Are You a Good "Liberal," or a Nasty Evil "Progressive"?

Our politics are so bitter and divisive. But Charles Murray, the conservative eugenicist who believes that "a lot of poor people are born lazy," has a solution he believes can enhance our culture's political amity: Ostracize evil "progressives" and separate them out from acceptable "liberals."

Murray makes his case in a forum where it is certain to be taken seriously by the serious left—the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. First, understand that what he means by acceptable liberals is that class of men with whom he can share stately cocktail conversation:

A few weeks ago, I was thrown into a situation where I shared drinks and dinner with two men who have held high positions in Democratic administrations. Both men are lifelong liberals. There's nothing "moderate" about their liberalism. But as the pleasant evening wore on (we knew that there was no point in trying to change anyone's opinion on anything), I was struck by how little their politics have to do with other elements of the left.

Their liberalism has nothing in common with the political mind-set that wants right-of-center speakers kept off college campuses, rationalizes the forced resignation of a CEO who opposes gay marriage, or thinks George F. Will should be fired for writing a column disagreeable to that mind-set. It has nothing to do with executive orders unilaterally disregarding large chunks of legislation signed into law or with using the IRS as a political weapon. My companions are on a different political plane from those on the left with that outlook—the progressive mind-set.

This is a true statement: When you're the type of liberal whose Washington-based cocktail lifestyle goes unmolested by political, cultural and social vicissitudes, it's less hard to ignore those vicissitudes.

Be more like Don Draper, liberals! And not like those timid progressive souls whose mindset "produces the shutdown of debate and growing intolerance that we are witnessing in today's America," Murray writes. "If you want substantiation for what I'm saying, read Jonah Goldberg's 2008 book 'Liberal Fascism.'"

Yes, progressives are all about shutdowns and intolerance.

Where are you heading with all this, Chuck?

...since libertarians aren't ever going to be able to retrieve its original meaning, we should start using "liberal" to designate the good guys on the left, reserving "progressive" for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state...

Ah, I see. A sort of good guys vs. bad guys scheme. With us or against us, aywot?

Making a clear distinction between liberals and progressives will help break down a Manichaean view of politics that afflicts the nation. Too many of us see those on the other side as not just misguided but evil. The solution is not a generalized "Can't we all just get along" non-judgmentalism. Some political differences are too great for that.

Set aside for a moment the sheer elegance of the doublethink involved in a passage that advocates the categorization of other people as "good" or "evil" leftists in order to "break down" Manichaeanism. Forget the stunning vapidity of a scholar attempting to rub out "a Manichaean view of politics" with a solvent whose main ingredient is the conviction that "some political differences are too great" for "non-judgmentalism."

Murray is right in one sense: Progressivism is antithetical to the sort of libertarianism he champions. After decades of shitty wars, shitty political debates, shitty economics, and a government broken by partisan politicking, libertarianism's cachet is hotter than ever before, and progressivism is on the outs. People are burned out on government solutions. They're burned out on solutions, period, and they just want to be left the hell alone.

It doesn't help that modern progressives, captured as they are by partisan political machinations, don't articulate their philosophical vision very well. At least, not as simply as libertarians do—and let's face it, a political philosophy has to be fairly simple for mouthbreathers like Rand Paul to advocate it.

But though Murray gets the oppositional forces right, he chooses wrong. Libertarianism is an unsophisticated, pretentious, ponderous, privileged dead end of governance. We need progressivism more than ever.

What Murray, in fact, takes issue with as "progressivism" is a notion of politics and philosophy that privileges the good over the right—that takes rights not as absolutes, but as values that are good insofar as they're good for something. This is actually the way most of us reason: We believe in free speech, but not to shout "fire" in a crowded theater or distribute pornographic pictures of underage children. Those forms of speech aren't good for anything, we generally agree—in fact, we've agreed as a culture that they represent a harm.

And so on with other rights. We generally believe in a right to self-defense, but can actually argue over whether that includes the right to carry guns openly or concealed—and if so, what training or types of weapons are acceptable. We generally believe in a woman's right to choose her womb's destiny—but can agree that keeping abortion rare is a public good, and worth debating as a policy aim. We generally believe that wealth inequity is a problem to be addressed, and that everyone should have a baseline ability to not starve or go homeless or illiterate, but we can negotiate just how far our society goes, and what it sacrifices, to improve the lot of the worst-off.

Progressivism, in other words, in concerned with moral consequences and outcomes of the things people do, and has an interest in legislating to that end. It admits of shades of gray. It negotiates. But it's sanguine and unwavering about the problems it addresses.

Libertarianism shuts that down. It views rights as absolute, a priori, and can tolerate no dilution or exception to those rights. Hence, it can deny that there's even a problem with outcomes.

In this worldview, free speech is absolute... and as a result, a family of five or six can impose its religious opinions on the thousands of workers that make the family business profitable—even if the family's religious convictions are completely and willfully ignorant of scientific facts, much less workers' needs. Property rights are absolute... and as a result, even a Republican-devised compromise measure to keep the air relatively clean, like cap-and-trade, is a socialist constraint of trade and capital. Gun rights are absolute... and so you see, we can't do mental-health checks, or close private-sales loopholes, or mandate licenses, because those measures would erode individual liberty, which is a far greater harm than any number of deaths, so now shut up about it, or else you'll get shot in the face by an armed freedom-loving paranoiac who felt threatened by your incursion on freedom.

The absolutist rhetoric of rights is not a cornerstone of discourse. It's a wrecking ball. It admits of no shades, no difficult cases that can't be solved by recourse to the "me"—and a particular "me" at that, one that old white male Harvardians like Murray can wrap their heads around. He has plenty of empathy—for people who make sense to him. You know, people just like him.

The absolutist rhetoric of rights that Murray advocates represents a capricious rightward shift from Adam Smith liberalism, which was grounded in the good—a rising tide floats everyone's boats! The invisible hand helps everyone! Capitalism helps fix poverty!—to something darker: Ayn Rand libertarianism, which is grounded in rights—it's mine! I don't care if it's better or worse for you, it's right that I should keep it! Fuck you!—and sees questions of the good as dangerous to the "me."

So, yes: Make your choice. Be a "good liberal" for Charlie, be the me-est me you can be, and maybe—if you're enough like him—he'll tip a Georgetown drink your way. Or be a nasty progressive who attempts to think oneself into other people's plights. There will be no cocktails in it, and you'll be called a fascist by strange sportcoated creatures. But at least you won't ever consider "a lot of poor people are born lazy" to be a valid solution to any problem.

[Photo credit: Christine Langer-Pueschel/Shutterstock]