Liberals and Leftists

My post on liberaltarianism sparked some discussion of the distinction between liberals and leftists. In several of my comments, I attempted to lay out the difference, as I see it. I'm not sure that I ever do so all that rigorously or systematically. Fortunately, a piece by Sheri Berman in the latest issue of Dissent sheds light on the distinction.

In outlining her take on the history of the left, Berman writes:

Crudely stated, Marxism had three core points: that capitalism was a great transforming force in history, destroying the old feudal order and generating untold wealth and productivity; that it was based on terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict; and that it would ultimately and naturally be transcended by the arrival of communism...Everyone on the left agreed with Marx on the first two points. By the late nineteenth century, however, some of its sharpest minds began to disagree on the third.

I think it's that second point that distinguishes liberals (of the sort Will and Jonathan and I are interested in bringing into an alliance) and the leftists who are favorite targets of many libertarians (and rightly so, IMO). See, I think leftists really do hold that capitalism is based on "terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict." Welfare liberals, on the other hand, don't think that at all.

To put the point another way, leftists (at least the intellectually honest ones) are quite willing to admit that capitalism has produced some unalloyed good in the world. But a leftist thinks that such progress is the result of a system that, at least on some level, is fundamentally wrong. A free market might well create a lot of wealth, but it does so at the cost of harming some members of society. And so for a leftist, the market is at best something to be tolerated.

Welfare liberals, I think, see the market differently. A liberal disputes the notion that the market is inherently exploitative or that the inequality it produces is a terrible thing. Rawls, for instance, is perfectly willing to countenance inequality in the just society, just so long as the promise of the rising tide lifting all boats is more than a nice-sounding metaphor. And even the stridently partisan Paul Krugman defends child labor in foreign sweatshops as reasonable, given the available alternatives.

It's possible to think that the market is a fundamentally good thing while also seeing those who inevitably fall through the cracks as a public goods problem. One can defend some sort of safety net without thinking that markets are built on the backs of the exploited. That's the type of person I'd call a liberal.

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"At best something to be

"At best something to be tolerated" strikes me as precisely the attitude of most liberals politicians and thinkers towards the market, and even that degree of tolerance is extended only towards the highly regulated market of the existing interventionist system. Liberals usually treat the for-profit private sector the way some of the more ascetic early Christians treated sex- a certain amount of it has to be tolerated for society to continue, alas, but it's still a dirty and shameful thing, and those who remain unsullied by it are spiritually superior to those do not.

And even the stridently

And even the stridently partisan Paul Krugman defends child labor in foreign sweatshops as reasonable, given the available alternatives.

Defended, anyway. That was back when he was still a practicing economist.