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.