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Complaints about 'The Tyranny of Liberalism'

A correspondent passed on the following comment by another reader of my essay “The Tyranny of Liberalism”:

I read the first part of the article, but I am not going to read the rest, though I did skim through it. It is so bad that it is not worth the time. The first part of the article is basically a giant strawman argument against “liberalism” that largely misunderstands liberalism and liberals. This article, like many other pieces by social conservatives, makes the same mistakes that Critical Theorists, Critical Legal Studies scholars and other leftwing thinkers make when they attack liberalism. It would seem that the Right and the Left don’t understand the Center. Liberalism does not purport to be neutral on issues of morality. And it is clearly not only about the satisfaction of desires. Any criticism built upon such assumptions, like this article, shows a deep ignorance about liberal thought. A quick reading of serious liberal thinkers like Rawls, Nozick (libertarians are liberals in the broad sense), and Dworkin, or of more mainstream liberal sources, would demonstrate this to any remotely fair reader. If anything, the criticisms the author makes are far more applicable to capitalism than to liberalism. It is the defenders of capitalism who try, more than any others, to portray that system as neutral. Perhaps one day social conservatives will learn what Marx compellingly argued 150 years ago—that the creative destruction of markets celebrated by so many does far more to undermine traditional value systems than any version of liberal or Liberal political thought ever could.

My response:

Thanks for forwarding. It’s always helpful to know how what one says appears to others.

It seems to me that the problem is that the “liberalism” I discuss is less liberalism as opposed to libertarianism or capitalism, or the specific thought of particular thinkers, than liberalism as a longstanding tendency of thought and institutional development that tends ever more to treat individual preferences as the source of value and those preferences together with formal logic and means-ends reasoning as the basis for a complete system of social morality and politics. It seems to me OK to call that grand tendency “liberalism” because the thinkers and movements called liberal are, it seems to me, its best and most successful representatives and they forward that tendency in an ever more comprehensive and thorough way.

All of which would probably also seem like nonsense to your correspondent. On issues like these people most often don’t understand each other unless they already almost believe the same thing. Also, it’s easier to see grand patterns if you’re outside a tendency than if you’re within it. If you’re within the views of outsiders seem like uninformed fantasy. Such is life.

As to more particular points:

  1. Locke, Mills, Rawls etc. are very useful witnesses to liberalism but they do not define what it is for analysis any more than particular thinkers who favor and promote any other large and long-lasting social movement define what that movement is for analysis. One must step back and ask what it all amounts to, what the decisive principles really are, and where it’s all going.
  2. Libertarianism and capitalist ideology seem to me less developed forms of liberalism. In other words, I agree with liberals who call themselves progressive and consider classical liberals reactionary, frozen in time, stuck on old-fashioned dogma etc. The point of that belief is that both classical and contemporary liberalism are stages in the development of the implications of common fundamental understandings and aspirations, with contemporary liberalism a more developed stage.
  3. Everybody thinks he’s at the center. What’s ordinarily called liberalism is admittedly more stable and cautious than other forms of progressive and leftist thought. Still, there’s a question whether liberal theory is able adequately to take into account the whole range of human characteristics and concerns so that it can continue to provide a tolerable setting for people to live. Basically, my view is that since the 60s and especially since 1989 liberalism has become too comprehensive and ideological, partly because it’s had no serious principled competitors. So far as I can tell the step-by-step manner and strong connection to institutional practice that makes it seem centrist to its adherents just means that it’s all the more effective in leading us all over a cliff. Like the mills of the gods, in comparison with Leftism liberalism grinds slow but exceeding fine.

Once again, thanks for forwarding. The comment raised important issues, although naturally I don’t agree with the formulation or conclusions.