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Monday, July 12, 2010

Liberal Despair Over Obama, Taker of the Ham Sandwich

The first thing that always strikes me when reading liberal writers is how distant they are from any serious consideration of the philosophic essentials of their own ideology (much less their opponent's). In several previous posts, I examined this fact and argued that it is crucial to examine the left's underlying philosophy both to understand why the conservatives and libertarians have failed to stop America's march down "the road to serfdom", and to better focus the efforts of those who advocate individual rights towards more fundamental issues. A recent essay provides an outstanding example for consideration.

Writing for politico.com, Abby Phillip discusses "[t]wo recent essays" which have "framed the debate raging within the progressive community over why the promise of Obama’s candidacy has not lived up to their expectations — and how liberals should proceed in what they fear will be difficult months ahead." Phillip writes:
In a 17,000-plus-word piece published in The Nation on Thursday, journalist Eric Alterman calls the Obama presidency “a big disappointment” for progressives and blames a broken system in Washington that he says allows the minority party to rule with impunity — and special interests and big money to dictate legislative policy.
I encourage you to undertake your own masochistic odyssey through this progressive mind, however, I think I can summarize it aptly. According to Alterman, Obama may have good socialist, excuse me, "progressive" intentions, but His Elysian agenda is being impeded by the usual suspects: right wing ideologues duped by Fox News and talk radio into thinking that free markets and limited government are the solution, not the problem. This fatuous "crusade" is forcing Him to implement Utopia piecemeal, rather than wholesale, a state of affairs which surely implies that the system is "rigged", broken, endemically set against always popular "transformative progressive legislation". In this wild-west global corporate milieu wherein the state only controls 96% of an individual's life, dejected liberals and aspiring apparatchiks must surely continue their efforts to slowly erode basic freedoms, but until El Presidente can send in the Army to shut down Fox, fully nationalize the S&P 500, and post Green Guards on every curb in America, they must content themselves with merely taking "ham sandwiches" rather than "whole hogs."

To better understand this mindset, consider why rational, economic arguments fail to move liberals? It is a fact that free market advocates routinely analyze the devastating consequences of government intervention in the economy, i.e., policies advocated by liberals. For example, it is not difficult to demonstrate why minimum wage laws cause unemployment, or why socialized medicine results in sub-standard care, or why inflation stemming from government budget deficits sets the boom-bust cycle in motion and destroys our standard of living. Even Alterman considers this torrent of right wing proselytizing :
An April 2010 poll published by the Pew Research Center found that just 22 percent of Americans questioned trust the "government in Washington almost always or most of the time," one of the lowest readings in half a century. This natural skepticism of government action has been reinforced during this same period by a massive ideological investment by conservative individuals and foundations—aided by global corporations—in discrediting activist government and presenting laissez-faire policies as the natural order of things.
First, note, that he characterizes this skepticism of government as "natural" as if it is some sort of innate idea bred into the American mind, rather than a product of hundreds of years of theory integrated with thousands of years of human experience suffering and dying under the designs of central planning despots. Perhaps more striking is that Alterman wishes us to believe that laissez-faire as the "natural order of things" is an idea only recently propounded by global corporations and their ideological shills, not a theory of, oh, I don't know, John Locke, Adam Smith, Turgot, and America's Founding Fathers! Has Alterman even read The Declaration of Independence?! He goes on:

Neocon pundit Irving Kristol, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley and former Treasury Secretary William Simon made this cause a crusade through much of the 1970s and 1980s with impressive, often astonishing results. They helped channel hundreds of millions of dollars, later mushrooming into billions, into the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute and countless offshoots in Washington and elsewhere to train pundits and politicians to embrace the right-wing view of economic activity. These groups and others championed the likes of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and American economist Milton Friedman to replace what had previously been a Keynesian consensus. These ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new publishing outfits, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our political and cultural landscape.
Although I do not necessarily agree or support the various conservative writers to which he refers, it is important to note the subtle implication in this passage , an implication which almost always underlies liberal arguments, namely, that the truth of an idea is not relevant. According to Alterman, these pundits did not integrate facts into theory and reach a valid conclusion, rather, they went on a "crusade" to overthrow the "Keynesian consensus." And how was this "Keynesian consensus" originally validated? He doesn't say. To him, belief in ideas can only be based on faith and consensus rather than reason. He is not only imparting a religious connotation to the free market movement but to ideas as such - a view that stems directly from modern intellectuals' broader rejection of reason and objectivity. He continues:
This investment, present since the Carter administration, has led to a rush towards deregulation in virtually all areas of the economy under presidents of both parties. There was nothing accidental about any of this. Lower taxes, less regulation, less government: these are seen as goals in and of themselves, regardless of their impact on public policy, because they weaken government's ability to intervene in the lives of its citizens. Milton Friedman argued that "freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself." This belief leads a conservative columnist like George F. Will to support policies like the privatization of Social Security irrespective of whether such a transformation would make the program more or less effective, for "reasons [that] rise from the philosophy of freedom."
First, since the 1970's, he believes we have have had "lower taxes, less regulation, less government"? Really? By what possible standard? Does he really believe the statist mess before us is an example of laissez-faire? Quoting George Reisman:
[T]he politico-economic system of the United States today is so far removed from laissez-faire capitalism that it is closer to the system of a police state than to laissez-faire capitalism. The ability of the media to ignore all of the massive government interference that exists today and to characterize our present economic system as one of laissez-faire and economic freedom marks it as, if not profoundly dishonest, then as nothing less than delusional.
Second, and more importantly, note that Alterman regards these free market philosophers to be pursuing their ideas as "goals in and of themselves, regardless of their impact on public policy." While it is true that the justification for free markets is not "public policy" but rather, individual rights predicated on egoistic ethics, I do not believe that is what Alterman means in this context. He simply can not imagine that those who advocate free markets and individual rights actually believe their ideas to be in the interests of human life. Instead, he regards these ideas as floating abstractions which could only be pursued for their own sake.

