sociological liberalism

The discussion over “bleeding heart” libertarians got me thinking a lot about the foundations of various political ideologies. For example, what is the ultimate intuition for modern liberalism? There isn’t a single one. They come in a few flavors:

  • Reformist: Some policies simply need fixing and government is the best way to do it. Think Keynes – we just need the state to manage aggregate demand so business cycles aren’t too bad. I put arguments over public goods in this camp.
  • Redistribution: It’s inherently unfair that some people don’t have enough income, thus was have to use government to redistribute income.
  • Rawlsian: If we  weren’t wedded to our specific interests, rational people would prefer liberal policies to manage risk over the life course and provide collective goods.
  • Utilitarian: On the average, liberal interventions in the economy and society work out pretty well.

There is one intuition for liberalism that isn’t popular, but it deserves some thought. I call it “sociological liberalism.” It goes like this:

  • People and groups can’t be separated. People treat each other in bad ways because of strong personal attachment to groups. Thus, we should proactively create policies that counter people’s tendency toward tribalism.

This is different than other justifications of liberalism. For example, it’s not Rawlsian in that we have to argue about what people in the ideal state would care about. It not fundamentally about redistribution of income or ad hoc reform. It’s about a basic feature of human psychology – the strong, perhaps too strong, attachment to our family, religion, ethnic group, etc. – and how that’s counter our belief that people should be treated with respect.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 13, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

4 Responses

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  1. Isn’t it Rawlsian in some sense, though, in that to sustain your ‘sociological liberalism’ we must argue that people in the ideal state believe that other people should be treated with respect? In both Rawlsian and the sociological liberalism, people must be separated from “naturally occurring” specific interests via government or other institutional intervention. It requires the belief, behind a veil of ignorance, that other groups should be treated with respect (just as your streamlined version of Rawlsian liberalism requires a belief in managing risk, etc.). Not sure the separation is as distinct as you argue.



    June 13, 2012 at 5:00 am

  2. I’m not sure what I believe about this. But I think you don’t need to be Rawlsian to buy into SocLib. For example, we could try to belong to one group based on some form of empathy (e.g., geez, it would suck to be judged on my race). I am not sure if this is logically distinct from the veil of ignorance.



    June 13, 2012 at 5:02 am

  3. One could also argue about just deserts (e.g., what you get shouldn’t be affected by group membership). Don’t think you logically need the veil to get there.



    June 13, 2012 at 5:06 am

  4. Bryan Caplan on Econlog suggested “intellectual Turing tests” in which participants attempt to pass for what they are not. Caplan maintains that Keynesians are better at stating the free market case than libertarians are at explaining the need for intervention. I mention that because I wonder to what extent Prof. Rojas is really a “modern liberal” as opposed to attempting to write like one… at least in this case. The Pew Trust polls, Harris, and Gallup are the places to find out what “liberalism” means at this moment according to those who self-identify.

    On the other hand, it is also perhaps not invalid to invert the lens and suggest that modern liberalism is motivated by a nasty spectrum of motives from envy and hypocrisy to totalitarianism. Liberals want to control other people. That definition sweeps in nominal conservatives who also have the same need, but are focused on other targets. Taxing other people’s income and preventing other people of the same gender from the right to contract are two sides of the same coin. One book calls it “liberal fascism.”

    Studying criminology in college and at university it was too easy to accept that “something” must be done about “harms.” There is no “laissez faire” school of criminology theory that says, “So what?” Apparently, we always have to intervene in the lives of others for their own good. … as we would have others do unto us (or maybe not).

    The brightest aspects of liberalism (as well as conservativism) are found in Richard Hofstadter’s “American political tradition.” We all want maximum opportunities and outcomes for ourselves while distrusting too much power in the hands of others. The tension in those motives pull us together in political debate.


    Michael Marotta

    June 14, 2012 at 9:38 am

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