My political philosophy and personal philosophy are not the same
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My political philosophy and personal philosophy are not the same

Today’s must-read blog post is by Will Wilkinson, musing on the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of how they view personal responsibility. Here’s how he describes his own view, coming from a libertarian background:

I find all of this especially interesting because my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I’ve come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.

I agree that many people are in dire straits and suffering for absolutely no fault of their own, and that policies ought to be in place to provide meaningful material assistance. Still, I find I want an ethos of effort and individual responsibility to prevail, and I continue to think people who chose their way into trouble need to be told exactly what Welch seems to be telling the OWS folk: we’re not going to feel too sorry for you if you made some bad decisions about taking out mortgages and/or student loans, even if everybody you knew was making them too.

And here’s where he breaks ranks with progressives:

Progressives are sincerely inclined to impersonal, socio-cultural explanations of success and failure, but I think they’re also generally of the opinion that an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility will impede the political will to offer assistance to those who ought to get it. I’m not sure that they’re wrong. After all, those who tend to oppose progressive transfers tend to do so partly on the basis of their disbelief in the faultlessness of the needy.

Here’s what I think most conservatives and libertarians fail to understand about liberals. On one hand, we have political philosophy and on the other we have personal philosophy, and they are not the same. I’ve been saying since 2004 that liberals are values voters just like conservatives, it’s just that our values are different.

The sentiments he ascribes to progressives do capture our political philosophy quite well, but not our personal philosophy. I see myself as an agent who has great influence over his own fate, and hold myself responsible for the poor decisions I have made. And when it comes to friends and family members I feel the same way. It would be nice if nobody I knew were without health insurance, but my advice to those who are is to find a way to get a job that provides health insurance. Or to save money they spend on other things and buy individual health insurance instead. My advice to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is to look harder for a job, to acquire new skills, and to cut expenses. At the individual level, the ethos of personal responsibility is the only one that makes sense.

Regardless of what I (or progressives) think the government should do, the truth is that waiting for someone else to bail you out is obviously a non-starter as a personal strategy. As a voter and an activist, my goal is to see the government do more to help people who are victims of the current downturn and of long term economic trends. But at the personal level, my goal is to encourage people to do more to take care of themselves.

Among the people I know, differences in political philosophy do not translate to large differences in personal behavior. Liberals tend to be just as frugal, industrious, and responsible as the conservatives. They also tend to hold themselves to the same moral standards. The idea that a progressive political philosophy translates to a hedonistic personal philosophy is simply incorrect, and I think that most anyone who knows any actual liberals would agree.

6 thoughts on “My political philosophy and personal philosophy are not the same

  1. What I find most galling about the presumption that the needy aren’t faultless is the implicit corollary that the needless must be. Many of the haves, in my experience, did not get there by just the sweat and tears of hard work – those that do tend to be the more minor haves.

    There is plenty of blame to go around if we want to criticize non-upstanding behaviour and I mean plenty.

    The difference is… well, first, it’s harder to feel sympathy for the “victims” at the top – the ones who got there by being upstanding (one is tempted to say in spite of). But the main difference is how many fewer benefit from advantaging the upstanding ones at the top over the ones at the bottom.

    (Aside from that, we have seen, and it really should be very plain by merely thinking about it, that wealth trickles up rather than down. So raising the tide should be in the interest of the wealthy – at least if actual wealth is what they are after, rather than power or status at the expense of wealth. The latter point is probably the elephant in the room.)

  2. Part of the ingrained historical ethos of the USA is that anyone can “make it” if they work hard. It’s one of the reasons so many people immigrate to this country. The unspoken corollary is that if you aren’t doing well you aren’t working hard enough. I think this cultural bias is why many Americans have a hard time accepting that some people (who through no direct fault of their own) need help at times.

  3. @John: And similarly many people who succeed don’t interpret assistance they received as assistance; witness “keep government out of Medicare” or Craig T. Nelson’s infamous question: “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare, did anybody help me out?”

  4. Conservatives seem to look at people like the proverbial bean counters at companies look at headcount. Individuals all have differences, but if you apply an average at all times, anyone falling below the average is faulty.

    The funny thing is how many conservatives I know that didn’t make it, but don’t blame themselves. Every one of their cases is special, but all the other people using assistance are freeloaders. I suspect somewhere inside they have a lot of self-loathing and take it out on other people.

    I agree, that very little I see in actual personal behavior towards bills, work, etc. is much effected by anyone’s political philosophy. I work with several people with different political leanings, but the hardest worker I currently know is pretty damn liberal. And one of the seriously right-wing fanatics who disbelieved global warming, etc. was fired for under performing.

  5. Somewhere along the way we’ve flipped the bit in our culture, and our laws, from belief and pursuit systems that promote enlightened self-interest, to belief in unenlightened/rational self-interest.

    I don’t know if you are following the news of Penn State recently, but it reflects this line of thinking in a real stark way. Everyone performing CYA and those who have the least, are hurt the most.

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