Opinion

What American liberals could really learn from the French

French politicians aren't afraid to have intellectual debates — even with their ideological comrades

Among the philosophically inclined, a common criticism of conservatism is that it's an incoherent and contradictory political philosophy: What is the link between, say, free-market economics and social conservatism? And doesn't the free market undermine traditional institutions?

What so many people view as inconsistency is actually a major reason I enjoy being a conservative: We're a disputatious bunch. You can find conservatives on either side of practically every major disagreement. There are pro- and anti-immigration conservatives; pro-marijuana and anti-legalization conservatives; pro- and anti-same-sex marriage conservatives; and so on. Maybe sometimes this makes us a circular firing squad. But at any rate, it makes being an intellectual conservative great fun.

Viewed from the outside, the world of progressive left thought seems much more uniform and, frankly, dreary. Not that there aren't camps or disputes — between more establishmentarian, "neoliberal" progressives and more straightforwardly socialist progressives, for example. But even then, most of the disputes seem to be more about means rather than ends. For example, Jonathan Chait, a writer at New York magazine, is somewhat infamous for being a punching bag for more progressive lefties. But there's little doubt that Chait would like America to look pretty much like what Bernie bros want it to look like: basically Sweden. They just disagree about how to get there, and which fights it is important to prioritize and pick first.

Here, the contrast with my own country of France is pretty striking.

Take an idea that's buzzy among progressives on both sides of the Atlantic: universal basic income. In the primary election for France's Socialist Party, which just had its first round, the debate about basic income was promoted by the most left-wing candidate, Benoît Hamon. In the U.S., I don't think I've ever seen a progressive writer dispute this issue on its merits; if they ever do debate it, their argument has to do with feasibility, either technical or political.

By contrast, Hamon's unimpeachably socialist opponents attacked him for his proposal on much more profound grounds. Arnaud Montebourg, his equally left-wing opponent, expressed outrage along the following lines: A basic income (financed, in Hamon's plan, by a tax on robots) presents basically a surrender to the late-capitalist vision of a technological capitalism that just leaves less-skilled workers jobless. Reminding his opponent that socialists are supposed to be the party of workers, Montebourg instead pushed a vision of robust public investment and trade barriers that would provide well-paying jobs to everyone, making the issue of the basic income moot. Put aside the merits of who's right; the point is that there is a greater diversity of views on display here, and they are animated not by technocratic questions but by profound philosophical differences. What's more, Montebourg's criticism was not a form of "triangulation" but was indeed framed in left-wing philosophical premises.

The same approach applies to social issues. The French philosopher Sylviane Agacinski is pretty close to a doyenne of French feminism. And yet she's comfortable being idiosyncratic. In a recent interview with the French right-of-center daily Le Figaro, while endorsing same-sex marriage, she expressed reservations about same-sex adoptions and mused about the right of children to be brought up by parents of both sexes. She criticized surrogacy for submitting women's bodies to the marketplace. On campus and school rules meant to deter harassment and sexual assault, she mused, in what will probably strike readers as a delightfully French train of thought: "It would be really sad to go on a witchhunt against seduction under the pretext of fighting harassment. The two have nothing to do with each other: In one case, one tries to spark the other's desire, while in the other one ignores and offends it."

There's little doubt that taking any of those positions, let alone all of them, would have an American feminist philosopher angrily protested, denounced, and written off the movement. To be sure, many disagreed with Agacinski publicly, which is the point: The French left, by contrast to the American left, has intramural debates, and they are not just debates about means, but philosophical debates. On the American left, I can only think of one similar bomb thrower: Camille Paglia, and she's distinguished by precisely how lonely she is in this role, and how little the vast mainstream progressive left listens to her.

Perhaps one reason why you don't see this sort of debate within the American progressive left is simply that the American progressive left doesn't care much about culture at all. As my colleague Damon Linker pointed out, there's much more interest in the intellectual life on the right than on the left. In France, having at least a veneer of high culture is still mostly a requirement for entry into the battlefield of ideas. But too many on the American progressive left see philosophy and history as holding little interest since the only lesson of the past is that it must be transcended.

And, hey, you know, maybe that's right. But it makes being a liberal sound just so boring. If you're looking for me, I'll be over there with my Leo Strauss and my Aquinas, throwing bombs at my comrades.

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