Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why I am a liberal

When I was in elementary school--I don't recall the particular year, but I must have been in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade--I was stopped by a gang of older boys as I rode my bike across the school playground one summer day. They mobbed around me, with one straddling my front wheel, both hands on my handlebars, preventing me from going anywhere.

One quickly grabbed my Little League baseball hat and said he wouldn't give it back, although I still had a grip on it, with my fingers looped around the sizing strap on the back of the hat. I don't recall my exact words, but I'm sure that I whined to have it back. At that point I might have even cried. I was terrified, angry, and hurt--these were my neighbors, after all. Their brothers and sisters were in my class. I had played at some of their houses.

There was some conversation, and finally one of the older kids--his name was Tom and he was a great big kid with a head full of bright red hair--suggested that if I could hold onto my hat for one minute, I could keep it. Of course I agreed. I didn't have a choice.

As someone started timing on his watch, the other boy holding the hat started twisting it as fast as he could as I held fast to the strap. Soon the hat was twisted into a small rope, the hole that my fingers were in was closed and compressed around my fingers. As he continued twisting, it was as if a noose was being tightened around my fingers. The pain was intense, but now I was nothing but angry.

Just recalling it now makes me want to punch the smug smirks off of those bullies' faces.

Eventually, the minute ended and I rode away with my hat on my head. While I don't have many distinct memories of those years, I do recall walking in the house and telling Mom and her horrified and sympathetic reaction. I remember how the sunlight coming through the windows looked on the kitchen tiles. I don't remember if I did cry, and I'm not sure if I was so relieved to be free that I did, or if I was so angry that I couldn't.

I have a few assumptions to lay out here, principal among them is that we're all liberals. That is, unless there are any monarchists among us who believe in the Divine Right of Kings. So, except you monarchists, we all want a political system that values individual freedom above all. I'm also assuming that you support the rights of freedom of thought and speech, the rule of law, private property, free markets, and elections that are fair and open to all citizens.

Given that, when I'm explaining why I'm a liberal, I'm really explaining why I'm a social liberal--OK, and a cultural liberal--rather than an American conservative. And if you agree with all that, you'll also perhaps see why I believe that we all have far more in common than we have dividing us. I believe that what separates us most often is our differing interpretations of certain terms.

And so, from here forward, when I write "liberal," you can read that as "American social and cultural liberal," and when I write "conservative," you can read that as "American conservative."

I'll never forget Mr. Chanteloup, my economics instructor in my junior year of high school, for his condolences on my father's death. Mr. C, who was almost certainly a conservative although he remained steadfastly impartial in class, gave a definition of the differences between liberals and conservatives that I've pondered ever since, and generally found to be true:
  • Conservatives believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions.
  • Liberals believe that individuals are products of their environment and circumstances.

I believe that we all share a right to individual freedom. Those boys had no right to stop me from enjoying my freedom as I rolled across the playground. But, wait a minute...don't they have the right to their own freedom? Nobody should tell them to stop bullying me; they should be free to do as they please, right?

Yeah, I don't buy that argument either.

So, the real deal is that I believe in the right to individual freedom that doesn't impinge anyone else's right to freedom, which is where this gets tricky.

Should I have the right to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded theater? No.

Should you have the right to shoot me? No.

Should financial traders have the right to invest in financial instruments with wild abandon to the point that the economy collapses, costing people their homes, jobs, and retirement funds? Hm. Good question.

This is what I meant when I said that conservatives and liberals generally agree on the big issues but part ways on the interpretation of them.

I believe that it's reasonable to regulate the activities of those who we can reasonably assume pose a risk to the majority of us through their actions. We do this for criminals through the courts and penal system, we do this for convicted felons through the probation system, and they generally affect individuals or small groups of people.

I don't see a reason why we wouldn't regulate the activities of those who could ruin the lives of millions of people, such as businessmen, who generally get a free pass for their crimes, even when they sign off on a policy of letting people immolate rather than paying for inexpensive repairs. Or when they refuse to recall or take responsibility for their products that result in the deaths of babies.

Many of us assume that we have complete freedoms, but this is not true. Even our right to assemble is restricted--we only have a right to peaceably assemble, not to form a mob and riot.

