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The growth of liberalism into antiliberalism

Here’s another way to state the problem with liberalism: Judith Sklar speaks of the “liberalism of fear,” Leo Strauss says modern politics tries to build solidly by aiming low, and I say moderns try to come up with machines based on principles that can be fully grasped and give reliable results. Put those points together, and it seems that the basic liberal impulse is to base government on a few simple principles designed to prevent evils like slavery and religious persecution, and also to promote basic material goods like prosperity. Government, the thought is, should be rendered controllable and harmless by strictly limiting it. Goals other than the political goals of liberalism can then be treated as matters of luck or private choice and effort.

In order to make sense, such a system depends on a distinction between public and private that treats the great majority of human concerns as purely private. If the theory is to keep it simple then things have to be kept simple. That hasn’t lasted, though, because man is too much a social being for public and private to be separated to that extent:

  • First, it became accepted that government action could greatly affect general economic progress and individual economic security and well-being. So we had government provision for ports, highways, and education, and later unemployment compensation and other forms of social security.
  • Then someone noticed that various forms of disadvantage have a private dimension. The benefits of the abolition of slavery or formal abolition of religious distinctions were limited, at least in appearance, by private reluctance to treat freed slaves or members of religious minorities as equals. So to bring about the original goals of liberalism, especially the protection of individuals from abuse, it seemed necessary to forbid private discrimination. Since discrimination itself is usually invisible, so only its supposed effects can be seen, that meant rather quickly that affirmative action to promote equal results had to be required.
  • But every social institution that does any work worth bothering about involves inequalities and therefore a system of disadvantages. From a liberal standpoint that only looks at obvious immediate material benefits, those disadvantages are often hard to distinguish from the kind of disadvantage the first round of antidiscrimination laws sought to remedy. The family, for example, introduces inequalities based on sex, orientation and status. To the extent a religious or moral view is taken seriously it puts those who don’t share it at a disadvantage, if only by putting them in the wrong on some fundamental point. Since religious persecution was a founding concern of liberalism it takes such things very seriously.
  • Once such a line of thought gets started, it turns out rather quickly that all significant social institutions not clearly ordered toward the liberal goal of preventing oppression and rationally promoting goods like prosperity—e.g., family, religion, particular culture, and everything else that’s neither bureaucratic nor market-oriented—have to be abolished as institutions for the sake of eliminating discrimination. They can linger on as private individual pursuits as long as their adherents can be trusted to recognize them as such, but their social authority has to go.

The net effect is that liberalism, which was supposed to make us safe and free and guard our dignity by restricting government to a few basic concerns, ends by making those concerns the only ones allowed to matter socially. To enforce that principle government has to crush all other concerns. It has to remake our attitudes and habits in unprecedented ways with the use of unprecedented power that makes it impossible for government to be answerable to anyone except a few experts and ideologists. The people, who were to be the rulers, are instead turned into a mass of unconnected individuals who have to keep quiet about what’s dearest to them for fear of making things more difficult for those who differ.



Your last bullet nails it.

I question, however, your allusion to the market. I do not see any particular affinity between liberalism and the market. Liberalism will happily wreck or strangle a market, if given the chance (English socialism, Soviet communism, etc.).

I agree that the basic impulse behind liberalism, which involves turning everything into a clearly rational machine constructed on simple principles for defined ends, doesn’t like the market in principle as much as bureaucratic administration. Still, it’s worth noting that historically liberalism has been closely connected to commercial society. The market does simplify and rationalize by making everything convertible into a single purely numerical measure (money) and establishing a single clear decision procedure that only looks at the will of particular persons (contract). In addition, it actually tends to work, unlike comprehensive bureaucratic administration. So I think left/liberals are willing to live with it as a sort of necessary second best.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

It seems to me that, at the level of basic principle, the market and advanced liberalism are in fundamental disagreement.

In the market, the fundamental principle is exchange for value. In order to participate in the market, therefore, one must offer something (either goods or labor) that, at least nominally, has value, and the operation of the market sets the nominal value.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is based on the principles of entitlement (“rights”) and the use of state and bureaucratic coercion to achieve that entitlement. The value of the entitlement is presumably infinite, and therefore any coercion is justified to deliver it. One need not participate in any exchange for value; one need merely assert a “right” (a right to a job, a right to decent housing, a right to medical care, a right to immigrate, etc.) and demand value in return.

I wonder if Posner, or any of the other economic-based thinkers, have evaluated liberalism in this way. It would seem that, as a purely economic matter, liberalism would be destined for collapse because no market is in operation to place an appropriate price on the various spurious exchanges.

By the way, liberalism’s principle of exchange (entitlement) is called “justice” or “social justice,” and it is needless to say the highest good.