No true scottsman?
October 19, 2012 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Is it fair and accurate of me to believe that my liberalism is not tainted by the massive harm caused by communist dictators and other historical "leftist" movements that have caused great harm?

I've heard some conservative people bring up the specter of Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Russia, China etc. as endemic of the problems with liberalism and socialism. Conceptually, however, I do not feel any kinship with those governments' actions and associate many of their excesses with core conservative values: restrictions of inidividual liberty, lack of political and religious freedom, narrow range of acceptable beliefs, groupthink, etc.

A liberal or left society is one that would have the following attributes/represent the following beliefs:
  • Respect for science: if something can be proven, it must be so. Other beliefs that conflict must adapt.
  • Respect for skepticism: if something cannot be proven, it's open to debate. Disagreement within the boundaries of what has not been proven is healthy and good, but some evidence is respected more than no evidence.
  • The belief that due process is worth more than short-term efficacy in police actions. Crimes that cannot be proven should not be punished.
  • Torture, imprisonment without trial, segregation along racial, political, or religious lines, and unfettered state surveillance are poisonous to a healthy society and are never worth any short-term stability gains.
  • Absolute separation of political and religious power/spheres of influence.
  • Wide latitude when it comes to freedom of expression and peaceful protest.
  • Wide latitude when it comes to criticizing the ruling party and other elites, without fear of official or unofficial reprisal.
  • Freely available and mandatory education for all citizens that emphasizes skepticism, evaluation of facts, and core skills such as close reading, writing, and number literacy (particularly statistics and how to parse scientific results).
  • The value of freely available community resources such as libraries that contain information and perspectives not limited by the state.
  • Imprisonment and other state restrictions of individual liberty exist to protect society, not to punish wrongdoing. Any individual whose liberties have been restricted by the state must be shown to be an active danger to others, and as soon as that is not the case, the restrictions should be lifted. Fines, therapy, and other actions are always to be preferred over imprisonment due to moral and practical (better results for less money) concerns.
  • Forced and unfree labor (in the sense that the laborers have no realistic alternatives open to them) are anathema to good government and good business.
Every communist country I've ever read about violates most or all of the above precepts. I feel as though my political beliefs are entirely untainted by those governments' excesses and abuses, and that it is a red herring when they are brought up as "left" or "liberal" governments simply because the new elites used the rhetoric of communism and progress in order to take over a country.

Is this sophistry on my part? If there are meaningful ties between my values and those governments, what are they exactly?

Please give only careful, considered, precise answers. I'm very interested in examining this aspect of my political thinking and I do not want this question closed.

Links to essays examining this train of thought with rigor would be appreciated.
posted by jsturgill to Law & Government (27 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Every communist country I've ever read about violates most or all of the above precepts.

There, I've solved your internal dilemma.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:15 AM on October 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

Firstly, if liberalism is tainted by association with Stalin and Mao, then conservatism is equally tainted by association with Hitler and Mussolini. If you want to be that reductionist, then no political ideology is safe. Under that logic, it's better not to have any political opinions at all, lest you unwittingly usher in an authoritarian regime of one stripe or another.

Secondly, anyone who would suggest that Communist dictatorships of the 20th century bear any resemblance to modern day American liberal politics are fucking high. Seriously? Refer them to a high school history book. Done and done.

TL; DR: People who suggest such things are stupid. Do not take their opinions seriously.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 AM on October 19, 2012 [22 favorites]

A conservative or right society would have most of the same characteristics; basic decency and respect for persons does not belong solely to the left.

To answer your question more directly, your political beliefs are not burdened by the likes of Mao or Stalin to any degree beyond which you agree with the likes of Mao or Stalin.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:21 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you want to understand the argument that others are making, I think you should read Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. The criticism is more about the link between totalitarianism and excessive government intrusion into and planning of the economy than it is about the more "social" issues you've listed. You may disagree with the conclusions, but I think that reading the book will clarify the actual argument that critics of the modern left are making.

