07/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liberal Principles II: People Are Political Animals

This is Part II of a three part article. Part III will appear here tomorrow. Read Part I here.

Ever since the right launched its campaign to demonize the term, liberals have been worrying about their philosophical principles. When asked during the Democrats' You Tube debate, Hillary Clinton suggested that liberalism fell from grace, because it became the party of "big government." She'd call herself a "Progressive," just like those virtuous old farmers taking on the railroads in 1880. Barack Obama's intellectual pal Cass Sunstein calls the candidate a "visionary minimalist."

Like the centrism that fueled the Clinton years, minimalism is a philosophy for losers. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Democrats were sure losers in those years, so they were probably well-served by a philosophy for losers. It made a lot of sense for them to do what was necessary simply to survive. But if, in light of the Republicans' festival of self-immolation, Democrats actually elect a President and a robust Democratic majority, surely Democrats can do better than continue their wussy ways. I'm no Bill Galston, and it's always easier to tear others' ideas down than to come up with principles of your own, but just to get the discussion going, here are some thoughts for big principles for liberals.

FIRST PRINCIPLE: People Are Political Animals

In yesterday's post I reported that the metaphysical grounding of the conservative revival was, as founding father Frank Meyer, put it, "politics is based on the individual not the collective." This core principle must rest on some commitment to the primacy of the individual aspects of the human condition -- separate bodies, silent thought, etc. Otherwise it would be completely arbitrary, right? The assumption of individualism has been so heavily promoted in the years of the conservative revival that it has all but obliterated competing metaphysical contentions. Meyer cannily invoked the Marxist-sounding "collective" as the only alternative to the Lockean personhood of the 2001 tax cuts, correctly concluding that people would rather be busting their asses at lousy jobs while watching hedge fund billionaires fly over than living in Stalinist Russia.

Ignoring the siren song of conservative dichotomies, what if neither the individual nor the collective, but, rather, the political is primary? Humans may come in separate bodies, but we also have the capacity for speech and reason. Having these capacities, people can live in communities. So the driving image is not Hobbes' physically and psychologically separate men springing up, as he said, like mushrooms after a rain. It is Aristotle's human, raised in a family, ruling in a family, and then the families joining in a polity for the sake of a good, self-sufficient life. Plato put it another way in the Crito: that the polis nourishes its members to life and is the source of their civic education. So the first liberal principle is that politics is based on the political, not the individual.

Aside from the deafening roar of the conservative resurgence, why should this sound strange? Man did not, in fact, spring up like a mushroom after the rain. Instead, as feminist political thinkers remind us, they are of woman born and would not have survived even to pee into the pond, or whatever that Lockean mix your labor metaphor means, alone. Unassailably, individualism has been a part of American thought since the Lockean beginnings of the Declaration of Independence, and there is a reason that the observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, singled it out so strongly in commenting on America a generation later. But even if individualism is a part of personhood, only decades of ideology have swept all other human characteristics from the field. If progressive politics is to get any traction at all, it cannot accept that a Lockean individualism is the only way that Americans can think about politics. If it is, all American liberalism is just rearranging the deck chairs, as they say.

True, the family metaphor for politics originally invoked an unjust institution, the classical family. Aristotle accepted without question the right of men to rule their families (aristocratically, not tyrannically, the little darling), and that unjust foundation gave all arguments from patriarchy a bad name. So when Hobbes came along to challenge the family metaphor, it felt like liberation. And in many ways, it was. That's why we call it liberalism, more properly, "classical liberalism."

But when classical liberals tossed Aristotle's political animal out with the unjust patriarchal family and the patriarchal monarchy, something crucial was lost. Man was still a political animal. And governance still has to come from somewhere. Indeed, as Hobbes, the consummate realist, saw it, absent other institutions, the strong rule. Secular, democratic governments are the antithesis of the hereditary monarchies. Why have conservatives gotten away with suggesting that anything -- the market, the family, the church, Halliburton - is better than being governed by our own elected governments?

Worse than demonizing the word "liberal," conservatives made the word "politician" into a dirty word and "Washington" a dirty place. The Obama campaign's buy in to the demonizing of conventional politics may put him at the head of the government, but it makes the act of governing almost impossible. As Gary Hart said in the Times last week, "He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in "The Candidate," ask, "What do we do now?" after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it."

SECOND PRINCIPLE: Political Animals Owe Each Other Political Altruism

The revival of the principle of a communal life got a big boost, when anti-government individualism turned out to be inadequate to the inequality and harrowing working conditions created by the Industrial Revolution. At that point thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed the western secular philosophy we call utilitarianism. In utilitarianism, people are understood not as all different and separate but as similar and equal, capable of feeling pleasure and pain. These understandings give rise to some moral obligation to reduce the pain and maximize the pleasure of other humans and to a kind of egalitarianism. Most social programs, from workers' pensions in the Nineteenth Century to health care after World War II, were the products of this "big government" egalitarianism. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in the speech that presaged the New Deal in 1932, the free market is fine, but we must be sure that one man's meat is not another man's poison. His words of political morality are worth reproducing in full:

"Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work."

