On Elites, Liberty, and Claims Against It

by Conor Friedersdorf

In a post over at Ricochet, James Poulos says a lot of smart things that are difficult to summarize succinctly, as is his wont. I'd like to run through a few of them.

Early on he picks up on the question I posed to Tea Partiers (after prompting from William Voegeli): If we're choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend?

Mr. Poulos says:

I think it's consistent with the intuitions and judgments powering the tea parties to answer your pregnant question like this: it's not that we're choosing our ruling class the wrong way; it's that our ruling class is the wrong kind of people. They have the wrong character, the wrong disposition, the wrong objectives, the wrong -- values. The problem isn't that 'politics is broken'. That's a symptom of the real problem, which is that the ruling culture of our ruling elites is broken.

Often times, when I've interacted with politicians, I've thought to myself, these are the wrong kind of people to be running things, and I'd celebrate if the American people stopped selecting its leaders based on their television appeal, the careful avoidance of unorthodox opinions, vague notions of who they'd like to have over for dinner, value-signaling rhetoric about third order issues, ideas about who "seems presidential," etc. Alas, democracy is the least bad way we have to pick these people.

But I was thinking more of unelected elites when I posed that question -- policy wonks, journalists, Congressional staffers, think tank staff, bureaucrats, DC lawyers, etc. If the charge is that we're filling these positions with "the wrong kinds of people," something Tea Partiers would claim, then improving things is a matter of changing the selection process, isn't it? I'd argue, for example, that the Ivy League network makes for a more insular elite than is ideal, and that although it's desirable to have a well-educated ruling class, a true meritocracy would be somewhat less heavily populated by academic overachievers from the northeast. I imagine that change alone wouldn't cause the Tea Partiers to embrace our current system of elites, however, so I ask again, what do they propose?

How should the New York Times hire its reporters? What qualities should Sarah Palin look for in her press liaison? When the RNC looks for fund-raising staff what attributes should it seek? What qualifies someone to be director of the OMB? These questions force a line of thinking that I don't think the average Tea Partier has yet explored (let alone the average American).

Mr. Poulos does give his own account of how the culture of our ruling elites is broken, and although I won't try to summarize it, do give it a read.

What I'd like to do is skip down to this part of his post:

...progressivism tells liberal elites that the practice of politics is an obstacle to perfecting liberal culture. As Bill Voegeli's remarks suggest, if elites with a more conservative philosophy are vulnerable to a different set of temptations, they're much less susceptible to this one. The issue is simple: what is the foundation of that more conservative philosophy? What are the principles that fuel the right culture among conservative elites?

If I could break in for a moment, my tentative read of modern American political history is that conservative elites actually have been vulnerable to a lot of the same temptations as liberal elites, and that ideology isn't actually the most important factor in what ails our elites. But I want to think about that provocation before committing to it, so let's move on:

The central philosophical proposition of the tea parties is that the Republican Party establishment has too many elites who have become untethered from those principles and have been born and raised in the wrong culture of elite-hood. Whether by coincidence or for some other reason, this organizing conviction resonates extremely powerfully with the contention that the central conflict in American politics is between those who see political liberty as our most precious possession and those who see political liberty as an outdated obstacle to true justice and flourishing.

From the standpoint of the lover of liberty, there is a punchy and potent shorthand for that conflict ready to hand: liberty vs. tyranny. That's a slogan that must be unpacked, to be sure. But is it -- to use your phrase -- "almost completely useless?" I report, you decide.

I'm inclined to stick to my guns, and in doing so, I want to note that Mr. Poulos spent a lot of time persuasively arguing why liberty belongs in that formulation, and no time persuading us that it ought to be pitted against tyranny. Sure, it's perfectly acceptable to make the case that political liberty is our most precious possession, and to let that insight guide our actions in the political system. The problem comes when, having decided that, your reflexive assumption is suddenly that all your political adversaries are on the side of tyranny. Someone can conclude, as many conservatives have done, that political liberty is one precious possession, but that we cannot value it exclusively. There were French revolutionaries who saw liberty as their most precious possession. Would it have been "almost completely useless" for them to tell Edmund Burke, "We are for liberty, and you for tyranny?" I report, you decide.

It makes no more sense to cast modern American liberals as operating on the side of tyranny. They value liberty far more highly than most people in the history of humanity, but assert that some checks on liberty are permissible because equality or justice are important too. In striking that balance, I tend to think they sometimes impinge on liberty too much (though it's worth acknowledging that conservatives strike the same balance and sometimes go too far in the other direction).

In comments, I asked Mr. Poulos, "Can you give me an example of a policy dispute that we can understand most clearly through the frame of liberty versus tyranny?"

He replied as follows:

Most clearly is a bar that most frames -- including competing ones -- are sorely challenged to clear. But the times being what they are, here's an illustrative (vs. exhaustive) list of possible answers: (1) Universal health care with an individual mandate. (2) The national security state/permanent Patriot Act. (3) The tax code and the structure and purpose of our tax policy. (4) The war on drugs. (5) Entitlement spending. (6) Philosophizing from the bench. (7) The endless Fannie & Freddie bailout.

Let me emphasize the point I closed with above: liberty vs. tyranny is a potent, punchy approximation of, and shorthand for, a serious, if not central, debate about some of the most basic issues surrounding the nature of justice in a democratic environment. This is true in theory, but it is also true in contemporary political practice. The case for taking the liberty vs. tyranny frame seriously isn't (simply) academic -- it's a practical one that should, I think, have a special appeal for more libertarians right of center.

Upon reading that, I see a distinction that hasn't been made clear. It is one thing to use the frame of liberty versus tyranny as a serious tool for debating the nature of justice in a democratic environment, and I concede it can be useful in those discussions. Where I dissent is when it becomes a frame meant to understand contemporary politics as practiced in America, especially when conservatives are cast on the side of liberty and liberals on the side of tyranny. The list of issues that Mr. Poulos gives is illustrative: on national security and the war on drugs, the frame of liberty and tyranny forces us to place conservatives on the side of the tyrants.

It is more clear, accurate, and productive to say -- if we're talking contemporary political practice -- that on the issues mentioned above, conservatives and liberals tend to value liberty differently, and that even in the most extreme cases, were their preferred policy to end in tyranny, it wouldn't be by design, but because they overvalued security or tradition or equality or justice. That suggests a more appropriate frame for a whole host of issues. Universal health care is more a matter of both "liberty vs. security" and "liberty vs. equality" than "liberty vs. tyranny," and in saying so, one needn't abandon the claim that tyranny is implicated in the outcome.