What I think left wing liberalism means
There is a trend amongst certain people in South Africa to slam “liberals” and “leftists” for criticising the government.
But what does that actually mean?
Left wing means that we believe that government should ultimately serve the people, that authorities are established reluctantly by the people in order to fulfil certain goals, and that it is generally a good idea to make sure those authorities are fulfilling those goals rather than using their power for personal ends.
Liberalism establishes one of the major goals of government to be maximising personal freedom for all people. The reason we have laws is to protect the freedom of individual people from factors that would diminish that freedom.
If a situation arises where you feel you cannot say no to a proposition, not because it is just so good and not because the proposition makes sense but because otherwise you would suffer catastrophic consequences, liberals want to prevent that situation.
Thus for example liberals tend to favour strong public healthcare systems, and strong public safety nets, because despite the fact that certain people don’t want to pay taxes, these things allow people to avoid situations where they cannot say no to bad offers.
Taxation is a necessary evil, to create a world where people are free is expensive and the money has to come from somewhere. That is why we have progressive taxation - a rich man can pay the higher taxes with less reduced freedom than the poor man.
It is also why liberals tend to favour strong education systems. Ignorance leaves you in a position where you don’t have the knowledge you need in order to be able to tell an offer is bad, and thus say no. Liberation before education is impossible, because education is liberation.
Higher minimum wages is a liberal idea – because if you do not have the ability to earn enough to save, you do not have the ability to resign without finding another job first. Unions are by their nature liberal, because they give workers the power to say no to bad deals.
And that is why conservatives oppose liberalism. Conservative systems are based on maintaining the status quo, maintaining a world made of the things that force you to say yes to a deal even if you know it is ultimately bad.
The traditional leaders want more authority because people are starting to say no to them. They call this westernisation, whereas actually it is just that more and more people don’t want their traditional leadership.
There are people who talk about how western ideas are polluting their culture – whereas actually it is just that people have the choice not to obey that culture. The authority of ages is in a constant state of decay not because people are decadent, but because they are moving on to better things.
And those who benefited from the way things were don’t like that. They want to convince people that the way things were was somehow a gilded age. Those who did the work gilding that age seldom did as well out of it, as those who celebrated it in boardrooms or royal courts.
Culture is treated as being valuable, as being something that needs to be maintained, and yet when it comes down to it those parts of culture which are good, aren’t the bits that are getting challenged.
We don’t challenge poetry and story telling, myths often outlast the cultures that spawned them, and new communities are constantly forming every day but we do challenge corruption, nepotism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, those elements of culture that weaken personal autonomy.
And often it is not simply maintaining the status quo that drives conservative thought, but weakening that autonomy. Uganda is a perfect example of this – the homophobia of their government isn’t native to Uganda, it was whipped up by American Bible thumping bigots.
But that homophobia reduces personal autonomy, not only for gay people but the people whose hatred is diverted as their government loots their aid coffers.
Thus to oppose gay rights is opposing “western ideas” despite the fact that the push for homophobic legislation was started by a bunch of murderous American liars for an extremely western version of what was already a largely western religion.
The same can be said for quite a few of the alternative medicine quackery that thrived under Mbeki’s mal-administration. How was Mathias Rath, a German, not western?
Culture is used to defend the indefensible even when it isn’t actually the culture, because opposing liberalism is not standing up for culture, it is opposing liberation from being forced to adopt it. The ability to leave one’s culture, is the ability to caste aside its shackles.
I am a liberal not because I am soft hearted, but because I will not be a slave; I will be as free as I can be without destroying the freedoms of others. I am a liberal because I favour liberation over servitude. If that conflicts with culture, then so be it.