Democrats seem to have set an upper limit for liberalism
For the sake of discussion, I focus on the current issues and potential solutions within the realm of the political left, which is sometimes proxied by the Democratic Party. This isn’t to say that conservatives, and by proxy the Republican Party, has an easier time addressing its own issues, or that it doesn’t warrant discussion. But the evolution of the right can largely be traced to decisions made by a number of key figures; the documentary Vice begins to explain this evolution, and we can see how some brazen decisions made by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party within the last few years alone.
I focus on the left, however, because I believe society has come to conflate the Democratic Party with being liberal. The Democratic Party is more liberal than the Republican Party, to be sure, but sometimes you hear this weird thing that people say when they’re trying to put left-leaning politicians on blast–they say they’re too liberal.
Too liberal, as if there were an acceptable limit of liberalism and then after that it’s too much. Like different grades of Taco Bell hot sauce but we reject the spiciest one because it’s too much for us to take (Taco Bell don’t @ me).
Now a super key thing to remember is that Bernie is an Independent and only registered as a Democrat to be able to compete meaningfully in the primaries because of our weird two-party electoral system. Fundamentally, he does not see himself in alignment with traditional Democratic Party policies. He stands for an entirely different set of ideals. In 2016, Benjamin Studebaker astutely acknowledged that Bernie and Hillary were not different flavors of the same Democratic popcorn.3 They weren’t substitutes under different brands. The two candidates then were fundamentally different kinds of Democrats.
Today, the field is much wider. We have the too liberal camp of Bernie, the acceptable liberal camp of Elizabeth, the moderate camp of Pete and Amy, the establishment camp of Biden, and the Republican in sheep’s clothing Bloomberg, party of one. Nonetheless, we can still roughly divide the candidates into two groups: too liberal, and liberal.
But what does it mean to be liberal? What counts as liberal, or who is a liberal?
Definition of liberalism
This term can have a range of meanings because it has several different roots in history stemming from the UK, US, or western philosophy, but journalist Edmund Fawcett articulates a helpful definition in his book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. He argues that because society is always in conflict, liberalism is “a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power.”4 By breaking this down, we can begin to gather not only the philosophical building blocks for conceptualizing a more liberal society. ‘Order of human progress’ suggests that it is possible for individuals to achieve more than just basic survival needs and wants. ‘Ethically acceptable’ means that we’re making progress not at the expense of others, but in an inclusive manner. ‘Civic equals’ stipulates that everyone deserves respect, and no one should be excluded. Finally, Fawcett specifically defines ‘undue power’ as “domination by any single interest, faith, or class.”5
What’s useful about having a definition of liberalism is that we can use Fawcett’s position to begin to understand the positions of liberal politicians and activists. They believe that welfare states are important, for example, because a social safety net brings everyone up; it provides individuals with the dignity they deserve as human beings and ensures that everyone can be civic equals. Or wealth taxes should be enacted, because concentrated wealth in politics can lead to nepotism and oligarchies, also known as undue power.
It’s unclear how anyone can be labeled as too liberal, looking at this definition. But liberalism has a cousin, and its name is neoliberalism. And neoliberalism is very popular.
Definition of neoliberalism
When we think back to the Democratic party and the types of policies that the establishment favors, it’s a little tricky to say that the established, career Democrats are actually liberal. That’s because in reality, the type of ‘liberalism’ that they espouse is neoliberalism, an equally if not more vaguely defined term. George Monbiot describes neoliberalism as seeing “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It refines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that ‘the market’ delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.”6
In short, neoliberals are free-market capitalists who believe in a very specific set of economic conditions. They believe in the power of the market to produce the most efficient outcomes because individuals competing in the market know how to utilize the resources they have and need. They also believe that these outcomes are fair, because competition within the market ensures that individuals are rewarded based on how productive they are. By extension, businesses should have maximum freedom because they’re closest to the market; by competing within the market, businesses can maximize wealth creation, ensuring that the rest of society will benefit as well.
