Some notes, for whatever they’re worth:
- “Freedom” sounds good rhetorically because it has an open-ended quality that seems to stretch out into the infinite. That makes it a good substitute religion that can support open-ended commitments like patriotism and world empire. It’s also good to pin ultimate loyalties to. That’s why liberals call themselves liberals rather than egalitarians. In day-to-day political life freedom mostly merges into lifestyle freedoms and economic concerns—middle-class benefits like reductions in taxation and in regulation of small business. That gives its ideal side a certain unreality. When the Berlin Wall fell the oppressed Easterners didn’t head toward churches and libraries, they went to the shopping mall. To make its ideal side seem real there has to be a crusade or jihad on its behalf. So freedom tends to be a martial ideal.
- The more practical day-to-day issues in current politics are security, prosperity and equality. These points aren’t thrilling, except to the extent you have terrorists, evil oppressors, starvation and heroic champions of the people to give them some drama, but they carry a lot of weight. That’s why people are inclined to say “it’s the economy, stupid,” unless winning the war on terrorism or whatever seems to trump the economy. Equality in particular is boring, since its goal is to abolish everything that might attract particular attention. Resentment and envy can make it interesting to some extent, but it seems hard to base attachment to the social order on such feelings.
- The Americans are confident and expansive and want to conquer the world so they talk a lot about freedom. The Europeans have been through too many things so they’re just looking for security, prosperity and equality. The Americans tend to view their nation and institutions as the embodiment of liberal values with a mission to realize them everywhere. The Europeans are skeptical, and view the EU, UN, dealmaking and possibly the slow logic of history as better ways to advance liberal values than idealistic jihads. So the Europeans view the Americans as wild-eyed and aggressive, while the Americans view the Europeans as cynical and corrupt. Each side views the other as out of touch with reality. There’s some justification for each point of view.
- The old leftist ideal of fraternity seems to have dropped out in favor of inclusiveness. The latter has less content. “Fraternity” suggests activity and a particular sort of bond, while “inclusiveness” suggests individual passivity and unconditional acceptance of all kinds of people in accordance with therapeutic social adjustments made by experts and facilitors.
- All the foregoing are strictly liberal ideals—ideals that say the highest good is to give people what they want as equally and reliably as possible. The objection to talking about God and “values” in politics is that if that manner of speaking changes anything it interferes with the business of giving people what they want reliably and equally. By definition, then, it is disruptive and oppressive. Of course, one might doubt that giving people what they want is an ideal that can sustain human life and the social order. For example, it may be unable to sustain the steady willingness to sacrifice personal interest to the general good that seems necessary for a tolerable society. To the extent such doubts are well-founded then talking about things that transcend human desire becomes a political necessity.