People have been asking me questions about my book, and I’m going to be giving some talks and radio interviews over the next month or two, so I thought I’d start putting together a Q&A on issues likely to be raised. Comments, criticisms, complaints and additions are welcome. The Q&A is likely to keep growing, maybe until it’s as long as the book itself.
- What do you mean, “tyranny of liberalism”?
The suppression of normal thought, discussion, and human relations in the name of a general idea that doesn’t fit human life and is enforced by an increasingly pervasive, centralized, and irresponsible system of social governance.
- What general idea?
Equal freedom as a final standard.
- What’s wrong with equal freedom?
Freedom and equality are good in many connections, but they don’t make sense as standards that trump everything else.
As final standards for a legal order, freedom and equality are self-contradictory.
They require a ruling class that
- makes choices among goods that by its own standards are arbitrary, since “equal freedom” isn’t very informative, and then forces those choices on everyone, and
- rejects and tries to destroy all competing networks of power and influence. As a result, it can’t be made answerable to the rest of society, since society decides things and acts through such networks.
In short, state-enforced equal freedom means bureaucratic autocracy, which is inconsistent with either freedom or equality.
For example: suppose I want to do things that are consensual but give me and others an advantage over third parties. For example, I might want to earn lots of money and keep it or give it to whoever I want, or refuse to do business with whoever I don’t want to do business with. If you control the government and tell me I can’t do those things, because my actions oppress others, how is that freedom? How is it equality for you to tell me what to do?
Or suppose that
- I want to be free to choose a reliable job that pays a living wage, get married in a setting that supports stable functional families, and raise children in an environment they find safe as well as adventurous.
- You want global freedom of contract, wide-open economic and social innovation, multicultural diversity at all levels, and open-ended choice of lifestyles and family forms.
- I also want general freedom to say what I think about people, groups and situations, while you want the freedom that comes from living in a sensitized society that celebrates diversity and frees people from social stigmatization.
I think law and public policy should support my version of freedom and you think they should support yours. Who wins? Can your freedom and my freedom co-exist?
- But hasn’t liberalism done a lot of good?
Sure. So have beer, war, and taking the day off. You just can’t turn those things into general principles to live by. Similarly, freedom and equality are often good and useful. You just can’t make them the basis of a theory of government.
So what’s the point?
- But you’re basically just arguing that freedom and equality can’t be perfect, there are always conflicts, and things can’t be pushed too far. Nobody denies that.
No. I’m arguing that freedom and equality can’t determine law or policy without help. Something more is needed, a substantive theory of what life is about, that tells you what freedoms and equalities should be come first.
Every society establishes some such theory. Liberal society establishes liberal views on that sort of issue, while Catholic society establishes Catholic views. The claim there is something specially inclusive or tolerant about liberal society is silly, at least if “inclusive” and “tolerant” are taken in any normal sense. Liberalism forces liberalism on everyone. What’s inclusive or tolerant about that?
- So you’re saying there’s a liberal way of life with liberal values and habits that liberal institutions promote. That’s supposed to prove liberalism is tyrannical. Big deal. All regimes promote particular values and ways of life.
True. But liberalism denies it does so. That’s what words like “freedom,” “equality,” “tolerance,” and “inclusiveness” mean.
The reason liberalism denies what it does is that what it does defeats its stated purpose. Supposedly, liberalism lets everyone follow his bliss as he sees it. But that obviously can’t be so, because liberalism suppresses some habits and attitudes and promotes others. It promotes a particular social setting and not every social setting is equally conducive to every kind of bliss. If your bliss is the absolute global free market and my bliss is worker security they’re going to conflict. Ditto if yours is untrammelled lifestyle choice and mine is lifestyle stability and functionality.
- So liberalism misrepresents what it’s about. That may be so, but other views do that too. So what? What’s the real objection to what liberalism is, as opposed to how it presents itself?
At bottom, liberalism as it now exists is defined by the following views:
- means/ends reasoning is the only rationality,
- maximum equal preference satisfaction is the highest human good, and
- nothing has a nature or essence that has to be respected.
From those views it follows that the whole world should be turned into a sort of machine for maximizing satisfactions equally.
A basic problem with that view is that maximum equal preference satisfaction can’t be the highest human good, because it’s against human nature to take it as such. We want what we want, but not simply because we want it. We want it because we understand it as good quite apart from our actual desires, and so as worth wanting. We take that view because we are rational beings, and rationality involves not just deliberation as to means and ends but the habit of seeing ourselves as acting according to general principles that are not based simply on what we want.
