The Law & Economy Spectator

Liberalism Explained

By From the September 2012 issue

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THE HOTTEST BOOK THIS SUMMER is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, on how liberals and conservatives see the world differently. Haidt, an NYU psychologist, wrote the book to explain that conservatives are not the morally repellant lizardbrains that his fellow liberals take them to be. Instead, conservatives simply have a different hierarchy of virtues and place a higher value on freedom, loyalty, and purity (which explains why we disagree about Obama, Alger Hiss, and Sandra Fluke).

While there’s something to this, I suggest that ideological differences have a physiological basis, for liberalism is also characterized by short-term memory loss. Liberals have an excellent memory for things that happened, say, four years ago, but quickly forget things that occurred more recently. For instance: In the dark days of the Bush era, the left was sharply critical of the prison at Guantanamo, renditions of prisoners to unsavory allies, the surveillance programs under the Patriot Act, military tribunals, and interrogation methods such as waterboarding. Under the Obama administration, Guantanamo remains open, renditions continue, domestic surveillance has greatly increased, military tribunals still try terrorist prisoners, and the inconvenient interrogation techniques have been replaced by a take-no-prisoners policy of drone executions, with the president personally selecting the targets from “baseball cards” of terrorists. Civilian casualties— CivCas, in the modern dehumanizing argot— are kept artifi cially low through a policy of counting all military-aged men in a compound as terrorists, though even then, the drones still kill some women and children. But none does offend.

Some might regard this as an example of the rankest hypocrisy. I, more generously, see it as an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, of synapses going kerplunk. The liberal is like the aged parent who remembers the Truman administration like it was yesterday but can’t remember yesterday, and certainly cannot bring to mind what’s happening today. He struggles valiantly against Herbert Hoover but draws a blank when someone mentions August unemployment numbers. His Obama chooses not to enforce laws he dislikes, makes recess appointments over the weekend, and ignores inconvenient bankruptcy laws in order to prop up political allies, but the Imperial Presidency is a memory from four years ago, and what happened in between is the unknown country.

The short-term memory loss is most apparent when it comes to the environment. Remember that? We used to talk about it, not so long ago. Back then there was someone called Al Gore, a bloviating monster of environmental sanctity whose head seemed always about to explode into a green mushroom cloud. Where is he now? Under some 1970s pet rock, perhaps? Or is he, along with Cindy Sheehan,interned in a Code Pink detention camp?

The environment is a useful tool with which to beat Republicans, since Democrats own the issue. Republicans might profess to care about the environment, but really can’t be Trusted to spend wastefully on it. Only Democrats can credibly claim that they’ll throw money down green rat holes. And yet, how is it that the issue has so entirely faded from view?

The answer, of course, is that the economy trumps the environment. A green environment is something economists call a luxury good. It’s a convenient dogma during fat years and an inconvenient one in lean years. It’s Michelle Obama’s steak and arugula, which people eat more of in good times than during a macaroni-and-cheese recession. We’re happy to spend money on clean air and clean water in flush times, not when the economy is in the tank. That’s why rich countries are greener than poor ones, why the environment fared so poorly in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and why we haven’t heard much about carbon taxes of late. The irony is that conservatives provide the prescription for a sound economy and for the wealth that pays for a clean environment, while leftists who profess their love for Mother Earth despoil the environment through wealth-destroying policies.

In expressing his concern for the environment, the liberal is parasitic upon the conservative’s moral language as well as his wealth-generating policies. For the most part, he disdains the conservative’s common-sense morality. Instead, Haidt tells us, liberals speak of care for others, expelling their compassion like an octopus expels its ink, indiscriminately and in all directions, as William F. Buckley memorably described the thought processes of Eleanor Roosevelt. When it comes to sins against Mother Earth, however, the liberal sounds like Cotton Mather, thundering against the most insignificant worm that God ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth. It’s not just that the conservative would spend too few resources on the environment; it’s that his failure to do so makes him a moral leper.

THE SAME THEFT of the conservative’s moral language can be observed when the liberal talks about future generations and the environment. Liberals generally have myopia about the future, along with their short-term memory loss about the past. Nothing is further removed from modern liberalism, for example, than a moral ecology that shows a concern for the social pathologies unwed mothers impose on future generations, or the costs same-sex marriage might impose on the institution of marriage. Such costs might or might not arise, but the point is that liberals typically think them irrelevant. Gays have a right to marry, end of question. And yet when it comes to the environment, the liberal worries that we are despoiling our patrimony and leaving a ruined inheritance for our children.

It is, however, the conservative who has a true regard for the future, for the way in which those alive today are bound up with those who come before and after in a Burkean social contract. While the liberal frames the debate about social justice in terms of payoffs to people around today, not those who will come after, the question of intergenerational justice, of what we owe future generations, is—for all its uncertainties and confusion—the principal moral and political issue of our time. The debt crisis, whose existence liberals deny, is a crisis precisely because it may impoverish our children. So, too, is the decline in our economy.

Average U.S. GDP growth from 2001 to 2010 was 1.69 percent per year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For some emerging economies, notably China, the growth rate was on average 10 percent per year over that period. If these trends continue, the United States will be quickly overtaken, not only as an economic power but also as a provider of social welfare and a clean environment. Do not send, therefore, to ask what future generations want of us; they sincerely want us to be rich, so long as we don’t pass the bill on to them.

Roger Scruton’s splendid new book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet, is an attempt to rescue the conservative’s moral language that the liberal purloins when he talks about the environment. It is properly the conservative, writes Scruton, who is entitled to speak of the environment in terms of debts to future generations. From the liberal’s memory loss about the recent past and myopia about the future, the conservative emerges to see the stars.

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law.