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The Flawed Philosophy of the Left

There is certainly a profound political rift dividing the culture. However, the state of modern politics is so anti-intellectual and unprincipled that the essential philosophical premises giving rise to the differences (and similarities) are rarely discussed much less understood. In a seemingly innocuous op-ed characterizing the “weakest generation” and disparaging the Tea Party, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank unwittingly exposes some of the deeper philosophical premises underlying modern liberalism thus providing contrast for those who wish to truly fight for individual rights and freedom.

In the op-ed titled, “The Weakest Generation,” Milbank wistfully recalls his parents devotion to the civil rights movement and various other 1960′s causes and laments his generation’s, Generation X’s, lack of an “equivalent” cause. He writes:

There have been many noble causes in my time — the fight against apartheid, for gay rights and for environmentalism — but none captured my generation or required the sort of sacrifice the civil rights movement did.

According to Milbank, his generation “came of age without an existential threat to the nation and without massive social upheaval at home.” Evidently, the Cold War “was just a theoretical threat” and “when we were prepared to sacrifice for the country after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told us to go shopping.” He concludes that “[w]e grew up soft: unthreatened, unchallenged and uninspired” because “we lacked a cause greater than self.” [emphasis mine]   Exploring the political implications of his views he writes:

The effects on our politics has been profound. Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin — treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes — Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! — or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns.

According to Milbank, the fight over the role of the federal government is not a “transcendent social struggle.” To him, Tea Party claims about spiraling debt, the loss of liberty, or the overthrow of the American constitution do not represent a “crisis” or even a matter of “justice.” Rather, these are merely “factional cause(s)” manufactured by opportunistic politicians.

What accounts for Milbank’s definition of a “noble” cause and what underlies his passionate admiration for the civil rights movement and his utter disdain for the Tea Party?

First, note that Milbank is not simply claiming that certain types of threats challenge and inspire activists. Rather, he is implying that without such a condition, a so-called “existential threat” or “cause greater than self,” it is seemingly impossible to be “challenged” and “inspired.” But, if it were really true that recent generations faced no existential crisis, wouldn’t that be a cause for great celebration?  Isn’t the reason we seek to defeat a threat to render it no longer a threat?  Consider Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, John Roebling, Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs or Linus Pauling. Did these great thinkers, inventors, and businessmen need existential crises, threats, or even physical combat to challenge and inspire them to achieve their values? Are the creations or values of these individuals “noble?” Is the pursuit of a society where individuals freely pursue their own happiness through productive work and voluntary trade a “transcendent cause?”  Is the struggle to create, build, and profit by eradicating a disease, colonizing space, or creating spectacular abundance challenging and inspiring?
Milbank’s argument exposes a major philosophical principle underlying much of modern political thought. The view that purpose and inspiration come from causes “greater than self” compared to the view that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness through the achievement of values directly relates to the moral philosophy of altruism versus the moral philosophy of egoism.What underlies Milbank’s angst and confusion is what Ayn Rand identified to be the dominant ethical theory of our time: altruism.  Altruism, she wrote, is the idea “that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”  Altruism, she warned, is not “kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others.” Rather, “[t]he irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.”The antidote to altruism’s code of self-destruction is Rand’s ethics of egoism or rational selfishness, which holds that “your life belongs to you and the good is to live it” and that “the moral purpose of life is the achievement of your own happiness” and that one should not sacrifice for others nor sacrifice others to oneself.   Rand distinguished individualism from collectivism.  She wrote:

Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.

An individualist is inspired by the challenge of purposeful living and a lack of existential crisis is a primary precondition of such a pursuit. Consider the pride of a scientist who discovers a cure for a disease or a new source of energy, or of a businessman that brings a thrilling new product to market. Consider the joy of a parent watching their children grow and learn, or the exhilaration of romantic love, natural discovery, fine art, good food, or the company of close friends. These are all values achieved by an individual and require the condition of freedom from coercion and are, in essence, the opposite of existential crisis.

