What is it about liberalism
    that sticks in the nation’s craw?

The problem isn’t that we have strong moral beliefs, it’s our willingess to cram them down other people’s throats. Sometimes that’s necessary. But we should economize on intrusion and find culturally unthreatening candidates.

My moderate Republican friend’s thoughts for the Democrats generated lots of email (including lots of extremely poor guesses as to his identity).

One point made by several readers seems to me justified, and my friend agrees: calling for the Democrats to stop “running left” seems to fit poorly with the call for them to take a moral stance in favor of gay marriage and universal health care.

My own view is that programmatic liberalism can do very well at the polls, if it’s presented in culturally non-threatening forms and decoupled from liberal identity politics. It wasn’t health care and the minimum wage that cost John Kerry the election; it was the whole constellation of issues represented this year by “God, guns, and gays” and in 1972 by “amnesty, acid, and abortion.”

The problem, I take it, is not that liberals (and by extension Democrats) are perceived as being morally unconcerned, but that they’re perceived as having the wrong set of moral commitments.

In particular, liberals are taken, correctly, to be morally uncomfortable with the need to inflict pain on wrongdoers, both domestically and internationally. Conservatives, by contrast, think that punishment is not only necessary but right. That’s a position on which most people instinctively agree with the conservatives.

And I mean “instinctively” literally &#8212 the desire to punish non-cooperators turns out to be very deep-seated. Overcoming that impulse and replacing it with compassion requires either intense religious upbringing in something like Buddhism or Sufism or the Gospel version of Christianity, or the secular equivalent provided by a good liberal-arts education. But compassion alone is not a principle of rule. (Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”)

That’s what convinced Machiavelli that “good (i.e., compassionate) men” needed to be taught “to be able not to be good” (i.e., learn how to turn their compassion off when necessary) to become fit to rule. If they refuse, the alternative is government by those who don’t need to learn to overcome their compassion because they started out without any.

Linked to their uncontrolled compassion is liberals’ perceived (and to some extent real) indifference to the Puritan virtues &#8212 chastity and sobriety and hard work and thrift &#8212 or at least their unwillingness to act on behalf of those virtues in any way that might seem to imply disapproval or intolerance of those who display the corresponding vices.

On the other hand, liberals are perceived &#8212 again, not entirely falsely &#8212 as having their own set of strongly-held moral commitments and as being willing to impose them on other people.

Not treating people badly because of their race, for example, is a moral principle; everyone knows that. And liberals insisted, pretty successfully, on imposing it on the rest of the population. The fact that the imposition was so successful that the principle of racial tolerance has now diffused itself widely didn’t make it any less of an imposition, and many white Southerners who no longer hate black people still hate liberals for messing with their way of life, or learned to hate liberals from their unreconstructed parents and older friends.

The same is true of the principle of religious tolerance. Again, everyone knows this is a moral principle. The question is how much normal Americans (God-fearing Christians) have to give up in the way of public affirmation of their beliefs in order to accomodate Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Budhists, Wiccans, pagans, and seculars in order to comply with that principle.

Liberals are more willing than conservatives to make the majority suffer to protect the minorities. And the fact that the liberal leadership is profoundly secular in its orientation makes it easy to interpret this as hostility to religion, or to religiosity, generally. We claim that we are merely carrying out the Enlightenment program of getting the heavy hand of the state off religion, but that’s not really a very convincing claim given our own actual beliefs and practices, and given the sheer hatred and contempt the usual liberal commentator can pack into the word “fundamentalist.” Where, one might reasonably ask, is liberal tolerance when the chips are down? (I’m reliably told that academics who are committed evangelical Christians are mostly in the closet about it at work.)

Even on the environment, the largely correct message “conservative politicians vote to let their corporate supporters foul the air and water in ways that are not healthy for children and other living things” is somewhat diluted by the strong quasi-religious element (with both pagan and Pantheist strains) present in the environmental movement. That’s the subtext of Earth in the Balance, for example: instead of thinking of environment management as a complicted technical discipline combining chemistry, physics, biology, and economics, the book argues that it’s fundamentally a spiritual problem, and that solving it will both require and facilitate spiritual growth in the population.