Adam Smith is often called the father of modern economics or the father of capitalism because he dissected the market phenomenon in his Wealth of Nations: “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”7 Accordingly, neoliberals believe that the decisions of individuals will sort themselves out into equilibrium without any sort of intervention because economic actors are rational. As such, leaving things to people and those in control of private property is the best way to manage the market economy. Which is to say, let’s NOT manage the market economy.
This free market ideology, with champions like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has come to dominate the global economic system. (It’s also important to note that it was actually Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president, who began deregulating the market. Neoliberalism has its roots in both the Republican and Democratic Party.) In addition to the concept of the free market, neoliberalism can also be characterized by privatization, deregulation, and limitations on the federal government’s ability to intervene, with neoliberals holding that “government intervention in the markets would only reduce their efficiency.”8 Since the 1980s, most countries have privatized industrial and financial firms, deregulated industry and finance, and reduced income taxes and welfare payments.9
Definition of capitalism
There’s an important distinction I want to make, since we’re going through a litany of ‘isms’ is between neoliberalism and capitalism. We shit on capitalism a lot (myself included), but when I hate capitalism I’m thinking specifically about free market ideals. It would be more nuanced for me to say that I’m anti-free market or anti-neoliberal. The reason for that is because capitalism, as broad as this definition is (do you see a pattern here), is simply an economic system in which a country’s “trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”10 As long as a state doesn’t own the means and yields of production, and prices are determined by the market, we have capitalism. So in addition to private ownership, dynamic capitalist economies are also characterized by competition. On the other side, when a state does own the means and yields of production and dictates how things should be run and priced, we get planned economies.
Democrats, however, have not set an upper limit for neoliberalism
In the last 40 years, we wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism. In the process we “created a world where material enrichment absolves individuals and corporations of other responsibilities to society.”11 In the name of shareholder value maximization and the pursuit of individual enrichment, we have encouraged companies to maximize profits through cutting costs (pensions, contractors, wages) and sharing profits to shareholders through dividends at the expense of workers. Full-time employees are dwindling while contract workers, who have fewer benefits, are on the rise. I’m not talking about the young millennials who are participating in the knowledge economy who are choosing to be contractors; it’s janitors or accountants who would have had healthcare and a pension with a stable, full-time job but are beholden to the paycheck businesses give them and lack of representation as non-unionized labor. Businesses are able to lower or suppress wages by relocating operations or outsourcing labor from lower income countries. Meanwhile, large corporations are able to get away with paying virtually no taxes as governments attempt to keep their operations domestic. For companies, this is “immediate income redistribution into profits.”12 For individuals, this is one of the biggest sources of income inequality.
What’s worse, at the individual level, we have created a culture around the propensity to own, to show, and to publicize. The invasion of the market into everyday life is such that even if I buy something ethically made, I am consuming to fulfill an ethical duty. Slavojj Zizek calls this cultural capital–within this system, we still have to buy redemption. Those who cannot afford this ostentatious display of material wealth are shamed for their inability to do so, never mind the structural challenges of race, class, gender. Those who can believe that they acquired their wealth through merit, and that inequality is the market’s way of determining winners and losers. The market, after all, is free.
It would be one thing if governments found a clear correlation between slashing taxes or regulation with material growth, but even prior to the Great Recession, “free-market policies had resulted in slower growth, rising inequality and heightened instability in most countries.”13 And since then, the consolidation of wealth at the hands of the 1% has become more prominently displayed, along with our decaying public education and public health systems. Our ecosystems and habitats are setting records with every year of continued destruction. Governments are increasingly being taken over by nationalists. Yet politicians and economists continue along this path of dallying with neoliberalism without developing “an overarching understanding of what the conditions of growth might be.”14 We assume that it works and blame social unrest on other conditions.
Under a government that embraces neoliberal tendencies, we’ve seen a shift in its role from protecting individual rights to protecting corporations’ and shareholders’ rights. In this world, where money talks, there is room for exploitation because the bottom line is what matters. When profit matters more than people, we begin to see the erosion of moral responsibility. When profit matters more than constituents, there is opportunity for capital to exercise undue political influence for very specific narrow interests rather than for the sake of broader economic development.15 The creation of the political elite in the States can be tied, in part, to the neoliberal economic system and the crypto-oligarchical society that money lends itself to. On top of all this, when the government tries to intervene, or when individuals speak out, they’re treated as antagonists to liberty and freedom.
