Welcome everyone to The Liberal Conservative. I am your host, Jonathan Lenhardt. What I have in store for you fine people today is pretty special. We at Liberal America were afforded an excellent opportunity to speak with Howard I. Schwartz, PhD.
Howard is a thought-provoking, insightful author on the subjects of political philosophy and liberty. He received his PhD from Brown University and has spent years in a variety of fields including professor of religious studies at several higher education institutions as well as working as both an executive and business consultant in the for-profit sector. His new book is called Beyond Liberty Alone: A Progressive Vision Of Freedom And Capitalism In America. It’s available now at online retailers such as Amazon. Without further delay, my discussion with Dr. Schwartz.
Jonathan Lenhardt: To start, just to get the ball rolling, would you mind telling us a bit about yourself and where the foundation of your political philosophy comes from?
Howard Schwartz: I had an interesting journey from being a professor of religious studies to working in the for profit world of the software industry. That journey shaped me and alerted me to the fundamental differences in these worlds. In parallel to that personal journey, and partly because of it, I was becoming increasingly concerned with the narrative around liberty that had taken such a prominent place in our culture. I felt that that narrative was destructive to our moral selves, our planet and our country. The convergence of these two things led me to write this book.
I became concerned with the way in which liberty had been taken hostage by the political Right. To me, it felt like a wedge was being driven between my commitments as an American (to liberty) and my commitments as a progressive or liberal (to compassion, justice, equality). I felt too that the narrative around liberty we were being offered was damaging to our moral selves (soul in religious language) and our planet.
The alternative view of liberty I am offering emphasizes that liberty has always involved sacrifice and responsibility as part of being a person in society and a human being. Indeed, one way to see this side of liberty is to realize that my liberty and rights entail restriction on you and your rights entail restrictions on me. This dual side of freedom and limitation or sacrifice is at the heart of what liberty in society means. This was evident to the natural rights thinkers such as John Locke, whose writings influenced the American conception of liberty and rights. He contrasted liberty in nature to liberty in society, the latter had many more restrictions.
The problem of seeing liberty as simply my rights of life, liberty and property is that it ignores the ways in which everything we do is standing on the shoulders of others before us. The right’s definition of liberty says property comes from my labor and my labor is exclusively my own. But when one realizes that everything we do and everything we produce stands on the shoulders of those who came before us and relies on their labor and what they invented, we realize we carry a debt to the past and are in fact capitalizing on their labor and efforts. The outcome of our labor is not strictly our own. Everything we do rests on the shoulders of labor before us. This insight helps us realize we are more like people who have taken a capital investment from venture capitalists and who have a debt back to those before us. Out of this debt arises responsibility to pay back to the heirs of those earlier investors?..I could go on but this points to the ways in which we carry a debt of responsibility to the past.
The idea of the individual who is isolated in the protection of his rights of life, liberty and property, starts to unravel. And it continues when we look at other rights like property.
JL: Now, of course, you’re speaking with us to talk about your latest book, Beyond Liberty Alone: A Progressive Vision Of Freedom And Capitalism In America. We will be discussing it in just one moment. I did want my first question to briefly touch on current events. As we know a few short weeks ago there was a shift in the American political landscape with Republicans now owning the majority in both the House and the Senate. In your estimation, is this really bad news for the nation’s progressives in the sense that Republicans seem to think it is?
HS: There has been much debate on this point as you know. Republicans clearly trounced Democrats. And that is definitely worrying for those like myself who are seeking a shift in how we think about government and responsibility. Perhaps most worrying is what it portends for the climate crisis we are facing and whether this will be another barrier to making serious efforts to reduce our carbon. But what is not yet completely evident is whether the election signals an endorsement of the right’s philosophy of government or is more anger at Washington. The former is much more serious to me. It is hard to answer this question since not all interest groups voted fully. And there were votes that were much more aligned to the left’s agenda such as minimal wage. So my answer is that this election is very serious and is a wake up call to progressives to figure out how they can make their own views and political philosophy more compelling and credible to the nation.
JL: And that has been an issue with the Democrats for some time now. Struggling to get their message across to swing voters in a compelling way.
