In this season of conventions, our language strains and slips under the burden of conflicting meanings. Truth is what we think it is; tolerance is what we choose to accept. Freedom bends to our own definitions. “Right” is anyone’s guess.
I’ve been increasingly amused, frustrated, mystified, at the way terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” “socialist” are mixed and matched with little regard to original meanings, and at the strange contradictions embraced without a hint of irony.
Let me focus on the one word that seems to hold the greatest contradiction:
What is a liberal? And are you one?
According to the historic definition, a liberal believes in the importance of individual rights, including property rights, personal rights, and the freedom of the individual from any kind of external restraint. Free speech, free press, free love, free markets – those are all logical goals of classic liberalism.
Milton Friedman, supply-side guru and patron saint of free market advocates, was an advisor to Ronald Reagan but identified himself as a classic liberal. He frequently described himself as "a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means of and pertaining to freedom."
Friedman believed in limited government, “Consistent with the maximum freedom for each individual to follow his own ways, his own values, as long as he doesn't interfere with anybody else who's doing the same.” He advocated dismantling the Food and Drug Administration, ending all environmental regulations, eliminating child labor laws, minimum wages, the Department of Transportation. He championed free markets, free trade, unfettered commerce, school vouchers.
He also believed in legalizing drugs and prostitution, and freedom of choice with regard to abortion and gay rights. As his 1980 PBS video series, "Free to Choose," made clear: "You should be free to do what you want as long as you don't prevent other people from doing the same thing."
Whatever you may think of Friedman, he understood where his liberalism started, and where it led: if the individual is sovereign in his own solitary empire of one, then each person is responsible for ascribing value, for choosing direction, and each person, alone, should carry the consequences of his or her own choice.
Our inconsistent application of his ideas demonstrates our discomfort with both his premise and conclusions. We know - some of us instinctively, some of us more consciously - that trusting each person to act morally, without external restraint, is dangerous and unwise. And we know too - through painful experience - that unrestrained individualism can cause great harm; each family, congregation, community feels the weight of individual choices.
Of course, we all want it both ways. We want to be free of restraint in areas of concern to us (End gun control! Freedom of choice! Free markets! Love who you want!), but we want regulation, restriction, governmental control in arenas where we feel we need protection, or see an avenue to profit or opportunity not available without outside intervention.
Which is how we arrive at our current spectacle: advocates of small government arguing for higher defense spending and agribusiness subsidies, intervention in areas of personal moral choice. Advocates of personal freedom arguing for stronger regulations on food, trade, environmental impact.
Thomas Storck, Catholic writer and thinker and advocate for Distributism, a “third-way” economy rooted in traditional Catholic teaching, recently explored these contradictions. (His use of “liberal” and “conservative” in this reflects current usage, not classical definition):
“Liberals are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth poses to society, of the potential power of wealth, especially concentrated wealth, to corrupt the political process and to skew public policy in its own favor. Liberals quite rightly point to the tremendous power of the rich to influence the political process, to shape tax policy, environmental and labor legislation, and many other kinds of laws and regulations, in their favor. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for economic gain, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal gain. The desire to gain tends to color the whole of the life of society.
"Moreover, liberals are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the force of human greed does not violate the common good. . . . Liberals realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for more money on the part of people does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society. . .
"But what of conservatives? Conservatives are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure poses to society, of its power to create any number of social pathologies. . . They rightly are concerned that the selfish pursuit of individual pleasure harms others, such as children and abandoned spouses, as well as society as a whole. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for unrestrained sexual pleasure, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal pleasure. The desire for erotic satisfaction tends to color the whole of the life of society.
"Moreover, conservatives are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the pursuit of pleasure is kept within bounds. They advocate tax policies that favor families, laws preventing same-sex unions, making divorce and abortion more difficult, restrictions on the sale of contraceptives to minors, even harsh laws on teenage sex. Conservatives realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for a maximum of sexual pleasure on the part of individuals does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society. . .
"From being zealous for the common good and ready to place all manner of restraints on human conduct in the sexual realm, conservatives run to the other extreme and embrace a policy of laissez-faire when it comes to money. They even invent an ideology that pretends that the pursuit of private wealth somehow redounds to the benefit of all, despite much experience showing the falsity of this. It is hard to understand how conservatives do not see, or profess not to see, that the unrestrained and anti-social pursuit of money can do as much harm to the social fabric as the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure."Storck offers no real solution, other than to suggest that by exercising freedom of thought we might see through the flimsy moral framework of both positions.
My own prayer would be for a deeper exploration of essential questions, and greater humility in the way we defend our causes.
- Who decides what’s moral, right, just? If the individual is the key to all morality, if pursuit of individual "happiness" is the greatest good, then contradiction, conflict, and increasingly divided discourse are the best that we can hope for.
- What is the role of government? Does it exist to satisfy the loudest voice, the biggest contributor, the popular vote? Or is there a more essential role of government: maintaining justice, ensuring the common good? And how do we safeguard that role?
- What is the role of the citizen? Is it to show up and vote? To lobby for rules and subsidies that benefit our own values? To operate freely within the law, even when those laws are unjust and immoral? Is the law the measure of our morality? Can we, should we, legislate morality?
- And what does it mean to follow Christ in a culture that cries, from every side, that we, alone, are the standard, the source, that all significance and satisfaction reside in having our own way?
A lectionary sermon from Ephesians several weeks ago warned “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. . . Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.” (Ephesians 5)
James asked "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. . . . But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness." (James 3)
We are sorely in need of humility, and a wisdom full of mercy, impartial and sincere.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer )This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform.
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