Scott Sumner  

Robert Frost and liberalism

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Robert Frost once said:

A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.
This seems very clever to me---I wonder what other people think.

1. He may not be using the term "liberal" to refer to left-wingers, but rather seems to be referring back to the original meaning of the term. In that case, I would consider myself to be a liberal.

2. Most of these sorts of pithy definitions are going to be unacceptable to one side of the political spectrum or the other. But I wonder if this is an exception. To me, Frost's definition seems like a compliment. I'd guess that non-liberals like Donald Trump might view it as an insult.

Over at TheMoneyIllusion, I recently suggested that if I were a Supreme Court justice, I would not take the "libertarian" position on cases. I would not rule various laws "unconstitutional" just because I thought they were unwise examples of government interventionism. Indeed judges should never let their personal political views color their legal decisions.

Some commenters thought I was being naive. Actually, I understand that very few people, indeed very few sitting judges, are able to completely put aside their personal biases. I was describing an ideal. In the very rare cases where someone does have the proper judicial temperament, political views don't matter. It's unfortunate that we must talk about liberal judges and conservative judges; we should be talking about good and bad judges. After all, we don't talk about liberal plumbers and conservative plumbers.

Let me also use this definition to explain what I see as the difference between being liberal and being left wing. On a wide range of issues, including foreign policy, trade, entitlements and infrastructure spending, Trump's views might be characterized as being to the left of George W. Bush's views. But if we use Frost's definition of "liberal", then I'd claim that Bush was more liberal than Trump. Indeed Trump might be the least liberal major American politician in my lifetime. I've never seen another politician put so much emphasis on "our side" winning. President Bush was passionately devoted to the cause of treating AIDS in Africa. Trump's probably not opposed to the goal, but it certainly doesn't fit neatly into his real passion---making America great again. (Indeed Bush may have done more for Africa than any other President, including Obama.)

Frost's comment seems to me to have two important implications:

1. The welfare of each and every person is just as important as your own welfare. Maybe not as important to you (in an emotional sense), but you should be aware that it is just as important in the general scheme of things.

2. Process is important. People (including judges) should not cheat on the process in order to achieve the result that they personally prefer.

It seems to me that the first implication leads to utilitarianism, whereas the second implication leads to a specific version of utilitarianism called "rules utilitarianism".

Society should use a rules-based approach to resolving issues (courts, elections, contracts, property rights, etc.) Voters should cast their ballot with an eye toward maximizing the welfare of society as a whole, not just the welfare of themselves and their families.

It does no good to point out that this is all very utopian. Of course the real world always falls far short of perfection. The more interesting question is whether progress is possible. Is Denmark more liberal than Sicily? Is Denmark in 2017 more liberal than Denmark in 1317? I believe the answer to both questions is yes, which means that I believe human progress is possible.

PS. In a fight between the faculty and the administration over abolishing tenure, I would have sided with the administration, even as a tenured faculty member.

PPS. When I was growing up, I often helped my dad on construction, but I was pretty klutzy. My dad was a small businessman, another profession I was ill suited for. I can only recall one time when my dad said I'd be good at some job. When I was a teenager, he once told me that I'd be a good judge. I wonder how many kids are told by their dad that they'd be a good judge?

Robert Frost:

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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning




COMMENTS (12 to date)
Thaomas writes:

I agree with your two principles, but not with Frost's comment. I see it as rather a proper rebuke to the kind of even handedness that equated, for example, US and the Soviet Union's foreign policies during the Cold War.

zeke5123 writes:

Not sure I agree with your critique on judges; or rather, I think you have causality reversed. Certain judges are picked because their judicial philosophy tends to create a republican or democrat outcome. However, that philosophy sometimes is at odds with the politics it is associated with. I find most of the time, the judge sticks with the philosophy and not the politics.

Where the idea developed that judges generally decide issues politically is that (a) in the most politicized cases, judges seem to vote politically and (b) sometimes in the most political cases, the judge deviates from his or her philosophy. I think (a) is once again confusing causality and (b) happens, but not nearly as frequently as one would think. It is also a question of degree.

David R. Henderson writes:

Scott,
I agree broadly with your reasoning and your message but not with the quote, certainly not if I take the quote literally. If I’m in a quarrel, it’s because I think I’m right. If I think I’m wrong, then I should stop quarreling.
BTW, Frost at that early age is almost a spitting image of my favorite uncle, Uncle Elmer.