There is no such thing as a free market, despite what they say
At the end of the day, we’re seeing the results of our experimentation with neoliberalism because the very core of neoliberalism is founded on a fallacy–there is no such thing as a free market. Today, neoliberal economic policy champions the benefits of a government that doesn’t interfere in the market. They argue that government intervention would misallocate resources and make the market less efficient. But let’s think about whether or not this is actually true. We acknowledged earlier that A. American Dream is false advertising and B, the free market doesn’t work for everyone. Both are myths because our market actually does have rules and boundaries set by the government. The government is also always playing a role, even if we don’t see it.
Development economist Ha-Joon Chang argues that saying the market is free is merely “a political definition… if some markets look free, it is only because we so totally accept the regulations that are propping them up that they become invisible.”16 In other words, a market is free when we’ve internalized the regulations that are necessary to keep that particular segment of the market running smoothly. But when new regulations are introduced that rub people the wrong way, they cry foul. The States doesn’t have a long history with neoliberalism; in fact we have a long history with protectionism, subsidies, and industrial policy, the kind of government support that we shit on China for now. Successful individuals of ye olde USA were supported by a highly protectionist government that set out specific conditions for success. Our government demands open borders and free trade but at one point, in the 1880s, the US industrial tariff rate was between 40-55%.17 Can you imagine the kind of tizzy Congress would go into if China tried that? And when General Motors went bankrupt in the 1950s, the government bailed out the company with taxpayer dollars at the behest of GM shareholders; not a very laissez-faire approach if the invisible hand of the market deemed GM unworthy. We romanticize the past as a free-wheeling, individualistic, anything goes era but our economic prosperity owes its success to a strong federal government thinking strategically about how to put the States on the best growth path. And we haven’t even gotten to the subsidies and tax breaks yet. Today, billions (yes billions, not millions) of US taxpayer dollars are still going to the coal, oil, and gas industries.18 Think about that–the government is literally paying mature industries to become even more profitable and ruin our planet. Subsidies may be a better example for why lobbyists have a niche place to fill in D.C., but illustrates the hypocrisy of industries that want the government to roll back environmental regulations and yet continue to accept government funding.
Outside of our borders, one of the worst parts of our continued love affair with free market ideology is that we advocate for free-market policies internationally when the very opposite boosted the US economy before we became a global power. And then we blame poor governance when other countries experience social unrest and inequality.
Let’s say it again for the people in the back: there is no such thing as a free market.
They also don’t want you to know that governments can be active, smart, and productive
The reality is that the strength of our economy came and comes from careful planning. People say that economics is a science, but it’s not. There are no natural laws dictating growth and no proven equations or proofs that we can apply across countries–just humans making decisions. When people say regulations are bad and hamper growth, they mean they disagree with the proposed regulation and would prefer for the market, or privately-owned companies with vested interest, to control that area of the market. We regulate things all the time when people’s lives are at stake or when the continued plundering of a natural resource would yield worse outcomes for everyone. The US government regulates car manufacturing and heavily regulates the development of new drugs to ensure public safety, and yet regulating gun sales is seen as infringement of individual liberty. The US government has standards for clean air and clean water, and yet setting standards for emissions reduction is seen as stifling growth. And despite these regulations, the car industry is incredibly competitive and robust (big pharma is another thing but what we cannot deny is how much money they make, and if profit is the means of measuring success then certainly these regulations aren’t hurting their business either).
Beyond regulations, there are many examples of successful state-owned enterprises as well. Roads, freeways, railways, ports, and airports are maintained by governments. You might immediately think about the tragedies that are LAX or O’Hare, but Changi Airport is also an SOE and it’s one of the best airports in the world. We also have great community libraries and public parks and we always get our mail, even if half of it is junk. Rather than interfering in the market, active government planning and select involvement can promote economic dynamism while ensuring public safety and accounting for public needs. The government is creating the space for market actors to then compete, while also ensuring that our country is on the best path for inclusive growth. Just as individuals think about short- and long-term goals and businesses create strategic plans, so the government can be proactive in identifying how and where to expand.
