It's easy to make a list of the things liberals like: internationalism, multiculturalism, immigration, diversity .. and the things they don't: anti-drug laws, state powers of surveillance, long prison terms, war. In general, liberals tend to the politically-correct.
I'm not interested in either backing or knocking any of these things: I don't like war either, especially when it's gratuitous. In any case, my wife is liberal. Instead, I'm trying to really get to the bottom of what makes a liberal, what really is the fundamental defining quality of liberalism.
I think it's adherence to the 'blank slate' Standard Social-Science Model.
You will recall that this model proposes that human are all nurture, with no important genetic differences when it comes to physical, social, personality or cognitive traits. In this model there is an ideal to which all may/should aspire: it is the person who is intelligent, healthy, agreeable, friendly, tolerant and generally pro-social. Someone very much like a liberal in fact.
The Standard Social-Science Model is spectacularly inconsistent with both everyday observation and the relevant theories (evolution, genetics and genomics, psychometrics, anatomy, etc). So how do liberals deal with such ubiquitous empirical refutation?
- If the unpleasant fact is small and relatively non-threatening (e.g. it happens not to be the case that everyone is of equal potential intelligence) the fact is distanced and ignored.
- If the fact is deeply destabilising to the SSSM and has 'difficult' public policy implications (e.g. the empirical fact that the distribution of intelligence differs between ethnic groups) then this is seen as a major threat and 'repressive tolerance' kicks in (the arguments are ignored and the perpetrators are excluded from the domain of rational dispute by a distancing epithet such as 'racist' - distancing labels generally end in '-ist').
- Liberals believe in the SSSM not for intellectual reasons, which would be empirically refutable as discussed, but viscerally. The liberal worldview emerges from the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex. In this, liberalism is a statement of faith and not of rationality. I hate to say it, but the propensity to be liberal is actually somewhat genetic.
- Liberal thinking is encapsulated in Enlightenment political thinking, and in its normative social form is the underpinning for the universal franchise and liberal democracy. Après moi le déluge, they surely think. They're wrong about that, by the way, but it's certainly true that a political philosophy based on being generally nice, and having high hopes for personal development, is a big improvement on most prior political philosophies: there are worse things than Patrician Benevolence.
I have just read his door-stopper Existence. Here's an excerpt from this review.
"Starting with a series of snapshots of a world thirty years or so hence, Brin creates a picture where most of today's great threats have occurred and have been, if not overcome, then at least lived through. The seas have risen, nuclear terrorism has been perpetrated and the Yellowstone supervolcano has burped. It's a tomorrow where social and technological change have reshaped the world, and where a new social order is trying to put the brakes on progress, to end the Enlightenment. Beneath the optimism, though, there's danger. The world seems doomed to stagnation, unable to respond to any of a growing list of existential threats.In every fibre of his liberal being, David Brin believes that people are fundamentally friendly and nice, uplifted dolphins are friendly and nice (if a bit boisterous), aliens can be tricksy and disingenuous but Brin writes indulgently of them .. and the heartfelt message of his novel is that the universe awaits those who venture out in the spirit of friendliness and niceness.
"But then an astronaut on the last space station, clearing space garbage, finds something strange — something not of this earth. And that means everything is about to change, once again.
"Brin draws on themes he's written about and discussed over much of the last decade, exploring a society shaped by ubiquitous surveillance (and equally ubiquitous sousveillance), where governments and ad hoc social media groups can use the same tools to draw their own conclusions and solve their own problems. It's the scenario he shaped in The Transparent Society, where little brother is the antidote to Big Brother (and that he elaborated on in a conversation with ZDNet earlier this year). But in Existence Brin also shows the downside of radical transparency, exploring how demagogues and propagandists can manipulate transparency to their own ends, using targeted disinformation.
"The picture Brin draws is one of a densely networked world that's easy for us to recognise. Ubiquitous augmented reality layers information on everything we see and do, and a networked society pulls together in clusters, joining together in smart mobs to interpret information and solve problems. The rich and the poor share access to an ocean of information, and understanding is the key to everything. It's also a world where machine learning and artificial intelligence have become everyday tools, and there's an uploaded rat living in the interstices of the internet.
"Of course, as in much of Brin's fiction, there's more. It's a story that travels the world, observing it through the eyes of a crusading journalist, a polemical novelist, an ageing astronaut, an aristocrat (or two) and a peasant shoresteading the ruins under a rising ocean. And as we leave the cradle there's also an answer to the Fermi Paradox, plus a tip of the hat to his popular Uplift novels."
Makes you nostalgic for the sheer malevolence of the Inhibitors!