One would expect a candidate for office to have a clear understanding of their own values system. And often times, when we cannot be bothered to learn all there is about a candidate personally or politically, identifying them with a specific values system like Christian values, conservative values, liberal values, or what have you, can be a convenient signal of how they’ll act once in office. You can’t know exactly how they’ll respond to every piece of legislation, every unpredictable event that occurs while they’re in office, but if they share your values, they’ll do what’s right. Right?
But I’ve found that most philosophies mean different things to different people. That won’t be a surprise to you, we’ve all seen ruthless party primaries where candidates contend over the title of true conservative/liberal, we’ve all heard people quoting from the same books or sources in ever escalating attempts to discredit the other. I have, in the past, struggled to find a political philosophy that I can identify with, usually bouncing somewhere between classical liberalism, radical centrism, and progressivism. Unfortunately for me as well as clarity everywhere, what those terms mean to people is constantly and rapidly changing as evidenced by the fact I must call it classical liberalism and not simply liberalism.
I still consider myself to be all those things. But ask people what they think any of these terms mean and they’ll tell you something else entirely. I’m done having semantic fights trying to justify my terminology, I’d much prefer to have fights justifying the content of my philosophy. So rather than providing you a short hand to see if my values match yours, I think instead I’ll tell you as clearly and directly what my values are. Actions, of course, speak louder than words, but as I’ve never held office you have no record to hold me to. Fortunate for me, not so much for the voters. Let’s begin.
I’m a radical in that I seek swift and comprehensive reforms, I’m a radical in that I will fight fervently for what I believe to be right, and I’m a radical in that I remain uncompromising in my core values. I’m a centrist in that my policies fall somewhere in the center of the political spectrum because I do not see the community and the individual as being at odds, because I see a role for the government, markets, and commons in building our future, and because I believe in a pragmatic, experimental approach to policy making. I am a progressive like the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt ready to fight for democratic reforms in government and trustbusting. I am a progressive because I wish to see society progress and push the frontier. And I am a progressive because I see it as an imperative that we make tremendous investments in our future. I am a liberal in that I am unsatisfied with the status quo, I am a liberal in that I am forever distrustful of the concentration of power in any form, and I am a liberal because I fundamentally believe in securing liberty for all people, for all individuals as only a free people can ensure all else that I believe can come to fruition. And, of course, I’m classical because I am simply classic.
That’s a little unsatisfying, I know. None of this is really telling you whether I share your values or not. But do you really care? Do you know what values you hold and how dearly you hold them? I’ve followed politics most of my life and made it my mission to understand the nature of society. Being twenty-two that’s not saying much and I welcome your disagreement with my next point because I so dearly wish to be proven wrong. I’ve asked this before and I’ll ask again because it’s a question we need to grapple with as a country. Do you know what America stands for anymore? I don’t think we stand for anything anymore. Sure, there are those things we claim to stand for but there isn’t a national consensus on what that is, and actions speak louder than words. What do our actions say about us?
On the world stage we bomb, invade, withdraw, and invade again. We routinely hold other countries to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. We’re for free trade when it benefits us, then we’re against it all together. We push for treaties and international law and refuse to ratify it at home. We’re for the liberal democratic order (as in democratic government and free markets) and then we’re best friends with autocrats and dictators when it’s convenient.
At home we claim to love small business then we give institutional advantages to the largest oligopolies. When the recession hit we gave trillions of dollars to the banks that caused it and abandoned the millions of Americans who lost their homes, their savings, and who the banks defrauded. We claim to value liberty and justice, yet we have the highest incarceration rate in the world and a justice system that favors the powerful and the well off. Every politician campaigns on the exploding debt, our crumbling infrastructure, and fixing the welfare system. But in office they spend most of their time on political grandstanding, the bills they do pass are corporate giveaways. The debt continues to grow, infrastructure continues to crumble, and the welfare system continues to be an inefficient, bureaucratic nightmare bankrupting the country without delivering results. More than anything else, fighting the culture wars is what defines our political parties, pandering to the single-issue voters and identity politics. Rarely what decides our vote is what is best for the country or our fellow Americans.