Definition of socialism
If this all sounds like common sense so far, it’s because it is. Politicians that are branded as ‘socialists’ aren’t against competition. They’re not trying to fix the price of milk. They’re not trying to collectivize farms a la Stalinist Russia. They’re simply trying to fix the problems in modern society that can be traced back to neoliberal thinking, because what started off as economic theory has now had profound social and political implications (and when you think back to Marx’s concept of the base and superstructure, it makes sense that what we’re experiencing in society right now ties back to the economic institutions that we’re with and within). Socialism has been associated with political strongmen crippling their countries, but the theory behind it is very simple: it is an economy system that “ensures equal access to societal resources and services such as water, transportation, electricity, and healthcare, and a system that seeks to truly enfranchise poor and working-class populations.”19 The way it’s been implemented throughout history, however, has gotten the term inextricably linked with communism and failed government experiments. That’s why today, politicians use the term democratic socialism to advance their platform.
Based on what we’ve laid out already, the principles behind socialism and liberalism are actually fairly similar. Whereas liberalism is a bit more philosophical and higher level since it’s about the “search,” socialism can be thought of as liberalism in practice. The government becomes the vehicle for enabling human progress while ensuring that everyone is equal.
This notion of equality and focus on poor and working-class populations is a cornerstone of Marxist theory (and many of his contemporaries). It’s based on the premise that there are structural barriers to advancing in society, even if everyone receives the same types of support. This is often referred to as equality of opportunity; if people receive equal access to things, then it ensures equal treatment.
The problem with the notion of equality of opportunity is that it doesn’t account for privilege, inherent biases, and pre-existing social conditions. In short, it doesn’t account for society. We can all agree that the Jim Crow laws mandating segregation through separate but equal facilities were hardly equal because white people and black people had fundamentally different starting points. Jim Crow laws were also super racist and weren’t intended to help black people in the first place but this is a good example for illustrating why giving people supposedly equal treatment is not addressing the root causes. Equality of opportunity doesn’t begin to address the conditions in which people are competing, those systemic barriers that prevent people from being able to participate in the market productively or compete within the public education system. For example, when I worked in global development and worked on education in Kenya, the investment model that many education funds preferred was one that necessitated funding into ancillary focus areas too, like nutrition and solar power, to ensure that their investment into the education part was actually meaningful.
Equality, in this sense, isn’t enough if we’re not addressing those systemic barriers. Without taking down these barriers, we will never achieve justice because the cause of the inequity will still be there, and the poor and working-class populations will not be “truly [enfranchised].” My friend Sophia sent me the following meme (Figure 1), which is a perfect visualization of what it means to provide support (seriously–the only source I could find for this specific visual was from me.me lol).
Figure 1: Moving from equality to justice
A society that provides everyone the same support enables equality of opportunity, whereas a society that provides everyone with the support they need enables equality of outcome. Both, however, still operate within the institutions and organizations that perpetuate injustice. A basic premise of equality is that all humans are equal. When you look at the graphic on the left, however, it’s clear that that’s not the case. People face all sorts of challenges based on the inherent biases that are baked into society. In the middle, everyone gets the kind of support they need, but those who have power and can exert power in the society still have an advantage because they’re able to move through life without relying on any support. A just society–the graphic on the right–is one that breaks down the causes of those injustice.
Getting to a just society is difficult because so much of those barriers that we face in life are ingrained into our behavior. But in many countries, the government does provide for the support that people need to get them from the left column into the middle one. Universal health coverage (including vaccinations and basic health checks), free school lunches, free education are some that come to mind and also hotly debated here in the States. Not only do we fail to have any of these provisions, but our institutions are set up to actively punish those who need them the most. You’re fined if you don’t buy health insurance, but too bad if you can’t afford it. Young, poor students are sometimes withheld lunches because they’re in debt with the school and are forced to go without food and reprimanded for not being able to focus in class. We champion meritocracy but place an Ivy League education on a pedestal and still associate alma maters with intellect.
