Friday, June 5, 2015

Political Positions

The idea of overlap between politically conservative and libertarian philosophies isn't new -- both place a pretty high value on individual freedoms, for example. In economic arenas, conservatives are often seen as champions of free-market policies that match very well with the libertarian idea of reducing government economic interference to the bare minimum.

They've generally differed on social issues, with the theme of individual liberty underlying the libertarian positions against laws that criminalize drug use or same-sex unions. Conservative social positions, often informed by religious conviction or an overall reluctance to change, usually clash with those ideas.

National Review writer Charles C. W. Cooke, a transplant from Merrie Olde England, finds ways to blend the two positions into something he calls a "conservatarian" position, believing that the portmanteau represents the political beliefs of many people in the United States today and offers a way forward in a country struggling with a number of serious economic, social and political issues. His Conservatarian Manifesto is a cleanly-written basic explanation of these ideas, both concise and precise in its presentation.

Whether or not the ideas convince is left up to the reader, of course. My own positions match pretty well with Cooke on economic issues, for example. He sees the conservative-libertarian mix as a good antidote to both stifling government overregulation and the kind of crony capitalism that seems to know no party lines, and I agree. But while I am less loving of the idea of engineering society through government policy than are many of my fellow knuckle-draggers and mouth-breathers mired with me in traditional Christian theism, I can't just shrug my shoulders at, say, redefining marriage. Nor am I as convinced as many that legalizing several currently illegal substances will reduce some of our country's drug problems -- perfectly legal prescription drugs are abused pretty often and their legality doesn't seem to have hampered criminal enterprises based on them.

The Manifesto, though, is definitely a handy read. Cooke offers some good ammunition in a discussion if your position matches his and offers some good counter-proposals against which to test yourself if those positions differ. The odd word in the title and the fact that he writes for the National Review might steer a lot of people away from this particular Cooke book, but people who genuinely like to read other ideas than their own should find it worth their time.
Kirsten Powers is way tougher than I am.

When the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Affordable Health Care Act in 2010 via parliamentary shenanigans made necessary by their fear of electoral reprisals for a program they said everyone loved, I finally left the only political party to which I had ever belonged and re-registered as an independent. I could no longer associate myself with people who acted like that while claiming some kind of high moral purpose.

But Powers, a committed and devoted liberal, stays with people who may share some of her beliefs but completely lack her sense of ethics, fair play and respect for others. In The Silencing, she details several instances where people have used different tactics and power plays to prevent their political and ideological components from being heard or expressing their ideas. She points out that this happens from the conservative side as well, but in the most public arenas of our nation, such as the press, social media or the university campus, those trying to eliminate debate are part of what she calls the "illiberal left." They may hold progressive positions, but their refusal to give opponents equal time in the marketplace of ideas means they are anything but liberal.

Her complaints aren't new, and they've been made a few times by more liberal writers, such as former NPR contributor and current Fox News contributor Juan Williams. Powers is also a Fox News contributor, because, as she says, that's where the people who disagree with her get news and opinions, and she'll never convince them if she's not talking to them. The Silencing offers a different flavor from previous works on the matter in several places, as Powers adduces recognized liberal defenders of free speech to contest the shushing brigade that wants to hear no debate or nothing other than its own received orthodoxy. For example, though the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education often comes to the aid of conservative and Christian students or faculty on the receiving end of the heavy hand of university censorship, it's run by Greg Lukianoff, a liberal atheist.

Silencing is in many ways no fun to read, as the litany of would-be censors, modern-day Puritans and groupthinkers can outrage both logic and a sense of decency. But that would overlook the fact that this is a book written by, as I said, a committed liberal who holds positions opposed to many of those that she's defending in its pages. She may think her opponents to be entirely wrong about what they say, but she believes they are entirely right about their right to say it without fear of intimidation, demonization and slander. And, she says, more liberals are like her than like those who try to shout down opposition with shaming and marginalization.

I suspect Powers wrote partly from a belief that silenced opponents can be all the more dangerous. If all the "illiberal left" that Powers describes ever hears is its own echo chamber, it may believe it's won the fight, when all it's really done is made everyone else keep quiet until they can register their opinion in secret -- like in the voting booth. But I believe much more of her motive may be the belief that the best way to come to the truth is to discuss disagreements openly and with respect -- at least, that's what comes through the pages of The Silencing.  She will offer and expect such treatment, and if more of the world, both on the left and the right, worked that way, then much of the media we see and the government they report on would be far less foul than it is.

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