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Caught in the Morass

[The following review, somewhat edited in ways I did not have a chance to look at (and in some respects would not have approved), appeared under the title Libertarian Limits in the January 2012 issue of First Things]

On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, by Frank Furedi, Continuum, 224 pages, $22.95

The independently-minded British sociologist Frank Furedi has variously been a Hungarian refugee, a self-proclaimed revolutionary communist, and a libertarian public intellectual. The last tendency seems likely to stick, and it has led him to write this critical analysis of therapeutic and custodial liberalism and plea for the restoration of classical liberalism.

His main topic is the present-day collapse of tolerance into nanny-state tyranny. Tolerance, he argues, was originally at home in classical liberalism. Following Kant and John Stuart Mill, that form of liberalism emphasized autonomy, understood as choice of a scheme of life based on the individual exercise of reason. It included the lifestyle freedoms basic to moral independence, as well as the freedom of discussion that is needed in the life of a free individual just as freedom of inquiry is needed in science or freedom of debate in a legislature.

As time passed classical liberalism became implausible to many influential people, largely because they began to see freedom as too risky and threatening, and to doubt that free discussion would lead to consensus on moral and political matters. Human life is full of uncertainties, and a consensus developed that only experts could be trusted to limit and manage them. Also, given the differences in wealth and status, the formal right to free speech seemed less a safeguard of public debate than a way for the strong to get what they want. Our current campaign contribution restrictions reflect such concerns.

For those and other reasons, twentieth-century liberals dropped their former emphasis on the self-guided individual. They became ever more protective of the weak, and eventually came to identify tolerance and autonomy with “empowerment,” which means provision of resources and a supportive cultural environment that enable each of us to live safely in accordance with his own self-understanding.

Tolerance, which was once thought to require an open forum for strong judgments about ideas and conduct, has thus reversed itself. It is now thought to require the protection of fragile personal identities from attack, including negative comments on particular beliefs and lifestyles. The critical habit of mind, once a virtue, has become a vice. To say that homosexuality is immoral or that women are most fulfilled in their roles as mothers is censured as creating a “hostile environment” and can lead to serious legal consequences.

The new liberal tolerance, which the author rejects as confused or fraudulent, demands constant government intervention into private life. Our speech and behavior must be regulated to keep us from oppressing each other. We are required to tiptoe around the reactions of others to a degree that severely limits discussion and therefore informed and rational choice. This paradoxical situation—suppression in the name of tolerance—is largely invisible to the people who now run things, since they understand beliefs and ways of life as given by race, class, sex, sexual orientation, and so on rather than as rationally chosen by individuals. That understanding makes the modern liberal version of tolerance much more concerned with group sensitivities than individual belief and conduct. It is not Frank Furedi the libertarian or former communist whose identity and sensibilities must be protected, but Frank Furedi the immigrant.

The separation of belief, culture, and way of life from rational choice has pervasive implications. One is what the author calls the fossilization of identity: people are what they are, defined in terms of group identity, and discussion and debate, which require the individual use of reason, are irrelevant to what they might or should become. Black, gay, and Muslim identities become absolutes that others must celebrate, or at least accommodate. The alternative would be conceptual, and perhaps physical, violence by the majority against helpless minorities.

A further problem arises because people who run things must discuss how to do so, and they cannot take something into account seriously if they cannot talk about it rationally (as they understand rationality). As a result, religious and cultural commitments, while celebrated as sacred and untouchable, lose validity as public arguments and are disregarded in favor of expert opinion and administrative convenience. Officials feel called upon to remodel life in accordance with their views as professionals. They insist that we all give up smoking, undergo sensitivity training, and reduce our carbon footprints. Those who object are scorned as bigots, since they reject efforts to promote tolerance, or denounced as irrational and malevolent “deniers” (of evolution, climate change, science, the welfare state, the benefits of the European Union, or whatever), since they doubt the consensus of experts.

Overall, then, tolerance has become intolerant, reason dogmatic, and liberalism a tyrannical busybody. To all appearances, the liberal part of the liberal project has collapsed.