And just for fun, The Road to Serfdom abridged in cartoons!
posted by decathecting at 10:23 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Your mistake is in assuming a simple left/right axis. You are also forgetting the authoritarian/libertarian axis. Here's the wiki article on political spectrum, as seen from the US' perspective.

Totalitarianism is easy, which is why it's so common - a bunch of guys with machine guns use them to make people without machine guns to do what they want. So people with largely unworkable or massively unfair economic policy use totalitarianism to make the people accept it. It does not have to be like that, and in the modern world, where it's dead easy for the people to get their hands on machine guns, things are trending more toward the center on the authoritarian/libertarian scale, and democracy takes root.

(Which is good, go too far down, and you run into anarchism and Objectivism.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:26 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a liberal who is relatively untroubled by those Stalin and Mao comparisons, but I think you're missing the point of them. It's about the means, not the ends. In other words, it's not that conservatives are accusing you of sharing all the goals or values of these totalitarian regimes -- they're just saying that the kind of powerful central government you'd need to set up to implement your goals would be vulnerable to being corrupted by bad actors (and create economic and other problems).

The more specific version of this argument that often does trouble me is that top-down enforcement of liberal values can be quite anti-democratic. This is usually a good thing in the long run when it comes to social issues, but not always, and on many economic issues it's a dangerous game to play -- see the ongoing Euro crisis for a perfect example. Neoliberal technocrat type goals are the ones I'm most suspicious of, even from pundits like Krugman who I would normally agree with.

But some of your points bother me on that count too. How are you going to enforce things like "respect for skepticism" or "respect for science" or a prohibition on "forced and unfree labor" as you define it? I suspect it would be hard to put those goals into real policy language without making them either (1) too vague to matter or (2) troubling from a civil liberties perspective.
posted by pete_22 at 10:30 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

One of the ways which I have reconciled my former right-wing asshole conservatism with my current semi-progressive tendencies is distinguishing "everyone has a right to" housing/health-care/education/etc from "we, as a society, will be pragmatically better if everyone gets" housing/health-care/education/etc.

I believe that many people on the "right" who've thought about such things are objecting to the first (it's not "right" that people who don't work get these things), and would object less strongly to a strong case made for the second. When you can make a strong case for the second.

The last of my resistance to such things came when reading the relatively conservative A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark; a good portion of the book is just comparing numbers from different cultures and in so doing removed a lot of the political myth lens from whjich I viewed various different policies.
posted by straw at 10:31 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Most people who suggest this argument are employing a form of the fallacy of guilt by association - e.g. these terrible dictatorships were built on some of the principles that you espouse, therefore the principles are inevitably tainted by that association. This is a form of bad faith argument that you should resist.

However, you may also want to look at some of the literature on political disillusionment, particularly Westerners communists whose encounters with Stalinism made them rethink some of their commitments. Orwell and Koestler are two of the most well-known examples; this book of essays is another place to start. You can acknowledge that some of the principles you hold dear can have negative consequences, without it undercutting your political philosophy in general.
posted by googly at 10:36 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's the thing: terrible things have been done in the name of just about everybody. Christianity? The Crusades. American federal democracy? Slavery and the genocide of native peoples. Fascism? Hitler. Communism? Yeah. Islam? Heck yeah. Buddhism? I don't know my Indian history very well, but there's got to be some dirt somewhere.*

Saying "Well they weren't really [x]!" is, as you've pointed out, unconvincing at best or just a straight up logical fallacy, either the "No true Scotsman"/moving the goalposts/special pleading sort, or simply a distinction without a difference.

So what you've got to do is threefold. First, take a good, hard look at what they believe and what you believe. There will be some points of difference. But there will also probably be some points of similarity. Denying those points of similarity is just disingenuous and you'll basically lose that argument. So own 'em. Say "Yes, he and I both believe [x], but he also believed [y] and [z], which I don't."

But that's not enough. Second, you also need to say "Okay, we both believe [x], but there's no connection between believing [x] and doing [bad thing whatever]."

Unless, of course, there is, in which case you need to think pretty seriously about why you believe [x].

