Once liberalism was the dominant political philosophy in the United States. Its hold was so strong that the Red-Baiter Richard Nixon claimed to advocate “practical liberalism”. It is now crashingly clear that this period of American political life is over.
Liberalism had its own philosophers, chief among them John Rawls. In his book A Theory of Justice, Rawls began with a thought experiment on the origins of a society. Of course, we didn’t create our society, nor did we create its rules. They showed themselves to us as we grew up and interacted with the wide world. Rawls set out to derive a set of principles that would emerge if people could participate in the creation of rules that would govern them. He created a thought experiment that begins with what he calls the Original Position. Here is a good description.
In the thought experiment, the people charged with setting up the rules work behind the veil of ignorance. They do not know the race, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, intelligence, joy, beauty, physical abilities, or anything else about the citizens they represent, and they do not know anything about the society. They know that citizens are different with different life goals; that the society has enough material wealth to go around, but not enough for everyone to have all they want; and they know something about how people live. Rawls reasons his way to the rules they would create that would maximize the share of each citizen in just and equal treatment and in material wealth. Here is the simple version of those principles:
First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;
Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:
They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
The First Principle tells us how to design a political framework. The second tells us how to design our social and economic framework. In the last 30 years, most citizens and all politicians have discarded these liberal principles, casually, unthinkingly, as we would a used Kleenex.
What happened to our basic liberties? We torture people, we conduct mass raids to see if we can find undocumented people, we wiretap without warrants, we poke and prod at travelers or take naked pictures of them, we let nutcases buy guns and kill people, and we have other nutcases walking around carrying weapons in bars, churches and legislatures. Presidents of both parties assert that they have the power to order the extra-judicial murder of our citizens.
What happened to our basic economic liberal principles? Once it was the general rule that as our economy grew, all citizens shared in that growth, in line with the principle that economic benefits conferred on the wealthy benefit the poorer members of society. That ended in 1980.
Economic benefits have been showered on the wealthy ever since. Progressive taxation, the idea that high earners should pay more taxes than low, began to erode under Reagan when FICA taxes were increased to strengthen Social Security, but the proceeds were actually used to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. Today both parties are poised to cut Social Security benefits to those who thought they were paying for them, completing the theft. The huge range of loopholes for the rich minimize the progressive effects of the income tax. The effects are obvious.
We have abandoned even the pretense of fairness at the economic level. No one seriously argued that the most recent round of tax cuts for the rich would benefit the bottom 90% of society. President Obama simply gave in to the demands of the rich whose servant politicians refused to allow minimal and incomplete benefits to the unemployed unless the rich got more. Obama presented a done deal to the cowardly democrats in Congress and the triumphant minority party, and they joyfully agreed.
Liberal principles have not been replaced by an equally compelling set of conservative principles. We are now governed only by the principles of power. Our liberties are gone in the name of fighting terrorism, or offered up as sacrifices to the demands of the religious right wing. Our economy is run for the benefit of the tiny minority of financiers and their wealthy clients.
The President says he is a pragmatist. Whatever that means, it has nothing to do with liberal principles. That era of American history is over.