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Monday, April 13, 2015

Hillary Clinton and the Freedom of the Ancients

Individual liberty, not political power, is the path to a better life

The next Clinton campaign for president is going to shake out the same way that the Obama candidacy did. In the end, its primary appeal will be to identity politics, as her first campaign video demonstrated.

In particular, voters will be asked to make possible a historic advance for women. Only this way, we will be told, can “we as a nation” put to rest a long history of subjugation and exclusion.

The history is correct, but the solution is not. There is nothing necessarily wrong with cheering the election of a woman president. What’s incorrect is the belief that a woman president will make women’s lives better. Getting someone who shares your identity into power does nothing to improve your life. And if you look at Hillary’s sexual politics — most egregiously, mandated equal pay — it will do much to set back the advancement of women in economic life and society.

Why do we tend to believe otherwise? Why are people so predictably tricked into supporting one of their own as a political leader? There’s simple tribalism — us vs. them, red vs. blue — but intellectually, it’s an ancient error. Take a look at a powerful essay by the French liberal Benjamin Constant, written in 1819, called “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.” It certainly opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of what’s going on here.

Constant demonstrated that there are two general ways to think about liberty. The first was that of the ancient world. To be free meant that you have some access to influence over the shape and character of the regime. You were a citizen with political rights, and political rights were the sum total of human rights. Slaves were denied such rights but so were merchants, low-born workers and peasants, women of course, and anyone else who was not entitled to be designated “free” — and the word freedom had an exclusively political application.

This notion of “liberty,” wrote Constant, was limited to “deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.”

Meanwhile, the individual in the ancient world was completely subjected to the collective. Privacy was unknown. Religious freedom or tolerance was inconceivable. There was no such thing as commercial freedom or individual autonomy. Universal rights: unthinkable. Aristotle summed up the view: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

The modern notion of liberty came with the Enlightenment, and it had a different character. It was at once individual and universal. It meant property ownership. It meant the freedom to travel and trade. It held out the prospect of social and economic advancement. It was most compellingly realized in the newly burgeoning sphere of commercial society. As time went on, a more and more consistent application of this notion of liberty led to the end of slavery, the end of the subjugation of women, the end of rigid structures of class and caste.

As for politics itself, it took on an ever less significant role in personal life as the modern notion of liberty advanced. The sphere of individual autonomy increased as the sphere of political control shrank. Liberalism was born from the radical notion that the social and economic order of the world needs no master, no central authority. The progress of humanity ought to be open-ended, driven by the cooperative movements of autonomous people — not dictated from above.

Constant spoke of “modern,” but he really meant the idea of liberty as represented in the then-expanding world of laissez-faire in the 19th century. What he could not have anticipated is that the ancient notion of liberty would return to dominance in the age of the total state of the 20th century. We are still experiencing the hangover from that great error. We deal with it every election season, as politicians struggle to gain power for “their group,” under the mistaken view that this is the path toward a better life.

In other words, Hillary is running a reactionary campaign, one designed to tap into an ancient view of liberty (representation in political life), while rejecting actual liberty as we have come to understand it (private life, universal rights, empowerment through commercial exchange).

Hillary will have a huge platform and offer vast views on every conceivable subject. Like every other candidate, she will have all the answers. But, in the end, what’s really driving her campaign, and everyone knows it, is her womanness. It’s about gender and sex, and the view that it represents a mighty achievement, even an end unto itself, that a woman be president.

We are going to hear no end to it. If we can only just achieve this one great milestone, we will have accomplished something historically significant on behalf of women. People who refuse to support her — this will be none-too-subtle — are doing their part to prevent women, as a whole, from achieving such heights, and denying them the freedom of the ancients. A cloud of sexism will hang over everyone who declines to go along.

In this sense, the Hillary campaign will be a repeat of the Obama campaign with a different application.

What is the grain of truth in these politics by demographics? Many people did indeed feel a sense of having achieved something historically significant with the election of Obama. Perhaps it was a matter of putting a ghastly legacy behind us, finally embracing racial diversity and inclusion as universal ideas. And as far as that goes, there is indeed something to feel a sense of joy about. I know for sure I felt it, however fleetingly.

But what about authentic liberty, authentic rights, and realized freedom? Black Americans are no better off today than they were before Obama was elected. Like all Americans — and indeed, more than most — they still face seriously economic barriers that stop upward mobility. I’ve seen no evidence that blacks have fared better professionally, educationally, or otherwise since his election. His policies — mightily similar to Nixon, Reagan, Bush #1, Clinton #1, and Bush #2’s policies — on economics, war, drugs, education, and health care have been absolutely terrible for black Americans. African Americans have not been empowered or liberated in any tangible way by his residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It has been during the presidency of Obama that we’ve received the most incredible outpouring of evidence and attention, at least since the Civil Rights era, that black Americans are being systematically abused by the state at all levels. The daily videos we see on YouTube, the filling up of the prison population, and the flood of journalism on the enforcement of the drug war all amount to undeniable evidence of institutionalized racism as part of the operation of public policy in the United States. And yet what has the president done about it, apart from delivering pious “let’s all get along” speeches?

The great lesson of the Obama presidency is that it is not enough that a leader of your demographic group come to power in the form of occupying the White House. It is not necessarily a path toward any kind of actual empowerment or a better life. It might make everyone feel good, but this is not the same as actual social, economic, or even political gain.

And yet the same mistake is about to be repeated with the Hillary Clinton campaign. Let’s say she gains power. Women in general do not gain power. They are supposed to pour their just aspirations into a symbol, one person who becomes a big shot. So what? It means nothing.

Meanwhile, Hillary’s actual policies on women are a disaster waiting to happen. Consider her support for “equal pay for equal work.” What effect will this have on women in the workforce? It not only puts government in charge of micromanaging every aspect of payroll and personnel of every business in America; it also incentivizes managers to keep women in lower positions in a firm in order to comply with the wage mandates, and disincentivizes advancing women up the ladder by making the costs of ascension too high. The result will be a “glass ceiling,” but this time with steel rebar.

Looking at Hillary’s brand of feminist politics, you see the reversal of the 19th century feminism of John Stuart Mill, whose brilliant book “The Subjection of Women” (1869) specifically condemned “the legal subordination of one sex to the other” as “one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” He wanted this legal subordination replaced with laws that admit “no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” In other words, he saw, rightly, that laissez faire — not gaining political power — as the way forward. His views were mainstream among all first-wave feminism.

Hillary could learn from Benjamin Constant, who summed up the great longing of “modern” liberalism:

[Liberty] is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

If that were Hillary Clinton’s view, she would deserve support, not just from women but from everyone. She would be pushing high ideals everyone could support. Unfortunately, she seems to only be in the business of manipulating identity politics to benefit her and the cronies that surround her. If nothing else, remember that their interests are not the same as yours.