Third, you also need to consider that any of the things you've described above can, when taken to extremes, be bad things, and that reasonable minds that agree in principle can still disagree about implementation. Take "due process" for example. Everyone in the legal system basically believes in the importance of due process. But there is significant disagreement about exactly what process is due.

Further, some of the things on your list are actually in conflict with other liberal values. "Absolute separation of political and religious power/spheres of influence," and "Freely available and mandatory education for all citizens that emphasizes skepticism, evaluation of facts, and core skills such as close reading, writing, and number literacy" can be and frequently are in sharp contrast with many well-intentioned people's concepts of freedom of religion--which I note does not appear on your list. And... wouldn't you know it, the Soviets emphasized skepticism and had mandatory public education and persecuted religious believers horribly. The Chinese are still doing it. Hmm...

So you really want to make substantive responses here? Figure out what it is that you believe and why you believe it, then figure out what these other people believed and why they believed it, then do the hard work of figuring out why what you believe will not lead you to do the things that they did.

*No, I'm not interested in a fact check here.
posted by valkyryn at 10:37 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

restrictions of inidividual liberty, lack of political and religious freedom, narrow range of acceptable beliefs, groupthink, etc.

Do you really think that groupthink and restrictions on individual liberty are restricted to the left? Think about your own self-described utopia. You want "mandatory education for all citizens", but that restricts the individual liberty of citizens who do not want to be educated by the government. What is the "unofficial reprisal" to free speech that you would ban? If I am an employer and my employee insults me to my face, am I banned from firing him because that would be a "reprisal"? Doesn't that restrict my individual liberty to run my company, which is my property, as I see fit?

As pete_22 touched upon, you are going to need a very strong central authority to enforce these "beliefs". Marx wrote in After the Revolution that once the proletariat wins and there are still bourgeois around, "they must be forcibly removed or transformed, and the process of their transformation must be forcibly accelerated." You can probably imagine what happens to those who do not wish to be "transformed". I wonder what your utopia would do with people who do not "respect" the things they should.

I find it most notable that your list of approved beliefs contains no mention whatsoever of private property and the citizen's rights with regard to same. In fact, the only mention of property is not private - "freely available community resources". This may answer your question as to why your beliefs might be associated with communism.

If you are truly curious about any overlap between your political beliefs and communism, you may wish to read some introductory texts on it. I would recommend The Marx-Engels Reader as a starting point. When reading, note how often you are shaking your head and how often you are nodding it.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:47 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

How does the OP feel about Property rights? To whom to things and places belong? Is there a time when people do or should belong to the state? (I think we're all in agreement that people shouldn't be owned by other people.)

I'm a stodgy right-winger and don't feel the need to tar every left-wing statist with the Communist brush-- but those who really do want everyone to be leveled in outcome, or those who really want a centrally planned economy, with a "fair" distribution of wealth? They are the ones who bear the Red stain.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:50 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing you should keep in mind -- somewhat outside the bounds of this question, but maybe something that strikes at the root of your own thoughts about politics -- is the difference between striving for a society that embodies the values you describe (which, btw, are NOT universally agreed on among all liberals) and using government as a tool to enforce the values you describe in a top-down sort of manner. Because, yes, that would be authoritarian government.

Example: the science plank of your bullet list.

You can't make people respect science or shun woo. You can't legislate it, and if you did, you wouldn't be able to enforce it. If you tried to -- for example, maybe you decided to ban astrology -- you would quickly find yourself resorting to jackbooted thugs, etc. That would be a lot like Stalin and Mao, and in fact some of the stuff up at the top of your list is almost a parody of what a modern day Cultural Revolution would look like.

You can go out and form a group called Americans Against Stupid Woo, and as a nonprofit you can work to advocate whatever borderline fascist malarkey you want. But one of the responsibilities of a democratic government is to prevent any one political group forcing the populace to (pretend to) adopt their beliefs.

I'm as lefty as it gets. Hell, I openly refer to myself as a communist and a socialist. But I'm still against authoritarian government, because I can see the difference between what my ideal society would look like and what can actually exist in a sane world.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tanizaki has it. It's all about the enforcement of the goals, which goals may start out sounding very fair and admirable.

