Friday, January 30, 2009

Will the True Liberal Please Stand Up?

In this blog, I have decided to bring together two of my most dominant interests, politics and philosophy. I have been reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and I just finished the section on the moral/social virtues. If you know anything about Aristotle, a virtue is a mean (middle quality) between a vice of excess and a vice of defect. One of the moral virtues is liberality. Liberality is that virtue that lies between the excess of prodigality and the defect of meanness. While I was reading on this topic, some things stuck out to me regarding what we now tend to call liberalism. Hear what Aristotle has to say:

A liberal man is liberal because it is virtuous, not because he can gain anything else. He will give the right amounts to the right people at the right times and with pleasure (or without pain). In addition, the liberal takes from the right sources. He goes on to say that it is rare for a liberal to become rich because he views wealth as an object for giving, and thus does not hold onto it long enough to accumulate it.

A prodigal, on the other hand, will often exhaust their resources since they exceed in giving and lack in taking. Such a man is to be considered as foolish, though not necessarily wicked. A major problem is that many prodigals take from the wrong sources. They will often make those who should be poor to be rich and ignore those who are noble in character.
I think that there is one element that needs to be clarified here. It is generally clear what Aristotle means when he says right amounts, right times, etc. (not necessarily the number values, but the concepts; the number values will change dependant on the circumstances). However, it is unclear thus far as to what he means by "taking from the right sources." He states that the true liberal "will take from the right sources, e.g. from his own possessions, not as something noble but as a necessity, that he may have something to give."

Finally, I love what Aristotle says here. "Liberality resides not in the multitude of the gifts but in the state of character of the giver, and this is relative to the giver's substance. There is therefore nothing to prevent the man who gives less from being the more liberal man, if he has less to give those are thought to be more liberal who have not made their wealth but inherited it; for in the first place they have no experience of want, and secondly all men are fonder of their own productions."

Given all of this, what category would modern liberalism fall under?
They give the wrong amounts to the wrong people at the wrong times with pain. And to kick it off, they take from the wrong people and for the sake of re-election. Each of these will be exampled below.

From the wrong sources: They tax the rich instead of using their own money.

To the wrong people: They give much to those who should be poor because of their decisions (the girl with four children out of wedlock, the person who did nothing to prepare for a retirement, etc.).

In the wrong amounts: They spend more than they bring in. For the wrong reasons: They pride themselves on funding the most special interest groups. But he who gives the most is not the most liberal.

At the wrong times: When the economy is hurting the most.

With pain: Just watch and see.

All this said, according to Aristotle, those whom we deem to be liberal are in fact more representative of the foolish, though not necessarily wicked, prodigal. The true liberal is the ideal fiscal conservative, of course this says nothing about whether we have any of those left in office.