Helen Pluckrose:

Some liberals, particularly classical liberals, can share some values with conservatives (and so also define themselves as conservatives), but their liberalism tends to emphasize the freedom of markets and individuals. As such, they often seek to minimize the state provision of such things as financial assistance for the unemployed, elderly and disabled and single-parent or poor families as well as being opposed to nationalized healthcare and schemes intended to increase the representation of underrepresented groups within profitable areas of work. This is because they believe this to limit freedom, autonomy and individual responsibility and be ultimately unproductive of social progress. They may also oppose attempts to strengthen gun control (in the US) and support home-schooling for these reasons. They are likely to support a smaller government, less government regulation on businesses, and consequently lower taxes.

Left-wing liberals typically disagree with them about this because we are motivated by values which are left-wing. Being liberal rather than socialist, we largely support the freedom of markets but there is also a strong focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society. For this reason, we also want some regulation in there to prevent exploitation of the poorest people with the fewest options. This focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society is a primary one and has historically been for the benefit of the working class but also, when warranted, for women and for racial and sexual minorities.

Sites like Areo and Quillete have been busy with an ongoing project to build a rhetorical border wall to protect their rationalist, proceduralist liberalism from the identitarian hordes of the postmodern left, and this is the latest brick to be added. I realize it’s just a blog post and not a policy paper, but still, even being charitable, you can already see some of the bromides and confusions that cause bystanders like me to be skeptical that “true” liberalism can ever be saved from tumbling downhill to a messy logical conclusion.

To read this, you might get the impression that at bottom there’s essentially an argument between compassionate liberal lefties who want to “support the vulnerable” in society and a sterner conservative wing who “oppose” welfare and regulation and want to push the poor and disabled out to sea on ice floes. In reality, as William Voegeli has written, even here, in the ruggedly individualist U.S.A., the regulatory state has done nothing but grow since it began. Assuming that they actually exist, any arguments between bleeding-hearts who merely insist that there should be a welfare state and the heartless who insist that there shouldn’t be one are entirely academic and moot. There is one, and it grows increasingly larger and more sclerotic regardless of which party is in power; whether it achieves its aims effectively and efficiently is a whole ‘nother argument. Many of the hyperventilating headlines you see about conservatives wanting to “slash” the safety net and “curb” entitlement spending are actually referring to the tendency of social spending to grow more slowly under Republican administrations. Not to go in reverse — just to grow more slowly. Even in the Reagan years, the Dark Ages as far as contemporary progressives are concerned, welfare state spending grew. As Voegeli notes, 1% growth for eight years may be much smaller than the left prefers, but it’s still a positive number. The real problem, he adds, is their inability and/or refusal to ever make an honest attempt to identify what “enough” might look like, or how we might recognize it if we ever achieve it. Looked at in this way, a dramatic confrontation between cruel robber barons and compassionate New Dealers becomes more like an inter-departmental bureaucratic squabble between policy wonks over who gets the corner office. Not exactly the stuff to quicken the pulse and get the adrenaline pumping, which is no doubt why we prefer to portray routine budget battles as life-or-death struggles between good and evil.

Then there’s that whole “equality of opportunity” issue (which, as Chidike Okeem has argued, is itself a utopian idea, even if it’s being claimed by those who consider themselves opposed to utopian leftists). Pluckrose puts it as clearly as I’ve ever seen it stated: “schemes intended to increase the representation of underrepresented groups within profitable areas of work” — i.e., we couldn’t care less how many sanitation workers are white men; we’re only interested in making the lucrative and prestigious fields more “diverse” in terms of superficial characteristics. Earlier, she mentions “equal opportunity in relation to removing any barriers that prevent certain groups in society from accessing all the opportunities it offers.” As with most abstractions, that sounds nice. The problem is that word, “groups,” which pops up in both sentences. It is, you might say, the banana peel at the top of the slippery slope. Once you start concerning yourself with “representation” in response to perceived injustice, you’re a sociopolitical feng shui practitioner, rearranging society’s demographic furniture to, like, free up the inequitable power flow and create some groovy multicultural vibes of social justice. Once you start framing justice in terms of aggregate totals and demographic generalizations instead of individuals, you’re implicitly accepting the logic of identity politics, no matter how many times you call your identitarian opponents the “regressive left.” Once you start tugging on the thread of “unearned” advantages, you end up unraveling the whole world, because there never was, nor will be, a state of perfect equality in which everyone had exactly the same opportunities as everyone else. There’s no sturdy, meaningful distinction between the “good” kind of identity politics, which merely thinks it would be cool ‘n’ empowering ‘n’ stuff if only there were more female Puerto Rican orthodontists, and the “bad” kind which sees such disparities as prima facie evidence of structural oppression. Freddie deBoer, in his usual combination of penetrating insight, astonishing naïveté, and honesty to the point of self-defeating tactlessness, came right out and said it in so many words: if you’re really that concerned with equality, you’re going to have to be against social and economic mobility. He was, again, clear-sighted and honest enough to admit that that would be fine with him, but I doubt many other liberal lefties will care to back him up, even if that means remaining mired in cognitive dissonance. If you move beyond “equality of opportunity” as a soothing phrase to nod along with, you find that what you’re really asking for is, as Thomas Sowell put it, equalized probabilities of achieving given results. You’ll then quickly realize that this is impossible due to everyone’s favorite buzzword, privilege. “Unearned” advantages can accrue to individuals through something as simple as growing up in a stable family where bedtime stories are read every night. There is no way to quantify, let alone fairly allocate, all the countless variables that make one person turn out more successful or contented than another, and there’s no way to compensate for those gaps by converting them into a cash equivalent and handing them to the disadvantaged. Stating this too baldly tends to get one classified as a conservative, which is why most progressives are content to settle for making vague rhetorical gestures in the direction of greater “equality” without adding much substance.

And that brings us to what Richard Hofstadter said, in regards to the essence of the New Deal, was “not a philosophy but a temperament.” Or, as the economist Robert Lekachman said, liberalism is more of an attitude than a program. It’s that vague, equivocating, finger-to-the-wind attitude that makes this type of liberalism seem so uninspiring, and that makes reading this growing genre of essays so unrewarding. It strikes me as a firm stand for unobjectionable values, a concern with optics more than substance, an interest in triangulating more than in clearly defining. Liberalism, in the last half-century or so of American politics, primarily defined itself in opposition to a caricature of conservatism. Like a permissive, “fun” parent, it left the rule-making and discipline-imposing to its conservative spouse while it granted indulgent favors to the kids. Now, those kids, rather than being appreciative for growing up in a more caring, non-judgmental environment, have turned into spoiled, angry little monsters, and as is often the ironic case, the parent to whom they show the most spite and ingratitude is the one they see as softer and weaker, the one who tries to occupy the middle ground, splitting the difference and pleasing no one as a result. I wish Pluckrose’s “liberal lefties” well in their battle to reassert authority over their mutant offspring, though I still suspect that there’s just something in the left-wing DNA that inevitably produces them, regardless of anyone’s good intentions. Besides, as someone who lived through the supposed bipartisan, neoliberal consensus following the Cold War, when history had supposedly ended and all ideological identitarianism had been laid to rest, I have little doubt that even if today’s intersectional left and their fraternal alt-right twins disappear, we’ll be right back to where we were in the ’80s and ’90s, bitterly fighting over the narcissism of small political differences. I remember Poppy Bush being called a fascist, ferchrissakes.