On top of being an author you also keep a rather fantastic blog on your website. I do want to discuss something that is quite pertinent to modern America and that is the divide among her citizens. In your blog entry entitled “The Problem Of Stupidity In Democracy” you discuss the potentially hazardous role that factual ignorance can hold in a democracy, but you also allude to the concept of good and evil. You also touch on the idea in your piece “Are The Right And The Left Two Religions At War?” This does seem to be the crux of the stark chasm between American voters on the right and left – the idea that one’s own side is good and the other is evil. Would it be reasonable to say that this is a cognitive divide that is beyond repair or do you think we could once again become a united people one day?
HS: Thanks for your nice comment on my blog. I do think the deep problem here is that we have conflicting worldviews and philosophies with different moralities. And I think the question is ultimately what kind of people do Americans want to be. There are two different different pictures Americans are being offered of their rights, the purpose of government, their place in the world. Right now Americans seem torn between those two views. After reading histories of many periods in American history, I don’t believe we were ever a united people in terms of our moral and political outlook. Even the founding period was pretty vitriolic between Federalists and anti-Federalists. And Jacksonian democracy was political fractures as well. In some sense then the democratic political system itself allows for fundamentally different viewpoints to contest each other. We have a very thin veneer of procedural and substantive commitments in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. After that it is left up to the vote. All of which means that we can have moral and immoral democracies, depending on which view of the world wins. Of course, morality itself is in the eye of the beholder. I have hope, however, that on issues like climate crisis and inequality we can gain ground. After all we have seen our society move on issues like slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage. We have seen an evolving understanding of what equality means and implies. That gives me hope. But we have more work to do.
JL: Hope can certainly be a strong motivator to keep pushing ahead. We’ve seen that it’s exceptionally difficult to stop progress. And thankfully.
On to your latest book – Beyond Liberty Alone. In it the subject at hand is the modern American view of what liberty is and whether or not it’s what the founders actually had in mind. We know now what drew you to this issue, but why is it important for Americans to examine it?
HS: Liberty is the master symbol by which Americans represent to themselves what America is about and how they want to engage in the world. How liberty is conceptualized therefore is tied into and shapes a whole host of other very important issues: how we think about individual rights, the role of government, taxes, regulation in the market, climate change, marriage rights, abortion, etc. The political right has essentially monopolized the concept of liberty since the time of Regan and defined it narrowly to mean protection of my rights and my property. Progressives in turn have ceded the concept to the Right and hung their hat on concepts like justice, compassion, equality. We live in a world with very serious problems and how we think of ourselves and our relationship to each other, to nature and the world is very much tied up in this concept of what liberty means. It is critical to rethink what liberty means so that we see it entails a set of responsibilities, duties and sacrifices and we address head on the kinds of destructive practices that support environmental destruction and inequality. Otherwise, we can go blissfully along our way and continue to destroy the planet and sell our souls.
JL: With a word like “progressive” being square in the subtitle of this work – a word that isn’t looked at too fondly by many on the far-right – what would you say to a hardcore Tea Party Republican voter to try to convince them that your book is necessary – if not worthy, in their eyes ? to read? How would you try to work around that kind of blockade of opinion?
HS: I didn’t write this book for Tea Partiers or Republicans. Their minds are made up. They have had ample opportunity over the last 40 years to articulate a theory of liberty that has in some ways dominated political discourse. That ship has sailed. Instead, I’m writing this to progressives who are looking for a way to reconcile their liberal views with their sense of being American and more importantly to the younger generation who are still making up their minds and who will be the ones to really decide which way America goes in the future. I am hopeful that my book gives them some new language by which to understand and articulate their own commitments and to offer a perspective on liberty that can guide us into the future and galvanize our progressive commitments. Now is the time we have to decide what kind of America we want to create in the 21st century and it is the younger generation that is already and will continue to determine the answer to that question.
JL: Completely understandable. It’s hard to see the Tea Party as anything other than a lost cause at this point.
Sticking with them, though. Looking at a rundown of modern Republican talking points – staunchly pro-gun, spiritually pro-choice and pro-“traditional” marriage, extremely pro-Capitalism, etc. – is there anything there that you feel you can observe as truly in-line with the views of America’s founders based on your studies into the matter?