You need to read Communist history - the histories of the regimes in Russia and China specifically - to understand how admirable goals like (for example) reducing the inequities of wealth accumulation by the ruling class, led, through totalitarian enforcement, to their tragic results.

Look how easily your own summary included "mandatory" education. (Mandatory - or else what? Education by whom? Etc.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:01 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Keep in mind there are many roles to play in for example the creation of the USSR. You are obviously not a magnificently cunning, brutal general like Stalin. But are you a naive soviet parliament member, an initial revolutionary running around with flowers, a blue-haired futurist in 1900 creating the art that would influence more serious people in the next generation, a westerner aiding what he or she thinks to be a "democratic revolution," a hard-working central planner, someone else? There are so many well-meaning people mixed up in these things, often 20-50 years before the really bad stuff.
posted by michaelh at 11:08 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

core conservative values: restrictions of individual liberty, lack of political and religious freedom, narrow range of acceptable beliefs, groupthink, etc.

Part of your issue is that you don't understand core conservative values. If you want to truly understand your liberalism, perhaps you need to better understand other's conservatism.
posted by lstanley at 11:09 AM on October 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Look to Scandinavian countries for your models of progressive societies. Highly educated citizens, good health, longevity, strong economies, generous social welfare, science believers (and quite secular too, if that's a consideration for you), more even distribution of wealth, environmentally conscientious, strong legal/judicial systems, democratically elected leaders, low crime. One way to think about it is they practice both political and economic democracy.
posted by Dansaman at 11:13 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you are looking at the wrong countries as examples of liberal / socialist ideas. You should be looking at northern Europe (Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, etc) These countries have had very strong democratic socialist policies for years and are really the kind of political system that is pushed for by most current Leftists.

That would be described as a capitalist economic system restrained by strong socialist policies. Universal Health Care, High Re-distributive Taxes, strong social sector and restrains on the wanton destructiveness of Capitalism.

Even strong Marxists do not believe that the Russian communist state was a success. And many communists see it as a perversion of Marx's ideas. In fact Marx thought that russia was not ready to move to a communist system as capitalism had not advanced their industry to a high enough level.

Looking from the other perspective. What countries could be said to have most enthusiastically embraced the kind of capitalism promoted by the US republican party? And that would be places like Chile, Indonesia, totalitarian regimes that were generally propped up by the USA for years and committed horrible atrocities in the name of Free-market Reforms.

There is just no logical basis for equating socialism with dictatorship.
posted by mary8nne at 11:14 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Isn't it interesting how if the tables are turned (someone comparing any modern policy to anything related to Nazi Germany) it's immediately a "Godwin" - an argument not worth engaging? Even liberals will call out these references as unacceptable. Yet comparing liberal or leftist policies to any of the horrible, authoritarian regimes of the past is fair game and in this case has caused you enough anxiety to post about it on the internet. It's a way of structuring the conversation to delegitimize anything that might be slightly left of our (by world standards, pretty conservative) Democrats. Conservatives have their "big tent", yet liberals are expected to be both watching the conservatives and looking over their shoulder for the red menace among them.

It's a way of keeping the left toothless. Pretty much all of the great liberal social reform victories came about as a compromise forced by more radical agitation by those on the far left. The bosses were willing to give workers a weekend and 8 hour work day when there were millions of card carrying Communists in the streets ready to seize the factories and get the pitchforks out. If you're worried that the next riot might be a revolution, then those at the top start making some concessions. Read Zinn's "A People's History" if you want a more nuanced view of how social change works and the role radical leftists in America have played.

But as far as if authoritarianism taints liberalism, you are forgetting the other axis of the political spectrum as has been pointed out. Look at our modern social movements to see how the left has evolved from this. The Arab Spring & Occupy Wall Street were basically case studies in left-libertarian practices and tactics (the "horizontal" decision making, taking over public spaces, etc.). Today's left wing radicals aren't communists, they're anti-authoritarian anarchists.
posted by bradbane at 11:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's a dumb version of the argument you refer to above, and a smarter version.

