Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Liberalism and Pluralism

Here's an edited post from 2/3/10 about the anti-pluralist streak in today's liberalism which, if anything, has grown even more prominent in the last year:

Yesterday, Obama attracted my attention by casually citing his rationality—in this case, his readiness to search for the most efficient means to realize his liberal ends—as evidence that he’s no ideologue. You couldn’t miss the dig at his Republican interlocutors: too bad, he implied, that he had to spend so much of his first year in office contending with their subordination of rationality to crass partisanship. Today I want to suggest that this was no idiosyncrasy on Obama’s part. It was the expression of a powerful ideological reflex that he acquired in the company of liberals.

Consider the platitude that politics is a subject as to which reasonable people can, and inevitably will, disagree. That’s a straightforward consequence of the fact that we inhabit a culture rich enough to sustain a plurality of powerful ethical, religious and ideological traditions having inconsistent implications. The idea of “reasonable political disagreement” only makes sense on the assumption that my reasons for upholding a political position can count as good reasons for me even while you reasonably reject them.

Acknowledging that reasonable disagreement is ubiquitous doesn’t make you a relativist. Believing that you’re right on a political matter entails believing that people who hold a contrary position are wrong. But that needn’t keep you from believing that inconsistent positions can be rationally held by different people coming from different cultural places. That belief helps us govern ourselves despite our differences by encouraging us to uphold decision-making procedures that generate authoritative public decisions by showing a decent respect for the opinions of fellow citizens.

Obama’s casual remark was just another example of the readiness of liberals to abandon this pluralistic paradigm. Here are three other examples that come readily to mind:

1. Liberals used to argue that their agenda is supported by better reasons than their opponents’ agenda. Now even people recognized as elder statesmen across the liberal community write books arguing that their political opponents have renounced reason itself. See, e.g., Robert Reich’s Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle For America (2004) and Al Gore’s The Assault On Reason (2007).

2. Liberals used to uphold civil rights by arguing that they’re dictated by the best available interpretation of our shared moral and constitutional values. Now David Boies and Ted Olson are mounting a court case (on which I commented here) to uphold the proposition that opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t just morally and constitutionally wrong, it isn’t even rationally related to any legitimate state objective under the hitherto lenient standards of constitutional jurisprudence.

3. Liberals have a proud history of bringing sound science to bear on public policy.  They see themselves as continuing that tradition when they invoke the consensus about anthropocentric climate-change among climate scientists in support of international environmental agreements like the Kyoto Treaty or public policies like Cap-and-Trade.  Yet, generally speaking, reasonable lay people defer to scieintific expertise in large part because they presume that scientists inhabit professional communities that hold their feet to the fire by institutionalizing relentless intra-community intellectual competition.   Now, in the face of voluminous evidence that the community of climate scientists lacks this crucial feature, liberals still dismiss any expression of skepticism about the "scientific consensus" respecting climate change, or any recognition that climate-change predictions need to be made under conditions of extraordinary scientific uncertainty, as a rejection of science itself.

I’m not interested in assessing the validity of these particular arguments, or in denying that arguments of this form can be valid (although anyone making them has to bear the heavy burden of showing that his opponents’ views admit of no intellectually respectable interpretation). My point is that, whether they’re right or wrong, they exact a foreseeable political cost.

Telling your opponents that their heartfelt preferences are beneath rational consideration, and therefore beneath public consideration in a well-ordered polity, is an expression of contempt likely to turn potential allies into implacable enemies. So why are liberals who make a practice of it utterly unprepared for the indignant reactions they encounter at, say, Town Hall meetings or Massachusetts special elections?

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