If we, as classical liberals desire, had complete freedom from coercion in all aspects of our life, we would likely live in a state of anarchy that would compel us to impose some structure on our society that would slightly restrict our individual freedoms in the near term but ensure our greater freedoms over the long term. In fact, I believe that's exactly how we've gotten to where we are today.

Going back to the gang of bullies in the schoolyard, a simple explanation for how that event helped me become a liberal would be that as a result of it I just don't like being told what to do, and feel an almost unbridled hatred for bullies, and so I want a political system that won't tell me, or anyone, what to do. While the first two statements are true, the conclusion isn't a result of them, and it's not entirely true, either.

Or, you could say that the schoolyard punks, whose behavior resulted in an overpowering dislike of bullying behavior in me, showed me that as much as I want to love everyone equally, I'm a product of my environment and circumstances. However, that's in direct opposition to my feeling that those bullies are individually accountable for their actions.

You might as well say that I'm a liberal because I grew up reading the San Francisco Chronicle, or because I'm left-handed I'm naturally inclined to the left side of the political spectrum, or because there's something in the fog that makes all the people in the Bay Area such hippies.

The reality is that I don't know what made me a liberal. As far as I can tell, I was born this way. And that makes sense--who would choose to be a liberal in the Reagan-Bush-Bush-Cheney era? I know I'm contrary by nature, but choosing that is like choosing to lay down before a speeding locomotive rather than ride the train.

But, despite the pressure and influences that might lead me to become a conservative, I've stayed a liberal. Why? Just because some boys beat me up one day? OK...beat me up over several days throughout elementary school, with one particular episode that lodged in my mind like a chicken bone in a dog's throat.

No, that's not why I'm a liberal either, but it does serve as an illustration of why I've stayed a liberal.

When I was in high school, I ended up playing soccer on teams with some of those same bullies from that day on the schoolyard. By then, we had all gotten past whatever differences we had when we were younger, and could be friendly. Although I admit that it was pretty hard to have complete trust in them at that time, we could certainly work together to play soccer.

How can that be?

That can happen because all of us continued through school and became educated. We learned how to better live with our neighbors, resolve our differences, and work for the common good. And we were able to do that because our government provided for our education.

Why would the government do such a thing as educate children? Why do Americans willingly pay taxes to support this practice? To both questions, the answer is because an educated citizenry benefits all of us. I can't prove the cause and effect, but I don't think that is just a coincidence that America's technology revolution started after WWII, when taxpayers willingly paid for GI's to get a college education.

We all benefit when we're all educated because we're all dependent on one another, whether we can see it, want to admit it, and whether we like it or not.

My fundamental belief that makes and keeps me a liberal is that we're better off working together than we are individually. While I prize individual freedom above all, I also understand that there are those who would take my freedom from me. When I was a boy, it was other boys who wanted to take my peace of mind from me as I tried to cross the playground. Now, I understand that there are those who would take my peace of mind, and my life if they could, as I try to travel the world.

What saved me as a boy was that the crowd was better than any one of its members, and I believe that the same holds true for us as a society and as a country. After all, that's the foundation of democracy--that the wisdom of all people is combined for the good of all people, and that the true goal of a political system is not total individual freedom for everyone, but the maximum individual freedom for all.

Yes, that leads to some compromises, such as the funding of schools through taxes, which restricts my financial freedom, but which benefits me by educating and empowering me and which increases the overall standard of living within our society. And even though we're guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms, we prevent citizens from keeping howitzers and hydrogen bombs in their backyards to protect us all from neighborly rivalries spilling over into regional conflicts or armageddon. And although it adds to the cost of our children's toys, we regulate the design and manufacture of them to ensure that they don't harm or kill our children. And we collectively benefit from those restrictions when they pay their social dividends.

Further, we gather together to do with each other what none of us could do alone and what no business would, such as bailing out the victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes or providing assistance to tornado and earthquake victims. As wealthy and as philanthropic as they are, I didn't see Google or Microsoft providing sandbags to flood victims, or rebuilding their roads, or sewage systems. There are some functions that a society requires that can only be addressed through the collective work of all of its members, even if that is through a representative democracy, not direct action.

