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Liberal neutrality

Is liberalism politically necessary, because there’s too little agreement on basics? That’s what is said. Any attempt to enforce non-liberal views, special recognition of a particular religion for example, would be hopelessly divisive and require unacceptable coercion. Religious establishments have been in decline for a long time, and serious attempts to re-impose them today soon run into terminal difficulties, as seems to be happening even in Iran. That’s the natural consequence of better education, more communication, and greater social diversity.

Or so liberals claim. The claims seem plausible because liberalism appears to impose nothing special, and because religious establishments have been in decline. Nonethless, they are clearly false. Like any other political order liberalism has principles that it insists on although they could easily be disputed. One need not point to things as extreme as Dutch anti-discrimination law, which is crudely totalitarian. One need only point to liberalism’s effect in making some things easier and others all but impossible. Opening up a park to offroad vehicles might be a good idea but it’s not neutral as to birdwatching. Liberalism can have a similar effect on other practices. If it’s is bad for family coherence, why shouldn’t those who value the family view liberalization as imposition of anti-family views on the setting in which they live, and thus not neutral but aggressive? After all, the “freedom” that once allowed children to work long hours in textile mills is now viewed as no freedom at all. Why shouldn’t the “freedom” that deprives husbands and wives of social support in holding each other to their marital obligations, and so children of family life, be viewed the same way?

Many people do feel that way, of course. Their views don’t get publicized, though, even if they manage to articulate them persuasively, and they invariably lose. Why is that? One reason is that the public apparatus of knowledge, publicity and decision is against them. Liberalism favors formal public institutions like bureaucracies, universities and the mass media and disfavors non-rationalized traditional arrangements like the family and religious faith. It follows that accredited experts, authorities and other talkers as a class strongly favor liberalism, since it puts them and their ways of doing things in charge, and it is their views that get publicity and take effect in the process through which decisions are made.

Another is that the freedoms liberalism grants are immediate, and favor those who are active, while the limitations it imposes arise more indirectly, and mostly affect one’s ability to rely on others or find a setting in which certain values are at home. The loosening of family ties is again an example. Liberalism therefore favors the strong and energetic at the expense of the weak and dependent. The social liberalism of the rich and successful is notorious. The reason antiliberal measures are “divisive” is that those who oppose them are those who are in a position to make a fuss.

These considerations go to the justice of the liberal cause, not to its continued success. Regardless of justice, why shouldn’t liberalism continue to be uniformly successful in the future as in the recent past? If liberal societies continue to function tolerably well, there’s no reason it shouldn’t. The question is whether that will happen. Liberal societies have been enormously successful. It seems doubtful that their success will last for ever, however, if only for the crude reason that they seem unable to reproduce themselves morally or physically. Beyond that, the hysteria of the EU ruling classes and their inability to discuss or even think about basic issues is a bad sign. A society can survive a great deal, but not the loss by its ruling class of the ability to think. The Fortuyn assassination in Holland, and the events leading up to it and surrounding it, suggest just that may be happening.