The dumb version is the "X horrible person is a y, therefore all people who believe y are tainted by association." I think others above have amply touched on why this is in fact a dumb argument.

The smarter version goes something like this:

"Constructing a functioning social order is extremely complex and difficult, well beyond the comprehension of any single individual. The natural state of humanity is violence and disorder, and any somewhat just and peaceful society is very fragile and should be carefully protected. Therefore, any attempts to radically change the social order are more likely to unintentionally change it for the worse, than to remedy even obvious injustices. By replacing respect for tradition, authority and conventional wisdom with appeals to human reason above all, liberalism encourages belief in the potential for successful radical changes to the social order; leading almost inevitably to violence, dictatorship and misery."

Edmund Burke was one fo the the first people to lay out this argument in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was written in response to the excesses of the Reign of Terror under Robespierre and the Jacobins. Paul Johnson's Modern Times is a thoughtful application of this Burkean conservative worldview to the 20th century examples you cite above, and James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State recapitulates it from a left-anarchist point of view, just to show that Burke's ideas have been engaged with, critiqued, and adopted by thinkers across the political spectrum.

Early classical liberals such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill all deal with versions of Burke's argument, and personally I would say that it was amply pre-butted 40 years earlier by David Hume in his excellent account of the English Civil War, which examines the excesses of factionalism more generally without imputing them solely to the liberal or conservative side.

However, Burke's argument is not without wisdom, and is worth considering quite seriously (I really do highly recommend Scott, who demonstrates that it is possible to be both Burkean and liberal). That said, I don't think you'll find any mainstream liberal thinkers today that haven't incorporated some response to the "radical change is unlikely to succeed" claim into their thinking. Which is why you'll find many more American liberals today arguing for, say, extending marriage to gays rather than abolishing the entire institution as hopelessly gender normative.
posted by psycheslamp at 11:47 AM on October 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

And many communists see it as a perversion of Marx's ideas.

And many communists are engaging in a true Scotsman fallacy. "Oh, the Soviet Union/North Korea/Khmer Rouge Cambodia/whatever weren't *really* communist".

Beyond the logical fallacy, anyone who has read Marx sufficiently knows that his goals called for a strong state, as he explicitly recognized. This is how the wrong kind of people will be "forcibly removed or transformed". This is how the middle-class property owner "must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible". I leave to your imagination how the "sweeping" will be done.

For those who want just a quick overview, the Communist Manifesto (a slim volume itself) has a handy ten-point checklist. Central government control of communication and transportation? We can surely imagine that this will pose no problems for free speech or freedom of travel. The confiscation of rebels' property or those who leave the country? I would say the USSR followed that to the letter. Abolition of real estate? USSR did a pretty good job of seizing land holdings. "Equal liability" of labor - you will work or else. Yes, I should think the Soviets got that right. It is very hard to read the list of ten "generally acceptable" practices and see where the USSR missed the mark.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:52 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The question is not about the bullet list, but rather, are the ideas on the list tainted by "leftist" (in scare quotes) association.

The science bit of the bullet list was included because of Lysenkoism (state mandated, inaccurate science of heredity developed in Russia) and things like Brittish NHS paying for homeopathic treaments, which have zero scientific evidence of efficacy. Every state has enacted laws, policies, and regulations that do not agree with reality. Many have persecuted, to some degree, scientists engaged in good-faith research of fact-based reality.

It is not difficult for a literate person to review scientific literature and consult with experts to determine when ideas are untested, contested, unproven, or in line with the current consensual understanding in the field. Nor is it impossible to refute a false scientific claim without forcing someone into hiding, imprisoning, or killing them. A governing body has no excuse not to do these things, and a government that denies the scientific consensus in a particular area does not, in that area, reflect my political beliefs in any way.

Is that somehow an incorrect assertion on my part?

Look how easily your own summary included "mandatory" education. (Mandatory - or else what? Education by whom? Etc.)