It’s not that our representatives are incompetent or that our government is corrupt. It is like this because there is nothing that unifies us anymore as a country. The government carries out the will of the people, it is beholden to us. But we don’t know what we want, every two or four years we give the other party control, Congress’s approval rating is consistently in the low teens, and a majority of Americans always think the country is on the wrong track, no matter who is in charge. Without core values we have become fickle, easily swayed by a cult of personality, the latest social trends, or whatever our preferred media tells us to want.
Yes, the American people have totally abandoned their responsibility as citizens of this country. And if we aren’t giving our representatives orders, who do you think they’re going to be taking them from? Anyone who can sway the outcome of their next election; the special interests, big donors, talking heads, and their party bosses. We put them in charge of our government, they didn’t have to conspire to take power, we made this happen. I think we might just be lazy idiots, we totally squandered our opportunity as the oldest democracy in the world, probably because we got complacent with it. You want to know my values? Figure out your own first.
But I’m an optimist and still a politician so I’m not going to end this by saying I have no faith in voters and America has no future (Prove me wrong voters, prove me wrong). We need to have a discussion of our values and now that I’ve finished insulting you, your loved ones, and this country, maybe you’re feeling up to it. I will lay out the values and ideals I believe America should stand for, drawing on my previously stated values (convenient that America’s values should agree with mine) and my (selective) reading of history. At the end, I encourage you to disagree, to debate me, to denounce me and everything I stand for, but then you have to stand for something, find the values you truly hold dear, that you can articulate, and that you’re willing to fight for.
Liberty and freedom are terms that are bandied about quite a bit because of course, who doesn’t love liberty? But at some point we must stop and consider what liberty is and what it means to live by it as a guiding principle. Liberty, in simplest terms, is choice. The greater your ability to choose how you live, how your country is governed, and what you consume, the more liberty you have. That’s not going to be the most common definition, but that’s my definition. Most things in life are out of our control, so those choices we do get to make, while not always important, define who we are. And on a large scale, the choices we make define our future.
Every day we must make choices, small choices like what we have for breakfast and bigger choices like what religion to practice and which political system to support. These choices help us understand the world, they teach through trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. The better our choices, the better our lives. It is then in our interest as individuals, as a country, as a species, to have the most and best choices available to us as possible.
That choice is so important to a better world is not something everyone has always understood and many still do not understand today. It is why, in the long run, dictatorships and planned economies tend to fail. These systems of government were choices we had and choices we still have, but we do not choose them because we’ve learned from the mistakes of others and the past. Yes, there are still people in this country who would advocate for those forms of government and we must guard against that. One way to achieve this is to remember what liberty stands for, hold liberty as a guiding principle, and be wary of those who claim to stand for it when their actions speak otherwise.
In practice, what does it mean to be a country that values liberty? I think first and foremost it is about preserving our democratic institutions: ensuring all Americans their right to vote and participate in our democracy, rooting out corruption and making government responsive to the people, and limiting the growth of the bureaucracy. America was founded on the idea that a free people could best govern themselves. Our ability to govern ourselves is what makes us great.
A country that values liberty would strive to protect the liberties of people, of individuals. For America to be a country that values liberty we must end our practice of mass incarceration. We can not claim to be a free country when we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. A country that values liberty would have a justice system that protects all people from wrongful imprisonment, that does not place one person above another, that does not criminalize behavior that harms no one, and that does not seek to turn its people into modern day slaves.
To be a country founded in liberty we cannot empower the state to invade the lives of its people. We must not be a police state, we must not be a garrison state, we must not be surveilled by the state. Liberty is distrustful of power. Liberty cannot be exchanged for security and still be liberty. We cannot claim to be for liberty and then celebrate when we take it away from those we see as opponents.
To value liberty must mean more than just political liberty, it must extend to economic liberty. This means the ability to participate fully and freely in the market. A choice made in desperation is not a true choice. Often, people attempt to claim economic liberty means government has no place in the market. That is incorrect. The government can have a place in the market and often should. A free market means fair and equitable exchange, otherwise one would not freely participate in it. A choice made in desperation is not a true choice.
I’ll say it again, liberty is about choice. It is about being able to choose how we live without being unfairly punished or unduly burdened. Where there is not choice there is not liberty. Put bluntly, you should have a choice in your government, in who represents you, and who you do business with, and if they screw you over, you should have a reasonable alternative.
