George Will’s piece, “A Recoil Against Liberalism”, from the November 4 Washington Post seems to me mostly an attempt to add insult to injury to progressives, now that conservatives are in political ascendancy (at least for the moment) based on our recent election. But when Will gets beyond his own “your mother wears army boots” rant and quotes maybe a more thoughtful conservative, now we’re talking some real ideas worth wrestling with. Will quotes George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux who is reacting to Obama’s quote that progressives failed to successfully communicate their ideas in the recent election…
“These ideas,” Boudreaux says, “are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else’s contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments.” Liberalism’s ideas are “about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of ‘Big Ideas’ that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people.”
Will goes on to conclude…
This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power – are government commands and controls – superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society’s spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said “yes.”
So good question, is your standard progressive agenda (including government regulation of business), as put forward by the Obama administration, cramping the U.S.’s entrepreneurial style?
Well from my emerging more “left-libertarian” take on things, yes and no!
To set a context here (and please indulge me a few paragraphs to do so!)… people generally think of the political spectrum as being a two-dimensional line with “progressive”, “liberal” or “left” in one direction and “conservative” or “right” in the opposite. Every person or political transaction falls somewhere on that linear spectrum (including, if you go far enough out in either direction, tacking on the adjective “radical” or “extreme”).
I thought along that linear spectrum too until I started exploring ideas about educational alternatives and really started becoming familiar with a libertarian educational position which seemed fundamentally different than either the typical progressive or conservative one. That position essentially says that a person can direct their own learning and should not have the State directing what, where, when, how and by who they must be taught.
That is not a position that is in any way consistent with the conservative educational thinkers like Horace Mann (though otherwise a political progressive), Benjamin Rush, (and more recently) William Bennett and Rod Paige, or even progressive educators like John Dewey, all of whom saw a compelling interest by the state in controlling a youth’s education (even though they had very different ideas about the content of that education).
There seem to be just the smallest minority of educational thinkers from the past or the present that espouse this educational liberty position. Rarefied examples include Homer Lane and his disciple A.S. Neill (founder of the Summerhill School in Suffolk, England), Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer (founder of The Modern School) and more recently “unschooler” John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Daniel Greenberg (co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School).
So if I acknowledge in education that there is this third fundamental philosophical position (imagine the three points of an equilateral triangle), isn’t this pure liberty-preeminent position also a third political end point in a now three-dimensional grid. Of course the libertarians we typically think about (Cato institute, Ron & Rand Paul, etc.) are generally placed (or place themselves) on the right side of the political spectrum, often to the right of other conservatives. And the liberty-preeminent position on the left could be argued to be anarchism. Other than private property and the role of the government in protecting it, the (left) anarchists and the (right) libertarians have a lot in common since they both decry “the man”.
Back to George Will’s Question
Yes finally… back to Will’s question. Is the standard progressive agenda (including government regulation of business), as put forward by the Obama administration, cramping the U.S.’s entrepreneurial style?
And then my answer… yes and no. Let me start with the no.
Focusing on Obama and the Democrats’ effort on health care reform (though lacking a “public option” and other elements many progressives lobbied for), I see it as an effort to give every American access to a certain reasonable standard of health care. Currently, because of our patchwork health insurance system, often tied to your current job and/or your preexisting medical conditions, it can be seriously problematic for people to change jobs, or take on any work or entrepreneurial effort when it could involve losing one’s access to affordable health care. If people cannot freely take a full range of new work or other business opportunities, how does this facilitate a dynamic free enterprise system that is designed to encourage entrepreneurs?
I am the perfect example of the efficacy of guaranteed health insurance. When I married my partner Sally 27 years ago, I became covered under her health insurance (she worked for the University of California and we continue to have health insurance even in her retirement). During those 27 years I have worked any number of different jobs, some as an employee, others as an independent contractor, some for large corporations, others for small start-ups. Those years included plenty of breaks between jobs when I was unemployed. During all that time I never had to think once about leaving a job or not taking the most promising new one because of the issue of maintaining my health insurance. As a result I have had much more flexibility to pick the best opportunities that facilitated my work and family life.
This was not the case for many other people I know who have stayed in a job they were really ready to move on from, because of the need to maintain their health insurance for them and their family.
Do you see where I’m going with this? If we can take health insurance (or the potential economic ruin for lack of it) off the table as a constant issue in people’s lives, that seems like a good thing that we can find a consensus for in our society. The health care reform passed by Obama and the Democratic majority (with significant GOP input if not votes), though flawed and incomplete, was at least, finally, after decades of trying, the beginning of that enhanced safety net that I see as facilitating our economic system, not commandeering it.
So does Obama-care stifle the entrepreneurial spirit? I would definitely have to say “no”!
On the other hand, when it comes to education, I think the Obama administration’s push for a national standardized curriculum, along with support for all the previous high-stakes standardized testing promoted by No Child Left Behind, is stifling the creative, democratic and entrepreneurial spirit of our country. In fact all the current state, and emerging national curriculum standards go well beyond access to mandating the outcome of the educational process for our youth.
Unlike some (right) libertarians, I am a strong believer in a public education system, financed by taxpayers, giving every youth in our country access to an enriched educational environment, including adult teachers and mentors and public facilities (schools and libraries, etc.) But in line with those libertarians, I am for guaranteed access, not outcomes.
My thinking is all about facilitating our society’s transition from hierarchical to egalitarian institutions, from directive to facilitative leadership. So my emerging left-libertarian political framework does see an important role for a democratic government (with the appropriated political consensus) helping facilitate a democratic, entrepreneurial society built on principles of liberty and free choice. I do have serious concerns about “big government”, as well as any large powerful organization (beyond a human scale), including “big business” and “big labor” and any other “big”.
But taking the power away from “big government”, including its ability to regulate “big business”, does not seem to be a step forward in a liberty-based agenda. At least all of us can vote out our government representatives in the next election. Most of us have no such power to vote out our big business leadership. We the people have to keep re-forging a consensus towards a more egalitarian society, based on principles of liberty. We do that re-forging in the political arena, where we are all citizens with the power of our votes and voices. We do not have that same power in the business arena, which has a “one dollar one vote” mode of governance.
So as a left-libertarian, I champion a right-sized representative government that is the sufficient lever for focusing the egalitarian consensus of our citizenry. A government that facilitates freedom and liberty, and access rather than outcomes.