Reflections on a Friend’s Shift from Libertarianism to Progressivism

A while back I lamented a trend in conventional political commentary — that as a general rule, conservatives tend toward syllogistic argumentation whereas progressives more often rely on emotive claims and ad hominem attacks.

A recent discussion with my friend Alaric proved most enlightening about why rhetorical strategy varies by ideology and how one’s political leanings can directly affect a person’s system of critical reasoning — as evidenced by his own significant ideological evolution.

But to get to that point, we must start a dozen years ago, when I joined the Herald as a new staff columnist and Rick was the paper’s Web editor. Before running the online desk, he ran the opinion desk, and he continued to contribute occasional opinion pieces even after shifting responsibilities. So I got to meet him through weekly opinion-staff meetings.

In those days, he was a fairly conventional libertarian, obsessing about negative liberty and chanting the “no force or fraud” mantra like a political Om. For example, he took the position in one of our point/counterpoint column pairings in favor of the legalization of prostitution because the transaction — including, as it does, solicitation and consent — doesn’t entail force/fraud/coercion. My counter was that poor women may well be effectively coerced by their pimps or by the consequences of their financial condition, but such was the dogmatism of his libertarian leanings that he dismissed that point by saying that the immediate transaction of solicitation+purchase+sex didn’t involve meaningful coercion by the john, so … nyeh nyeh. (I might be misremembering this slightly.)

Over the years we maintained our friendship; indeed, we still work together, but now for a hospital instead of a newspaper.

Starting around 2007-2008, I started to see a bit of an ideological shift from my dear old walking caricature of a libertarian. He began to eschew the concept of negative liberty. I understand he ended up as an Obama voter. Our recent political debates became unusually contentious and he is, at this point, probably firmly enmeshed in the progressive left.

So last week I invited him to Grand River Cigar for a tasty dram of Port Charlotte 7 and a Partagas 1845 to discuss (not debate) the nature of his ideological move. The two-hour session proved enlightening. Some conclusions worth highlighting:

  • Part of his move includes a religious component — his ongoing private study of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism has emboldened him to reject arguments rooted in religious premises and to feel safe enough to stand up for atheist perspectives instead of apologizing for them or paying milquetoast obeisance to religion’s asserted right of privileged access to the public square.
  • His disillusionment with the dogmatic center/right started where mine did — the pre-surge collapse in Iraq coupled with GWB’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the silliness about Harriet Miers for SCOTUS.
  • His experience as a husband and as someone who budgets carefully has engendered a not-insubstantial cynicism about corporations and wealth. I won’t say he’s at the point of resentment but it’s clear that he’s more open to redistributivist policies than once he was and his trust in the integrity of large corporations isn’t very high.
  • And why is he more tolerant of radical egalitarianism? Because his big fear is social instability akin to the French riots a few years ago or the current breakdown in Greece, and his solution to this is to ensure that everyone has decent-paying jobs and a generous social welfare net. The theory is to remove the socioeconomic kindling today to avoid a broader conflagration down the road. The prospect of a violent class war genuinely scares him — I think because mass riots and social breakdown threatens the material safety he worked hard to achieve, and he’s developed a risk-averse, safety-oriented sensibility as a way of protecting his current position. (He is an avid reader of social history, so I wonder if there’s a latent influence here from his readings about the establishment of community regimes?)
  • As such, he no longer believes that negative liberty is sufficient. As best I understand it, I think he believes the deck is stacked against normal people by corporations and unresponsive government such that negative liberty, in itself, is a dead letter: Nice in principle, meaningless in execution. Since power, wealth and prestige are (so it’s claimed) a function of prior access to power, wealth and prestige, an ordinary person has little chance of substantial material success on his own right and by his own effort (c.f., Obama, B., “you didn’t build that”). Thus, a system that provides for a base level of economic security for all citizens — funded by the wealthy — addresses the disparity in opportunity between top and bottom and at least ensures that the bottom has enough to mitigate the risk of social instability.
  • Concurrently, his shift from coldly syllogistic reasoning to something more emotive pervades his thinking on all levels. He said, for example, that he now understands why “the personal is the political” and tends to agree. The human condition ought to trump all other considerations, so any argument that leads us away from giving everyone the resources they need to live happy and fulfilled lives may be rejected prima facie because the conclusion — no matter how logical — fails to respect the dignity of individual persons and their alleged right to a material safety net that preempts violent social disorder.
  • Because the political and the personal are so intertwined, the threshold for what constitutes an ad hominem shifts — arguments and arguers who don’t support the basic point about positive economic entitlements or communitarian sibboleths simply don’t enjoy the same right to be treated respectfully because their conclusions are, a priori, both wrong and immoral.
  • He is not a Kool-Aid drinker of the Left; he seems aware that his new ideological abode has foundations as shaky as the one he left, but nevertheless he seems more temperamentally comfortable in his new home. He admits that future experiences may well prompt additional movement and doesn’t seem to foreclose the chance that could well come back to conservatism later in life.

A few generalized observations:

  1. There’s a serious ethical problem at the heart of the Left’s willingness to dismiss or even demean opponents who don’t share their underlying sociopolitical conclusions. There’s very much a “purge the kulaks” sentiment in some quarters of the progressive movement, such that conservatives or center-left liberals who don’t toe the line aren’t merely wrong but morally defective. And thus not worthy of serious consideration or even civil treatment. The way that progressives treat people who disagree on global warming provides an illustrative case in point: If you disagree with the alleged consensus position, then you are a “denier” who should be shunned and not even allowed to articulate a contrary opinion or present divergent evidence.
  2. The growing divide between Left and Right feels less and less like policy disputes and more and more like irreconcilable worldview divergence. The trend toward shifting modes of discourse (emotive vs. syllogistic privilege in argumentation, for example) means that it’ll be harder to bridge the partisan divide for a middle-ground solution. The party that does the best job of capturing the independents, then, will probably do best at the ballot box. Unfortunately, both parties are polarizing and the activist wing on both sides is sufficiently loony that most clear-thinking folks will come to disdain politics even more than they currently do.
  3. The economic fault line of egalitarianism keeps rearing its head. Conservatives generally favor equality of access to opportunity; progressives generally favor equality of result even if that means redistributing from the successful to the unsuccessful. Basic ideas like what “fairness” means will keep throwing sand in the gears of government.
  4. Never underestimate the fear of instability or risk. The “bread and circuses” approach to buying off the poor to keep them compliant remains a core part of progressive ideology, even if they don’t see it those terms.

Watching Rick’s ongoing ideological shift provides some insight into why people shift their entire philosophical grounding. I’m glad he’s my friend and I appreciate the chance to talk about these issues with him.

The conclusions, though, about what brings people to the Left or to the Right do serve as giant signal fires about the possible social discord that lies ahead.

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