Liberalism 5.0, redux: How to make a liberal/libertarian synthesis work.

Jack Whelan and I are going back and forth.  We agree that Liberalism 5.0 has to happen, but we disagree on what it looks like.  He thinks “bigness” is here to stay; I think “bigness” is a crude 20th century relic, about as relevant to the future as the dinosaurs. 

These are fairly predictable biases, on both our parts, and is partly generational.  He’s a Boomer Humanist from Greater New England and the Left Coast (the dude headlines his blog with a money-quote from Niebuhr, so you gotta figure the humanism isn’t just an accident).  He trends Big-System Blue, and has political heroes to match.  Here at Chez Happycrow, we’re Gen-X, more flyover-country-ish, and our ideal looks a lot more like anarcho-capitalism and a human future in which we have governance free from coercion, though that being entirely contrary to history (pirates notwithstanding)  we incline towards pragmatism in real-life, as the conditions which will allow that probably will not prosper until we can open the high frontier.

That makes us two excellent people to try to find common political and future ground, as our built-in social biases happen to be reflected in big chunks of the population at large.  At an impersonal political remove, we’re opponents:  if Whelan and I can hammer out common ground, a lot of other people can, too.

Getting a grip on “Bigness” is absolutely critical for understanding what governance will look like.  Whelan is as dismissive of libertarians as we at Chez Happycrow are of the Blue Bureacracy (particularly given that we’ve been victimized by it more than once).  Fortunately, we and those who agree with each of our predilections don’t have to simply yammer at each other:  “Bigness” is a testable hypothesis, and Whelan is seriously on to something with another concept which comes into the mix:

Good order obtains where the principle of subsidiarity reigns.  ‘Subsidiarity’ is a fancy word that describes a common-sense American democratic ideal:  local communities should be trusted to organize and govern themselves. The people who make the most important decisions should be the people who are most directly affected by them.  Real life is lived by people in their local communities, not in central headquarters. Central authorities are there to support local communities, not to micromanage or impose their centralized agendas. They intervene only when egregious problems arise that the local community hasn’t the capability or the will to solve on its own.

There’s a lot to praise there.  The lower the level of government, the easier it is for any citizen to find out what it’s doing and to fix things going wrong.  Now, where Whelan predictably identifies this virtue with Blue-State hero Jerry Brown, what he tends to miss is that the libertarian types whose motives he impeaches also agree with this concept, and agree with it wholeheartedly — it tends to protect “right of exit” as a supplement to “voice” for the redressing of grievances.  As Lawrence Lessig has so aptly observed, the average citizen is a politically insignifcant speck who no longer retains any voice:  “Voice” has been entirely capture by the institutional corruption of the lobbying cycle.   We can therefore take a pragmatic approach to subsidiarity, by testing any given issue for the degree of government required.

For this to work for all sides, though, the bottom of the pyramid needs to be opened up by the degree to which an individual can meaningfully buy into the process.  After all, if he can’t buy in, he has priveleges rather than rights, and is not a citizen, but a subject.  So rather than starting with local government, it would look more like this:

  1. Perfect Human Dignity:  Citizen Governance rather than solutions imposed by government.
  2. Excellent Voice/Easy Exit Level:  City Government
  3. Easy Voice/ Good Exit Level:  County Government
  4. Moderate Voice/Exit Level: Regional (infra-state) Government
  5. Low Voice/Exit Level:  State Government
  6. Federal Government – Minimal individual Voice, Zero Exit except in extremis.

This requires compromises on both sides.  There are liberal/progressive voters who object to any individual action that is not regulated in the name of “social justice.”  In the same vein, there are libertarians who object to the Federal Government doing anything except minor interstate commercial regulation and National Defense.

That said, there is also a constituency for action here.  Liberal and libertarian voters alike, for instance, regard the War on Drugs with disdain:  it achieved little more than to ruin millions of lives.  There are also plenty of liberals who have no problems with the concept of non-coercive citizen governance — Homeowner’s Associations are a prime example of just that.

On the other hand, this requires libertarian types to compromise as well.  There are some issues where we cannot fix problems by establishing property rights (to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons), nor can we easily circumvent said issues with low-impact solutions based on Perfect-Voice-Governance.  Some problems are based on common usage and require actual coercion by government.  Air pollution is one example of this type.  The solution for that may be viable at the state level, but is just as likely to require Federal regulation.  Unless we’re basing our solutions on counter-factual fairy tales and unicorn farts (looking at how people ought to behave, as opposed to how they actually do), there’s little way to get around that.  Now, once we’re off this rock and provide our own air, that’s another story.  But in the mean time, it’s much more likely that we avoid poisoning the air via federal or state regulation than by common agreement.

We can test these hypotheses, and say “okay, how much government do I need, and what level,” and then answer that question not with pointless partisan invective, but simply by seeing what works.  I think that Bigness has had its day, and that Khan Academy and an organization of cooperating parent-educators can match much of what absolutely required a County school system when I was growing up.  Might that fail some students?  Sure.  Just as the Prussian Model of educational warehousing is failing literally tens of millions of students today, something that I have witnessed first-hand teaching in community college.  70% of community college effort goes to simply trying to get the students up to where they should have been their senior year of high school.  But maybe I’m wrong

Maybe the solution for better schools is mandatory government-paid daycare and a cradle-to-grave educational-credential program administered by the Department of Education.  We won’t know, until we agree to start by allowing those parents to do their thing and see if homeschooling really does live up to its recent (stellar) reputation.  Not every city will privatize its services well, and some bureacracies will do a fantastic job — trial and error will be part of the process.

This isn’t a panacea for politics: it won’t solve huge societal debates over social issues.  But it will tend to make politics more clean (it’s easier to have a transparent local government than a federal one), and also make it significantly more responsive to its citizens’ needs.  And those are things that liberals and libertarians can both agree on.

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  1. James

     /  February 14, 2013

    I believe any Liberalism 5.0 MUST be big, for the simple reason that power desires concentration. There’s a reason both Teams Red and Blue do their damndest (in real life) to make federal issues out of everything — power is never served by its dissolution, and those who fail to serve power are always supplanted by those who will.

    Worse: our lawmakers’ primary qualifications are law degrees and popularity contests — almost none of these people, even the few that one might posit have the public’s interest at heart, have any experience designing systems. Designing systems is HARD, and humans SUCK at it without serious study/practice. Rather than do the uphill slog of selling/implementing/maintaining a system that will work, those who also have power to serve will cut corners and give their contributors bennies instead.

    So not only do I think your opponent will be proved right, but I think 5.0 will not get off the ground — the best we can hope for, realistically, is friendlier default settings and more deft patronage requirements than today.

    • That suggests a continuation of the current libertarian paradigm of “exit in place” (homeschooling vs. gov’t schooling, for instance).

      I hope you’re wrong about 5.0, though. The alternative to liberalism 5.0 is political collapse, with Blue and Red effectively divorcing.

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