trying to keep myself honest

(Madrid) This summer–which is not over yet–has already been full of rich and challenging discussions for which I am grateful.

In June, I spent several days discussing some lesser-known works of Friedrich Hayek with a group of mostly classical liberals/libertarians.

In late June and early July, more than 160 experienced scholars, practitioners, and activists from many countries visited Tisch College for a series of linked events: the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research, a convening of city staff from 15 Cities of Service, a gathering of Bridge Alliance members, the eleventh annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, Lead for America’s summer institute, and the Frontiers of Democracy Conference. These people certainly held diverse ideological views, but a strong voice came from participants whom I would associate with intersectional movement politics–people who favor bottom-up, extra-institutional movements to confront white supremacy, patriarchy, and related “-isms.”

And now I am in Madrid for the Ibero-American Meeting on Civic Studies. I am very much enjoying my academic colleagues from Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela who hold diverse views. While here, I have also visited a traditionally “red” working class Madrid neighborhood and met with radical Spanish architects and have heard a senator from the PSOE (socialist) party lecture. They have given me a dose of European social democratic politics. In contrast to intersectional movement politics, this is largely about building mass institutions (unions and parties) for “the people,” understood as singular.

I remain basically an American center-leftist. Barack Obama is my favorite president and have sent a little money to Kamala Harris. But since I fear intellectual complacency and clichés, I am always grateful to have my presumptions challenged. Libertarianism, intersectional movement politics, and social democracy feel like a triangle of ideas that keep me (somewhat) honest from three directions.

I think I hear the classical liberals saying, “Society is too complex to be modeled, let alone regulated or planned, because it is a function of countless individual choices, and the millions of agents can react to any effort to constrain or guide them by changing their behavior. Opportunity costs are ubiquitous and especially difficult to measure. Talk of ‘social justice’ arrogantly replaces what individuals want in their own circumstances with a specific theory of what they should want and implies that someone has the right to enforce that. Instead, policy should be maximally general, durable, and predictable so that individuals can form and implement their own plans in their contexts.”

I think I hear intersectional activists saying, “People are dying as a result of racism and transphobia and sexual violence. That is because other people hold deeply seated world-views that categorize their fellow human beings into hierarchies and create boundaries. These world-views are fundamental causes of injustice and must be challenged. There is no substitute for the people at the top of the hierarchies [people like me] acknowledging their advantages and changing their own lives accordingly.”

And I think I hear the social democrats say, “When large numbers of ordinary people have organized themselves into unions, parties, and social movements, they have countered corporate capital and negotiated mixed economies that have generated equity and security along with prosperity. But such organizations require substantial discipline (constraining individual choice) and broad identities, such as ‘worker’ or ‘citizen.'”

See also: on hedgehogs and foxes; The truth in Hayek; identities, interests, and opinions

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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