America is in cultural crisis. Powerful elements of left and right have become forces for irrationalism and authoritarianism. But there is hope, for an emerging coalition champions reason and liberty.
We begin with the headlines. Donald Trump’s unvetted, ready-fire-aim executive order on immigration—which arbitrarily excluded Saudi Arabia and other terror hotspots, left people such as a former U.S. military interpreter and doctors working in Cleveland temporarily detained at airports, and pointlessly ejected others from the country—is just one of the troubling developments under the new administration.
In his first few days, Trump also appointed “bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment” Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, senselessly provoked Mexico, threatened damaging tariffs, repeated unsubstantiated allegations of “millions” of illegal votes for Hillary Clinton, and fought pointlessly with media over crowd sizes.
Trump’s actions as president, of course, come on the heels of candidate Trump threatening to go after Jeff Bezos and Amazon with tax and antitrust actions, threatening to change the law to enable him to sue media outlets that publish articles about him that he deems “negative and horrible and false,” suggesting that Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate JFK, and so on.
It would be unfair to call Trump a loose cannon—unfair to loose cannons because they at least can potentially be remoored.
I am frightened for the future of our country—not only because Trump is a dangerously arrogant and dishonest buffoon, but because of the political forces that gave rise to his presidency. Those forces include ones on the left that gave us the disastrously flawed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her pro-censorship, identity-politics, entitlement-expanding platform.
If there is a silver lining to Trump’s political success, it is that it has prompted many people to evaluate their political beliefs and alliances at a more fundamental level.
Many on the left have recoiled from the “regressive left” with its antipathy to free speech, rejection of open debate and even of universal truths, and obsession with skin color and gender.
Meanwhile, many on the right have recoiled from the “alt-right” with its racism, scapegoating of outsiders, and rejection of global free trade. Notably, the views of these worst elements of left and right frequently converge.
Thankfully, a nascent coalition is emerging to counter the disturbing trends, a group I’ll dub the Reason-Rights Coalition. We could also call it the Liberal Coalition if we look more to the classical ideal of liberalism as first advocated by Adam Smith and fellow travelers. The people who most naturally fit in this group share some key political beliefs and also some broader beliefs about knowledge and the basic requirements for civil society.
Who are the people and groups aligned with this new coalition and arguably already informally a part of it? I’ll mention some of the key players.
- Dave Rubin is one well-known personality at the heart of this emerging coalition; recently he complained that “the left is no longer liberal” and said he values “free speech, rights of the individual, and limited government designed to maximize liberty.” [July 28, 2021, Update: Rubin has since taken a hard conservative turn.]
- The New Atheists and their secularist allies, led most forcefully by Sam Harris, strongly advocate freedom of speech and criticize the abuses within authoritarian strains of Islam. Harris is explicitly looking for a “new center to our politics” that “defends secularism, science, and free speech.”
- The Objectivists, led by Yaron Brook, also advocate freedom of speech, reason, and a broadly (classical) liberal order. (It is remarkable to me how Harris and Brook, so different in so many ways, came out with similar responses to the immigration ban.)
- The Skeptics, led by Michael Shermer, stand for reason, science, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state.
- The better libertarians (as opposed to the Southern Glory libertarians and the “burn it all down” libertarians) emphasize free markets along with freedom of conscience.
- The ACLU, while often on the wrong side when it comes to economic liberty, usually is excellent in defending freedom of speech.
- Free traders within the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the regressive left or alt-right.
- Academics such as Steven Pinker broadly support freedom of inquiry, civil discourse, and pro-human values. (I’m sure I’m missing some important people.)
Obviously people within this emerging coalition often disagree with each other on points of philosophy and matters of economic and foreign policy. Some may even bristle at the suggestion that they’re natural allies with others on my list. I’ll note that the coalition I describe could work toward the same goals even if its members do not recognize themselves as part of a formal coalition.
Despite the differences among members of these factions, they share many important values. I’ll outline the main ones.
Reason and a Reality Orientation
Those in (or potentially in) the Reason-Rights Coalition seek knowledge through evidence-based logic, not through faith in an alleged supernatural being, a “truth” dependent on bloodlines or group identity, or the narcissistic dissembling of Trump or some other demagogue.
In our age in which we’re supposed to somehow divine the president’s serious intentions without ever taking him literally, the reason-rights crowd insists that people say what they mean unambiguously and offer reasons (as opposed to “alternative facts”) for saying it.
In a sane world, we wouldn’t have to take seriously anyone who habitually misstates the facts and stretches the truth—because such a person never would gain political power. Such is not the world in which we currently live—but it could be and should be.
The basic orientation among people in this emerging coalition is toward reality, not some alternative plane of existence or subjective feelings.
Obviously in our era of “fake news” this group regards fact-based, context-sensitive journalism as tremendously important.
