TCS Daily


Expiating Liberal Guilt

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - May 19, 2004 12:00 AM

A recurring theme in liberal thought is that wealth and poverty are undeserved. Where we end up in the social hierarchy, liberals say, depends far more on happenstance than on merit. Some people are born to advantage, others to disadvantage. But luck shouldn't play a role in people's fates, they say, so society must intervene -- coercively -- to equalize wealth, or at least move in that direction. Those who are wealthy probably don't deserve it anyway, so it's not an injustice to them to take some of their wealth (through progressive taxation, for example) and distribute it to the poor.

To be fair, liberals don't think that all is luck. They realize that effort, initiative, discipline, risk-taking, hard work, and sacrifice play a role in where individuals end up in the social hierarchy. But they think it's a small and insignificant role. By the same token, conservatives don't think that all is merit. They realize that luck plays a role in where individuals end up in the social hierarchy. But they think it's a small and insignificant role.

The difference between liberals and conservatives is therefore one of degree or emphasis, not kind. But this difference in degree or emphasis leads to starkly different policy prescriptions, as any observer of contemporary politics knows. Liberals support coercive redistributive policies. Conservatives oppose them. Since willing an end entails willing all necessary means to it, liberals support massive government: the welfare state. This makes things worse, for those carrying out the redistribution acquire a stake in perpetuating it. Government ends up subsidizing dependency and encouraging a (false) sense of entitlement.

Liberals have a hard time distinguishing misfortune and injustice. If misfortune is injustice and injustice must be rectified (this latter proposition is a tautology), then redistribution of wealth is required, not optional. It would be unjust not to redistribute, just as it would be unjust not to force wrongdoers to make restitution to their victims. Conservatives have no trouble distinguishing misfortune and injustice, only the latter of which, logically speaking, requires rectification. Misfortune calls for charity, which is incompatible with coercion. Conflating misfortune and injustice, conservatives say, leads to second-order injustices. We might say that liberals deny, while conservatives affirm, that life is tragic.

Why Liberal? Why Conservative?

I wonder sometimes what explains whether a given individual is liberal or conservative. Actually, I want to focus on mature individuals, for I believe conservatism increases with age, as experience broadens and deepens. As we age, we see connections better. We grasp cause and effect (in part because we have engaged in trial and error). We understand the importance of tradition, which embodies compromises, bargains, and settlements. We come to value things like security, community, and stability as well as liberty.

Young people yearn to be free. Their predominant value is liberty, understood as the absence of constraint. They care little about the past or the future. Like animals, they are riveted in the present, uninterested in what came before them and oblivious to what is to come. They think they're immortal. They do not yet have a stake in society. When they acquire a stake, as most do (some do not survive the turbulence of youth), their perspective changes. This -- an enlarged perspective -- is an important component of wisdom. Yes, I'm saying that conservatism and wisdom are directly correlated. You're wiser now than you were ten or twenty years ago, aren't you? Is that an accident?

My liberal friends, bless their bleeding hearts, had easy, undemanding upbringings. In some cases they were only children. They never had to work, or if they did, it was symbolic. Everything was handed to them by their indulgent parents. Little was demanded of them; much was given to them. This, I believe, led them to think that everyone else had similar advantages.

But that's false, as anyone who grew up in a working-class family with siblings knows. Many of us worked damn hard for everything we got -- or else we didn't get it. Nothing was handed to us. We borrowed money or earned scholarships (or both) to go to college; we worked long hours in factories during our summers to earn spending money for the school year; we stayed home instead of running off on spring break; we drove battered, unreliable vehicles; we found cheap (but usually wholesome) ways to recreate and entertain ourselves.

If I'm right about this, then many liberals are guilty of projecting their own narrow and unrepresentative experience onto others. They're ignorant of the connection between (1) effort, initiative, discipline, risk-taking, hard work, and sacrifice and (2) wealth. They think money grows on trees, because they never had to work for it. They think everyone else had indulgent parents who catered to their every whim. They think everyone else had parents who bought them a car, sent them away on vacations, paid their way through college, lavished gifts on them, gave them a credit card, lent them money interest-free, provided housing for as long as they wanted it, and so forth.

I'm only speculating here, but perhaps guilt lies at the bottom of liberalism. Liberals feel guilty for having undeserved advantages. They expiate this guilt not by disposing of their wealth, as one might expect, but by insisting that everyone else's advantages are equally undeserved. This puts everyone into the same moral position, as far as they are concerned. The haves are uniformly and equally guilty. The have-nots are uniformly and equally innocent. But even liberals believe that the guilty must be punished. Redistribution of wealth, to the liberal mind, is retribution. Liberals are retributivists.

Fortunately, most liberals grow out of liberalism by the time they reach middle age. I have. Several of my friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances have. But not all do. It's important to understand why some do not. I believe it's because there are degrees of guilt. The guiltiest of liberals -- those who worked least hard for what they have -- remain liberal the longest. Their guilt, which is unmitigated and intense, is projected indiscriminately and relentlessly onto everyone else. This is leveling with a vengeance. In this perverse way, liberals atone for their imagined sins.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in Logic, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Biomedical Ethics, and Philosophy of Law. Please visit his homepage. He has two blogs: AnalPhilosopher and Animal Ethics. He recently wrote for TCS about The War Over the War in Iraq.


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