Jonah Goldberg has a little piece in the Post this week about five cliches liberals use to in place of thought or argument. It's actually the best thing by him I've read in a long time, and it got me thinking. Here's his list:
Violence never solves anything. Actually pacifism has never been a core liberal belief; consider that our most liberal Presidents -- Wilson, both Roosevelts, Johnson, and Obama -- have all been warriors. Liberals do differ from some conservatives in that few think war is a good thing, but then not even all conservatives accept those arguments about war making the nation stronger and what all.
Better ten guilty men go free. Goldberg says that everyone accepts this one, but that it simply provides no real plan of action. I disagree. I think that every effort ought to be made to give everyone a fair trial; that prosecutors who hide evidence from the defense should be dismissed and disbarred; that cops who extract confessions with beatings should be jailed; that when new evidence emerges, even 50 years after a conviction, it ought to be given a legal hearing. In practice, conservatives have opposed all of these things. Does Goldberg? If he really accepts that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be jailed, why doesn't he advocate for reform?
Social Darwinism. I agree with Goldberg that this is a straw man, since only the hardest core, most misanthropic libertarians really want failed human beings to starve and take themselves out of the gene pool. It always embarrasses liberals to be reminded of this, but in America conservatives give more to private charity than liberals, and more of what they give goes to groups helping the poor. (Mainly through churches.) But a softer sort of social Darwinism really does permeate conservative thinking: that competition is good, whether we are talking about the economy or education or sports, and that competition means nothing if somebody doesn't lose. In modern conservative thought, what is best about life comes out of competition, whether we are talking about the best new products or the best churches. Most liberals accept this to some degree (I do), but liberals are more queasy about the effects of losing on the losers, and more determined to make the rules fair.
The Living Constitution. This is, I think, a double red herring, since both liberals and conservatives argue for extending the Constitution in some instances and sticking to the text in others. (E.g., conservatives think the Second Amendment implies a right to carry a concealed handgun, which is not what those words meant to the people who wrote them.) I hate to be a complete cynic, but I really think that all talk about Constitutional originalism vs. a living constitution and such is just cover for the cold operation of politics and ideology. Roe vs. Wade simply baffles me, and if anybody can make a real constitutional defense of Bush vs. Gore, I'll eat my shirt.
Diversity is Strength. Here I agree with Goldberg completely: it is simply not true that diverse communities are stronger. No matter how you measure community strength or participation in communal institutions, you find that mono-ethnic communities are stronger, tighter, and more supportive. In fact the likely reason that Americans are less supportive of a government safety net than Europeans is that America is more diverse. But, given that America really is a diverse society, what are we supposed to do? Taken as statements of fact, "diversity is strength" is crap, but as an aspiration, maybe it is what we all have to say if we want our huge, polyglot nation to succeed.
This is a nice list, but it doesn't get to the core of my own understanding of liberalism. Here are some additional principles I would add to my own notion of a liberal ideology:
Look to the poor, not the rich. Societies should be judged by how they treat the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, more than by the opportunities available to the rich and the successful. The right measure of economic progress is not the GNP, but the median income, or even the income of the poor. The rich can take care of themselves, and we should not be designing policies to help them.
Capitalism is neither natural nor fair. It is a human construction no more than a few hundred years old, and the rules were written by the rich to benefit themselves. It should be respected only to the extent that it promotes the common welfare.
Nobody's money is really his or her own. Money is a social good that exists only as a medium of trade. It is created by society, and ultimately it all belongs to society. Societies that recognize no right to private poverty are either dysfunctional or tyrannical, so some right to property is essential. But those rights should be limited by common needs.
Democracy and freedom are not natural to our species. On the contrary, most human societies are aristocratic, with most wealth and power concentrated in a few hands. If we want our society to be something else -- democratic, middle-class, fair, however you want to see it -- we must use democratic politics to fight for those ends. Only concerted political action by the non-rich can keep our society from sliding towards aristocracy. Class warfare is essential to maintaining a middle class democracy.
Women are people. Our laws must make every effort to treat men and women equally and accord them equal rights and dignity.
We must respect our environment. Our actions affect the planet, and we have it within our power to render it uninhabitable. If we want the earth to be a nice place to live for future generations, we must limit our destructive behavior.
I'm sure there are other things I have left out, but that will do for now.