We know that free-market economics already presumes poor people to be poor because of their innate human nature, so having provisions for guaranteeing equality of outcome is one way of addressing the failures of free market ideology within the current economic system. Again, governments already levy taxes and use our taxes to pay for services that we all enjoy–military protection (this ‘protection’ part is questionable but it is a huge part of our budget), the courts system, garbage collection… etc. The argument that the government should not participate within the domain of the market ignores those benefits that we already receive, and focuses instead on where vested individuals don’t want the government to go, for various political reasons.
Definition of democracy (our first non-ism!)
The types of policies that socialist politicians propose then hinge on using politics and state power as a vehicle for improving people’s lives where the market cannot.20 Again, if this all sounds rational and reasonable so far, it’s because it is. But establishment Democrats love neoliberalism because it’s worked pretty well for them so far. We “ok boomer”, well, boomers because the economic conditions and opportunities they were presented with are fundamentally different from how our world is made up today. This particular demographic is also mostly white, mostly above a certain age, and mostly from upper-middle families. They present a challenge both by being very well-coordinated and also throwing out straw man counter arguments to more liberal policy suggestions.
One of the most pernicious straw man ‘counter argument’ that critics present is the notion that socialism is antithetical to democracy and liberty.21 Democracy and liberty are so ingrained into our collective consciousness that it really makes it difficult to have a healthy discussion around what socialism is if you don’t want to seem like you’re anti-USA. But a democracy is simply where open, free, and fair elections are held on a regular period to enable the possibility of majority rule, or a government of the people. But we rarely make decisions through truly democratic means because the States is also set up like a republic; we vote (through these open, free, and fair elections) for individuals that then represent the citizen body. It goes, then, to say that democracy does not mean a government will be good. But we’ve come to conflate democracy with the quality of governance the citizens of a country are afforded.
This is kind of a big deal because people talk about the States as a protector and defender of democracy when our system is actually very not democratic at all. When it comes to presidential elections, we have an electoral system. We don’t directly have a say in who gets named to sit on the highest court of the land and SCOTUS justices have life tenure (our efforts can even be thwarted by a single man in Congress ahem yeah Mitch McConnell, whom I have referred to previously as our neighborhood spawn of the devil). Fareed Zakaria lays out how unrepresentative we are in the Future of Freedom: The Rise of Illiberal Democracies:
“The U.S. Senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the world, with the lone exception of the House of Lords, which is powerless and in any event on the verge of transformation. Each American state sends two senators to Washington, D.C., regardless of its population. Thus California’s 30 million people have as many votes in the Senate as Arizona’s 3.7 million–hardly one man, one vote. This gives small states with tiny populations huge political influence and massive subsidies.”22
Our process might be democratic, but our institutions do not really speak for the people. Of course, when we talk about democratic countries, rarely are we referring to the narrow definition around elections. Usually, we’re talking about governments that are set up in a way to ensure that citizens are in a state of being free. Usually, we’re talking about governments that work hard to preserve liberty for its people through its constitution.
Liberty is more important than democracy when democratic institutions can be exploited
It may seem paradoxical, but many academics and politicians argue that protecting liberty is more important than protecting democracy. Paddy Ashdown says that democracy is not the highest priority–rule of law is, “for everything else depends on it: a functioning economy, a free and fair political system, the development of civil society, public confidence in police and courts.”23 When we have these things, we can begin to preserve liberty for all. Just as equality of opportunity doesn’t begin to guarantee a certain quality of life, so democracies are not the end game when it comes to preserving individual freedom.
I’m not arguing that we should consider other forms of government (e.g. oligarchies) because we generally know from history that democracy is the least bad form of government. But there are many problems inherent with democracy that may contribute to situations where democracy is flourishing, but liberty is not.24 Zakaria argues in Future of Freedom that many countries are facing this situation today. When democracy enables every person to have a bit of a say, it’s easy to manipulate the ways in which you want to elevate the issues that matter to you the most. Because our country expanded at a rate at which our founding fathers did not expect, my vote in California matters far less than someone’s vote in Vermont would. Therefore, what the Vermontian calls her senator about will have more of an effect than my calls, simply from a numbers perspective. This is the point that Zakaria was making in the above quote.
