When I was in elementary school–I don’t recall the particular year, but I must have been in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade–I was stopped by a gang of older boys as I rode my bike across the school playground one summer day. They mobbed around me, with one straddling my front wheel, both hands on my handlebars, preventing me from going anywhere.
One quickly grabbed my Little League baseball hat and said he wouldn’t give it back, although I still had a grip on it, with my fingers looped around the sizing strap on the back of the hat. I don’t recall my exact words, but I’m sure that I whined to have it back. At that point I might have even cried. I was terrified, angry, and hurt–these were my neighbors, after all. Their brothers and sisters were in my class. I had played at some of their houses.
There was some conversation, and finally one of the older kids–his name was Tom and he was a great big kid with a head full of bright red hair–suggested that if I could hold onto my hat for one minute, I could keep it. Of course I agreed. I didn’t have a choice.
As someone started timing on his watch, the other boy holding the hat started twisting it as fast as he could as I held fast to the strap. Soon the hat was twisted into a small rope, the hole that my fingers were in was closed and compressed around my fingers. As he continued twisting, it was as if a noose was being tightened around my fingers. The pain was intense, but now I was nothing but angry.
Just recalling it now makes me want to punch the smug smirks off of those bullies’ faces.
Eventually, the minute ended and I rode away with my hat on my head. While I don’t have many distinct memories of those years, I do recall walking in the house and telling Mom and her horrified and sympathetic reaction. I remember how the sunlight coming through the windows looked on the kitchen tiles. I don’t remember if I did cry, and I’m not sure if I was so relieved to be free that I did, or if I was so angry that I couldn’t.
I have a few assumptions to lay out here, principal among them is that we’re all liberals. That is, unless there are any monarchists among us who believe in the Divine Right of Kings. So, except you monarchists, we all want a political system that values individual freedom above all. I’m also assuming that you support the rights of freedom of thought and speech, the rule of law, private property, free markets, and elections that are fair and open to all citizens.
Given that, when I’m explaining why I’m a liberal, I’m really explaining why I’m a social liberal–OK, and a cultural liberal–rather than an American conservative. And if you agree with all that, you’ll also perhaps see why I believe that we all have far more in common than we have dividing us. I believe that what separates us most often is our differing interpretations of certain terms.
And so, from here forward, when I write “liberal,” you can read that as “American social and cultural liberal,” and when I write “conservative,” you can read that as “American conservative.”
I’ll never forget Mr. Chanteloup, my economics instructor in my junior year of high school, for his condolences on my father’s death. Mr. C, who was almost certainly a conservative although he remained steadfastly impartial in class, gave a definition of the differences between liberals and conservatives that I’ve pondered ever since, and generally found to be true:
- Conservatives believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions.
- Liberals believe that individuals are products of their environment and circumstances.
I believe that we all share a right to individual freedom. Those boys had no right to stop me from enjoying my freedom as I rolled across the playground. But, wait a minute…don’t they have the right to their own freedom? Nobody should tell them to stop bullying me; they should be free to do as they please, right?
Yeah, I don’t buy that argument either.
So, the real deal is that I believe in the right to individual freedom that doesn’t impinge anyone else’s right to freedom, which is where this gets tricky.
Should I have the right to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater? No.
Should you have the right to shoot me? No.
Should financial traders have the right to invest in financial instruments with wild abandon to the point that the economy collapses, costing people their homes, jobs, and retirement funds? Hm. Good question.
This is what I meant when I said that conservatives and liberals generally agree on the big issues but part ways on the interpretation of them.
I believe that it’s reasonable to regulate the activities of those who we can reasonably assume pose a risk to the majority of us through their actions. We do this for criminals through the courts and penal system, we do this for convicted felons through the probation system, and they generally affect individuals or small groups of people.
I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t regulate the activities of those who could ruin the lives of millions of people, such as businessmen, who generally get a free pass for their crimes, even when they sign off on a policy of letting people immolate rather than paying for inexpensive repairs. Or when they refuse to recall or take responsibility for their products that result in the deaths of babies.
Many of us assume that we have complete freedoms, but this is not true. Even our right to assemble is restricted–we only have a right to peaceably assemble, not to form a mob and riot.
If we, as classical liberals desire, had complete freedom from coercion in all aspects of our life, we would likely live in a state of anarchy that would compel us to impose some structure on our society that would slightly restrict our individual freedoms in the near term but ensure our greater freedoms over the long term. In fact, I believe that’s exactly how we’ve gotten to where we are today.
