The Fantasy of Neutral Corners

I’ve often wondered how freedom-loving people hold freedom-destroying ideas. Those familiar with my commentaries know I hold progressivism in disdain, both kinds of progressivism – the liberal left kind and the libertarian right kind. As long as I can remember in my profession I have tried to explain the problems with progressivism and how they get freedom all wrong. Perhaps the best explanation I’ve read in a long time comes from a new book titled, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Surprisingly, the author, Michael Sandel, is a Harvard political science professor – see, there’s hope yet.

Sandel explains that to understand progressivism you have to understand its “assumptions about citizenship and freedom that inform our public life.” He calls that a “public philosophy.”

In a nutshell, he says, to rightly understand progressive political theory, you must understand progressives believe “that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse.” And that, “Since people disagree about the best way to live, government should not affirm in law any particular vision of the good life. Instead it should provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends.”

In the case of libertarians, these progressives believe in a dream world where everyone can retreat to a neutral corner – when you disagree with someone, go to your neutral corner and leave each other alone. All progressives “assume that freedom consists [solely] in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends.”

By the way, the opposite of this progressive political theory is what Sandel calls a “republican” or conservative political theory, that is, liberty “depends on sharing in self-government.” He writes, “It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community.” But to share in self-rule “requires that citizens possess, or come to acquire certain qualities of character, or civic virtues.” Of course, “this means that republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse. The republican conception of freedom…requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires.”

By contrast, he writes, “the liberal vision of freedom lacks the civic resources to sustain self-government.” Put simply, a philosophy of selfishness cannot sustain freedom. Progressive political theory does not see “political life as concerned with the highest human ends or with the moral excellence of its citizens.” Rather, it “insists on tolerance, fair procedures, and respect for individual rights.” But that theory raises a huge dilemma. “If [progressive] ideals cannot be defended in the name of the highest human good, then in what does their moral basis consist?”

That’s no small question. Unlike conservatives who find a higher good in the ends we choose, progressives find it in the capacity to choose. Is it any wonder that progressives, especially libertarians, support same-sex marriage and legalized drugs? For them it’s all a matter of choice. Whereas conservatives value choice but also wonder about the consequences of what people choose and how those consequences affect freedom.

Progressives see freedom as the choice. Conservatives see freedom as what’s chosen. Sandel points to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a prime example of these differences. It also explains the near universal disdain by the progressive right of Abraham Lincoln. “Since people were bound to disagree about the morality of slavery, Douglas argued, national policy should be neutral on that question.” Lincoln argued that political neutrality on slavery could only depend on it not being a moral evil. He said, “Any man can advocate political neutrality ‘who does not see anything wrong in slavery’…” Lincoln concluded his debates with Douglas on a powerful question, “Is it not a false statesmanship that undertakes to build up a system of policy upon the basis of caring nothing about the very thing that every body does care the most about?”

Whether slavery or abortion or legalized marijuana or same-sex marriage, as Sandel writes, “The [progressive’s] effort to banish moral and religious arguments from the public realm for the sake of political agreement may end by impoverishing political discourse and eroding the moral and civic resources necessary to self-government.”




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