Which proves Mr. Chanteloup correct, at least in the case of me and my beliefs. I believe that while we are born with certain innate qualities--3B's cheerful personality and boundless optimism are a constant example--we are products of our environment and circumstances, and that that environment includes other people. We are all products of one another, and so just as my actions benefit you, yours benefit me. It is in all of our mutual interests to support and sustain each other, and by so doing, we can also ensure that each of us maintains as much freedom as possible, which is the goal that I believe we all share.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
--William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Subscribe to the Bradstein feed--Vorsprung durch Technik!

Better by design
Or get new posts via email . . . Enter your email address:


  1. Anonymous4:18 AM

    Why I am like you but not like you. I may have been one of those rude boys, and I may have been one of the boys that would have stepped in. Depends.

    I also would defend your rights as given by the founders. I also will not let people who have no clue, what they are talking about try to restrict my 1st or 2nd in any way. Common sense should easy enough dictate that.You yell fire when there is none you go to jail. It is not even close to a restriction, just dumb on your part. Yet do not tell us what we cant say, the smart folks already know better.

    If you commit a crime with a gun, you go to jail. It is the same as if you commit a crime of any type you go to jail. I do not need anyone telling me what a asault rifle is when they do not have a clue to begin with. Smart people know not to commit any crime.Also smart people obey the bad gun laws on the books, the crook does not. Do not tell me what a safe gunfree zone is because only a crook will not obey. Schools,malls, and churches all gun free zones until a nut job walks in, yep that worked.
    Do not invest your money in something that seems to good to be true, because well it will fail. And the smart money will weed you out.
    Do not tell me you want more tax money from me for health or schools or roads when I see you wasting what you already have. Really a giant lizard hanging on the wall along the freeway helps me how? No really I can take a picture of this thing.

    Or you have lung cancer because you thought it was cool to smoke, I am not paying for that asshat.

    Do not tell me the teacher the fireman the police man needs more money when you are wasting it.The smart voter will vote you out.

    Do not force me to give via taxes to those who willfully have too many children and to those who pass up a help wanted sign while they panhandle. If I want to help those who have hard times I will give to them and decide how my time and money that I earned will be spent. We have seen how much the American people can give out of pocket as seen in the last few months for Obama. If everyone gave 86 bucks every other month to help people welfare might be gone and I could keep more of my tax money. It is not hard to do we give at least 200 a month to different causes and we are not in a wealthy class.
    Do not force me to bail out failed unions and companies when they saw fit to pay the dude sweeping floors the same as someone who had to get a education to do his job in the plant.

    Common sense should rule. Although my spelling and grammar do not.

    King ranted and out TCB on me please Lord.

  2. You may have been a bully then, King, but we all know that you're a soft touch now. Otherwise, why would you give so much to charity? Or work in show biz, which is filled with charity cases?

    But seriously, you hit the nail on the head about the primary difference between U.S. liberals and conservatives: the role of government.

    As a liberal, I'm more likely to view government programs as valuable. To take one of your examples, the panhandler who passes up a help wanted sign: what if he's too mentally ill to work? Twenty percent of homeless folks in the U.S. are mentally ill, compared to four percent in the rest of the population. What if that was a woman with children? Do you leave the children homeless because of their mother's situation? Forty percent of homeless folks have children, ninety percent of those families are headed by women, of whom eighty-four percent have been severely assaulted. And back to those kids, research shows that, as children of mothers who were assaulted, more of them are likely to develop mental health problems themselves. (

    All of this points out another difference between liberals and conservatives: I tend to believe that giving a person freedom who does not have, or who cannot obtain, security within society--financial, physical and other security--is not giving them freedom. A severe schizophrenic may never be able to become financially independent and secure. And, honestly, their lack of security may lead them to impinge on the security of others, through crime. So I see it as a function of the political system to remedy this lack of freedom.

  3. Wow, PB - you put me to shame. Quoting Shakepeare while I can't help but to throw the F bomb around in my rage... I stand to learn a lot from you! :)

    Obama wants to reform government spending too - to get rid of the programs that don't work. I'm excited to see how things change in the next 4 years! Here's to hoping...

