There is value in questioning basic assumptions just as there is value in adhering to a set of beliefs that have been tested by logical experiment and examination. The value of course is that these assumptions and beliefs are reflections of the truth. And the truth is valuable in its own right. In fact, it might be said that all value is based ultimately in the truth.
Over the past few months (as reflected in my blog entries) I have been engaged in a dialogue with a group of people who could be described as extreme right conservatives or simply anti-liberals. In my mind this dialogue has been a process of determining the truth as to whether liberal government is essentially good. For the purposes of this discussion I am using the term “liberal government” to mean a type of government that values and prioritizes the freedom and equal rights of its citizens before the law. When I first began this exploration I can honestly say that I never actually questioned whether a liberal government could possibly be a bad thing. Having grown up in the United States this was never presented to me as a viable option. For this reason, the exploration has been a useful and informative means of questioning this basic assumption for the purposes of determining its veracity.
As an aside, much of the dialogue with these extreme right wing individuals has been civil and respectful. Some of it has not. This is not surprising as people tend to take their politics personally. It has always been my strategy, however, to be respectful but if met with rudeness to respond in kind. Bullies (especially the kind who hide behind the anonymity of cyber space and echo chambers where their opinions are rarely challenged) should be stood up to. As one of the right wing commentators rightly stated:
…to properly deal with an actual “bully” one must at some point respond in kind and let him know – good and hard! – that he has met more than his match.
It has been my experience that people of this sort are either unaware of or do not want to admit their true motives while at the same time characterizing their intentions as intellectual, philosophical and virtuous. Accordingly, making them aware of their real motivations is also in service of the truth.
THE LEGAL PROCESS AS THE FINAL PRINCIPLE
With that out of the way I would like to turn to the main purpose of this blog post which is to explore a topic that came up in the comment section of my last blog post entitled “A Controvertible Case“. In the comment section one person argued that freedom cannot properly or logically be a priority of government because if a government acted to protect the freedom of one citizen it would necessarily work to detrimentally affect the freedom of another citizen. Specifically he argued:
My response was that “[t]he process is the final principle” by which I meant the legal process is the final principle. I would now like to take this opportunity to elaborate on what I mean by this assertion.
First of all, when we speak of a liberal government prioritizing the freedom of its citizens what we are really talking about is a government that restricts its own authority over its citizens. In this context the term freedom refers directly to limited government. A liberal government such as the government of the United States is limited by its constitution which defines its legal process and the structure in which the process takes place. This structure is comprised of various entities which check each other. Specifically there is a representative legislature to make laws, an independent executive branch to enforce the laws and an independent judiciary to interpret how those laws should be enforced. The government is further divided between the Federal and State governments. All these (and more) divisions act to check one particular part of the government from becoming so powerful so as to act outside the legal process. The federal constitution itself further limits the power of the federal legislature as to what types of laws it can or cannot make. It is through this legal process that freedom and equal rights are made priorities in our liberal system.
My extreme right wing colleagues often argue that governments are essentially “discriminating authorities”. That is, governments by their very nature act by discriminating in favor of one party’s interest over another. As such, to say a government can act to preserve the freedom of its citizens is a logical impossibility. However, I would argue that it is precisely because governments are discriminating authorities by nature that the liberal notion of freedom must entail a limited government. This is why the process (i.e., the legal structure or constitution) has to be the organizing principle. This is also why adherence to this organizing principle (i.e., the rule of law) is necessary for a legitimate, free and liberal society. This is also why a government without the rule of law such as North Korea, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Soviet Russia cannot properly be described as liberal regimes in this sense because under a dictatorial system without the rule of law there is no process in place to make sure the process is adhered to.
THE “PITCHFORKING BABIES” COUNTER-ARGUMENT
One extreme right wing individual argued that the legal process cannot be a final operating principle because any process might lead to immoral results. Specifically he argued:
So as long as the right process is followed, pitchforking babies is perfectly liberal.
Unless ‘the right process’ is defined as a process which produces good results. In which case the process isn’t actually the final principle at all.
By now you ought to be able to see the question-begging incoherence in your own attempts to defend liberalism.
It is said that Winston Churchill once stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Whether or not he actually said this I believe there is some truth to this statement. If the legal process (i.e., the embodiment of liberal freedom) is the operating principle then it is true that immoral results can result. However, the liberal legal process also allows for citizens to object to the pitchforking of babies through free speech and elections (for example). In non-liberal (i.e., top down) systems as North Korea, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Russia or whatever the non-liberal utopia exists in the mind of my extreme right wing colleagues, this cannot be done. In those systems of government a citizen must hope that his top down government happens to be one in which the pitch forking of babies is frowned upon. King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents comes to mind as a non-liberal government which pursued this policy. (MT 2:16-18). So unless my extreme right wing colleague can offer an alternative to a liberal government under which he could guarantee that babies will not be pitchforked I do not find his counter argument to be particularly persuasive.
LIBERALISM LEGITIMIZES AUTHORITY
On a related topic it has been said that liberalism is in essence a rejection of authority. I find this assertion to be questionable at best. On the contrary, I see liberalism to be very much in favor of legitimate authority. One might say that liberalism legitimizes authority in order to make it an authority that is acceptable. This is not to say that all legitimate governments need to be representative democracies or even liberal. They do, however, on some level need to be a government that is acceptable to the people under its jurisdiction. Liberal systems are designed to demonstrate their acceptability and legitimacy.
It comes down to a matter of trust. That is, do we trust the people who embody the process to act in a way that will create good outcomes? Whatever form a government takes (be it liberal or non-liberal) there is certainly no guarantee that good outcomes will result. As such, it seems reasonable to put a process in place whereby a variety of voices can have a say so as to moderate any potential immoral voices that might steer a polity towards immoral outcomes. This outlook of course assumes that the majority of voices will be moral and knowledgeable. It requires a free and credible press to inform these voices. It also requires a respect for the rule of law. That is, there must be a respect for the legitimate liberal process.