HS: This is a very good question. As you know, the interpretation of the founders? intent is a lot like the interpretation of Scripture or any piece of literature. There is ammunition for alternative readings. What I find most disturbing is that the Right, including those on the Supreme Court, hold a view of interpretation and history that assumes there is a single literal meaning in the past that is discernible with interpretation. You can see this operating in books that claim they can restore us to the lost constitution. But as anyone who studies the history of Scripture or any literary critic or historian knows, texts and history are inherently ambiguous. It is not possible to get to a single view of intent. The same is true of the founders. For example, I wrote a number of blogs about the Second Amendment, and the amendment is actually quite ambiguous in its intent. You can read it to be about protecting states? rights to marshal a militia or you can see it as protecting an individual right to bear arms. Widening it to the historical context and determine what Madison who drafted it or the history of the amendment does not eliminate the ambiguity. In my view, therefore, we are not locked into some intent by the founders but have the duty to come back to the same questions and grapple with the moral questions behind the law, just as they did. They expected that of us and in fact Jefferson at one point held the view that we should start the laws over from scratch every generation. It may not have been practical but the idea was that every generation has to grapple anew with the moral issues. The same is true of issues like prolife and prochoice, traditional marriage, and even the relationship between regulation and the economy. There is no single view on these positions that can be discerned in the founders? intent.
JL: And that’s something that many ? not only on the Right, but also on the Left ? would be surprised to learn. Just how flexible many of the founders such as Jefferson saw the Constitution and how even they acknowledged that times change and that when they do we should reexamine our liberties. Just goes to show how brilliant they were.
You often reference a variety of philosophers and thinkers. Arguably the most notable being both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes, of course, being the political philosopher credited with the creation of social contract theory and Locke, a highly regarded thinker from the Enlightenment Era who is often referred to as the “Father of Classical Liberalism” perhaps making him – in a way – the father of liberalism as we know it today for those who may not be familiar with them.
With the influence they and other like them had on the men, the thinkers, the philosophers who would shape and craft our nation is it fair to say that the philosophical thread of liberty that runs through our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our way of life precedes the founding of the United States? Does it perhaps even precede Hobbes and Locke themselves?
HS: It is clear that many of the ideas that shaped the founders were developed and refined by the philosophers of natural rights, such as Hobbes and Locke, with whose ideas the founders? grappled. They were the ones who articulated the notion of rights being self-evident and all people being equal, ideas that are clearly found in the Declaration and other writings of the founding period.
This is one of the reasons I engage with them to show that the current view of liberty and rights that dominates today is really only a partial view of what liberty meant as it was being articulated by those who influenced the American founders the most. Of course, Hobbes, Locke and others were themselves steeped in ideas from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Renaissance and classical antiquity. But there was a fundamentally new problem that emerged in the seventeenth century that made their works modern. There was a loss of faith in Christianity (and religion) to provide a clear definition of truth. The Reformation showed which ruptured Christianity showed that agreement on what’s right and true could not be obtained within Christianity. This led thinkers of the seventeenth century to turn to human reason as a means of finding an anchor for social life. The idea that there were natural rights that were self-evident to reason emerged out of this context and shaped the founders? views as well. The interesting thing is that the whole notion of natural or self-evident rights became very problematic in the eighteenth century but Americans had already codified the idea in their Declaration of Independence and thus the idea remains influential despite serious philosophical problems with it.
JL: It seems today that the only ones who stand up and scream “Liberty!” are those who are far-right of center with Liberals and others on the left kind of taking a backseat to the liberty debate. You refer to it as the “liberal abandonment” of the very concept to the Right wing. Why do you think this has happened? Why don’t Liberals fight harder to, if not to take back the concept, then at least to open the discussion of what liberty really should mean to a contemporary America?
HS: Thanks for this question. This was one reason I wrote my book. I felt that liberals had ceded liberty to the right. I suspect that there are several reasons this happened. Below is what I wrote on a blog recently in which I was pondering this question.
Oddly enough, those on the left have not recently taken up and challenged this story about liberty, though they should. Why has the left ignored it? Perhaps it was because the right had turned ?liberal? into a bad word, though the right was ironically at the same time celebrating liberty themselves. Or perhaps it was because the defense of liberty seemed too patriotic or nationalistic in tone for tastes on the left. Or maybe it was because the left had earlier roots in socialism and had not yet completely reconfigured itself and found its foundations in a new political philosophy that could spring more comfortably from the liberty concept. Whatever the reasons, the left has focused more on themes such as justice, equality, and fairness, by which to contest the right’s political positions and agenda.
I do think that liberals were so busy looking over their back and proving they weren’t ?socialists? or ?communists? that they have walked away too easily from some of their core commitments.
Liberals also seem uncomfortable talking about what seem like patriotic values like ?liberty.? It’s time we got over it.