  4. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I would not deny those homeless examples help. I will deny that panhandler that I see taking the change and buying a beer. apples to oranges. At the same time I have to think just like Ron Paul that pvt charities do a better job than the gov. Fist it is not in the fed gov power as granted by the constitution to do these things. Second as Dr Paul as pointed out pvt giving is greater than welfare is now. And before welfare the pvt sector did a great job. I wold venture to guess for every 1 fed program we find that "works" ther are 2 or more that do not and are a waste or are abused. 23 percent of my paycheck goes to fed taxes ight now. We will see what that is in 1 year.I am a bit pissed by that amount.I follow your logic on education even though we have and are not going to have kids. Ok I will pay for some of that makes sense to me. My brother was a teacher for 30 years, I have a niece and nephew teaching now. It is hard on them when they also have to be the parent of those kids because the real parent takes no interest in raising the kid. Again though I see A TON of waste and abuse though.

    King trying not to have a heart attack over all this crap.

    TCB on me in the ICU

  5. Anonymous12:36 PM

    PS good to see the Nanna is back in the writing biz!!

    TCB on staying ripe.

  6. LB: You've talked to me for more than five minutes, so you know that I throw down the F bomb plenty when it comes to politics. I just kept turning back to the Shakespeare as I thought more about this.

    And I think that we all want to cut government waste, although that's not what each side says about the other side. I wish we could get past that conversation and focus on what programs we should or shouldn't fund, but that's a harder conversation to have during an election.

    King: Shouldn't that be TCB on fried peanut butter and 'nana sandwiches? Mmm.

    Nobody likes waste. I don't like it when I do it at home by buying something that I don't need or use, and I don't like it in my government.

    I'm also not a big fan of turning my money over to other people to spend.

    However, I am a big fan of our local bus and metro train system, which takes my car off the road so others have an easier commute, higher fuel efficiency, and allows us all to breathe in less pollution. I'm also a big fan of the interstate highway system that lets me drive up to Grammy's farm easily and for free (not counting the taxes I've paid to support the highway system), and which also serves to facilitate all manner of commerce throughout the country. I also appreciate having centralized air traffic control so that my plane doesn't try to take off into another one--something that benefits me and everyone else who flies, and who lives near airports.

    I'm not, however, a big fan of government-backed faith-based programs. Although I'm sure that they provide benefits to communities, I don't think government should be in the religion business, and vice-versa.

    As you said, I'm glad to pay for those items that I support, but what about those that I may not support? Can I opt out of those? If we allow people to opt out, doesn't that defeat the function of a majority-rule democracy?

    Also, what about items such as national defense, that we all rely on? Should pacifists like the Quakers be able to opt out of paying taxes that support the military that works to ensure their freedom of religion? What about climate change, which, if the predictions even come close to the mark, will threaten all of our freedoms through economic and social upheaval, but which none of us can address single-handedly?

  7. I am amused that by Mr. C's definition, conservatives prefer to take responsibility for their actions. Perhaps what he really meant was that they want others to take responsibility for their actions, but the conservatives own misdeeds will be smoothed over by those in power.

    I prefer to think of liberals as those open to change and conservatives as those who want to keep things as they are. What does that company you work for do? They try to keep things as they are, but only the things that they value. In that sense there is some conservative in all of us, but we all differ in what we wish to conserve. In the morning, around here, it seems to be the warm feeling of staying under the blankets. We can't conserve everything, and making the choices is what seems to cause the most trouble.

  8. Anonymous4:38 PM

    No we dont have a place to opt out, but we do have elected folks that are to do our bidding. And to often they do not because they take pvt funds from big money.

    As to the Quakers no they can not opt out they live here. And they are in the minority on nat def. And they hold a religious stance, they are not Quaker by color or nationality.

    As for climate sorry I am still out. I follow what Penn Gillite of Penn and Teller thinks, its a good view and makes sense. Google him up he explains it better than I.

    And as for highways we pay a use tax on those, as we should. Gas taxes pay for the highway. My income tax pays for bloated abused programs. If we want a income tax make it a flat one. Or better yet a national sales tax along with real import tarrifs like we used to have.

