Progressivism, conservatism, and the nature of rights

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Image courtesy of Keith Allison and Wikimedia Commons

According to conservative political commentator, George Will, we who are progressives hold a political philosophy that is contrary to the founding principles of the United States. In his view, expressed in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, our nation is supposed to have a limited government whose only job is to protect the rights of individual citizens. Everything else is a deviation away from this ideal that creates a condition of dependency that builds on itself, requiring deficit spending to sustain this largesse.

Despite describing himself as an “amiable atheist,” Will sticks with the belief of the founders of our nation that each person possesses natural rights — a belief that he acknowledges were imperfectly applied, given how we treated Africans and aboriginal peoples. I mention his lack of religious affiliation because the typical understanding — the one that I see time and time again when talking to conservatives — is that natural rights depend on a supreme being to have granted them.

Will’s grounding of natural rights is in what he assumes to be the fixed quality of human nature, though he accepts the science of our evolution. What this permanent nature might be is not fleshed out, and perhaps he had no choice here. Asserting specific inherent characteristics would open his claim up to scientific and historical analysis, rather than keeping this nature as an axiom.

There is one way that human nature and nature’s rights can be maintained even while including a recognition of evolutionary change. Saying that rights are inherent in human beings is a start of an explanation. But following through requires a recognition of what our nature permits. We have the ability to make individual — autonomous — choices. The question of free will is a complicated one, but it does not have to be solved for this discussion. All that we have to agree to here is that we each make some number of decisions for which we are responsible and that we can make individually. Rights, then, are based on the ability of each person to choose, and anyone who feels entitled to limit the choices of someone else is obliged to make a solid case as to why such limits ought to be accepted.

My saying this might surprise Will, given my leftist, progressive political orientation. I cannot speak for all on the left, and when Will characterizes progressivism as anti-individual in its emphasis on collective programs, he is not offering a straw man in all cases, but it is my contention that my political philosophy does not have to be contradictory to his commitment to individual liberty.

Will’s book is written from the perspective of someone who had the privileges of being born into economic success and access to higher education. Such a person is likely to see social services as something for others, something that he has to pay for, but will never use. He disparages the notion of leveling playing fields because for him, this means a lowering of his relative position.

By contrast, progressivism to me means opening up opportunities to all, not merely to the lucky few. Will cites Franklin Roosevelt’s statement that necessitous people are not free and then dismisses it as an invitation to programs that make people dependent. But this is easy for anyone who has never worried about the next meal or next prescription to do. And unlike the early days of America that Will idealizes, we are not in a position in which anyone with sufficient ambition can go west and build a life without aid. Modern medicine costs a lot, and free land — or land that could be stolen from its owners, with the federal government providing assistance to the thieves — is gone. Corporations distort the balance of power between workers and managers or customers and sellers that was much fairer when such transactions were made by people who knew each other as fellow residents of a small community. And as wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few, the social mobility that Will imagines to be inherent in our system becomes much less realistic.

Guaranteeing that everyone has access to the benefits that education and healthcare provide will mean taxation to pay for this. Requiring employers to respect workers will mean a limit on what those employers can choose. But this is not in fact an injustice. It is a demand that we have an honest view of how wealth and other opportunities are created.

The core of progressivism, at least as I am formulating it, is a plan to fulfill the promise of individual autonomy. A person who is dying of an illness that is too personally expensive to have treated really is not free, no matter how cheerful Will feels about not having to pay for anyone else’s medical care, for example. A society suffering from the excess of violence that results from masses of people who are kept in ignorance and poverty by laissez-faire economics has the freedom to die in a wide variety of tedious ways.

This is to say that I agree with Will’s goal of maximizing individual freedom. My argument with him is over how to achieve that, and I insist that when making this case, we have to take reality into account.

Gee, Camp, what were you thinking? Supports gay rights, #2a, #1a, science, and other seemingly incongruous things. Books available on Amazon.

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