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I've given a lot of thought recently to the idea of what progressivism is. What makes me a progressive? Why do we liberals believe what we believe on every issue? What unites us on the issues? While I have no slam dunk answer, I have come to believe that my liberal values stem from a sense of responsibility, deeply engrained into my moral fiber, that commands me to serve others, as an obligatory responsibility. Further, I have come to realize that there are five forms of responsibility that inform my political beliefs and I will take the time now to explain them.

1) Individual Responsibility - Liberals believe that individuals must take responsibility for their personal actions, and therefore, government must protect their liberties and choices so that individuals will take responsibility for their actions. This means that government cannot regulate our sex lives, our reproductive decisions, or the ways in which we pursue our happiness.

2) Mutual Responsibility - Liberals believe that we have a responsibility to each other on the individual level. If my neighbor is sick, I have a duty to take care of him. If my friend's son is failing school, I have an obligation to lend some time to help him succeed. And if a total stranger in a foreign land is oppressed and desperately poor, I have a responsibility to send them money to help them live and to support my government's penalizing their tyrants to further the cause of liberty.

3) Social Responsibility - Liberals believe that we have a responsibility to society at large. When 46 million lack any health insurance and hundreds of millions more lack adequate health care, we must sacrifice some of our earnings in taxation so that society is healthy. If one third of young black men are in jail instead of college, we have a responsibility to promote educational opportunity, whether through affirmative action, universal preschool, college tuition assistance, improving teacher quality, and increasing tutoring funds.

4) Civic Responsibility - Liberals believe we have a responsibility to our country. We are deeply patriotic; we love our Constitution and will do anything to preserve, protect, and defend it against government abuses, infringement on liberties, and efforts to undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers. We also believe we have a responsibility to serve our country, whether it is in the form of community service, military service, or public service. We accept JFK's call to ask what we can do for our country and we want our leaders to mobilize us for a cause bigger than ourselves.

5) Global Responsibility - Liberals believe in the exceptional nature of our country, so much so that we are disappointed when we see our country ruined by Republican stupidity. Because we are exceptional, and the United States is uniquely powerful, we have an enormous responsibility to lead the world, spread liberty and freedom (but not with military force), alleviate poverty, protect the Earth from degradation, fight disease, prevent genocide, and unite the global community toward peace and prosperity.

I'm sure some of you will disagree with me, so please comment. But I think, for me at least, this formulation best represents how my liberalism came to be.


Rach C said...

Oh, Adam. Adam, Adam, Adam. This post is just calling my name, as I’m sure you well know, having accused me of being a Republican (oh, vilest of insults!) just days ago. This may be a post that I will regret sometime in my political future, but oh well.

I am proud to say that I am not a liberal. Unlike many of my fellow Democrats, I am not nostalgic for the Roosevelt days of tax-and-spend with little result. I am loathe to tell people how to live their lives or what to do with their money. Ultimately, history has shown us that our economy and our way of life are much better when the government sticks to making laws and spending only when absolutely necessary.

Americans are, by and large, good people. Most Americans already feel obligated to help their neighbors and fellow global citizens without being told what to do by the government. If my neighbor is drowning, of course I’m going to save him. I don’t need some morally uptight politician with a hero complex shouting in my ear, telling me to jump in. I jump in to the lake without being told to, because I have an innate sense of human decency that comes not from what the government declares is Correct, but from the positive influences of my parents and my community, who raised me to do the right thing without being told to. With 1 in 5 American children going to bed hungry each night, I don’t need to be told that America has a crisis. I know, and I resent liberals shouting from the rooftops proclaiming an Emergency of Epic Proportions that I already know about. Government does not know what is best for America; Americans know what is best for America. Local charities and help of neighbors should be employed in ending the hunger crisis, not bungled government bureaucracy.

I believe the government has an obligation to step in only when all other options are exhausted, because history shows us that the best type of government is that which governs least. Witness: many Depression-era work programs that were designed to be a temporary fix for the millions of unemployed that mind-bogglingly, still exist despite the fact that their purposes were exhausted decades ago.

I can already anticipation your next question, Adam, so let me cut you off at the pass. No, I will not change my registration to the Republican party, and I will tell you why.

The Democratic party wasn’t always the party of sit-up-straight-and-eat-your-peas-now-mister. There was a time when being a Democrat was about freedom. It was about personal liberty and upholding the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. I am appalled at the lengths too many members of our parties will go to tell Americans how to live their lives.