We have always prided ourselves on being a land of opportunity, so it seems right that opportunity should be one of our core values. Opportunity is the ability to improve one’s station with hard work, intelligence, or both. Opportunity is the American dream, the idea that we are capable of making something of ourselves, of giving our lives meaning. In the past opportunity has been evident in America’s social mobility, when people born poor could easily enter a higher class and achieve a higher standard of living. At present, social mobility is next to nonexistent as the circumstances of one’s birth is likely to dictate one’s entire future. Not only is that a land without opportunity, that is a land without liberty. If your life is determined entirely by events before your birth, you are not free.
What then, does a land of opportunity look like and how can we achieve it? Living in a land of opportunity means entering the educational system and coming out of it in a better position than you started. Where people can develop and nurture intelligence and creativity. Where that intelligence and creativity can be applied and combined with hard work and determination to achieve great things. It means a market, a government, a society where institutional bias and advantages do not exist. Where merit is the primary deciding factor. Our market economy must be as open as possible with free entry and exit. Innovation must be held in the highest regard, even above profit margins.
In many cases it’s a simple task to achieve opportunity, all that is required is an end to rent seeking, an end to crony capitalism. The government cannot be a tool for the wealthiest, the largest companies, and special interests to gain advantage above and beyond the rest of the country. A simple task but difficult to accomplish. A serious push for anti-corruption legislation is needed.
In other cases the task is more complex. Dismantling long standing institutional barriers, separating historical and geographical advantages from true merit is next to impossible and sure to anger those who benefit from those advantages. Opportunity means change and change is not always amenable to those in power, but it is necessary for success. What is required is investment. Investment in education, in innovation, and in our communities. That is how we begin to build an opportunity society.
E Pluribus Unum
Present on the Great Seal of the United States, the phrase represents a clear founding ideal of the country, Out of Many, One. It is an ideal we would be well served to remember now, more than ever. We do not always agree with each other, in fact it is rare if not not impossible to see unanimity in America, but the design of our republic is such that it is a feature. We have great diversity in America. Diversity of cultures, diversity of people, diversity of politics, diversity of thought, diversity of religion, environmental diversity, diversity of goods, and even diversity of government. Diversity is perhaps one of our greatest assets. Yet it is undervalued and misapplied.
To succeed as a country, we must rediscover what “E Pluribus Unum” means. We must embrace our diversity. We cannot seek to destroy those whose ideas conflict with our own. We cannot seek to impose our will on the entire nation. We must recognize the potential of states as true laboratories of democracy and not an extension of Democrat and Republican national agendas. We must recognize the individual history and potential of our cities, towns, and rural communities. One policy will not work the same everywhere, our thinking must change to focus on bottom-up policy making, working at the lowest practical level. Every American has many identities, they are part of many groups, their country, their state, their school, their political party, their social clubs, their sports, their professions, etc. and they are individuals.
Out of all these differences, all these states and governments, cultures and communities, we begin to build a national identity. Our diversity, our eclecticism, our willingness to buck the trend is what defines us as a country, it’s what has made us so successful, and our ability to set aside our differences, no matter how large, how we can come together as Americans, as America, is what allows us to lead. Being part of something greater does not and must not diminish our individual identity. If we have to sacrifice who we are to belong, we have lost everything. Often times, people seek to hide from themselves, their past, their poor decisions, their responsibility, in the comfort of masses. Do not succumb to the allure of a mass movement. That is not what E pluribus unum means.
These values are not guarantees by the government, they are societal values. Government cannot and should not impose liberty, opportunity, and unity out of diversity. But if these are values we accept and strive to live by we can hope to be successful as a society and be better people for it. These are the values I see as integral to this country and its history, even when we have not adhered to them, even now as liberty, opportunity, and the spirit of “out of many, one” wane. And all three are deeply connected, I do not believe one can properly exist without the other two. I will fight for these values. I don’t expect you to vote for me, but I ask that you keep these values in mind when you consider your place in this country, when you participate in our democracy, and as you go about your life. Do not view all those who disagree with you with suspicion, do not disdain those who have lived a different life of different opportunity, and respect the choices of others. And spend just a little time thinking about what your values are, what our country’s values are, and what you stand for. This country is worth fighting for, but it has to stand for something better first.