For example, he claims that George Will supports the privatization of Social Security "irrespective" of whether it will make the program more "effective." While I can not speak for Will, I personally do not want to make Social Security more "effective" - I want to abolish it. Why? Because, it entails an immoral theft of my income, and in addition, I believe I can manage my own money better than the government, which actually doesn't manage it, but rather spends it in exchange for IOUs from future taxpayers. Alterman appears not only unwilling, but perhaps, unable to grasp the method of this argument, namely, an argument from principle. He simply assumes that Social Security is good, and that the only proper debate could be over details on how to make it more "effective." Any consideration of abolishing such a program could only stem from the pursuit of privatization as some ethereal rationalistic end in itself.

As I have argued countless times, such an approach to ideas is the hallmark of the modern pragmatist liberal who implicitly relies on two false premises: the default morality of altruism and the non-objectivity of knowledge. What's disturbing, is that by its nature, the rejection of reason and objectivity renders the liberal impervious to principled argument. Ironically and contrary to their own claims, the liberal mind, like the mind of a religious fanatic, is therefore "closed" - not "open." It is closed, because it rejects the human method of cognition, i.e., reason. This has serious implications, because faith and force are corollaries, i.e., when one abandons reason as a method of persuasion, physical force is the only alternative. That is why socialists send out their armies to nationalize businesses, not their philosophers.

Principled ideas are anathema to the liberal. To him, a person who professes to stand on principle can only be one of three things: a) a paid shill b) an ideologue or c) an unwitting moron duped by Fox News and talk radio. On this view, one can not arrive at the principle of individual rights logically. If he was not paid off by a corporation, he must be a dogmatic zombie akin to a Jesus freak shouting verses from scripture, or his mind must have been warped through exposure to Fox News and talk radio. Note that none of these categories entertain the possibility of truth. Therefore, anyone standing up for capitalism and individual rights can not be taken seriously and is regarded as a mindless, red state buffoon. In fact, according to Alterman, Fox News should not even be considered a news station, unlike the objective arbiters of truth at the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, Chicago Tribune, et al. Further, he was actually angered when fellow reporters did their job and rebuffed the White House's official demonization of Fox:
ABC's Jake Tapper got all huffy with White House briefer Robert Gibbs, noting, "It's escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations 'not a news organization' and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it's appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one?" he demanded. The idea that Tapper cannot see how the Fox News network differs from than his own is sad but telling. David Axelrod had to appear on This Week to explain to Tapper's colleague George Stephanopoulos, "It's really not news—it's pushing a point of view. And other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way."
In other words, not only are the ideas of the right not to be taken seriously, these nutty ideologues are standing in the way of "progress" by conditioning American minds with distortions and sensationalism, that is, non-liberal ideas. Therefore, corporations must be stopped from spending money or speaking out on political matters. Fairness doctrines must be imposed to give liberals "equal time." Campaigns must be publicly financed. Perhaps, the government can "reinvent journalism"? But, that may not even be enough:
Even without the heavy overlay of right-wing propaganda, the American media as it is now constituted would be hard pressed to provide the kind of information and opportunity for debate required if the president were to undertake fundamental liberal reforms of our various dysfunctional institutions and outdated public policies. It is no secret that with just a few laudable exceptions, complicated stories about government proposals and their likely implications do not excite what remains of a decimated journalistic establishment. Sensationalism, not substance, is what drives ratings.
Note, the equation of right wing ideas to "sensationalism" and "propaganda" which lack "substance." It is impossible for the liberal mind to take the right seriously. And, what exactly are these "outdated public policies" and "fundamental liberal reforms"? He does not say. You see, liberals just Know. Unfortunately, that damned system of checks and balances prevents them from overthrowing the government in a month (excuse me, passing "transformative progressive legislation"):
Face it, the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us. Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Barack Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign.
If you have wondered why there is such a political divide today, this is the reason. While Republicans and the Tea Party movement are literally taking to the streets, properly characterizing Obama as the most radical president in American history, referring to him as "the Alien in the White House", and demanding a return to a limited Constitutional republic, the liberals sneer at these concerns and direct outrage at Obama, because he has not gone far enough! Alterman is more sanguine:
Personally, I tend more toward the view expressed by the young, conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, that Obama is "a doctrinaire liberal who's always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer." Or as one of Obama's early Chicago mentors, Denny Jacobs, explained to his biographer David Remnick, Obama is a pol who learned early that "sometimes you can't get the whole hog, so you take the ham sandwich."
Don't worry Liberals. You don't need Fox News to tell you - he has taken a pretty damn big sandwich.