Another problem comes from outside influence. Wealth plays a disproportionate role in elevating issues within a democracy because when everyone has a little bit of influence and there’s no limit to what you can do, the accumulation and use of that influence becomes something to game for people with money and power. Anyone can reach out to their representatives, but Monsanto, for example, will have a much easier time networking into a meeting with a senator than a group of students would because Monsanto has money, power, and a network of relationships to draw upon. If Monsanto is one of few groups that can sit down with a senator per year, that senator will have more exposure to what Monsanto is trying to push for than other, more important issues. Whereas a democracy is supposed to be rule by majority, in reality a small minority are speaking for the people, and not necessarily on the right issues. Gun control is important to bring up here again because we’re seeing this problem unfold today. The majority of citizens support common sense gun laws, and yet Congress has not been able to pass comprehensive legislation. You would think that because the majority of people want something, the policies that are passed would reflect that. But because of our very unrepresentative Senate and ability for outsiders to influence policy, the contradictions presented by democracy make us much closer to an oligarchy than a republic.
In The Republic, Plato actively discusses the pitfalls of democratic societies and why his preferred method of governance is with a philosopher king. Plato’s fear for democracy was that on the surface, it’s diverse and free and thus very attractive. But as time goes on, citizens become consumed with consuming without actively investing and thus deteriorate the economy; hostile to authority in the name of protecting one’s self interest that they start ignoring the advice of experts; and, similarly, so consumed with the idea of liberty that a citizen body loses its common purpose as a society.25 In these situations, where self trumps community and chaos reigns supreme over discipline, people are attracted to strongmen who purport to be able to give them back their freedom by restoring order. This strongman is able to seize power because of how information is disseminated in a society, and becomes a tyrant.
Y’all Plato lived before the common era (BCE) and wrote about this and it’s exactly what’s happening in the States right now. We are obsessed with protecting democracy at the expense of liberty, when the protection of liberty came to the West before democracy did–our constitution was set up to protect liberty and also limit the accumulation of undue power. For much of modern history, governments in Europe and the States were actually characterized by constitutional liberalism, rather than democracy.26 Democracy is actually kind of a new idea. Liberty, however, is not.
When we think specifically about the States, our government was structured as an alternative to a monarchy to ensure that citizens were afforded certain rights. The declaration of independence, our constitution, and our bill of rights were developed with the core principle of liberty in mind. It’s these things that make us “democratic,” in the way we usually mean when we use that term.
Definition of freedom
There’s an important distinction to make regarding the term freedom, which has recently been co-opted by the right to specifically mean freedom from government interference. Gun ownership advocates, for example, often invoke the Second Amendment, because it’s seen as a protection of individual liberty; freedom from the government to do what I want. They argue that the government is trying to encroach on their individual liberty with gun legislation. The premise is that our government has provided a certain level of guarantee that individual citizens are afforded certain inalienable rights, so the government has no place in discussing gun legislation when it’s enshrined in the Second Amendment. It’s a good argument—our founding fathers literally didn’t want to be taxed unfairly and thus broke away from the King of England and gave its citizens maximum freedom while limiting the power of the government. It’s also consistent with how liberty can be defined. Friedrich Hayek describes liberty as “a condition in which all is permitted that is not prohibited by general rules.”27
It is, however, an incomplete argument. Note in Hayek’s quote this part about general Rules. Naturally, within a lawful society, there have to be some rules. Hayek goes on to say that “individual liberty… requires that coercion be used only to enforce the universal rules of just conduct protecting the individual domains and that the individual can be restrained only in such contract as may encroach upon the protected domains of others.”28 This means that individual liberty is to be protected at all costs, so long as the domain of individual liberty doesn’t encroach on other individuals’ ability to be and feel free. It’s like the idea of shouting fire in a crowded room. You can do whatever you want so long as other people aren’t being harmed. But you cannot encroach upon other people’s bubbles of freedom, because one of the things that we should be free from is freedom from harm.