JL: On the flip side we have the Tea Party Republicans. Hate to bring them up again, but looking for your opinion once more. You’re looking at a group of people who claim to be God-fearing, Jesus-loving Christians and yet nothing they do seems to point in that direction. They aren’t willing to and so don’t feed the hungry or treat the sick. What do you think is the source of this disconnect between what they say they are and what they really are?
HS: I never like to attribute motives to people. I believe Tea Partiers and Republicans believe they are promoting the best way to help everyone. I just think they are deeply mistaken. They feel that by getting government out of people’s lives and letting markets run without regulation that all boats will rise on the lifting tide. They also feel that they express their care and concern via private donations. So I believe them when they say they care about people. I just think they are wrong about the consequences of their views. As I like to say ?a rising tide lifts all boats, but that assumes everyone has a boat and a boat that won’t tip over in a storm.? I fundamentally disagree about the role government because I think liberty means responsibility. Thus when we come together to create a state, we bring not only our rights but also our duties and responsibilities into play. This is why the state is not just about protecting my rights and my properties. The state has a duty, which it gets from us as individuals, to pay back for the debt we have inherited from the past and from the people on whose shoulders we stand. This debt which comes to us from being human beings, and from laboring on top of the work of others before us, is at the core of government’s purpose. This leads me to conclude, in contrast to the Tea Party, libertarians and Republicans, that taxes are not the government stealing from us but a repayment on a loan and debt that we inherited from the past and those who came before us. That is why they are wrong in their moral and political positions. They see no notion of responsibility and debt to be part of what it means to be a citizen nor in the purposes of government to help repay that debt we all incur as human beings.
JL: That’s a phenomenal point on taxation. Often seen as some kind of tyrannical punishment rather than what it is or what it’s meant to do: make government work.
HS: Thank you.
JL: You were a professor of religious studies for a few different universities; namely, Stanford, Indiana, and Temple. Taking what you know about religion and what makes a religion: does the adoration of all things U.S.A. that we see on the far-right seem at all dogmatic to you? Has the Tea Party turned patriotism into a cult or even religion all its own?
HS: My background as a professor of religious studies certainly shapes my view that what we have are like two colliding religious worldviews. There are different moralities, fundamental assumptions, key commitments. What’s interesting about the position on the Right is that it actually is a stream of somewhat conflicting views. There are those on the Right who think their view of liberty and rights is not only God-given but specifically the views of Jesus. Of course, not all Christians in this country agree with them them about either what liberty should be or what Jesus wanted of Christians. But this ?religious? theme of the Right joins together with a secularist and more libertarian view of liberty as meaning ?free markets? and ?minimal government.? Both of these views exist in the Right’s rhetoric even though at a deeper level they are incompatible in some ways. Thus you have people like Rand Paul and the Koch brothers who really want to limit government’s role but don’t really accept the religiously and socially conservative view that the founders believed in a version of natural rights that was specifically Christian. They gain their political power when they can keep those differences from dividing them from the religiously conservative.
JL: Another running theme in your book is sacrifice. Some Liberal America readers won’t like this part because I kind of lump them in with the Tea Party; but, sacrifice seems to be a lost concept in America today. Neither side of the debate seems all that willing to sacrifice or compromise on even a sliver of their stance. In all fairness to Liberals the resistance is a lot stronger on the Right. Where in U.S. history do you think that the “ask what I can do for my country” view died and what on Earth killed it?
HS: Agreed. Kennedy was certainly able to marshal the sentiment. It seems to me that this view died during the backlash against the New Deal, which has really been what the Republicans set out to do starting with Goldwater and then coming to prominence with Reagan and remaining strong since. The sense that I have any obligation to society that government is responsible for executing was attacked by the view that we are discussing here that liberty means protection of my rights and property. The Right saw the alternative conception which had been central to the FDR’s New Deal as fundamentally wrong and they set out to dismantle it. We see the continuation of that agenda in their attack on Obamacare. If we recognize that we must make sacrifices for the benefits of living in society, then we have a hard time ignoring the plight of others around us and others less well fortunate around the world. In fact, we haven’t gotten into this in this interview, but the notion that somehow Americans deserve all the wealth that we have as a nation is exceedingly problematic itself.
JL: Problematic may even be understating it a bit. There is certainly a notion that Americans deserve everything out of the gate, including – quite honestly – our wealthy status as you said.