To the altruist, these are selfish, banal, bourgeois aspirations that are at best a necessary evil, and not examples of moral living.  To the altruist, virtue consists of sacrifice to some arbitrarily defined “common good.”  This fact is what gives rise to the air of moral righteousness about liberal causes. Whether it be some horrifying government program like Obamacare or calls to throttle the global economy to counteract global cooling – I mean warming – I mean climate change – its adherents maintain a disposition of snarky pretentiousness towards dissenters while displaying a cultish reverence for the various causes and gurus of the 1960′s.  Tragically, Milbank’s acceptance of the altruistic ethics renders his own life and that of his generation existentially meaningless since he cannot find a recipient of extraordinary sacrifice.

Milbank may be right that recent generations are indeed uninspired.  But the fault is not the lack of a cause, it is the philosophy of people like Milbank.  It the fault of a philosophy that holds sacrifice as a virtue and deprecates the individual pursuit of happiness. Contrary to Milbank’s claim of a “weak generation,” the morality of altruism has robbed an entire generation of the profound joy and happiness that results from purposeful living and instead substituted guilt and a sneering hatred of success.  Rather than cultivating a benevolent environment of discovery, productivity, creativity, and entrepreneurship, altruism has created an environment of guilt, victimization, sacrifice, and dependency.  As a result, a more apt characterization of recent generations might be the “Offended Generation.”

Another irony of Milbank’s argument is that he cites the civil rights movement as the penultimate example of a “transcendent cause” yet denigrates the Tea Party’s goals as merely “factional causes” without any true meaning.  How can this be?After all, the civil rights movement rightfully sought freedom for blacks from government oppression and equal treatment under the law in accordance with the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  In the same way, today’s Tea Party seeks freedom from government oppression threatening to subjugate all individuals and seeks a return to the very same American principles that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Wouldn’t the original civil rights movement be a natural ally of today’s Tea Party movement? After all, was the American Revolution – a war fought for individual liberty against centralized coercive power – not a transcendent cause?

Of course, in reality, any groups which truly fight for individual rights, i.e., the freedom from coercion, are natural allies. However, Milbank and his ilk do not regard the civil rights movement as a movement toward equality of opportunity under the law, i.e, the right for all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, to freely think and act in pursuit of happiness. To Milbank the altruist, the civil rights movement is a movement toward the egalitarian goal of “social justice” or the redistribution of wealth according to the Marxist-altruist credo: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”    The cause of the egoist is individual rights and equal treatment under the law in the pursuit of voluntary cooperation and trade, while the cause of the altruist is the use of government force to extract equal outcomes regardless of effort or ability as the whole panoply of liberal policies since the 1960′s demonstrates.

But isn’t altruism and sacrifice required to fight for a noble cause?  Isn’t it true that the participants in the American Revolution or World War II or the civil rights struggle were indeed challenged and inspired?  Yes, but Milbank has the logic backward.  To an egoist, fighting for freedom is a selfish value.  The egoist seeks the preconditions for the pursuit of his own values.  Fighting for freedom from the British monarchy, fighting against slavery, fighting against fascism and communism or Islamic totalitarianism are all moral struggles in this context that take great courage. Ironically, it is the selfish pursuit of liberty and happiness that gave the original civil rights struggle a moral underpinning.  African Americans sought the same rights and treatment under the law that white Americans treasured.  The freedom resulting from the securing of these rights is what led to America’s prosperity and why the world’s immigrants sought refuge here.

The altruist premises of the modern left not only explain why they regard the Tea Party as morally insignificant, it further explains why they so casually and frequently charge the Tea Party with racism.  To the left, civil rights is redistribution of wealth or “social justice,” therefore, opponents of government force, taxation, and redistribution (Objectivists, libertarians, Tea Partiers) are not seen as defenders of liberty and individual freedom for all, but simply as opponents of what they regard as “civil rights” and therefore are regarded as “racists.”  Of course, this is a preposterously inverted view of racism.  Racism is the attribution of personal characteristics based on race or genetic lineage. The pursuit of equal treatment under the law for all is a moral and noble cause, while the preferred treatment of some individuals based on race is the very definition of racism, yet, the latter is precisely what the left advocates in the form of affirmative action.