Going back to the gang of bullies in the schoolyard, a simple explanation for how that event helped me become a liberal would be that as a result of it I just don’t like being told what to do, and feel an almost unbridled hatred for bullies, and so I want a political system that won’t tell me, or anyone, what to do. While the first two statements are true, the conclusion isn’t a result of them, and it’s not entirely true, either.
Or, you could say that the schoolyard punks, whose behavior resulted in an overpowering dislike of bullying behavior in me, showed me that as much as I want to love everyone equally, I’m a product of my environment and circumstances. However, that’s in direct opposition to my feeling that those bullies are individually accountable for their actions.
You might as well say that I’m a liberal because I grew up reading the San Francisco Chronicle, or because I’m left-handed I’m naturally inclined to the left side of the political spectrum, or because there’s something in the fog that makes all the people in the Bay Area such hippies.
The reality is that I don’t know what made me a liberal. As far as I can tell, I was born this way. And that makes sense–who would choose to be a liberal in the Reagan-Bush-Bush-Cheney era? I know I’m contrary by nature, but choosing that is like choosing to lay down before a speeding locomotive rather than ride the train.
But, despite the pressure and influences that might lead me to become a conservative, I’ve stayed a liberal. Why? Just because some boys beat me up one day? OK…beat me up over several days throughout elementary school, with one particular episode that lodged in my mind like a chicken bone in a dog’s throat.
No, that’s not why I’m a liberal either, but it does serve as an illustration of why I’ve stayed a liberal.
When I was in high school, I ended up playing soccer on teams with some of those same bullies from that day on the schoolyard. By then, we had all gotten past whatever differences we had when we were younger, and could be friendly. Although I admit that it was pretty hard to have complete trust in them at that time, we could certainly work together to play soccer.
How can that be?
That can happen because all of us continued through school and became educated. We learned how to better live with our neighbors, resolve our differences, and work for the common good. And we were able to do that because our government provided for our education.
Why would the government do such a thing as educate children? Why do Americans willingly pay taxes to support this practice? To both questions, the answer is because an educated citizenry benefits all of us. I can’t prove the cause and effect, but I don’t think that is just a coincidence that America’s technology revolution started after WWII, when taxpayers willingly paid for GI’s to get a college education.
We all benefit when we’re all educated because we’re all dependent on one another, whether we can see it, want to admit it, and whether we like it or not.
My fundamental belief that makes and keeps me a liberal is that we’re better off working together than we are individually. While I prize individual freedom above all, I also understand that there are those who would take my freedom from me. When I was a boy, it was other boys who wanted to take my peace of mind from me as I tried to cross the playground. Now, I understand that there are those who would take my peace of mind, and my life if they could, as I try to travel the world.
What saved me as a boy was that the crowd was better than any one of its members, and I believe that the same holds true for us as a society and as a country. After all, that’s the foundation of democracy–that the wisdom of all people is combined for the good of all people, and that the true goal of a political system is not total individual freedom for everyone, but the maximum individual freedom for all.
Yes, that leads to some compromises, such as the funding of schools through taxes, which restricts my financial freedom, but which benefits me by educating and empowering me and which increases the overall standard of living within our society. And even though we’re guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms, we prevent citizens from keeping howitzers and hydrogen bombs in their backyards to protect us all from neighborly rivalries spilling over into regional conflicts or armageddon. And although it adds to the cost of our children’s toys, we regulate the design and manufacture of them to ensure that they don’t harm or kill our children. And we collectively benefit from those restrictions when they pay their social dividends.
Further, we gather together to do with each other what none of us could do alone and what no business would, such as bailing out the victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes or providing assistance to tornado and earthquake victims. As wealthy and as philanthropic as they are, I didn’t see Google or Microsoft providing sandbags to flood victims, or rebuilding their roads, or sewage systems. There are some functions that a society requires that can only be addressed through the collective work of all of its members, even if that is through a representative democracy, not direct action.
Which proves Mr. Chanteloup correct, at least in the case of me and my beliefs. I believe that while we are born with certain innate qualities–3B’s cheerful personality and boundless optimism are a constant example–we are products of our environment and circumstances, and that that environment includes other people. We are all products of one another, and so just as my actions benefit you, yours benefit me. It is in all of our mutual interests to support and sustain each other, and by so doing, we can also ensure that each of us maintains as much freedom as possible, which is the goal that I believe we all share.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.