If you doubt the religious zeal of the true tree-huggers, try asking about the life-cycle energy costs of using washable rather than disposable utensils in restaurants or proposing the use of nuclear power. The no-fur/vegan/animal rights folks are explicitly willing to sacrifice human to non-human values. In Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front the environmento-whackos even have their own band of fundamentalist terrorists.

One of the dominant symbols of liberal environmentalism was Jimmy Carter going on television wearing his sweater after turning down the thermostat in the White House. Message: Voting Democratic means no longer being able to keep your home comfortably warm.

(Yes, I know that people acclimate; I’m now uncomfortable at what I used to consider a normal indoor winter temperature. The point is not whether turning down the thermostat was a good idea; the point is that liberals were willing to impose it on other people via fuel rationing.)

The most outrageous cases are those in which supposedly tolerant liberals impose limitations on other people’s freedom for no sufficient reason, just to express their values and identity. Much of gun control fits this model.

Lots of my liberal friends are like me: they may not disapprove of target-shooting, but they really don’t get hunting on an emotional level (I suspect that much hunting is actually a “guy” form of nature-meditation). They (we) think having guns for self-protection is sort of weird and primitive, and regard the “armed citizenry against tyranny” stuff as utterly nuts. Having guns around makes them (us) very uncomfortable. (I’ve asked gun-carrying houseguests to leave their guns in their cars.)

OK, fine. I don’t like having guns around me, and try to arrange my own environment accordingly. The problem is that lots of liberals are willing to write that prejudice into law, using largely spurious claims about crime control as a justification.

Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals &#8212 meaning those who have been convicted of serious or violent crime &#8212 is demonstrably valuable in reducing violence. There is no adequate evidence that keeping guns out of the hands &#8212 or the shoulder holsters &#8212 of non-criminals has any such benefit. And yes, that includes the famous “assault weapons.”

Requiring everyone who wants to have a gun to apply for a discretionary permit, making that person subject to the whim of local legislatures or officials about whether he may have a gun, serves no good purpose that I can see. The same is true of making a national registry of firearms and their owners. Those are just nasty versions of identity politics, making gun-owners jump through hoops just to show how little regard we have for the weapons culture.

The NRA slogan that we need, not more gun laws, but enforcement of the laws we have is substantially correct. We don’t need individual permits for gun ownership. We can, without increasing crime noticeably, allow any individual not disqualified by prior criminal record to obtain a permit to carry concealed weapons. (Forget the silly “More guns, less crime” stuff; as long as “More guns, more crime” is false, which it is, then there’s no substantial basis for trying to reduce the number of guns in law-abiding hands.)

Does that mean there’s no gun control agenda left? Not at all. We are not, in fact, enforcing the laws we now have: laws that forbid criminals to have, or obtain, guns. We need higher penalties and increased enforcement of the gun-trafficking laws, and we need to close the loophole under which private gun sales are exempted from background checks.

[Such private sales go on at gun shows, among other places, but there’s no “gun show loophole” in the law, and promising to close that non-existent loophole makes liberals look ignorant to gun owners. People resent being bossed around, especially by those who know less than they do about the subject on which orders are being issued.]

If and when it becomes technically feasible, we also need a database of ballistic signatures so that a bullet or shell casing found at a crime scene can be linked to the gun that fired it, and that gun in turn to its last lawful purchaser.

In addition, local police ought to have portable metal detectors and the right to ask anyone carrying a weapon to identify himself. That, too requires some R&D, both on the metal-detector side and on the capacity to check a name and DOB in real time against a data-base of those ineligible to be armed.

The NRA wouldn’t be for that program, but a liberal politician who said that as if he meant it wouldn’t have much of a problem with gun owners. The problem, with gun ownership as with abortion, is that the presence of a group of people committed to ending the practice entirely makes those committed to defending the right to engage in it justly suspicious of small steps in the wrong direction.

