Robert Frost and liberalism
By Scott Sumner
Robert Frost once said:
A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.
This seems very clever to me—I wonder what other people think.
1. He may not be using the term “liberal” to refer to left-wingers, but rather seems to be referring back to the original meaning of the term. In that case, I would consider myself to be a liberal.
2. Most of these sorts of pithy definitions are going to be unacceptable to one side of the political spectrum or the other. But I wonder if this is an exception. To me, Frost’s definition seems like a compliment. I’d guess that non-liberals like Donald Trump might view it as an insult.
Over at TheMoneyIllusion, I recently suggested that if I were a Supreme Court justice, I would not take the “libertarian” position on cases. I would not rule various laws “unconstitutional” just because I thought they were unwise examples of government interventionism. Indeed judges should never let their personal political views color their legal decisions.
Some commenters thought I was being naive. Actually, I understand that very few people, indeed very few sitting judges, are able to completely put aside their personal biases. I was describing an ideal. In the very rare cases where someone does have the proper judicial temperament, political views don’t matter. It’s unfortunate that we must talk about liberal judges and conservative judges; we should be talking about good and bad judges. After all, we don’t talk about liberal plumbers and conservative plumbers.
Let me also use this definition to explain what I see as the difference between being liberal and being left wing. On a wide range of issues, including foreign policy, trade, entitlements and infrastructure spending, Trump’s views might be characterized as being to the left of George W. Bush’s views. But if we use Frost’s definition of “liberal”, then I’d claim that Bush was more liberal than Trump. Indeed Trump might be the least liberal major American politician in my lifetime. I’ve never seen another politician put so much emphasis on “our side” winning. President Bush was passionately devoted to the cause of treating AIDS in Africa. Trump’s probably not opposed to the goal, but it certainly doesn’t fit neatly into his real passion—making America great again. (Indeed Bush may have done more for Africa than any other President, including Obama.)
Frost’s comment seems to me to have two important implications:
1. The welfare of each and every person is just as important as your own welfare. Maybe not as important to you (in an emotional sense), but you should be aware that it is just as important in the general scheme of things.
2. Process is important. People (including judges) should not cheat on the process in order to achieve the result that they personally prefer.
It seems to me that the first implication leads to utilitarianism, whereas the second implication leads to a specific version of utilitarianism called “rules utilitarianism”.
Society should use a rules-based approach to resolving issues (courts, elections, contracts, property rights, etc.) Voters should cast their ballot with an eye toward maximizing the welfare of society as a whole, not just the welfare of themselves and their families.
It does no good to point out that this is all very utopian. Of course the real world always falls far short of perfection. The more interesting question is whether progress is possible. Is Denmark more liberal than Sicily? Is Denmark in 2017 more liberal than Denmark in 1317? I believe the answer to both questions is yes, which means that I believe human progress is possible.
PS. In a fight between the faculty and the administration over abolishing tenure, I would have sided with the administration, even as a tenured faculty member.
PPS. When I was growing up, I often helped my dad on construction, but I was pretty klutzy. My dad was a small businessman, another profession I was ill suited for. I can only recall one time when my dad said I’d be good at some job. When I was a teenager, he once told me that I’d be a good judge. I wonder how many kids are told by their dad that they’d be a good judge?