Liberalism comprehensively reorders social life to promote something that cannot possibly be viewed as our good. In order to do so it suppresses the goods by which we have always lived. That is tyrannical.
But is that liberalism?
- That’s not liberalism you’re talking about, it’s something else. Liberalism is minimal government. It’s the thought of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson.
I’m talking about the view that’s called liberalism and dominates serious respectable discourse in America and the West generally in 2008. There are no doubt other meanings of “liberalism” as well.
- You’re talking about utilitarianism, not liberalism!
Yes and no. Present-day liberalism combines a utilitarian theory of value with a theory of justice that calls for equality among persons.
Remember that I’m talking about the meaning of the word today in serious but not academic discussion. In effect, I’m talking about the logic of political discussion—what views are thought to make sense—among educated and responsible ruling elites in the Western world. Historical and academic definitions of key terms are relevant to the discussion but hardly dispositive.
- Actual everyday liberals don’t hold the views you attribute to them. They rely on common sense like everyone else.
Liberalism is progressive. It follows that in discussing it the question is not so much how liberals define their beliefs today as what arguments and lines of thought they implicitly prefer and believe should win in the end. It is the latter that determine what liberalism really is and where it is taking us.
The fundamental principles that determine what people think makes sense and what arguments should have the advantage can be hard to identify. People have a hard time saying what they are in their own case, just as speakers of English usually can’t give a good account of English grammar.
A native speaker just says what sounds right and it’s normally good English that follows logical rules. Something the same is true of liberalism. It has simple and coherent principles whether particular liberals articulate them as such or not. That’s why its adherents believe it is clearly correct. It works out the implications of those principles slowly over time, which is why it’s progressive, its adherents always believe they haven’t done enough, and it’s able to present itself as much more moderate than it is.
It is possible to elicit what those principles are by considering liberal arguments and the development of liberal positions.
I should mention that the simplicity and coherence of liberal principles give it a tendency ultimately to go to extremes. Like modern thought in general, liberalism has a severely rationalizing streak that makes it difficult to limit its implications.
- I agree liberals are nefarious, but they’re unprincipled too. They don’t have a theory they actually believe in, they just present a series of ad hoc justifications for the managerial state
That view is at odds with important features of the present situation:
- Political correctness. Throughout the Western world, people who are into PC generally agree, without intervention of a central authority, on what it demands. That shows there must be some system of principles behind it. Otherwise people couldn’t know so quickly what it calls for.
- Extreme moralism. Contemporary liberals, some of whom are professors of philosophy and whatnot, are genuinely convinced that theirs is the only possible rational and well-intentioned way of looking at politics and social life. If lots of intelligent and articulate people are convinced their position is correct beyond all possibility of dispute then it probably has a great deal of coherence.
- Legalism. Contemporary liberalism likes judges to decide things based on general principles that are often unwritten but are supposed to be so obvious they can be taken for granted. They promote human rights treaties and interpretations that require comprehensive transformation of all societies everywhere on PC lines by various bureaucrats and tribunals applying general principles of international law. They wouldn’t have so much confidence in a process that requires the participation of a great many independent decisionmakers unless they thought contemporary liberalism followed from a coherent body of principles.
What does all this mean practically?
- But I’m happy with liberalism. Why should I care about your objections?
If you think you like it now, then live longer, learn more about it, see what it does to people generally, and mull it over. The question you should ask yourself is whether liberalism makes for a better overall way of life.
- Give some examples of “the tyranny of liberalism.”
Here are a few:
- The attempted abolition of gender—the most natural and basic human distinction and tie—as a principle of social organization.
- The corresponding progressive abolition of marriage as a social institution.
- The abolition of particular culture and historical community as a legitimate object of loyalty and source of standards.
- The attempted forcible exclusion of religion—of standards other than pragmatic expedience that are thought to be rooted in the nature of things—from public life.
Collectively, these changes amount to the abolition of human identity apart from whim, willfulness, money, and bureaucratic position in the interests of a universal scheme of social administration for this-worldly goals. If what we are is comprehensively and forcibly sacrificed to the practical concerns of the powerful, how is that not tyranny?
There are, of course, many more particular examples of tyranny, from state-compelled “affirmative action” and “sensitivity training” to criminal prosecutions in many parts of the Western world for mere criticism of Islam or homosexuality. There are websites that specialize in that sort of thing. One might also point to the bad effects of the opposition between liberal principle and human reality, for example the degradation of public discussion and the catastrophic effect of liberalism on the socially marginal. (By definition the socially marginal suffer from weak or nonfunctional social ties, so they cannot afford the local social disruption liberalism brings.) An approach to politics that forces such effects on us and makes it impossible to resist them effectively is tyrannical.