You present a good question at one point in your book. “If we cannot agree on how we know that rights exist, how could we possibly agree that we know what our rights are?” Even ignoring the Right vs. Left, Conservative vs. Liberal, Republican vs. Democrat type contrasts people don’t seem to realize just how vastly different our views on where our rights come from really are. Some say God, some say reason, others empathy or social hierarchy; and that’s ignoring the gods of different religions who may offer different insights according to those faiths. What would it take for the American people as a whole to find a common ground on this matter? Is it even possible that we ever will?
HS: Bingo. This is the heart of the problem. I think representational forms of government inherently have this problem. Human beings disagree with each other and therefore there will always be contested views. The founders tried to deal with this issue by setting some minimal standards in the Bill of Rights and in the procedures guaranteed by the Constitution and the amendments. Madison believed the to and fro of representational democracy is what prevented majorities from suppressing minorities. But this doesn’t solve the problem of differing moralities (relevant by the way to your blog on teaching creationism in the schools). I believe the only way this could ever change is that we expanded the set of commitments in the foundation (i.e., the Constitution and amendments). That does not seem likely to happen. But I would argue that the concept of equality, more than liberty, is the core conviction that differentiates moderns and it is the commitment to working out what equality means that is our distinctive contribution in the modern period. It is around this concept that we should rally as we try to work out the political philosophy of America in the future. It would mean that we redo the constitution and make clear that there are certain other rights and responsibilities that we have to protect as we govern. Maybe the next generation can reach this goal.
Something we haven’t gotten into which may be interesting is the whole question of property. There is an assumption in the philosophy of liberty on the right that my liberty means the protection of life, liberty and property. Few people know that the idea that that property was a self-evident right was contested among the rights philosophers. Some thought property was a human convention, not a natural right. And all of them including Locke thought God had given the world to human beings in common. They thus felt a tension between their notion of equality and the uneven distribution of property. Liberals have walked away from this issue in fears of being called a socialist or communist. But if we dig into the notions of property, we find that they rest on problematic assumptions about rights. Particularly problematic is the view of Locke, which still dominates modern thinking, which holds that everything we produce via our labor is ours alone. That assumption took for granted that there was unlimited resources and that everyone who wanted could always find land on which to labor. We now know how limited resources are. Thus the very philosophical assumptions that justified our understanding of property at the start of the modern period need to be rethought as we come to terms with a different understanding of rights and resources. In particular, the notion that the outcome of our labor is ours alone is one that is problematic since we all labor on the shoulders of all those who have come before us.
JL: Certainly we can only hope that future generations will have something at least a little better to say on the matter.
Finally, to say your book challenges the Right may be a bit of an understatement. You call their policies over the past several decades destructive not only to us as people and to the nation we live in, but to the very world we live on. Certainly words that would draw some negative attention should you ever be invited to attend the Republican National Convention. Aside from common-sense Republicans like myself – as few in number as we are these days – the Republican Party is widely made up of wholly conservative individuals who believe firmly – right or wrong, for better or for worse – that their concept of liberty is what the founders had in mind and thus it cannot be justifiably challenged. On the Left, much the same thing just from a different angle. That being the case, what do you hope this book will accomplish in the grand scheme of things?
HS: I’ll never be invited to the Republican National Convention. I do appreciate modern Republicans such as yourself and could have interesting and thoughtful conversations with others such as yourself.
I suppose the answer to your question about what I hope my book will do is this. Ideas do change. The ideas that dominate today were not those that dominated earlier. I believe ideas can have an impact over time and I think of my writing as joining others who are traversing the same path including Naomi Klein, Robert Kuttner, Paul Hawken, Amartya Sen, Cass Sunstein, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Pickety, among others. I am hopeful that as a new generation takes its place, and surveys the challenges in front of us, including climate change, inequality, poverty, and our international political challenges, that they will articulate a new understanding of ourselves and our responsibilities that will come to be persuasive to them and those who follow and will lead them to reform the practices by which we govern.
I would like to thank Howard for his time and the insightful dialogue he offered. It was great to get to know him and his fresh stance on American liberty. Beyond Liberty Alone: A Progressive Vision Of Freedom And Capitalism In America is available now. You can also learn more about Howard and check out his blog on his web site, howardischwartz.com. He is also on Facebook so do give him a “Like” and show him some love.
And while you’re at it, I’m also on Facebook and you can find me on Twitter. My handle is @JonLenTheLC. Thank you for reading and once again a wholehearted thank you Dr. Howard I. Schwartz for his time!