Implementation is problematic, but my political philosophy includes room for it as the benefits seem to outweigh the negatives (when implemented with good faith). I do not believe re-education camps, indoctrination centers, and youth groups like Hitler's Youth, Boy's State here in America, etc., taint my desire for a literate populace with a firm grasp of the basic skills of reading, writing, and numeracy.

Can I not be pro mandatory public education while still being critical of American public education, or education in Mao's China, or various aspects of any particular implementation? Examples of public education that run counter to my beliefs on the subject do not reflect or taint my own opinions... do they? Why is that the case?

I'm also interested and a little bemused to see the original list of some personal elements of my political philosophy immediately conjured responses of authoritarian governments locking up people because they don't respect science (in, one assumes, scare quotes), or something similar.

Half of the list focuses on processes rather than outcomes: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of dissent, habeus corpus, due process, no legitimate state use of physical duress and torture, an extremely narrow view of when state-sponsored violence or abridgement of rights is legitimate, and free access to libraries.

How can those concepts be linked with oppressive governments that have never followed or cared about those concepts? I would love to hear of an oppressive authoritarian government that also allowed freedom of assembly, didn't torture dissidents, did not jail huge portions of the populace, etc., but I've never heard of one.

Why, then, the association here in responses? How is that a valid association when it seems almost tautological that such a state would be unable to exist any more than I could breathe under water?

I'll not post again for a good long while, if at all. Thanks for being respectful and not getting the question deleted.
posted by jsturgill at 12:08 PM on October 19, 2012

As a resource for you to help reconcile Liberalism vs Socialism, Winston Churchill said during a speech at Kinnaird Hall, Dundee on May 4th 1908:

Socialism wants to pull down wealth; Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests—Liberalism would preserve them in the only way they could justly be preserved, by reconciling them with public right. Socialism seeks to kill enterprise. Liberalism seeks to rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference. Socialism assails the maximum pre-eminence of individuals—Liberalism seeks to build up the minimum standard of the masses. Socialism attacks capital; Liberalism attacks monopoly.
posted by lstanley at 12:10 PM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

For an example of a leftist writer who opposed both Stalin and Hitler, you might try George Orwell. While some of his arguments are particular to a romanticized idea of "England," he does present a strong argument for socialism, while at the same time criticizing some of the more self-defeating tendencies of the intellectual left in the early 20th century. He was also an early writer to present a critique of colonialism from a leftist perspective (other than actual colonial subjects involved in actual anti-colonial movements of the day). Start with his essays, and then maybe his memoirs, such as Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.

If you do pick up the Marx-Engels Reader, also take a look at the debate Marx carried out with Bakunin regarding the specifics (or lack thereof) of Marx's revolutionary program. Here is a good example of a critique of revolutionary Marxism from a separate leftist tradition (that was nonetheless influenced by Marxism).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:51 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, take any critique of Socialism by Winston Churchill with a grain of salt. Here was a man who (at various times following the speech quoted above), recommended gassing the Kurds, advocated machine-gunning striking miners, called Gandhi a "half-naked fakir," and hoped conflict between the Indian Congress Party and the Muslim League would be "bitter and bloody."

He was certainly less retrograde than other conservative elements in Britain at the start of World War II, but a number of them rather fancied that Hitler chap.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:01 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here was a man who (at various times following the speech quoted above), recommended gassing the Kurds, advocated machine-gunning striking miners, called Gandhi a "half-naked fakir," and hoped conflict between the Indian Congress Party and the Muslim League would be "bitter and bloody."

Yet another reason that anyone who assumes that 21st century Western liberalism can be easily compared to regimes from 50+ years ago is an idiot.

The reality is that politics, government, and standards for public behavior has changed drastically since the mid 20th century. Totalitarianism is always possible of course, but the reality is that someone fighting for fact based science curricula in public schools or the availability of contraception on federally subsidized health plans is just living on a totally different planet from any of Mao, Stalin, or the Khmer Rouge's goals.
posted by Sara C. at 1:23 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Enforcement of a top-down social change is a thorny matter. It's not crazy for people to respond to your ideals by saying, "Look what happened to these other guys who tried to implement your ideals." Are they implementable? Can you ask government to force them on people?