This is the rebuttal that gun control advocates give, but freedom from the government now has outsized influence over society, while the idea that the government can maintain individual liberty while making everyone else more free is lost. Again, this is an instance where semantics play a huge role. Freedom is a political definition. A right is a political definition. One of the most influential instances of the government exercising power to define and maintain the protected domain of others was during the Civil War. The North wanted to abolish the slave trade and the South literally went up in arms advocating for for states’ rights. In this instance, Southern slaveowners maintained that the federal government had no business interfering with state-level decisions. This is also a good example of an instance where people cry wolf and say that the government is handing down too many regulations when they actually just want to maintain free-wheeling operations within that sphere. States’ rights referred to the state’s freedom in controlling the market for slaves. But because the government also has a responsibility to others, it intervened to save literal human beings for not an unjust reason. The state exerted power to restrict certain freedoms, but in service of ensuring freedom for all in the long-run.
When Zakaria says that our government was more characterized by constitutional liberalism than democracy, he means these stipulations that were set out in the constitution to ensure that everyone is protected. Frankly, if it came down to it, I would prefer to preserve liberty rather than democracy.
The liberal tenets of our constitution need to be enshrined and maintained through legislation
But it also doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. To ensure that these liberties are democratic, the majority of people need to be on board with what is enshrined in law. Individual freedom doesn’t need to be at odds with citizen sovereignty so long as what’s deemed citizen sovereignty was arrived at democratically.29 Then, so long as an economy and society are run democratically, the preservation of liberty will never be called into question.
I believe that a truly liberal society should be able to answer yes to the following two questions:
- Are the contents of a constitution liberal?
- Has the constitution been adopted in a liberal way?
In the States, the answer to question 1 is mostly yes, only because we’ve been through a long, arduous, ongoing process. Who qualified as a citizen during the late-18th century, for one, was very limited. Notably, it excluded black people, women, and indigenous people for a very long time. We’re also still working on not being discriminatory–we only recently secured the right to same-sex marriage as something that’s protected by our amendments. It’s a work-in-progress, a WIP. But mostly yes.
Question 2 is a little bit more dicey. The adoption of the constitution and its role in adjudication has become a topic of hot debate. When we so often dispute laws within the court system, how justices make decisions becomes really important. Robert Post describes three theories of constitutional interpretation as follows:
“Doctrinal interpretation, which follows the principle of stare decisis, invokes the authority of the Constitution as law. Historical interpretation, which implements an original act of will, is validated by the authority of the Constitution as consent. Responsive interpretation, which engages in an ongoing process of national self-definition, appeals to the authority of the Constitution as, for lack of a better word, ethos.”30
When justices follow the principle of stare decisis, a Latin phrase that means “the decision stands,” it means that they make decisions based on rulings that courts have made in the past, based on precedence. Historical interpretation takes the Constitution as a text based on the intent of the founding fathers at the time they drafted it. Responsive interpretation considers the role of the Constitution in today’s society.
As someone with no legal background, it’s hard for me to understand why historical interpretation is even considered when justices make decisions when our society has evolved so much since 1776. I also happen to know that it’s possible to overlook stare decisis if the precedence has no standing in current society–that’s why Roe v. Wade is continuously discussed as something that can be potentially overturned, even though the decision to protect a woman’s right to abortion was already made. If stare decisis can be overlooked based on the current social context, why aren’t we all just following the principles underlying responsive interpretation?
I literally don’t know. Lawyers and students of law please hit me with some knowledge and I will refine this accordingly.
My point is our government was established as a response to the unique context of the 18th century. We know that it’s imperfect; that’s why we’ve been able to expand on the definition of a citizen. We ought to recognize that US history is fraught with issues, and referring to the constitution literally is myopic. I say myopic because grounding our understanding of present times in what’s been done in the past is to limit ourselves to what can be. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes if we keep grounding them in history because the human consciousness within a given context is only capable of generating a certain subset of thoughts?
When we constantly refer to what has been done in the past, we’re not utilizing our ability to imagine a better future.
