Reason.tv recently interviewed some folks at the Democratic National Convention, aiming to draw out inconsistencies in the political left’s oft-pronounced “pro-choice” stance.
Watch it here:
Now, if one’s overarching philosophy and political ideology boils down to choice, choice, and more choice—as it certainly does for many of the folks at Reason.tv—being “pro-choice” on abortion and “anti-choice” on light bulbs is a glaring inconsistency. Yet I would hope that the the rest of us are working from different premises and aligning our beliefs to different ultimate standards. Life is, as they say, about so much more.
So what gives?
Why do many progressives believe women should have the “freedom” to kill their own children and homosexuals should have the power to redefine natural institutions, but they don’t believe Plump Little Jimmy should be able to choose between a 16 oz. or 32 oz. soft drink, or Catholic Lucy should be able to choose between a private school and a public one?
Why do many conservatives believe in free choice in education and healthcare, but they’re not so loosey-goosey on opening the flood-gates on infanticide, “family” redefinition, or drug legalization?
There are plenty of ways to explain the disconnect, but one fundamental conflict, as Thomas Sowell thoroughly illuminates in his book, A Conflict of Visions: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, boils down to how we view the nature of man—“not simply his existing practices,” Sowell writes, “but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.” Here, we find that as a matter of discerning worldviews, it’s far less helpful to talk about “choice” than it is to talk about our underlying philosophies of life. Here, we find the beginnings of the premises from which we should launch our critiques of any diverging “inconsistencies.”
How do we view the human person? Is he imperfect yet capable of redemption, or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, is he “born free” but “everywhere in chains”?
How do we view the project of improving mankind? Is it a process of constraining our basest passions and relying on Burkean “prudence,” or must we blindly trust in and submit to what William Godwin called “the magnanimous sentiment of our natures”?
Through what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision (what we might label today as “progressive”), the human person is a Rousseauean blossom, whose (seeming) faults are ultimately tied to imperfections in the systems that surround him rather than fundamental, universal imperfections in the human person himself. Knowing the “right path” and the “right thing to do” is the easy part. It’s overcoming all those pesky institutions that’s tricky (e.g. “Marxism works. It just hasn’t been implemented properly.”). Perfectibility is achievable (the rise of the oceans will begin to slow) if only the right captains are at the helm. Once they’re there, we need only follow the guidance of the Enlightened—buy the “good” light bulbs, drive the “good” car, go to the “good” school—and we shall further the “magnanimous sentiment of our natures” that has thus far been prohibited by systemic oppression. Fundamental to this view, Sowell writes, “is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.”
For the unconstrained, it’s not about trade-offs or complicated analyses of history, political theory, moral philosophy and the nature of man himself. It’s about “solutions” (“Forward!”). The “good” is a given, and thus, once the wise old sages have subsequently “freed” our benevolent human nature toward collective salvation, everything the State hasn’t already delivered is ours for the taking. Follow the leader, build the tower, and give way to the “general will,” but outside of the carefully constructed Collective Mission, what you do and who you destroy is as noble as your properly pampered noble-savage self.
Now, like most dichotomies, not everyone fits neatly into place—Sowell certainly doesn’t claim as much, pointing specifically to Marx—and even those who fit the category can launch from this framework in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. But one need only look at the DNC, where the freedom to butcher “inconvenient” infants gets roaring applause and unrealistic promises of “free” college, “free” doctor visits, and “free” “love” draw tears of hope, to see that a distorted view of basic human needs and moral obligations soon leads to a liberal, me-centered individualism of personal convenience rather than a constrained, conservative individualism of virtue and community-oriented responsibility.
Through the constrained vision (what we might label today as “conservative” or even, sometimes, “libertarian”—you’re more conservative than you think!), certain moral truths are reachable and/or readily self-evident, but getting humans to accept these truths and/or act from them is much more complicated than appointing the right leaders and implementing the right grandiose plans. Humans are imperfect, and outside of a strong and enduring moral order, man tends toward debasement, not goodness. “For amelioration of these evils and the promotion of progress,” writes Sowell, the constrained vision relies on “systemic characteristics of certain social processes such as moral traditions, the marketplace, or families.” Markets are justified, then, primarily because they take into account man’s inherent moral and social challenges, “institutions” aside, seeking to harness his best and constrain his worst. Any systems we construct must be geared toward constraining and channeling our natures, not blindly saying “go!” with a few collectivist qualifiers. Through this vision, allowing for free choice is preferred on education and Happy Meals not necessarily because “it’s my business and my body!” but because, through the proper constraints (e.g. don’t kill your neighbor…or your offspring), it falls within a moral and productive way of ordering human affairs and, in the end, strengthening the moral and social fabric.
“Liberty,” as understood through this lens, means much more than “do whatever you want,” and is dependent on a virtuous society, not a blindly “pro-choice” one. Liberty is not so much defined by whether we can choose our own light bulbs, hamburgers, or abortions, as by whether we are free in the truest, fullest sense.
Promoting liberty, then, is more fundamentally about promoting truth and human goodness. We won’t get there by taxing soda and forcing other people to spend their money on our own pet causes and purchases, but we also won’t get there by allowing human life to be degraded, perverted, and destroyed for the sake of some pagan god to individual autonomy. Pursuing “choice” for the sake of “choice,” or “choice” for the sake of our own self-promotion will soon lead to the pursuit of self-destruction.
The argument, then, is really about life and then liberty—about life and then the “pursuit of happiness.” For without understanding the nature of man himself and those conditions that elevate the human spirit rather than unleash him as-is, we’ll get the same old stale, creepy arguments we see today, finding ourselves nit-picking over “getting consistent” on vacuuming up a helpless infants and picking our own light bulbs rather than defining what is good and what is evil.