The first presidential debate was supposed to be about difficult political, legal, economic and cultural issues. Although President TrumpDonald John TrumpState Department revokes visa of Giuliani-linked Ukrainian ally: report White House Gift Shop selling ‘Trump Defeats COVID’ commemorative coin Biden says he should not have called Trump a clown in first debate MORE succeeded in reducing it to a contest of personalities, these disagreements will continue to rage until Election Day, especially as Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court progresses. Despite their complexity, the issues should be much easier to navigate once we understand the three theories of government that ultimately drive them.
The first — conservatism — is about preserving our deepest democratic values. These values include the two main categories of “assets” in our Constitution: our individual rights to life, liberty and property, and the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to social, political or legal reforms per se. They just insist that these reforms be incremental and neither disrupt nor erode our constitutional order.
Second is libertarianism, the theory that government is inherently oppressive, individual liberty is the highest good and, therefore “that government is best which governs least.” Yes, we still need a police force and military to do what individuals alone cannot: protect us collectively from internal threats (crimes) and external threats (invasion and terrorism). But that’s about it. We can and should do everything else by ourselves, without relying on the government.
Third is progressivism (also known as liberalism or socialism). Progressives view government as the best possible institution to promote and protect the rights and interests of all the people it represents. These rights and interests include a decent standard of living, affordable health care, affordable housing, quality education, and equal treatment under the law.
Suppose, then, that “Anne,” a single, 30 year-old Black mother of two young children, works two jobs, both of which pay federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour), and contracts pneumonia. What role, if any, should the government play here?
The progressive will say three things. First, the government should force Anne’s employers to pay her much higher wages so that she can afford all the necessities and a reasonable amount of the luxuries that modern Americans typically enjoy. Second, neither Anne’s race nor her relatively low income should make her less of a priority than any other American; her value not just as an employee and as a mother, but also as a human being, is equal to that of every other human being. Third, the government should therefore help Anne receive and pay for the medical treatment she needs to recover.
Though they may not always acknowledge it, conservatives and libertarians generally disagree with all three points. For them, life is unfair and it is simply not the job of government to make life fair — or fairer. But, as it turns out, this “tough-luck” attitude is actually inconsistent with the theory of conservatism. Once again, conservatives’ stated mission is to preserve our deepest democratic values. And since 1933, one deep democratic value has been a government-sponsored safety net for the more vulnerable members of society, “entitlement” programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and SNAP. Any claim by modern conservatives that such government assistance is morally, legally, practically or philosophically unsound is inconsistent with more than 80 years of American history.
Libertarians, too, have a weak case here. Once again, libertarians think that individual liberty can be maximized only by minimizing state power. The assumption underlying this “zero-sum” approach is that liberty is freedom from state coercion and interference. But liberty in this narrow sense means little for the many individuals who are victimized by forces outside their control — for example, abuse, poverty, illness, disability, violence, racism and pollution. What they are all missing is a second, more substantial kind of liberty: the freedom to pursue a happy, healthy, quality life. So, assistance from the government would not restrict their liberty — their range of meaningful options and opportunities — but rather would enhance it.
We often hear conservatives and libertarians urging people to stop seeking a “government handout” and instead “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But rugged individualism is not a viable solution for people who do not have the ability to survive or advance on their own in a global economy — for example, young children and adults incapacitated by disease. And even for those who do have the ability to survive or advance, it isn’t clear why the government should still not help and sustain them in this effort. Such assistance does not work against our deepest democratic values, nor does it diminish these millions of individuals’ autonomy; quite the contrary.
Whether “Anne” has socioeconomic rights such as the right to affordable health care is a question of law. Whether the law should grant her this right is largely a question of political theory. Conservatives and libertarians answer this question in the negative. They ultimately prefer that the government act as a Bad Samaritan toward the less rich and less politically powerful, that it just stand by and let them fend for themselves. This callous position is fundamentally inegalitarian; it presupposes that the rich and politically powerful are more valuable — more worthy of the rights to life, liberty and property — than everybody else. By contrast, progressives are committed to the egalitarian ideal first articulated in the Declaration of Independence and echoed by the Fourteenth Amendment, the principle that every human being — whatever his/her race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, social status and intelligence — has equal intrinsic worth.
It is difficult to see how Americans in 2020 would disagree with this more enlightened view. But millions do, including many Republican voters. So, for better or worse, we can expect some serious cognitive dissonance in the collective American mind this month: inegalitarianism ascending to the nation’s highest court as egalitarianism prevails at the ballot box.
Ken M. Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He is the author of “Free Will, Responsibility, and Crime: An Introduction.” Follow him on Twitter @KenLevy2020.