In modern discourse, Princeton University's Peter Singer has done the most to argue for the morality of a robust redistribution of wealth. As Singer put it recently, the moral claim is that "Other things being equal . . . we should redistribute from the rich to the poor until the marginal welfare loss to the rich equals the marginal welfare gain to the poor." Singer quickly admits to the limits of morality: "But of course, if humans need incentives to make them productive, other things are not equal. So when we plan social policies, we must take account of human nature as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

No one is suggesting we live in Singer's World. Here's the crucial difference: conservatives elevate the inevitable claims of selfish human nature to the level of secular political morality itself. Liberals accept the selfish as a constraint on political morality. We ask: how much, not how little, altruism can the secular, representative, accountable polity require?

When I published an earlier version of this essay at TPMCafe, a consistent theme of the comments was that all philosophical principles be abandoned in favor of the particular. Here's an example from one of the many commenters: "Again, I don't think that liberals prefer the collective over the individual...The difference between conservatives and liberals in this area is a willingness to address problems. Conservatives appear willing to allow problems to continue while liberals are more willing to try to do something about it. It's not that liberals are concerned about the collective, it is that when a problem affects people, they are more likely to at least think about whether the problem should be solved. It has nothing to do with whether the collective is the central political unit or not -- it's just that most problems affect a lot of people."

The commenter -- and he or she is not alone -- misses the crucial change that decades of conservative moralizing has wrought in American politics. The conservative philosophy of moral individualism makes ignoring the "problems that affect a lot of people" the moral course to follow. Regardless of how many people the problems affect, where is the commenter's "solution" to come from if "It's your money?" Public solutions, say in the form of taxation, is no better than theft. And if you think this is all, as David Brooks would say, "airy fairy" philosophy, then why do the Republicans call all government run health care proposals "socialized medicine," as if the magic word "socialism" itself were enough to doom the most appealing scheme? Because redistribution is, to them, immoral. Even if everyone around you is sick, it's your money, remember? A subset of the argument is the transparently fallacious claim that all government solutions are less efficient than private solutions, but smarter people than I have already taken that on.

President Harry Truman suggested, in a campaign speech in 1948, that Republican-voting laborers are ungrateful morons. His 1948 speech gave me a Matter-With-Kansas insatiable longing for the time when an American politician could just call the Republicans "the money changers [in] the temple." But the time is long past when redistributive agendas were automatically accepted as the moral course. Maybe individualism is now so embedded in the culture that nothing can be done. But if liberals have any hope of achieving the many policies that have filled our manifesto since we glimpsed the promised land in 2006, we must hope this is not true and that we can change the assumptions by arguing for our principles.

Here's an argument that tries to hit the area between Singer's idealism and the Republicans' moral abdication. Believing people are political animals, modern American liberals believe in a robust moral obligation to other Americans, as members of a common political community (more about the rest of the world tomorrow). Like Plato's and Aristotle's polities, Americans share a set of political institutions and a political history and tradition, which have, over the centuries, protected our productive enterprises from theft and fraud, and given us a civic education in such values as self-government, tolerance, egalitarianism and self-determination. We share a common culture and a common market. Even with globalization and the internet, Americans are more like each other, on the whole, than we are unlike or like the citizens of other nations. Maybe this Independence Day the Democratic candidate should just deliver FDR's Commonwealth Club speech. There is a clear sense that the kind of possessive individualism he confronted was morally unworthy of America's promise.

When some of us are slaves, say, to jobs we hate, because we cannot live without the health care, we vote like slaves, exactly what the founders correctly feared. In another example, when the common political process fails to protect some citizens' economic security and dignity, they may use it to impose other agendas on polity. Pace Thomas Frank, there's nothing the matter with Kansas. Those family values voters were just trying to make themselves felt somewhere. Maybe they had given up hope that the Democrats could add much to their secular well-being so they voted with their economic masters. So there are reasons for the political community both to require and to bound a robust altruism.

There are other arguments for political altruism. The principle rests on the political understanding that too much inequality leads to civil war. More recently, people have also come to support collective action because there are some goods, like climate control, which cannot be achieved efficiently -- or at all -- without it.

These are additional arguments, but they are not a substitute for moral principles. Remember the losing candidate Dukakis and "it's not about ideology, it's about competence?" Liberalism, like conservatism, is not neutral. Liberalism ultimately rests on a deep idea of what people are like. Like the conservatives' separate, indifferent citizens, liberals' similar, linked citizens provide answers to policy questions embarked on a thin, but common political enterprise. Everyone's talking about the obvious example, health care. But the point is that no one can know what is coming. That's why we need our principles.

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