Furedi calls for the restoration of classical liberalism, but this response seems insufficient, if only because of evident weaknesses in classical liberalism, not least the inner instability that allowed it to evolve in the direction of liberal tyranny. He cannot discuss these weaknesses because his thinking remains entirely within classical liberalism. He wants to rehabilitate the acts of individual judgment and reasoned discrimination that were once at the heart of that view, for example, but offers no way to avoid the skepticism that led to their eclipse. He therefore defends his position mainly by appealing to values that he expects his readers to share and by proclaiming its practical benefits, even though he accepts that classical liberalism can exist only if its principles are seen as superior to consensus and practicality. Given the predominance of the modern form of illiberal liberalism, that is not a strategy that will convince those not convinced already.

Although a former Marxist, the author fails to note the connection between contemporary liberalism and class domination. The rise of politically correct liberalism has coincided with increased economic and social inequality. That is not a coincidence, since contemporary liberalism concentrates power by disrupting such institutions as the family and church, as well as our common moral culture, all features of social life that enable ordinary people to live independently and restrain the ability of the wealthier and more powerful to force them to live in more easily managed and economically useful ways.

These traditional arrangements have always depended on sexual ties and distinctions, and on particular cultural and religious traditions. Tolerance and inclusion, as now understood, attack the legitimacy of the often tacit judgments that support those institutions, and as people lose their trust in those judgments the institutions become less functional and less resistant to outside pressure. The feminist family turns over its children to professional caretakers, the progressive church sees “mission” as promotion of the welfare state, and what remains are rationalized arrangements like markets and expert bureaucracies, preferably global ones. The everyday life of ordinary people becomes chaotic, with single working moms and perpetual adolescents getting by somehow, and the business, financial, bureaucratic, and media elites who dominate rationalized public institutions inherit the earth.

The basic issue the author raises—the restoration of individual self-government and moral integrity—requires a broader view than the liberal one, whether classical or modern. Tolerance presents itself as a simple and rational principle that benefits us all by avoiding useless conflicts and unnecessary or impracticable restrictions. Sometimes that is so, since removing the effect of distinctions is often beneficial. Nonetheless, social order depends on distinctions, so ignoring them cannot be made a general principle without incoherence. A liberal order like any other exists by enforcing the authority of particular standards and understandings, and is necessarily intolerant of what opposes them.

To take a topical example, contemporary liberals view sex as a private pursuit with great expressive possibilities but no legitimate bearing on social organization, and believe that nobody is harmed by the consensual sexual behavior of others. Accordingly, they believe that sexual freedom should be limited only by the principle of mutual consent, and view the acceptance of nonstandard sexual practices as an indispensable social goal. So strong is the imperative of acceptance that in several Western countries people have recently been subjected to criminal penalties merely for expressing the once conventional judgments of traditional sexual morality.

Social conservatives see sex as the basis of marriage and the family, absolutely fundamental institutions that, again, enable ordinary people to live decently and independently. The bedroom is not truly private, because sexual behavior reflects and influences countless social realities: gender roles, demographics, family structures, conceptions of a life well-lived, and more. For that reason social conservatives see sexual immorality as a threat to good human relations and social order, and they are inclined to penalize it, either in a formal way under the law, or more often with social censure and the daunting power of shame. They are intolerant, like contemporary liberals, but in a different direction.

Furedi, as an ardent classical liberal, rejects both approaches, and insists on both free choice and free discussion in sexual matters. There are necessary limits to his libertarian partisanship, however. He calls for a “cultural orientation [that] discourages and restrains social intolerance,” which is itself a suppression of what he admits is a strong human tendency toward enforced social consensus. He thus wants a kind of beneficial intolerance, presumably based on “clarity as to the values that define society.”

This “clarity as to values” requires a certain dogmatism. The author notes, quoting Ronald Dworkin, that “ ‘in a culture of liberty’ the public ‘shares a sense, almost as a matter of secular religion, that certain freedoms are in principle exempt’ from the ‘ordinary process of balancing and regulation.’” It seems, then, that the author’s love of individual freedom and rationality leads him to favor, in the name of tolerance, what amount to socially authoritative, and therefore intolerant, quasi-religious principles that support those goals.

So we are back to suppression in the name of tolerance. Isn’t it evident that there is something confused about the whole procedure? Surely it would be better and more illuminating to drop tolerance and freedom as ultimate standards, a role they cannot support, and talk about substantive matters: the human goods toward which society might best be oriented, and how those goods might best be realized. Isn’t that what is needed for the moral clarity of which the author speaks?