- So according to you opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia and theocracy are tyrannical?
The attempt forcibly to extirpate everything called that is certainly so.
- What does any of this stuff mean to ordinary people?
The liberal principles the book describes are bad for ordinary life. They undercut family life, religion, local connections, and ordinary human loyalties, all of which are a normal part of a happy and workable life for most people. That’s likely to be one reason crude measures like polls show that worldwide conservatives are happier than liberals. (The claim they are happier because they are indifferent to human suffering is silly since they also give more to charity.)
Not surprisingly, the baneful effect of liberal principles is reinforced by liberal measures. They disrupt the small-scale social order on which a free, cooperative, and functional way of life depends. Egalitarianism and liberationist measures set crime and self-destructive behaviour free and weaken families, schools, neighborhoods and churches. Worse, the entrenchment of liberalism in all major public institutions and its aversion to traditional standards suppress popular participation in social governance and make it impossible for ordinary people to discuss the situation effectively, express their views, and protest. If they object it shows there’s something wrong with them. What kind of democracy and freedom is that?
- But I’ve been born and raised as a liberal. It’s my tradition. How can you tell me to abandon it?
How can you be bound to a viewpoint that does not value loyalty and can survive only if it is not fully accepted by most people? Someone raised a liberal is always raised something else as well. For such a person the conservative approach would be to look for guidance to the things on which the people with whom he grew up actually relied for coherence and stability, including the traditions of the particular communities upon which their way of life depended. Those things will always include illiberal elements that enabled the community to function as such.
- But how can liberalism be tyrannical, when the people can always vote the bums out?
It’s not realistic to think the people can just decide to replace their rulers. That’s why populism always fails.
We have an increasingly global economy dominated by huge organizations. Political issues are increasingly national and international, and depend on considerations ordinary people can’t have much exposure to. Knowledge, political discussion, the provision of information and the formation of opinion are routed through academia, educational bureaucracies, the mass media, the entertainment industry, and so on. They are nationalized, internationalized, commercialized, and bureaucratized
All those processes are necessarily run by people who know the ropes and can’t easily be replaced, certainly not because the average Joe gets fed up and wants to hire someone else to take charge. And the people who run them are going to have their own collective interests and outlook, which will involve managing Joe and his situation so he has as little to say about things as possible but doesn’t get too annoyed about it. Liberal principles like multiculturalism function as methods of managing the people toward that end. One way they work is by destroying Joe’s identity and the independence and coherence of his vantage point, and so reducing the likelihood he will do anything effective at odds with the interests of the people who run things.
It seems reasonable to call such a situation tyrannical as to Joe. Tyrannies are always consensual in some sense. If the Soviet people as a whole had simply refused to cooperate with the system in 1936 it would have collapsed. Otherwise, the government wouldn’t have bothered with all the propaganda.
- So you say liberalism is all some big conspiracy of latte-sipping yuppies, pointy-headed intellectuals, international bankers and (what else—Jews? Masons? Twelve-foot shape-shifting alien lizards?)
I suggest no conspiracy. It’s common enough for people to pursue their own interests on general principles, without any thought that their conduct is other than public spirited. How things look depends on where you sit. And in any event it’s not just a matter of self-interest but also of general trends of thought and social organization.
- If liberalism is the outlook of overwhelmingly powerful social classes, institutions and trends of thought, what difference do complaints make?
Man is a rational animal. It follows that we should be clear what our situation is, so that we can respond to it rationally. And if the principles of the established order are at odds with basic human goods, then the more powerful that order is the more we should struggle against it. It has its weaknesses and self-contradictions, so it won’t last forever.
Back to the future
- What would happen if liberals came to agree with you about its tyrannical nature?
They would no longer be liberals. Liberal theory is essential to liberalism as a system of government, and liberal theory holds that society can be managed into freedom. It’s modern and rejects what it considers transcendentalist obscurantism, so it pins its hopes on explicit standards, clear procedures, and means/ends rationality. Those features make it vulnerable to theoretical objections.
- If you think the present system is bad, what would be good?
Basically, a system that doesn’t try to control everything and solve everything in advance, and that has more room for the habits and attitudes people have worked out and attached themselves to because they have been helpful in dealing with life. In other words, a system that relies more on the particular traditions of particular peoples, and on ways and understandings that have staying power.
- Your proposal creates lots of issues.
I know. Read the book.
- How can I get more information?