I’ll give you an example in the ongoing conflict over the tobacco industry. Tobacco farmers have a long and proud history in this country, particularly in my home state of Maryland elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic and in the south. Yet there are many Democrats who would be more than happy to make sure that these farmers (many of whom are fourth, fifth generation tobacco farmers) lose their livelihoods by taxing their product into extinction.

I dare you to find me one person in this country who doesn’t know that smoking kills. Decades after the surgeon general warned America that tobacco was a product that causes cancer and a host of other health problems, Democrats still seemed convinced that Americans are idiots. Their argument seems to follow as such: “Egads! Surely that man must realize that smoking kills! …Well, it’s impossible that he would have examined the health risks associated with smoking and made a decision that is his right as a freethinking human being capable of logic and rational thought and still decided to light that cigarette up. This is a situation just calling for government intervention! I know, let’s tax the cigarettes even more! Ooh, and let’s add even bigger warning labels on each pack until the box of Marlboros is nothing but a giant picture of a blackened, tumorous lung! Maybe then that man will realize that smoking is bad for him!”

Liberals seem to think it’s their business to tell people how to live their lives. The principle of individual responsibility that you outline, Adam, is a road that goes both ways. I believe that every American should be free to live their lives with as little government intervention as possible. If the smoker wants to kill himself with a disgusting, nasty habit, well then, that’s his prerogative as an American. I fear that it is not much longer until liberals will be insisting on mandatory workouts for all Americans and taxing quarter pounders with cheese into extinction.

When our founders, in their infinite wisdom, crafted a Declaration of Independence that outlined the principles of liberty and a Constitution that preserved those principles by minimizing the role of the federal government, they intended to preserve every last iota of freedom possible in the wake of an interfering and tyrannical regime. Government is not intended to be a savior and a benefactor, but rather an institution that seeks to impose law and order on a society that is otherwise anarchical. What government is not is the world’s largest charity organization slash health expert slash teacher.

Now, before you accuse me of hating poor people or black people or immigrants or whatever the favorite insult of liberals is this week, a disclaimer: I do believe in a government safety net. But this is an option that should always be a last resort. We are a nation of 275 million people, give or take, and that is a number far too large for one centralized government in Washington to govern. Many issues, such as education and welfare programs, are best left up to the states. Certain minimum levels of government intervention are permissible, yes, such as a national minimum wage, but ultimately those laws are gestures, since the economic and social situations of every region of this country varies from state to state. $5.15 an hour might cut it in Mississippi, yes, but in Massachusetts that is not nearly enough to live on, which is why Massachusetts has the right to set an even higher minimum wage.

Interventionism abroad has its follies as well. Sending our troops abroad to impose our way of life on foreign societies is a dangerous endeavor, as our bloody mess in Iraq indicates. The problem with the liberal philosophy is that it seems too vague, or alternatively, too selective, to offer a comprehensive plan for America’s role as world leader. America is the world’s only superpower, and I agree that we have certain obligations to the world as a result of that, but what are they, exactly? Foreign aid makes up a dismally small percentage of our budget, but increases alone are not the answer. Too often, money intended for humanitarian aid abroad in the form of food donations and healthcare is mismanaged, either being micromanaged (see: the global gag rule, a favorite of conservatives—do we have any business regulating what a doctor says to her patient half a world away), or worse, it never ends up in the hands of the people that need it at all, instead going to buy more guns and bombs for corrupt leaders.

As for the principle of social responsibility… Well, this goes back to what I said earlier about Americans knowing what’s best for each other, not the government. I find the very idea of affirmative action to be insulting. It implies that people of a certain race or background need a helping hand up, just because of the color of their skin. Moreover, policies of affirmative action leave too many people wondering if a person has achieved their success because of ability and intelligence, or merely because of their race or gender. The government often has a policy of promoting women over men because of our underrepresentation in many careers and fields. I find the very idea offensive; I want to get where I am not because of my gender, but rather I want to be rewarded for my competence. I want to know that when I achieve success, I did it on my own. I don’t need any of your condescension, thanks, nor do many other supposedly “disenfranchised” communities. The key to helping communities that have been historically mistreated and discriminated against lies not in offering special help on the basis of what they are, but rather standing back and letting nature take its course. The government should ensure an equal playing field, but nothing more. In fact, affirmative action does nothing but undermine the principle of equality.

I applaud your effort, Adam, in finally giving liberalism a coherent vision. But I don’t agree that these five principles are necessarily ones we, as Democrats and freedom-loving patriots should follow. I think too often these principles stray into the territory of telling people to do what’s good for them, whether they like it or not. I am a libertarian Democrat, and proud to say so. I believe in freedom—whether it be control over your own body or over who you marry, but also in how you spend your money.