However you're right that your ideas and what you are calling for is not at all cousin to Lenin/Stalin/Mao. Those were different circumstances and I think they have more to do with the spread of industrialization than ideology. If your country is an economic basket case, relatively, and you want to get industrialized and modernized fast, you are going to have to do a lot of top down change. It's going to be messy, you're going to have to do it at gunpoint so you will need a lot of guns, and you will probably end up authoritarian.

You might be able to make the case that the "lefty" values of the Communist countries were the lures, they were legitimizing philosophies to an authoritarianism that was not actually philosophically involved with those values. Perhaps an authoritarian state was going to arise in China/wherever anyway given the economic, geographic and demographic realities. Perhaps better one that paid lip service to humanitarian values than one that did not. Did they go crazy with their top-down power to control? Yes, as did the Nazis who were also drunk on the possibilities of power and society-making and their own myths.

(There is probably also some factor of these ideologies being more about forging a new national identity that is not tied to an old failed one, or does not stink too much of one particular region's traditions. Practical ideology is sales.)

Anyway I think demographics and geography are far more important than these social niceties that you list. Free speech, right to assembly, etc., are great things and worth fighting for, but they are not absolute and can be encroached upon depending on the pressures your country faces. You can't get rid of a mountain range or minority underclass or troublesome neighbor with a PATRIOT act.

So yes, [idea] in modern western society is very different than [idea]+authoritarian takeover in nervous agrarian society tired of getting pushed around.

(This has been a rambling and undergrad-stoner kind of answer but I'm going to click post answer anyway, ha ha!)
posted by fleacircus at 3:34 PM on October 19, 2012

Are these really all your core beliefs? It seems like you've mostly picked ones that primarily focus on individual liberty, hence by definition are not "tainted" by association with totalitarian regimes. However, I think most liberals, and certainly most leftists (the two are not the same), have some other values, particularly economic ones, that do in fact have more connections with oppressive Communist regimes (I personally disagree that this means they're tainted-- I have leftist economic values that I acknowledge have many connections with the values and aims of Communism, and I don't feel bad about that because I have other principles which I balance with those and which are deeply opposed to totalitarianism-- but I think that's what you mean when you say the word?)

I think the main one on your list that may fall under this category, depending on what you mean by it, is: "Forced and unfree labor (in the sense that the laborers have no realistic alternatives open to them) are anathema to good government and good business."

What do you mean by "realistic alternatives"? Does that include the belief that people shouldn't be effectively forced into taking whatever job is available to them (including one that's unsafe/that's oppressive/that they just hate for whatever reason/etc) because otherwise they'll starve? Then you need a social safety net, which means taxation. What about if you protect them from starving regardless of whether they take the job, but they'll still be in poverty and have a crappy house, poor health, bad education for their kids that practically dooms them to poverty too, etc, and so they still feel forced into taking jobs they don't want to take? The stronger the social safety net you want, the more taxation. If you get to a point where people will not freely agree to pay the amount of taxes to pay for the safety net, you may start to compromise your perfect individual liberty... and in a poor society, it may not even take that comfortable of a social safety net before you get to the point where this tradeoff occurs. (Especially if you start out with a lot of the wealth concentrated with a small number of people who are resistant to being taxed heavily to pay for a safety net for all "those people.") This is often the tension that leads to more oppressive regimes-- either actively getting this resistance from taxpayers/the wealthy, or based on the analysis that this resistance is inevitably going to happen and so to accomplish the goals, freedom needs to be limited, at least temporarily.

Your point on good, free public education can also tie into the same trend, and also maybe this one (depending on whether your focus is primarily on the freedom of information, or on the community resources): "The value of freely available community resources such as libraries that contain information and perspectives not limited by the state"-- if you get to a point where what you think must be publicly provided cannot be funded by a perfectly free decision of your citizens, then you have to either trade off on the liberties or on the benefits to which people should be entitled.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:09 PM on October 19, 2012

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