Monday, May 26, 2014

Inclusive liberty or no liberty at all

Inclusive liberal democratic societies face a challenge: What happens if the people we allow to participate don't want to be free? Do loose immigration policies and multiculturalism endanger freedom?

The concern of the day (though historically I doubt it's exceptional) is about Muslims. The argument goes like this: "Muslims have a higher birth rate than other groups in Western countries, and many of them want something like Sharia law and an Islamic state. Islam lacks an appreciation for the civic virtues that support liberal democracies in primarily Judeo-Christian countries. If we admit Muslims freely and allow them to vote, they will become too powerful and we will end up less free - or not free at all."

I don't believe any part of that is true, but let's suppose that all of it was. What's a liberal democracy to do?

I argued earlier that the way to promote the virtues that support a free society is to practice (and test and defend) them, and that practicing them is done by standing up for one another. If it is to be meaningful and robust, liberalism must be a fundamentally cooperative and inclusive exercise.

If we make concessions that allow infringements on the liberties of others, however targeted they may be, we erode support for the values we claim we're trying to save. If our liberal institutions are in danger, we are making them more vulnerable by allowing targeted concessions.

If the laws and values of a liberal society are not robust to the challenges presented by a specific group, they are not robust at all. Those who are willing to make exceptions because of one perceived threat open the door to others. They should not be surprised if they are blindsided - perhaps by those they empowered to make their exceptions.

There is no quick and easy solution. Liberty is a collaborative exercise, not a free-for-all. If we want to preserve the foundations of a liberal society, we must enforce them. The best, maybe the only, way to do that is to insist they are upheld consistently and for everyone.

What are the virtues of a free society?

What role does virtue play in establishing or maintaining a liberal polity? What virtues play that role? How can we best foster those virtues?

Ask a group of economists and a group of philosophers the first question and you may see them split down the middle: Economists tell you that you need to get the incentives right, while philosophers insist that it's all about virtue. Incentives are definitely important - but what do we do when the rules, and the incentives to fix them, are wrong? That's where virtue, or something like it, comes in.

I'm convinced the relevant virtues must include humility (we don't know all the answers to complex problems or what's best for others), respect (because we don't know what's best), patience (fostering prudence), vigilance for and tenacity in the face of adversity, and creativity (problem solving). They are built through habit, but must be justified by results and through discussion.

As liberals, nothing should upset us more than when the state forces us to act worse than we are. When laws prohibit us from feeding the homeless, or paying for someone else's parking, we need to stand up for one another. Tenacious insistence on not only our own ability, but the ability of others to act decently - to be free! - emboldens us to stand against further injustice. It builds relationships with those we defend. It teaches us the cooperative skills (bolstered by humility and respect) that are needed to find meaningful solutions to complex societal problems that are otherwise tossed to the government and forgotten.

The virtues that support a liberal society are not what we think of as heroic virtues. They are built on small acts that lie within reach for each and every one of us.