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James Hitchcock on the debacle of liberalism

He’s written a useful discussion of the collapse of liberalism into radical-left extremism: Supremely Modern Liberals.

Hitchcock seems to waffle somewhat on the nature of liberalism itself and whether things might have turned out otherwise. That might be because he’s a historian and as such tends to view something like liberalism as a complex historical formation rather than a thing with a definite nature that can be described and reasoned about. Or maybe it’s because all Americans except a few cranks are basically liberals, and he’s writing as usual for an audience and publication (in this case Touchstone) that wants to avoid crankishness and aims at a supposedly solid middle ground of orthodox reasonableness.

My view, of course, is that anything recognizable as liberalism represents a decision to take freedom rather than the good as the final standard for resolving disputes—in other words, to put human will before God—and once that choice has been made everything else follows. The saying from the 30s that communists are liberals in a hurry is therefore essentially correct. The opposing neoconservative (and libertarian) view, that liberalism could have kept chugging along forever but got derailed for some special reason that can be reversed, is, I believe, the illusion that makes conservative efforts forever useless. So the nature of liberalism, however metaphysical the question might seem, is an important issue.

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Thanks for the reference to this interesting article. I found much to agree with, especially the following:


“The reason liberals can make matters of fundamental meaning matters of public debate is that the welfare state, in its claim of responsibility for people’s lives in the fullest sense, inevitably turns questions of value into political issues.”

This is precisely the point I have been trying to make in recent days. The distinction between political and moral issues is valid. Classical liberalism is primarily a political theory, and it resists the conflation of the moral and political realms. In this, it differs from what Hitchcock calls modernist liberalism.

Hitchcock continues:
“Debates over particular issues—abortion, homosexuality, pornography—are only secondarily about the specific practices themselves. Instead, they represent the liberal demand that all such questions be kept perpetually open, that no one be permitted to affirm objective moral standards…”

Here you see the effect of confusing the moral with the political. Where the classical liberal would leave everyone free to affirm whatever standards they deem true or good, the modernist liberal is a censor who permits only the affirmation of approved, “tolerant” viewpoints. “Keeping questions open” is now a dogmatic, nihilist stance rather than a framework for rational discussion.

Given that there are these differences between classical and modernist liberalism, there is at least some prima facie merit in what Mr Kalb describes as the neoconservative and libertarian idea that the missteps can be reversed and true liberalism restored. As far as I can tell, Mr Kalb’s criticism of that idea is mainly that the drift from classical to modernist liberalism is inevitable. Despite all he has written on the topic, I have yet to be convinced that he’s right about that.

But I agree that it is an important question, and I look forward to his continued attempts to answer it.

Upon revisiting my earlier comment, I find that I failed to clearly express something I was trying to draw out from my second quotation from Hitchcock:

“Debates over particular issues—abortion, homosexuality, pornography—are only secondarily about the specific practices themselves. Instead, they represent the liberal demand that all such questions be kept perpetually open, that no one be permitted to affirm objective moral standards…”

What I wanted to point out was how modernist liberalism turns classical liberalism upside-down. Where the classical theory permitted all such affirmations (and did not presume to decide the question about which is right), the modern theory permits none (having previously decided that none of them can be right).

This difference is so radical, so fundamental, that it is difficult to see how the two theories can usefully be considered one.

But in order to allow all affirmations of freedom, necessarily the restrictions against those freedoms (abortion, gay marriage, polygamy, divorce, …) have to be abolished.

So classical and modern liberals share the same political agenda. And the outcome is the same.

The classical liberal might not lit the fire that burns Rome into ruins, but he would not stop the person litting that fire. The modern liberal might lit the fire or help the person doing it. But the result in either case is a Rome that is in ruins.