A Pro-Human Focus
Not everyone is concerned primarily (or even at all) with the flourishing of human beings. Certain strains of environmentalism regard humanity as a blight on the planet. Certain strains of religion—including totalitarian Islam—regard people as properly subjugated to God’s will as interpreted by his select followers; flourishing in terms of happiness and material progress are beside the point. Certain philosophies regard the state or the collective as the moral primary to which individuals and their happiness properly are sacrificed.
The Reason-Rights Coalition puts human beings and their lives, happiness, and general well-being front and center.
Of course there are many disagreements about what human flourishing demands. For example, some say that human-caused global warming will lead to catastrophe and that intensive regulations and subsidies are needed to head off the problem. Others think that global warming is “mild and manageable” and that government ought not restrict fossil fuels. This is an important debate, but within the orientation I’m discussing the underlying standard is human flourishing. So, for example, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker call for the use of nuclear power to meet people’s energy needs.
Freedom of Speech
In terms of policy, freedom of speech is a fundamental value for reason-rights folks. This reflects the underlying commitment to human reason, which we express in a social context through speech. Although people often are biased, we are capable of rational discourse; we are capable of changing our minds and of persuading others in light of the facts and logical argument. Although many people speak dishonestly and irrationally, forcible restrictions on anyone’s speech threaten everyone’s speech.
Notice that elements of left and right routinely attack freedom of speech—although in recent years the left has been the worse offender by far. Not only does today’s campus left often want to “deplatform” speakers, but the left broadly wants to implement censorship of political speech—including books and films—via campaign finance laws. Indeed, such was Hillary Clinton’s signature issue, at least regarding the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, support for such censorship is today so widespread on the left that even some people whom I’d usually regard as reason-rights allies probably favor it. But I see that as an aberration (hopefully correctable) stemming from their oversight of the relevant facts.
Generally, the people in the Reason-Rights Coalition staunchly uphold freedom of speech when that freedom is threatened by hate-speech laws, blasphemy laws, and the like. Freedom of speech, reason-rights supporters recognize, is fundamental to human liberty.
The Separation of Church and State
Members of the Reason-Rights Coalition need not be atheists, of course, but they must be secularists in the sense that they advocate secular institutions that guarantee freedom of religious worship and freedom of conscience generally. The institution of sectarian beliefs by government force is out.
Here a main point of disagreement is over whether government should punish religiously motivated business owners who refuse service to gay couples or others. I think it shouldn’t—but I’m willing to work toward common goals with people who, in my view, are wrong about this.
* * *
I don’t know whether the Reason-Rights Coalition ever will be formally organized. But I do think that the coalition is already informally in place, and I think it is an immensely important cultural force to challenge both the regressive left and the Trumpian right. Giving this nascent coalition a name and actively promoting it hopefully will make it stronger.
I realize that not everyone whom I consider to be (informally) part of this coalition will recognize all the others as allies. That’s fine; I don’t need someone else to recognize me as an ally in order for me to promote that person’s work that furthers my values. Although I hope to see more self-conscious coordination among people I count as part of the Reason-Rights Coalition, such coordination isn’t necessary for the coalition to exist and to advance shared values.
I also realize that the various parties, however aligned they may be in achieving certain goals, will continue to have serious disagreements. As examples, I think Sam Harris works some collectivist premises into his moral thinking that ultimately clash with human liberty, and I think most libertarians are dangerously morally agnostic and hostile to government as such. Still, someone can be largely or essentially oriented to reason and human flourishing and be wrong about some important philosophic and political matters, and I think that’s the case with Harris and with many libertarians (and with others on my list). I see sufficient agreement to jointly address the cultural crisis of our time, and we can continue to discuss our differences going into the future.
As Harris and others have recognized, the regressive left unwittingly helps to prop up the alt-right and now the Trump presidency. Standing against the irrationalism and authoritarianism of the regressive left and the Trumpian right is the Reason-Rights Coalition.
Image: Sam Harris
Note: An exchange between John Clinch and Ari Armstrong on this issue has been moved to a new article, “Can Capitalists and Leftists Find Common Liberal Ground?”
A Pro-Reason Movement
Just a tremendously great essay. It’s so important to understand that there is actually a pro-reason movement and there several strong voices who need to be heard louder!
Origins of Liberalism
I thought that the political and philosophical principles of classical ideal of liberalism were first developed by John Locke (1632–1704) through many of his works such as The Two Treatises of Civil Government, Essays concerning Human Understanding, and Letters Concerning Toleration, before its economic principles were developed and advocated by Adam Smith (1723–1790) through An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Ari Armstrong replies: Undisputedly John Locke was a key figure in formulating the principles of liberalism. But Daniel Klein’s point is that liberalism as a movement (and called such) came into its own during the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly with Adam Smith and his allies.