About an hour ago, I read an interesting (though, in my opinion, not quite on-the-money) analysis of the differing views held by conservatives and liberals (where I am defining both terms in their contemporary North American context) of the notion of “responsibility.” According to this analysis, the archetypical liberal tends to believe that all fortune one encounters, good and bad, tends to be due to societal factors beyond their control, whereas the archetypical conservative tends to believe that all fortune one encounters, good and bad, tends to be the due to personal actions and one’s intrinsic qualitities as an individual.
While I think that these are both to some extent straw-man characterizations of the two political philosophies, I believe that they are a useful mnemonic, with one’s position on the left-right political spectrum** being roughly given by how closely one hews to one conception or the other.
And, much as I hate the Golden Mean Fallacy, I for one think that it is pretty obvious that the truth in this instance actually, legitimately does lie somewhere in the middle. Let us say for example that we have two people, both of them of the same race, both of them of the same class and sex, both of them of comparable backgrounds, indeed, both of them being identical with one another in every respect excepting that which is inside; one of them is industrious and the other lazy, one is smart, the other is stupid and so on. I think that it is pretty obvious that (at least outside of a communist country), the smart, industrious one will tend to prosper whereas the lazy, stupid one will tend to fall behind.
On the other hand, let us imagine that our two people are identical only in their work ethic. One was born into the upper class, the other born into poverty; one is white, the other black; one is a man, the other a woman, one came from a stable family, the other came from a broken home and so on. I should think that it is equally obvious that the one with all of the privileges (granted to them by forces beyond their control) will rise tend to rise whereas the other will (once again, suffering circumstances also beyond their control) will tend to fall behind.
Thus we see that the outcome of someone’s life is motivated by circumstances both inside and outside of their control, although I think that reasonable people can disagree as to which has the bigger influence. I think that it is also clear, however, the which has the biggest influence depends upon the society in question. I shall further make clear that it is my belief that a moral society should maximize the extent to which circumstances inside of an individual’s control affect his life, and minimize the influence of external factors.
In practice, what I mean by this is that the government must play a role in levelling-out the initial conditions (i.e, by insuring that everyone in the country has satisfactory access to the necessities of life; proper nutrition, housing, education, healthcare and the like) as well as in mitigating the effects of undeserved privilege (for example, through civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, sex, orientation, gender identity or the like). By so doing, I believe that will ensure that people of genuine, individual merit succeed in life, whereas those without merit fall back as they deserve. In practice, this should manifest itself as high relative social mobility, both upwards and downwards. To some extent, the state already does this; some will say that it already does it well enough, whereas other will say it already does too much, but I for one believe, based on the current state of wealth distribution, and on the fact that the funding for social programs has been decreased precipitously over the past few decades in comparison to the post war era, that the state has to do more.
You may have noticed some inherent contradictions to this philosophy. My goal is to reward individual merit through collective action. More specifically, in order to ensure equality of opportunity, I am proposing measures which (to some extent at least) must necessarily distort the outcomes. To this, I can reply only that such compromise is necessary, for the very simple reason that one generation’s “outcome” is the next generation’s “opportunity.” There is a fine line to walk, in this regard, as too much redistribution will kill incentive for success, whereas not enough will kill equality of opportunity. At the moment, however, it is pretty clear that we are alot closer to killing equality of opportunity than we are to killing economic incentive, and so, in this sense, I regard myself as a ‘liberal.’
*Readers will notice the deliberate use of the lowercase.
** Which is itself an oversimplification, but nevertheless