the past few decades shunted the chronically ill and unemployable into...a separate 'caste.' As workers descend into the 'death spiral,' they lose the outward markers of middle-class respectability, and in the process, their infirmities take on a whiff of moral opprobrium as well.

Hence, liberals would say, if we want to legitimately say that X deserves his wealthy status and Y deserves his poor status, then a baseline access to healthcare (both preventative and emergency room) must be provided. If this is not so, then the parties are not being provided an equal opportunity.

The evolution might be described as such: first, disadvantaged classes weren't allowed to play the game (old-school feudalism and classism), then they were allowed to play with a biased referee (old-school conservatism), then they could play with a fair referee on a slanted playing field (classical liberalism, modern conservatism), and what liberals want today is a fair game on a level playing field--something that only occur between comparable players, not between giants and dwarves (with apologies to Monwarul Islam). Society is not naturally meritocratic. It has interest groups, stereotypes, monopolies, trusts, and biases all its own. A society truly committed to opportunity for all cannot ignore these realities. It has to face them head on. And that is the principle I envision for the liberalism of tomorrow.


Baron Violent said...

Good synopsis. . .I think in large part it's where a lot of consensus exists between moderate Republicans and liberals, because moderate Republicans are also interested in leveling the playing field, as opposed to Freepers or Libertarians who see that as intrusive on freedom. The problem with the phrase equality of opportunity, however, is that it has been co-opted in large part by identity politics to take on largely gender and racial overtones, when in political theory terms it's more of a socioeconomic thing that's neutral to those thoughts. It would be great if we could somehow wrestle that term from all the identity politics connotations it has taken on.

Anonymous said...

In the matter of health care, it seems to me that every citizen already has equal access to the same baseline of universal health care: that baseline being, "little or none".

The rich, of course, can afford to surpass that baseline healthcare opportunity, but the poor cannot.

So the real question is "where should we set the baseline for universal healthcare? Is social justice only served when the poor among us receive for free the best health care that the rich are able to pay for out of their own pocket?"

Anonymous said...

Indeed, the question of where to set the baseline is a general question.

Life has been unfair to the rich, too. It's only through dumb luck (accidents of birth, accidents of being in the right place at the right time with the right resources, etc.) that some of the rich are as rich as they are.

Is it sensible to say that society should, as a matter of policy replicate in the life of every citizen the results of fickle fortune that sometimes give some people more opportunities than the rest of us get? Is such a program of social justice even possible?

"Bill Gates is luckier than I am, and therefore has had more opportunities than I did. Life will not be fair to me, until the government artificially recreates the same conditions of accidental-but-helpful unfairness that Bill Gates luckily experienced."

Help those who need help, I say. And assign personal responsibility to people for their actions, to the extent that they are capable of acting.

And let's not forget that the world is a harsh and inhospitable one. The real baseline is "suffering and death, mitigated by hard work and good luck". Should society try to do more than that? Probably. But how much more must society do, before we can agree that all reasonable steps have been taken, and that some allowance must be made for variances due to hard work and good luck?