HaynesBE said...

“To him, belief in ideas can only be based on faith and consensus rather than reason.”

“What's disturbing is that by its nature, the rejection of reason and objectivity renders the liberal impervious to principled argument.”

Doug—what struck me in reading this post is that I can somewhat sympathize with the liberal’s view point that its all a matter of whose propaganda wins because the bulk of the arguments a liberal is faced with are insufficiently grounded upon reason as well. Much of the “opposition” which liberals face, both conservative and libertarian, also have rejected reason. Defenders of individual rights may reason forward from their acceptance of this principle, but most are unable to defend individual rights back to its roots in reality, or thoroughly enough to defend it consistently.

Friedich Hayek, one of the major contributors to the Austrian school of economics, is considered by libertarians to be a defender of liberty and the free market. Yet, he too denigrates the role of reason in discovering fundamental truth. In The Constitution of Liberty, he concurs with Hume, “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason” because “our reason is insufficient to master the full detail of complex reality.” How then do we know what are the proper moral principles? Hayek’s answer is a type of social evolution where institutions and morals are “not invented but arose from the separate actions of many men who did not know what they were doing.” In fact, his primary defense of liberty is not that it is the proper social extension of self-ownership but that “the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undersigned.”

Hayek’s primary defense of liberty is not on the principle that an individual has a right to his own life but on the collectivist need for the “progress of civilization.” He even refers to “our faith in liberty.” What role then is there for reason? To recognize its limits and to “understand the conditions of its effective functioning and continuous growth…[W]e must use our reason intelligently…[in order to] preserve that indispensible matrix of the uncontrolled and non-rational which is the only environment wherein reason can grow and operate effectively.”

This theory leaves Hayek proposing a political system that minimizes coercion, without ever adequately distinguishing between the aggressive initiation of force, and force used in self-defense.

When key defenders of liberty are unable to offer fully reasoned, reality-based, non-contradictory arguments…is it any wonder that they are open to the accusation being simply another voice in the propaganda wars?

The Rat Cap said...


I agree, and I realize I did not adequately drive home the larger theme of the post: that a defense of freedom requires an integrated philosophy of reason and individual rights, i.e., Objectivism. I tried to point out that liberals reject simple economic arguments, of the type usually offered by conservatives and libertarians, because of these more fundamental issues. In other words, liberal minds do not even "hear" these economic arguments.

Of course, I did intentionally focus on the liberal side because of the article in focus, but I did not stress enough that this is one side of a false alternative offered by many on the right and that points towards the need for comprehensive philosophy.

Thanks for pointing this out in good detail.

HaynesBE said...

Can't cover everything on one post!
I just am currently caught up in realizing how vulnerable Austrians and libertarians are in their ability offer a coherent, consistent defense of liberty. It is eye-opening to read the blatant anti-reason, collectivist arguments Hayek uses to defend liberty!

The Rat Cap said...


I'm glad you brought this up.

My post should be viewed as aimed more at people on the right rather than at liberals. In other words, for the very reasons you cite, it is critical to ground capitalism in epistemology and ethics. The religious conservative or the agnostic libertarian (e.g. Hayek) is continually frustrated by their inability to stop the political drift leftward. They are befuddled that generations of economic arguments debunking Marxism and Keynesianism seem to have gotten us nowhere. Although I specifically address the liberal side, it was more to hilight the need to view the battle as one of more fundamental ideas rather than just simple economics or politics. One can not start with "liberty" as an axiom and hope to prevail, just as one can not start with "God likes freedom" and hope to prevail either.

Jeffrey Perren said...

"a broken system in Washington that he says allows the minority party to rule with impunity"

I guess that's why the Stimulus Bill and ObamaCare - and very soon, the Dodd Fin-Reg debacle - didn't pass.

"later mushrooming into billions, into the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute and countless offshoots in Washington and elsewhere"

Right. Of course, CAP, the Ford Foundation, Soros' Open Project, and many more are all penniless. How sad that so-called liberals have no money at their disposal like the evil infinitely deep-pocketed conservatives.

Whew, talk about immune to facts.

But your more basic point is a good one. After generations of absorbing Hegel through Dewey and his followers, modern left-wing intellectuals are simply unable to think (in the sense of logically stress-testing their ideas against evidence).

As to their perpetual complaints about 'progress' being slowed, I never heard it put better than one commenter who mockingly wrote:

"Waa! Waa! You're not turning the country into a communist hellhole fast enough! Waa! Waa!"

The Rat Cap said...


Awesome comments! thanks