Liberal Principles

LIBERAL PRINCIPLES….What do liberals stand for? If you can stand a bit more navel gazing about this, Matt Yglesias makes the following comment today:

The Prospect ran a contest a little while back asking readers to submit ideas for a liberal counter to the conservative pitch of “low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military.” We got a few good ones, but the results were pretty bad….The problem was that people didn’t even seem to understand the right kind of thing to be doing. What makes the conservative pitch work is that while it’s general enough to be broadly appealing, it’s specific enough that liberals will have to reject it. The submissions we got tended to either operate at an overly-broad level (“we’re for good things happening and against bad ones”) or else to just be policy laundry-lists.

I think this is basically correct. Laundry lists don’t inspire anyone, and slogans are just….slogans. As Matt points out, “we’re for the middle class” is useless as a guiding principle since everyone says they’re for the middle class.

I don’t have any kind of comprehensive answer to this problem of modern liberalism, but I’d like to toss out a few thoughts. The first one is this: conservatives have done a great job of building intellectual superstructures that support their actual policy goals. These superstructures all share two features: (a) they are intuitively appealing to ordinary people and (b) they very definitely aren’t ideas shared by liberals.

Supply side economics is a good example of this. Basically, conservatives have made the case that low taxes on capital spur economic growth and therefore benefit everyone. This is both intuitively believable and personally appealing, since everyone likes low taxes. Whether it’s correct or not is beside the point. What matters is that it’s (a) understandable and (b) can act as a backstop for a whole raft of specific tax cutting measures favored by conservatives.

There are other examples, of course. In the judicial realm, originalism is an intellectual backstop for conservative social policies. “Small government” is the backstop for a wide range of regulatory policies favoring corporate interests.

Note that these three things clearly differentiate conservatives from liberals. Liberals wouldn’t even claim to support supply side economics, originalism, or small government.

So what do liberals need to fight back? Although no set of principles is going to cover every base, I’d argue that we need three or four backstops that underly a lot of the things we want to accomplish. But what?

Here’s an example: equal tax rates for all types of income. After all, it’s intuitively appealing that if wage earners pay a certain tax rate (which varies with income), people who get their incomes from capital gains, dividends, or inheritances should pay the same rate. That’s something that sounds fair to a lot of people, and once it’s accepted as a principle it can act as a backstop for a wide range of detailed tax policies.

On the corporate front, how about a fair shake for the working poor who want to unionize? Stronger unions ? especially in the service area ? would provide an automatic counterbalance to both a wide array of corporate abuses as well as our growing problem of income inequality, all without liberals being forced into either punitive taxation or ill-considered (and probably unpopular) regulatory schemes. What’s more, the case that low-paid workers should be allowed to unionize without threats and abuse from management will strike a lot of people as fair and reasonable.

These are just examples. I’m not trying to propose some kind of overarching liberal frame here, I’m just trying to point out that the right way to think about this stuff is to come up with appealing ideas that can be used as jumping off points for lots of other things. This takes some imagination, since you have to think hard about the direction your ideas can ultimately take once people internalize them, and it also takes time to successfully insert them into the public discourse ? most likely years, and quite possibly decades.

So toss out your ideas in comments if you have any. Just be sure to keep them appealing, wide ranging, and clearly unconservative.