12/13/2011 02:21 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

How to Be a Liberal-Conservative-Socialist-Anarchist

When I argued last week that treating "socialism" as a slur shuts us off from some important and humane ideas, the posting drew a long string of comments (nearly 1k at last count). Naturally, lots of people want to know what it would mean to take socialism seriously, short of collectivizing the means of production -- and, if I just mean that I support good public education and universal health care, why use a controversial word for ideas that much of the developed world shares?

I think it's a very fair question. It's one I've also been asking myself about anarchism after spending some time in late October with the Wall Street Occupiers and being hugely impressed by the moral ambition and relative success of their attempt to live in a humane, voluntary, non-hierarchical way. It didn't leave me ready to declare myself an anarchist. It did convince me that there's real force in the anarchist complaint about how we usually live, and that, at least, I should be acting more like an anarchist -- more spontaneously generous and cooperative, less reflexively accepting of hierarchy -- day to day.

This essay is a very short sketch of why anarchism socialism, liberalism, and conservatism all deserve to speak to us. (It's inspired by a decades-old essay in which the philosopher Leszek Kolakowsi gave the same kind of list, with rather different emphases.) Each approach to politics and social life starts by seeing things that are true and morally important. These truths conflict with one another, though: some do not always hold as facts, and some are at odds as values. What I've done here is to give a quick list of these important, inconsistent truths. I think they should all have a claim on us, but that we often can't acknowledge them all at the same time.

I hope other people might recognize their own divided loyalties in this essay. I also think it casts political division in a helpful light. So much of our politics is insubstantive or irrational, and we often talk about our disagreements in terms of psychology, personality, and taste. Fair enough: but there are also abiding reasons for different, conflicting commitments. Maybe listing them will at least help us get clearer on where we disagree.

This is quick, crude, and polemical, so I apologize in advance for half a hundred disputable points and a baker's dozen of simple errors.

Liberal Truths

  • Our power to take responsibility for our own lives by thinking and choosing, rather than take dictation from tradition, is both precious and heroic. Individual rights, political democracy, and market economics are all expressions of this power.
  • Many social distinctions, such as those based on race, sex, and sexual orientation, are prejudices that obscure an underlying moral equality. We should work to make those distinctions less important.
  • At least some of life's benefits and burdens should be distributed according to effort, talent, achievement, or some combination of those. This only makes sense, though, if there is some real equality in people's opportunities to develop their talents.
  • Laws that enforce equal treatment can change people's attitudes and the whole society. Reforms like desegregating schools and forbidding employment discrimination are worthwhile even though they sometimes run aground on deep-seated social attitudes or raw economic power.
  • Consciousness is an important force in history. Changed consciousness can change lives, and history is just all the lives that have been and will be. Because the ways that people understand themselves and see one another affect the whole social world, moral reform and appeals to conscience matter.

Conservative Truths

  • Tradition matters. Sometimes what is familiar is, for just that reason, better than what is new. It is legitimate to prefer what you know, for better and worse, to an abstract promise of something better.
  • A pair of threats haunts social and political life, rooted in the underbelly of human nature. One of these is disorder: people recurrently hurt one another, often in brutal ways, when conventional constraints give way. Radical efforts at reform, signally revolutions, sometime break those constraints. The other threat is abuse of power: big modern states and big ideologies provide new opportunities to take advantage of others and new rationales for doing so.
  • When a majority cannot recognize itself in the government it lives under, legitimacy is at risk, disorder may follow, and abuse of power becomes more likely. It is sometimes necessary and appropriate to appeal to tradition and sentimental ties that join individuals in group and national solidarity.
  • People may not always want to be "free" or do well under what liberals and socialists prize as freedom. We are often piggish, directionless, addictive, self-immolating. We are also superstitious, and seemingly superstition-seeking.
  • In light of this bad evidence about how we are, it is not quite reassuring enough to explain it away all human depravity as the product of unjust circumstances. All reform has to be alert to the danger of doing more harm than good, of inadvertently breaking important sources of order or solidarity. Reform needs self-correcting mechanisms, steady attention to abuses of power, and a willingness to admit that sometimes slowness and caution are virtues.
  • Maybe it is just as important for people to be built as to be freed. This is the work of discipline and tradition.

Socialist Truths

  • Equality matters. Perfect equality may be unreachable and even undesirable, but the inequality of wealth and opportunity today leaves vast human potential undeveloped for no good reason. This is a form of brutality.
  • An important part of individual freedom is control over work, which is how most of us spend many of our best hours and years. A society should be judged not just by the rights it gives its people, but the work it makes possible for them.
  • Left to their own devices, markets concentrate wealth in individuals, families, and corporations. Concentrated wealth undermines equality, of course, and also feeds back into politics and undermines democracy.
  • Market crises, like the one we are living through now, shape people's lives and opportunities in ways that are too important to be left to bankers and billionaires.
  • For all these reasons, political control over key features of economic life is important. This may include regulating finance, guaranteeing high-quality education independent of the market, strengthening unions, and regulating labor markets for both fairness and mobility. Without this sort of regulation, both liberal rights and conservative traditions will have less real value.
  • Human nature contains as much promise as threat. We are deeply products of our circumstances, so the future might be as different from the present as we are from our medieval ancestors. Moreover, history gives examples of solidarity, creativity, and the invention of new and viable forms of order - proof of the human power to recreate ourselves. Considering the disadvantages that weighed down on these efforts, we should take them all the more seriously as lights for the future.

Anarchist Truths

  • There is a human appetite for cooperation and reciprocity that is just as basic as the appetites of self-interest. Sometimes working together is better than working separately, just because it means being together.
  • Coercion is subtle, multifarious, and awful. We spend much of life in relationships and interactions that are structured by differences in power and by mandatory roles. This costs us the chance to know more about one another and about ourselves.
  • The ideal of arranging social life without coercion and hierarchy is not a lazy fantasy: anyone who has had any involvement in it knows that it takes tremendous discipline.
  • This ideal deepens and tries to perfect some of the most basic commitments of modern social life. Any voluntary and non-destructive act that gets us closer to it is worthwhile for its own sake.

You may deny that some of these "truths" are true, or give some much more weight than others. You may want to reclassify some of them: certainly they overlap, and some are shared. Taken together, though, they strike me as plausible and as a making a reasonable case that we need all four lines of thinking to grapple with our very confusing times.