In reality, altruism is incompatible with actual freedom and incompatible with justice. On this point, Rand made the following observation:

If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.

Note that moral philosophy is not what distinguishes the modern political parties.  In fact, altruist ethics unites the religious right to the secular left – the only difference between them being the object of the sacrifice. For example, the religionist wants you to sacrifice to God, the socialist wants you to sacrifice to the state, the environmentalist wants you to sacrifice to the earth, etc.  The reason why Republicans and Democrats are so similar is their acceptance of the same fundamental moral philosophy. They only disagree on who should sacrifice to whom and how much and is the reason America has been drifting toward socialism for over a hundred years.

The fissures in American politics are based on fundamental philosophy. Defining the debate properly around philosophy helps to simplify and perhaps finally import the highest form of moral righteousness to the case for freedom and individual rights.

  • MnVoiceofReason

    Fantastic article, Mr. Reich!
    And I think too, that the left and the religious right both have the same view of the ‘nature of man’ as being evil. The former believes it’s derived from the never diluted genes of ancient barbarians and the latter from an apple wielding snake. In their view, Altruism is the tune needed to soothe that savage ‘selfish’ beast in all of us.

  • rational_animal

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while. Beautiful job.

  • writeby

    Excellent article, Mr. Reich.

    From a novel on which I’m now working:

    Dalton Fuchs had graduated from Tomalock Central College with a degree in political science. A dedicated student, Dalton had cloistered himself like a medieval monk during his four years at Tomalock, immersing himself in the catechism of his studies. Sometime during his junior year, he decided to convert to the religion of socialism.

    “Of course reality is a product of our minds,” he’d assert during late night debates with other students in the dorm.

    Throughout these debates, observers felt as if they were witnessing a tennis match. His blue eyes flashing, Dalton would serve his genesis doctrine of social construction at his red-faced opponent, who’d then slam back his own Genesis doctrine of divine creation. Dalton would respond by trying to lob over his opponent’s head his faith in absolute equality and the supremacy of the collective. His adversary would spin a return with his faith in absolute salvation through Christ and the supremacy of God.

    One night, though, much to everyone’s astonishment, Dalton and his opposite found themselves in agreement about the goal of their respective faiths: to save man from his corrupt nature. Dalton, however, blamed man’s corruption on his sin of selfishness; his adversary, on the sin of Adam. The debate ended early, with both agreeing there wasn’t much difference—Adam’s desire for knowledge rooted in selfishness—and, in a rare gesture of good will, Dalton sprung for a Coke for the other boy.

    A few weeks later, Dalton again found himself in agreement of sorts with, this time around, Corey Bailey and Brit Spencer. They both agreed that the creed of sacrifice was the proper ethics for mankind.

    “Sacrifice,” said Corey Baily, “will lead men to Heaven,” and Brit Spencer reminded the ignorant heathen Dalton of Christ’s words, “He that loveth his life shall lose it and he that hateth his life in this world shall keepeth it unto life eternal.”

    “The way to get men to hate life,” she smiled angelically at Dalton, “is to teach men a morality that demands they sacrifice earthly values.”

    “It’s a simple formula,” added Corey, “misery + earth = happiness + Heaven.”

    Dalton was quick to reply. “Suffering may be part of it, for sure, but,” he added, as he tried to educate the superstitious pair in front of him,” the goal is total equality, from which men will achieve total inclusiveness.”

    Inclusiveness, Dalton knew, was the foundation for the Ideal community, one in which everyone, despite differences in race and sex, would be united in their ideas, feelings, desires and needs, where everyone would belong (and, of course, want to belong) and where men, through their concerted effort of hope, will and muscle, could shape a reality of joy, freedom and abundance.

    In the name of the Common Good, Equality and the Holy Collective. Amen. …

  • LSerbin

    Wow!!! What a great article. You express yourself so eloquently and really explain the underlying thinking and motivations of both the modern left and the libertarian movement. I am going to re-read this article several times so I can absorb your arguments and use them myself in future discussions. Well done!!!!