If, as Zakaria argues, we are becoming less free–if liberty is not flourishing–then we need to consider how we can adopt the constitution in a liberal way to restore liberty to the people. And not through the courts system, but through legislation–to take down those systemic barriers. Gun control is one of the many examples where a small minority claiming to preserve individual liberty is actually making the majority of people less free. Vaccinations, healthcare, and abortions are also good examples. Liberal politicians want to enshrine certain protections in policy to ensure the contents of a constitution are liberal and it is being adopted in a liberal manner to then guarantee human progress among civic equals. We need to make sure that the things that make us free are enshrined in policy and not up for debate by a small group of individuals. To do so, we need to completely reconceptualize the way things are because it will be near impossible in our current economic system of being wedded to neoliberalism. But rather than using a historical perspective and thinking about what’s worked (or what’s failed, and therefore not worth pursuing) in the past, we need to remember that what is, is not what should be. Our current situation was constructed by people who have the power to say how things are. History should always be used as guidelines, not rules, because history was written by old, white, men. If we are to begin to think about what works for us today, I think it’s necessary for us to think at a higher level and develop hypotheses for how to become better. If democracy is a teleological process, we must innovate as a society to create a more perfect union.
(Image source: Imgur)
3. Benjamin Studebaker, “Why Bernie vs Hillary Matters More Than People Think,” Benjamin Studebaker, published on 05 February 2016, https://benjaminstudebaker.com/2016/02/05/why-bernie-vs-hillary-matters-more-than-people-think/.
4. Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton: University Press, 2014), 134.
5. Ibid., 11.
6. George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems,” The Guardian, published on 15 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot.
7. Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume IV (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1835-1840), 456.
8. Chang, 23 things, xv.
10. “Capitalism,” Lexico, accessed on 14 February 2020, https://www.lexico.com/definition/capitalism.
11. Chang, 23 things, 255.
12. Ibid., 18.
13. Ibid., xv.
14. Neil Davidson, “Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction,” Salvage, accessed on 17 February 2020, https://salvage.zone/in-print/neoliberalism-as-the-agent-of-capitalist-self-destruction/.
15. Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2014), 84.
16. Chang, 23 things, 1-2.
17. Ibid., 64.
18. “Subsidy Gusher: Taxpayer Stuck With Massive Subsidies While Oil and Gas Profits Soar,” Taxpayers for Common Sense, published on 17 May 2011, https://www.taxpayer.net/energy-natural-resources/subsidy-gusher-taxpayers-stuck-with-massive-subsidies-while-oil-and-gas-pro/.
19. Timothy M. Gill, “Towards a Democratic Socialist Foreign Policy,” Current Affairs, published on 22 October 2019, https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/10/towards-a-democratic-socialist-foreign-policy.
20. Chris Maisano, “Bernie’s Revolution Needs to Transform America’s Political Institutions,” Jacobin, published on 09 January 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/politics-alternatives-bernie-sanders-corbyn-labour-elections.
21. Tim Urban, “Political Disney World,” Wait But Why, published on 15 December 2019, https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/12/political-disney-world.html?utm_source=Main+List&utm_campaign=5578c85fb5-STORY-CH09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5b568bad0b-5578c85fb5-50604001&mc_cid=5578c85fb5&mc_eid=0f3fb49792.
22. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 22.
23. Paddy Ashdown, “What I Learned in Bosnia,” The New York Times, published on 28 October 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/28/opinion/what-i-learned-in-bosnia.html.
24. Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, 17-18.
25. “What would Plato make of Boris Johnson?,” The Economist, published on 22 June 2019, https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/06/22/what-would-plato-make-of-boris-johnson.
26. Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, 20.
27. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), 19.
28. Ibid., 111.
29. Viktor J. Vanberg, “Liberal constitutionalism, constitutional liberalism and democracy,” Constitutional Political Economy, 22 (2011): 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-010-9090-8
30. Robert Post, “Theories of Constitutional Interpretation,” Representations, 30 (1990): 13-41. https://rep.ucpress.edu/content/30/13, 26.