Friday, November 20, 2009

Our Liberal Overlords

Every so often, someone offers a flash of brilliance that illuminates the puzzling contours of the world. John Steele Gordon sheds helpful light of that sort on the way political liberals see the world. He calls that view "the liberal paradigm" ("Obama and the Liberal Paradigm," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2009), and it explains in large measure their passionate support for big government solutions to every human problem, and their hateful disdain for everyone who opposes their efforts.

The basic premise is that the population is divided into three groups. By far the largest group consists of ordinary people. They are good, God fearing and hard working. But they are also often ignorant of their true self-interest ("What's the matter with Kansas?") and thus easily misled. They are also politically weak and thus need to be protected from the second group, which is politically strong.

The second group, far smaller, are the affluent, successful businessmen, corporate executives and financiers. Capitalists in other words. They are the establishment and it is the establishment that, by definition, runs the country. They are, in the liberal paradigm, smart, ruthless and totally self-interested. They care only about personal gain.

And then there is the third group, those few, those happy few, that band of brothers, the educated and enlightened liberals, who understand what is really going on and want to help the members of the first group to live a better and more satisfying life. Unlike the establishment, which supposedly cares only for itself, liberals supposedly care for society as a whole and have no personal self-interest.

Thus the liberal paradigm divides the American body politic into sheep, wolves, and would-be shepherds. The shepherds must defeat the efforts of the wolves.
Gordon focuses on the liberal view of people as helplessly vulnerable to the wolf class. He says that through education and economic success, most people have entered the wolf class themselves, and so the majority no longer has need of progressive liberal protection. But I would like to draw attention to the way liberals understand themselves not as protectors, but as enlightened, and thus with a natural right to rule.

Liberals see themselves in the role of Plato's philosopher kings (The Republic, Book V, 473d-e; Book VII, 514a-521b). These are people who, on account of their love for the truth and their philosophic education understand justice and the nature of things in general, and so are uniquely positioned to govern public affairs. But problem is that liberals, who see themselves as the natural governing class in this way, are not philosophers. They flatter themselves. They are a mix of ideologues, technocrats, and utopians. Plato's philosopher king was none of these things.

In addition, because the philosopher king is a philosophic lover of wisdom, he is not interested in rule. The responsibilities of government are a distraction from his true love: further investigation of the good, the true, and the beautiful. His rule assumes also a public that is incapable of sober, intelligent reflection on public affairs with a view to the truth, i.e., self-government. While many populations are that way, ours is not. Aristotle said that for a people who are "similar in stock [to the rulers] and free," government that is most appropriate is "political rule" in which citizens rule and are ruled in turn (The Politics, 1277b7-16). He was describing what Lincoln called "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," where the people are free, not only by law, but also in character. The liberal preference for big government, however, is based on the view that, like the people chained to the wall in Plato's cave, people are in general incapable of taking care of themselves.

People who are incapable of self-government, people who need caretakers and overlords, who require nannys and stewards, he likens to natural slaves, people who are in themselves cannot direct their affairs for their own good. This appears to be how liberals see the American public. Hence their preference for constituitional change by Supreme Court re-interpretation instead of by popular amendment; hence, their preference for federal government power over government that is close to the people and responsive to them; hence, their resistance to the privatization of social security; hence, their preference for government controlled health insurance as opposed to a market based system.

There is still a strong, free spirit in the country. American are still unusually attached to the nobility of self-government. We can see this in the public unease over recent unprecedented levels of government spending, and in the collapsing public approval for a government run health care system. The upcoming vote on plans for that system will be the Waterloo of American liberty. Either we will keep a government for the protection of our liberties, or we will be kept by an overlord for our protection from all the dangers and pitfalls of life. But that overlord is a looming danger that overshadows all other dangers.

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