I’ve written before about the problem classical liberals often face when our critics, particularly Progressives, attempt to monopolize the moral high ground. For example, when we argue for the elimination of minimum wage laws, we are accused of not caring about the working poor and perhaps even of being racists because such laws are presumed to disproportionately help persons of color. We should always be aware of this rhetorical move and challenge it immediately.
In recent weeks President Obama has engaged in similar rhetoric about the jobs plan he will put before Congress tonight. In a speech Monday in Detroit the President said: “We just need Congress to get on board. We will see if congressional members will put country before party. We will give them a plan and then we will see if they want to create jobs.” The second sentence is particularly problematic because he accuses his critics of a lack of patriotism and roots their opposition to his policies in a desire for partisan gain rather than a sincere belief that the plan might be a mistake. While Obama may have been talking specifically about his congressional opposition, similar arguments are made against almost anyone who criticizes activist government, including classical liberals.
Means and Ends
As I’ve pointed out before, the problem here comes from failing to distinguish means from ends. By claiming that only they possess the moral high ground because only they are concerned with the “country” or with helping the poor, the critics of classical liberalism assume their policies (their means) are the only ways to achieve the morally valued goal (the end). Anyone who disagrees about the means therefore must reject the end. Or in political terms, anyone who disagrees with their policy preference must not care about achieving that policy’s stated goal. This refusal to assume one’s interlocutors are arguing in good faith is a failure to respect the principle of reciprocity necessary for civilized discussion.
Critics who make these arguments are also engaged in the fallacy of question-begging. By arguing that only his plan, which presumably will consist in more government spending on infrastructure and other “targeted investments” (without ever using the word “stimulus”), can create jobs, Obama assumes the point at issue: that his plan will actually create jobs. The classical-liberal response to such a plan is that it would not create jobs and lead to meaningful recovery but that free-market policies would do both. By claiming that critics put partisanship before country, Obama denies there is any reasonable argument on the other side.
This last point leads to what I think is often at the root of the refusal to recognize good faith in one’s opponents. It’s tempting to accuse such folks of cutting off classical-liberal arguments without a fair hearing, and no doubt, especially in a highly politicized context such as a presidential campaign, this is true at times. But to assume this is why others won’t argue with us in good faith would be to do exactly what we accuse them of doing!
Malice from None
Is there another explanation for our opponents' attitude? I think we should at least start by assuming that those who attempt to monopolize the moral high ground do so not out of malice but rather because they have never heard what they think is a sensible argument for our position. To many folks it’s obvious that the way to create jobs is for government to spend more, and they likely have encountered neither criticisms of that claim nor alternative policy measures that could speed up recovery.Instead of assuming bad faith, we should assume ignorance and do our best to remedy that. It might turn out that our assumption of good faith is wrong, in which case we can challenge that head-on by pointing it out. But until we have evidence for that conclusion, we should give our opponents the respect we would like them to give us. And that means understanding and respecting their best arguments. Only then will we know there really are smart people who sincerely want to make the world better and who have arguments different from our own that we cannot easily dismiss. When we recognize that others are neither stupid nor hard-hearted will we be able to achieve genuine dialogue.