Philo writes:

"The welfare of each and every person is just as important as your own welfare." OK, but let us not limit it to *persons*: the welfare of every *creature*--every *being*--is just as important as one's own. Indeed, we should not limit it to *actual beings*: the welfare of every *possible being* is just as important as one's own. If, as a consequence of some action of yours, a certain possible being that would have been happy does *not* come into existence (but for your action it would have come into existence and been positively happy), this loss of possible happiness should be counted against your action just as if it had been a loss *to an actual creature*.

(This comment may seem not centrally relevant to the main point of your post, but . . . if you're going to be a utilitarian, you may as well do it right! As for "rules utilitarianism," a.k.a "rule-utilitarianism": it is an unnecessary theoretical complication, since even an "act-"utilitarian should recognize the value of socially established rules.)

Weir writes:

A man who takes his own side in a quarrel is in a bad position to understand what he's saying, let alone what the other guy's saying. He'd learn more by suspending judgment, and bracketing out the rest of it. That includes his personality, his competitiveness, his position, a position to which he clings even though he could see it, instead, as simply where he found himself.

Nobody's genuinely broadminded. Not even Montaigne. And yet he's the examplar. By pretending to be broadminded we can denigrate the folks next door, take them down a peg, set ourselves off from them. The truth is we're not in the least bit interested in actually existing cannibalism, in Montaigne's essay, or the specific facts of a Soviet famine, way off in another part of the world.

When Frost talked about letting a man "go to hell in his own way" he was, whether he knew it or not, rewriting Locke. "To go to heaven each his own way" was how Locke had phrased it.

Letting a man misunderstand him "in his own way" is actually what Frost was up to, and where his fun was. The fun for a reader is puzzling it out. High school English would be more fun if our teachers were at least as smart as Frost. But what he's saying in The Road Not Taken is not what they think he's saying. And he expected that. He built the puzzle.

Andrew_FL writes:
The welfare of each and every person is just as important as your own welfare. Maybe not as important to you (in an emotional sense), but you should be aware that it is just as important in the general scheme of things.

This is a false premise because it presumes some objective "importance" which does not exist.

Andrew_FL writes:

As for the virtues of being broadminded, I'll quote Chesterton: "Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."

Larry writes:

On judicial philosophy:

You can be a textualist/intentionalist : you look at the text and you interpret according to the supporting texts of the time.

You can be a natural rights type. Does moral law or moral law as refracted through centuries of jurisprudence support you?

Which principle is primary?

If you reject those, what is your principle? The NYT opinion page? How you feel at the moment? Who is the most victim-y?

Scott Sumner writes:

Zeke, How did I reverse causality? What sort of causality did I claim?

Andrew, What does "objective" mean? Is there such a thing

Larry, The key point is that judges should not be biased. I agree that there are a number of plausible judicial principles, but once you pick one you should not decide cases based on whether you are a Republican or Democrat.

Steven Reilly writes:

It's funny that you believe some ages are better than others, since according to Frost (or I suppose his narrator) that makes you illiberal.

"One age is like another for the soul.
I’m telling you. You haven’t said a thing,
Unless I put it in your mouth to say.
I’m having the whole argument my way–
But in your favor–please to tell your King–
In having granted you all ages shine
With equal darkness, yours as dark as mine,
I’m liberal. You, you aristocrat,
Won’t know exactly what I mean by that.
I mean so altruistically moral
I never take my own side in a quarrel.
I’d lay my hand on his hand on his staff
Lean back and have my confidential laugh,
And tell him I had read his Epitaph."

http://www.davidpaulkirkpatrick.com/2015/03/26/i-had-a-lovers-quarrel-with-the-world-by-robert-frost/

Jeff writes:

Philo said

OK, but let us not limit it to *persons*: the welfare of every *creature*--every *being*--is just as important as one's own. Indeed, we should not limit it to *actual beings*: the welfare of every *possible being* is just as important as one's own. If, as a consequence of some action of yours, a certain possible being that would have been happy does *not* come into existence (but for your action it would have come into existence and been positively happy), this loss of possible happiness should be counted against your action just as if it had been a loss *to an actual creature*.

I hope Philo doesn't swat mosquitoes, eat any kind of plant or animal, or use antibiotics. Aren't bacteria "beings" as well? And why limit yourself to living things? Why isn't a random rock just as important as Philo?

Jose writes:

Prof. Sumner, what to you think of the Rothbardian view that utilitarianinsm ends up hurting the cause of liberty because in focusing on the short term and compromising, some "higher ideals" get lost in the process ?

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