G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Commenter namae nanka sends along links to some interesting posts on the concept of what he calls “liberal autonomy theory”. Mark Richardson has some good thoughts on the topic. Discussing the popular TV show “Wife Swap”, Richardson writes on the argument put forward by a San Francisco liberal that she is happy to have been lucky to be born in the U.S., Richardson writes:
I’ve heard this kind of line before. It relates to the idea that what counts is that we self-determine who we are and what we do. Therefore whatever aspect of our lives is an “accident of birth” is thought not to matter.
It’s a position that’s difficult to hold to consistently. After all, our IQ and many of our personality traits are influenced by heredity and are therefore an accident of birth, as also is the family upbringing we experience.
So our San Francisco couple should also reject a sense of pride in their own intelligence, education and work ethic as these are a product, to a significant degree, of conditions we are born into. But they don’t – they are proud of these qualities to the point of arrogance.
It’s actually more logical to recognise the debt we owe to generations past for the positive qualities that we do inherit. Past generations have battled through to recognise and perpetuate ideals in culture and personality. We do rest on these achievements, even if we inherit them rather than creating them for ourselves. So pride in a larger entity does make sense – more so than the belief that we are self-created as individuals.
If you follow the liberal argument – that people exist by “accident of birth” – we can see why the entire Birther argument is a non-starter for liberals. The most prominent example I’ve seen is from Matt Yglesias who recently tweeted on this (no link). They don’t care to even investigate whether Obama was born outside the U.S. because birthright is a disgusting concept to them. If someone was accidentally born in Kenya that should have no bearing on whether or not they are President of the U.S. Not to say that I believe that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii – just that this is the reason that the topic is not given attention by the prestige press. They don’t care about it from first principles. They believe the Constitution is wrong to place limitations on people not born in America.
To the land-holding status quo, birth is not generally thought of as an accident. It is a planned investment. This idea pervades cultures where land-ownership isn’t denigrated; where property rights are valued i.e. The South and where inheritance is valued. These also happen to be places where family values are strongest and where the patrilineal line is valued. We can then see how this filters into the argument surrounding abortion. When you believe that birth is accidental or arbitrary, you can support an argument that you have the right to snuff out that accident. If you adhere to a system in which birth is planned or an investment, it is something tangible and not arbitrary.
Christopher Lasch elucidated the difference between the elites of old – the landed gentry – and the modern managerial elites whose power rests in their ability to garner high salaries and exert bureaucratic control over our society. He makes it clear that this transition is also a transition from a fundamental conservatism to a fundamental liberalism. From natural limitations to unbounded possibilities. Lasch’s point was that the evolution of the cradle of our economic power – from land to credential – has also had cultural effects. In his book The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch makes the case that such a transition has led to our great unhinging. It fits into Lasch’s great overarching theory that the most radical idea is the obliteration of the family. A concept of “accidental birth” creates the idea that the family is not self-directed or autonomous. This transition undergirds many policy proposals aimed at punishing the successful to subsidize the unsuccessful.
I’ve written before on what Mark Richardson mentions about paying homage to our ancestors:
Our big human brains incurred a cost. The investment in energy and genetic resources detracted from other physical areas that could have been genetically purchased. Like erecting a building on a fixed budget (the inputs that make up a human are somewhat fixed), a contractor has to make tradeoffs between aesthetic design and infrastructural quality. Putting money and resources into constructing a fancy modern lobby area takes away from the money that goes into other aspects of the building. In humans, our big brains developed through more difficult food gathering methods that incurred tradeoffs from investment in more purely physical characteristics like musculature.
Each individual present today is a conglomeration of genetic mutations that worked. A masculine alpha male had to face challenges to his dominance when others sought to overthrow him. The alpha male who came out on top passed on his genes, but he had to pay something and risk something for that to happen. The spoils should be his to keep. The gene pool of those deemed “better off” today exacted a price in their genetic history. Their lunch wasn’t free.
To summarize: liberals tend to embrace the concept of “accidental birth”. It is a self-reinforcing idea. The people who are more likely to actually accidentally give birth are the ones who embrace the concept. In their particular paternalism, liberal elites assume that the type of people who accidentally bring babies into the world are unable to behave differently. Because someone is randomly born into their life station, it isn’t really theirs. Their burden or their privilege must be shared by the rest of society. Never mind that the parent of a privileged child is much more likely to have planned to bring that particular child into the world to share in the success that it’s parents have earned/gained. So at the very least we see that people rationalize their different stations in life to fit their particular circumstances. It is my belief that liberals tend not to see that they are crafting just-so theories to support their particular station and that they are operating off of some notion of justice.