    And you pay a price at least here you do to ride the bus. It should be self run. If you can not run public transport based on what it brings then it should die, it means it is something the people do not want. As you said majority rule and if that majority does not want to ride a bus and the bus cant pay to operate then it is a bloated program that must go. If a local gov wants to tax its citizens to fund the local bus then that is a local choice. Local choices can be made all the time without infringing on the bill of rights. As we just read in the DC Vs Heller case in gun control.

    We should do a video conference and post it on facebook or youtube, I suck at writing and spelling.

    TCB on being free to write all these things.

  9. Anonymous10:40 PM

    I really don't know what "liberal" and "conservative" mean any more. I think I've turned into a fiscal conservative/social liberal, but I'm not even sure of that. Conservatives like to cast aspersions on their "tax and spend" opponents in government, but how much has our current conservative administration spent recently? How much debt do we have now?

    I live in a "red" state now, and as I reviewed my voting options for state and local candidates, I realized that while I always thought I was sort of libertarian, I didn't agree with a lot of what that candidate said. For example, he thinks the solution to excessive dependence on foreign oil was to expand domestic production. He thinks the free market will take care of all our needs, somehow.

    Then when I read the Dem and Rep candidates' views, there were many areas of similarity: supporting the death penalty, mostly not supporting abortion, not supporting gay marriage or civil unions, allowing gun ownership without a license, and abolishing some sort of "grocery tax" we have here. They diverged somewhat on taxes, but that's about it.

    I'd like for us to have some sort of middle path: less taxes, but appropriate aid going to those who truly need it (and in ways that would benefit the economy as well, like child care for working families). Smaller government, but more effective legislation and funding going to local needs.

    I'd also like to see our government be substantially less involved in moral/cultural issues. I don't understand, for example, why gay marriage is a political issue at all. I don't want people telling me what to believe about God, or how to raise my children (barring true abuse), or what constitutes "real" marriage. That's between me, my partner, and my supreme being of choice, thanks.

    I agree with you about regulating business in the interest of the public good. It's one thing to leave regulation up to market forces when you're talking about choosing one store over another because you prefer the store with cheaper, better quality, or even safer products. It's wholly another thing when you are dealing with corporations that are so complex that "the free market", at least in terms of consumers, has no ability to really make informed decisions.

  10. Anonymous1:39 AM

    This has been a great time. I like the fact that really no one here sems that far apart. I suspect most of the USA is like us here. Then we have the extremes of both sides that seem to screw it up for the rest of us.

    TCB on going Boo tonight.

  11. WOW!!! What a lot of thinking you do. It makes me feel like I should be putting more into raising my kids, rather than this fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants thing I am doing now. Maybe I am doing the right thing, I am just not analyzing what I am doing.

    I am trying to raise my kids to be the best they can be. So far so good, none of them in jail or politics.

    They need to be responsible for themselves, but what about the bullies and the other more kind people around them. Should they trust people or not. Which ones should they trust? Some of those kind people, just appear kind but they have another agenda too. Is it more about their reaction to things.... no matter what, keep your dignity, do not lower yourself to their standards just to make it a fair fight.

    Now you have me worried as a mother, okay I was already worried, now I can worry more about so many other things. I think for now, I will just go back to bed.

  12. Amama: Yeah, the libertarians are an interesting bunch. Ron Paul, for example, opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act (but wants to ensure the rights of 3rd party candidates, of course), direct election of U.S. Senators, birthright citizenship, affirmative action, VA hospitals, rights of women to make independent choices about health care, government protection of the environment (he feels it would be more effective to have each of us sue each polluting company), freedom of expression if it includes flag burning, the decision in Lawrence v. Texas, net neutrality (even though, according to him, "quite frankly I don't understand all the details," but why let the facts get in the way of your vote?).

    He would also abolish such government agencies as the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calling them "unnecessary bureaucracies."

    There's not much that he does like, but he does support the Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy, parallel currencies, and he supports earmarks--at least the $400 million that he requested in 2007.

    KMoo: As the King says, we're not that different. I don't do so much thinking as I do worrying and reacting.

  13. I was raised in pretty conservative family and while I can't look back at one example of why I'm a liberal I sure am glad to be one.