Politics as a conflict of two parties

A view of politics that’s become quite old-fashioned but still pops up now and then is that it’s based on conflict between haves and have-nots. The view never made a lot of sense, because those in a position to make their influence felt in politics are always by definition “haves.” Hence the search for authentic radicals and the constant complaints about revolutionary betrayal. Post-60s the view has become absurd, since the political tendency that claims to speak for the “have nots” is visibly owned and operated by technocratic elites who find egalitarian slogans helpful in destroying all principles of authority other than their own, and incidentally liberating themselves personally from obligations to others.

A view still with us is that politics—at least modern politics—is based on a conflict between liberty and equality. That view defines the political position of many people. Basically, it seems to me that a classical liberal (that is, a standard-issue principled American conservative) is someone who thinks liberty and equality are opposed and takes the side of liberty. A leftist doesn’t think the two are opposed. He thinks liberty without equality is oppression—a situation in which well-placed people can do what they want and not-well-placed people just have to accept whatever the results are. And a traditionalist conservative doesn’t think they’re opposed either, because he asks what it means to choose liberty as the supreme goal of social order and answers that it means that no particular substantive goal is to be given official preference because all are equally good. So from the traditionalist perspective, liberty as a supreme goal is a consequence of taking a kind of equality as a supreme standard. The two go hand in hand. It’s difficult of course for classical liberals to see things that way, because they view liberty and equality as different ultimate values that people happen to have. They don’t look farther for the common understanding of the world both reflect.

7 thoughts on “Politics as a conflict of two parties”

  1. Politics as a Conflict
    Leftists and traditionalist conservatives are being equated here? The basis for the equating is both groups believe in liberty and equality. So are these two groups different?

    Is it being proposed that leftists have a better ideology than conservatives?

    • I don’t understand the comment
      Please reread the entry. I don’t suggest any of the things you say.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

    • The log entry isn’t equating leftists and trads; on the contrary
      The entry is saying that right-liberals (= Classical liberals; i.e., your ordinary garden-variety principled “conservatives,” such as William F. Buckley Jr. since about the year 1990, President Bush, Senator Orin Hatch, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, and so forth) are mistaken if they believe their choice of liberty over equality as a fundamental ordering principle for society distinguishes them from leftists (who make the opposite choice), because liberty leads to official recognition of all goals as equally good, so none can be preferred by society—which only gets us back to a version of the same equality leftists worship, but by a roundabout route. The point is that for all who believe in the existence of somethingness over nothingness—in the existence somewhere of absolute meaning, as opposed to the ubiquitous absolute entropy entailed by the left’s catechism—for all such individuals, liberty can’t be the prime ordering principle of society. (Oh… excuse me—did I list Justice Kennedy as a principled conservative? My mistake—as everyone is well aware, Justice Kennedy’s principles have long since been compromised by his extremely striking upward mobility on the D.C. and Georgetown dinner party circuit…)

      • “Having liberties” versus “liberty as THE central principle”
        Of course we are talking here about the bad consequences of making liberty the prime organizing principle of society, not of making various specific liberties and rights part of a society’s bedrock (subsidiary to more fundamental principles). The Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t necessarily lead to totalitarian leftist oppression. That that is more and more what we find ourselves chafing under today is due not to our Fathers’ having bequeathed us guaranteed liberties in our society’s framework, but to leftist denial of the even more fundamental principles whereon those liberties and rights themselves were based. Leftists think the American nation came into being with Constitution but it lived and breathed long before that and will live and breathe long after their efforts to kill it using the Constitution itself as their weapon will have failed—because its life depends on wellsprings too deep for even the diabolical left to poison.

  2. And a traditionalist conserva

    And a traditionalist conservative doesn’t think they’re opposed either, because he asks what it means to choose liberty as the supreme goal of social order and answers that it means that no particular substantive goal is to be given official preference because all are equally good. So from the traditionalist perspective, liberty as a supreme goal is a consequence of taking a kind of equality as a supreme standard.

    Is this not true only when ‘liberty’ is understood as something like “liberation from constraints”? When ‘liberty’ is understood as something like “freedom from coercion”, is it still true? Would it be useful to make a distinction between Liberty and Freedom and call the first kind of ‘liberty’ above “Freedom”? In that case, I think that your shrewd observation is true, because liberty understood as
    freedom this way does seem to entail an egalitartian subjectivism. But wouldn’t the second understanding of ‘liberty’ (“Liberty”) be free from this egalitartian implication? Isn’t this understanding something like Acton’s observation that “Liberty is the freedom to that which you ought to do”?

    And wouldn’t the second understanding necessarily be something less than the supreme goal of the social order since it is subordinated to that which we ought to do? Would valuing this understanding of liberty be consistent with traditionalist conservativism?

    • In order to distinguish liber
      In order to distinguish liberty as freedom from restraint from liberty as freedom from coercion you have to have some notion of a justified social order so you can say that repressing violations of that order by tossing people in the slammer isn’t really coercion. You have to be able to specify some things about how people should live that take precedence over liberty. Then those things define the authoritative social order and you can string people up who transgress them without “coercing” them.

      I don’t think that saying that liberty has to be consistent with the equal liberty of other people is enough to define a social order. Liberty can’t establish its own limits, which is what people who say it’s the highest political goal (“liberals”) try to make it do. Without some other doctrine of what’s good and what’s bad you can’t decide which exercises of liberty should give way to which.

      But if you take some view of what’s good and bad and institutionalize it and say it determines the scope of liberty I don’t think you’re a liberal any more. I think that’s basically the same as establishing a religion and letting that religion determine what people can and cannot do.

      I agree that if you take liberty as a subordinate good, or one that’s needed so that some superior goods can exist more fully, or something that often makes the system better or safer in various ways then it’s perfectly consistent with traditionalist conservatism. Traditionalist conservatism has nothing against traditional liberties. It just seems to me that today you have to make the point very explicitly that liberty can’t define itself and has to be subordinate to some other understanding of what’s good and bad. You can’t leave it unsaid, which means that you have to make of point of being antiliberal.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • It’s tough slogging, yes. But normalness will emerge victorious.
        “You can’t leave it unsaid, which means that you have to make a point of being antiliberal.”—Jim Kalb today at 8:06AM

        “Antiliberal” means normal, by the way—just plain ordinary normal: nothing special, just … (wait for it…) … normal. By itself the existence of ordinary normalness consigns liberalism to the dustbin of history. Just keep being normal, give it time, and they’ll go. That transparent emperor’s-new-clothes truth is our greatest strength and what will carry us through. So to oppose what’s going on you have to be a normal guy. That’s not exactly a tall order—hey, even I can do that. What makes things hard analytically is the left’s simply denying the foundations of normalness (then acting all innocent and as if everything’s still OK). People look at what the left does with their mouths hanging open aghast and say let’s fix this, let’s refute it, but then see that what the left has done requires a whole new philosophy to fix, sort of the philosophy of the foundations of normalness, and this philosophy hasn’t been entirely laid out yet because before the mid-nineteenth-century advent of what’s now morphed into the Thousand Faces of Karl Marx no one had ever mounted such a radical, single-minded, aggressive attack on normalness itself. We can’t just open Aristotle or Plato and find the basic recipe for what to say next already spelled out in black and white, the way we sort of can with political philosophy, ethics, logic, etc.


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