Friday, October 02, 2009

Why "Liberal" is a term of abuse.

Mark Kleiman Mark Kleiman has a post recounting comments he recieved after a recent lecture he gave. In his words
Then Tuesday night I gave my crime-control pitch at the California Endowment. It was fairly warmly received. But two of the people who came up afterwards to tell me how much they’d liked the talk said something like, “I’m glad they decided not to have some liberal talk about crime.” When I told them that I was an unreconstructed liberal and card-carrying Obamaniac, they were deeply puzzled.
He wonders at this encounter, but I am not nearly so surprised. It is a growing contention of mine that while conservative policies are indeed quite dreadful, horrid really, close on their heels for being dreadful is liberal rhetoric and argument. Liberal policies are, on the whole, quite good, but the arguments we wield, at least those that permeate the public conscientiousness are quite bad. Actually, to be more exact, the leading liberal arguments are often quite mediocre or poor, while much better, liberal arguments are left unstated.

Take crime control and the criminal justice system, for example. I hear often, from liberals, that there is a need to protect the basic rights of the accused, but this is almost invariably presented as a protection for the accused and only for the accused. This is therefore presented as a gift to someone who is accused, that will benefit my neighbors and colleagues only if they are ever accused of a crime, an event that they don't believe will happen. These rights for the accused then come across as a moral obligation my we liberals believe is a moral obligation imposed on my neighbor for the sake of people accused of crimes, the vast majority of whom have, in fact, committed crimes. My neighbor may, therefore be a bit puzzled as to why we have to grant this privilege to these people.

The most persuasive reasons why we need to do this are, oddly, rarely stated, at least in our public arguments. For one thing, the power of the state to prosecute citizens is enormous, and history shows that if that power is not checked then it gets abused. If we grant our magistrates unlimited and unchecked power to prosecute they could then do a much more effective job going after criminals. But they could also, with far less effort to themselves, do a just barely adequate job of going after criminals and use their powers to go after people pointing out their corruption. This later choice is much easier and much more profitable and therefore the one invariable taken. If instead we require that they meet standards of evidence, that they be required to present overwhelming evidence of guilt of an accused defender, they can only accuse someone on the basis of "probable cause" and the other rights of the accused are respected, then our magistrates will need to just go after actual criminals. That is why we want to have these rights respected. If we require the state to respect these rights, then those who do get accused will generally be those who are actually guilty and we will be more secure in the process.

We are also made more secure ourselves, if the state respects the rights of the accused, because it fosters greater faith and confidence in the state and greater willingness to cooperate with police in investigations. By going through the whole process of trial, including the rights of the accused, we make it publicly clear that the state is going after those who are guilty. The rest of us are more likely to be cooperative with such investigations if we have confidence that the state is pursuing people guilty of recognized crimes and not some personal vendetta.

So, in short, the reasons for respecting the rights of the accused include powerful arguments that doing so protects the security of those who do not commit crimes. Indeed, those arguments are sufficient, in themselves, to persuade most everyone that respecting these rights is the correct thing to do. The moral concerns of the fate of the accused, who may indeed be guilty of a monstrous crime, can, and should be, a secondary concern. However, in recent times "liberal" arguments have raised this secondary concern to first place, and left the more significant arguments behind. This, more than anything else, I believe, is the source of "liberal" as a term of abuse.

As I indicated in the first paragraph, I also am coming to believe, that this general tendency for liberals to put weak arguments first and to abandon our strongest arguments is far more wide spread than just the issue of the rights of the accused. More on that in future posts.

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