That’s not to say that liberalism doesn’t have a political price. In fact we, as liberals, are committed to the rights of gays and atheists and to free choice on abortion. We’re committed to limiting the severity of the criminal law to appropriate levels. We don’t love the notion of bombing the hell out of the country’s enemies, and we strongly disapprove of torture. That’s part of what liberalism is, and I for one don’t much want to compromise on any of it.

But that stuff will cost us fewer votes if liberals manage to figure out a way to convince the rest of the country that we’re not trying to push our weird religious beliefs and practices down their throats. Having a candidate who looks like one of “them” rather than one of “us” is part of that: of this year’s choices, Gephardt or Graham or Edwards or Clark would have felt and sounded more red-state-compatible than Kerry.

At that point, the basic attractiveness the country of the liberal economic agenda and the people-relevant parts of the liberal environmental agenda can start to win us some elections. Will the liberal pressure groups be prepared to allow a fundamentally liberal candidate to skip their litmus tests?

Update Kevin Drum shares some thoughts from Michael Kinsley, who doesn’t seem to see what this looks like from the conservative perspective. If you think abortion is murder, the thought that no one is trying to make you have one isn’t really much of a consolation, is it? (Imagine a bumper sticker that read Against Child Abuse? Don’t Batter Yours.) And of course Kinsley has no objection to imposing equal employment opportunity on employers who want to discriminate by race, religion, or sex, or for that matter low-flow toilets and shower-heads on those who would happily pay the full economic cost of the extra water usage. “Live and let live” is a good and under-employed principle, but it’s not a panacea and it’s not in fact the liberal position on lots of things we care about.

Brad DeLong points out that some fundamentalists are nasty, which is true, and that they believe and disbelieve some things that make the reality-based community blanch or laugh, which is also true. Of course Brad is right that the right response to “God hates you and you’re going to burn in Hell” is “Up yours!” But would a little understanding and compassion toward those who think that, for example, the theory of evolution is a threat to morality be too much to ask?

I hear you ask, “Why would anyone think that? Evolution is about biology, not morals. And David Hume taught us that ‘ought’ statements can’t validly be derived from ‘is’ statements.”

But try imagining it from the believer’s viewpoint. If you’ve taught your kids that what’s in the Bible is true, and that the moral teachings in the Bible are the Word of God, and an authority figure comes along and says that what’s in the Bible is false, where does that leave you, and your child?

Moreover, the psychological links between Darwinism and Social Darwinism aren’t hard to spot. Herbert Spencer was probably brighter than the average eighth-grader, and he thought that his social teaching was simply an application of Darwin’s theories. The version of evolution I was taught in school was deliberately Copernican in its intention: having learned in astronomy that the Earth isn’t at the center, we were now to learn that Mankind isn’t at the top, but just a species among other species. There’s an important half-truth buried there, but it is only half the truth.

Is it utterly unreasonable to think that teaching children that human beings are naked apes is less conducive to a certain kind of morality than teaching them that human beings are created in the image of God? If children learn that people are animals, why should they feel bad about behaving like animals or about treating other people the way people treat animals? Yes, a sensitive and sophisticated version of Darwinism can be highly conducive to pro-social behavior. But how confident should we be be that the average eighth-grade teacher will teach that version, instead of the much cruder version that I learned? (Footnote: Volokh Conspirator Jim Lindgren has some juicy quotes from the textbook John Scopes was put on trial for teaching from, including the explicit suggestion that the principles of animal breeding be applied to humans.)

No, I’m not suggesting that we compromise on teaching evolution in the schools. I am suggesting that we ought to try to discuss these issues without insulting the deeply-held beliefs of others and scoffing at their strongly-felt, and not obviously groundless, fears. Liberalism teaches me that respecting the dignity of people who are unlike myself is morally appropriate. Elementary political science teaches me that, when those others are in the majority, the morally appropriate course is also the politically prudent one.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “What is it about liberalism
    that sticks in the nation’s craw?”

  1. The right to offend

    My appreciation for Mark A. R. Kleiman still grows. For writing stuff like this: "That's what convinced Machiavelli that "good (i.e., compassionate) men" needed to be taught "to be

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