Re-examining the axioms of modern liberalism – an introduction

When one looks at the US Constitution, it’s abundantly clear that it’s a product of a bygone era. The outlawing of slavery and universal suffrage are perhaps the most obvious examples, but there are other, less obvious examples. Would the authors have written the Second Amendment as they did if they knew the public might have had access to machine guns or military-grade explosives? Are bloggers worthy of “free press” protections accorded to journalists? And how would they have looked at the rise of corporate personhood and power? We can look to what the Constitution’s authors wrote and said in their own time for guidance, but ultimately we are reduced to guesswork. Furthermore, if we always rely on the brilliance of the past, we ignore our own brilliance in the present.

An argument can be made that it would be a good idea to reassess the totality of the US Constitution in a new Constitutional Congress in order to make our government responsive to modern realities. Given the political stagnation in the US today, the form and content of any new Constitution is probably impossible to predict and could easily be much better, or much worse, than what we have today. But even if you think an open Constitutional Congress is a terrible idea, the process of examining the modern shortcomings of our governing Constitution would still be a valuable endeavor.

I think it’s time to similarly re-examine the many axioms (a statement accepted as true as the basis of argument or inference”) of liberalism and how they relate to the modern world. Liberals and progressives have built great institutions in the US since it was founded and will certainly construct more in the future. But every so often it helps to examine the foundations to make sure that they’re still sound enough to build upon. And if in the process of the examination areas where the foundations have cracked and heaved are discovered, then that damage can be repaired or, perhaps in some cases, replaced with with a stronger foundation.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not foolish enough to think that I can identify all of my own liberal ideological axioms without help. As such, I’d like to use this post to solicit input as to what the axioms of liberalism really are. Please post your brainstorming ideas in the comments.

As a start to the process, here are some ideas of possible axioms that I’ve come up with. I’ve not bothered to attempt to prove that they’re truly axioms, that they’re inherently progressive, or that they’re globally applicable- those are tasks for later in the process – but hopefully they’re all no higher than the ground floor. And hopefully they’ll spark more ideas too.

  • Equality
  • Fairness
  • Dignity
  • Respect


6 replies »

  1. I’ll add an axiom: Liberty

    I would also say peace and health. And though I don’t have the best phrasing, I would like to find a way to firmly and certainly place human beings having rights, corporations (or any legally created entity) having none.

    As for a constitutional convention, now is not the time…. we simply do not have the right people in leadership… I would only expect the criminals in charge to make things worse,.. which they do every day. Unless we abolished the government we have now (Step Down Mubarak) and put decent inspired brilliant folk (Egyptian Youth) in charge of a convention first.

    With the internet, and modern day polling possibilities… all of this could and should be discussed and vetted ahead of a convention… the convention should be a mere formality with certain outcome before it ever takes place, imo. Perhaps via a national referendum.

    Whatever we do, we simply must stop/abolish the systemic two criminal moneyed party coup from within. These parties are not something which can be negotiated with, nor likely to be overthrown from within.

    And I think along with axioms a one page Bill of Fights and a one page Big Deal should be established, printed and pasted onto ever bulletin board, blog, magazine, telephone poll… until it’s all in the zeitgeist like so many of the GOP simple meme’s have been for years.

    I and so many others have those lists penned in mind, garnered from discussions similar to the one you invite here today. But I don’t want to get to far away from the simple axiom call of the post.

  2. The answer to the question, “Would the authors have written the Second Amendment as they did if they knew the public might have had access to machine guns or military-grade explosives?” is the probably would have written it in the same way. Militia had access to cannon that could fire hundreds of round balls in a single shot using the military grade explosive of the time. They also had access to ships that were the equivalent to modern frigates. And ultimately a militia is a military unit tasked with defeating an enemy by killing or wounding them.

    • Possibly. But given our history since, I’d like to think that they’d scratch their heads over whether they worded it right given that “militia” has been interpreted to be individual citizens in many ways. But again, we’re just guessing.

  3. I’ve been letting this idea stew around in my head for some time and I think America’s ideals come down to two the things you mentioned:

    Liberty and Equality.

    I think all political thought (especially in the social policy realm) falls on a spectrum between liberty and equality. Equality is essentially enforced by government action since inequality is the natural and default state of things, especially economically.

    Liberty essentially exists where the government takes no action or specifically bars itself from interfering.

    It should be said that desirable ideas like safety, prosperity and freedom are not entirely synonymous with either concept.

    an example of giving people a liberty that infringes on freedom would be to repeal civil rights. Let’s say I on a restaurant and I choose to expressly not serve African Americans and state as much with a posted sign. In America, I have every right to be a racist, hateful fuck and I’ve taken on the entrepreneurial risk in opening the restaurant so I should be able to run it how I please.

    However, this example, on a wide enough scale, is absolutely devastating to the lives of African Americans and restricts their freedom so much that it is completely deleterious to them as a section of society. In this case, allowing the liberty not to serve African Americans is destructive to minority rights and freedom overall.

    However, if the government were to say that periodicals condemning the President must be shot down that would obviously be a simultaneous blow to liberty AND freedom.

    Basically, pure liberty and pure equality can not exist simultaneously and when you have more of one you have less of the other. How much either gives you the desired level of freedom, prosperity and safety is mostly a matter of your point of view.

  4. Rights of nature? In the late 18th century, there was an assumption that natural resources lasted forever (at the time, it was believed that mining created more minerals, much as extensive agriculture created more crops), nor was it recognized that all living things are interdependent. Those living things include human beings, who — to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — depend on a healthy environment.