Liberalism: Ideal and Reality

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Telos.

Why does liberalism—the tradition that makes equal freedom the political touchstone—combine such strength with such incoherence? The attempt to make freedom dominant leads to contradiction. Liberalism is triumphant almost everywhere, but its victory reverses the meaning of its principles. It calls for live-and-let-live, and enforces it by supervising everything. For the sake of freedom it empowers bureaucrats to reconstruct human nature. It appeals to "the people," while reserving the right to make them into whatever it thinks fit.*

[* For an extended description and analysis of anti-liberal aspects of contemporary managerial liberalism, see Paul Edward Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).]

The stark contradiction between freedom and equality as the goal and all-pervading control by governing elites as the means is surprising, since liberals prize clarity, coherence and rationality so highly. Liberalism defines itself by reasonableness, which it makes its ideal. However, the development of liberalism demonstrates that like all things the attempt to be reasonable can be carried to the point of irrationality.

For the sake of reasonableness, liberals aim at principles acceptable to all; anything less would force some to be subservient to others. The quest for such principles is to lead to a truly fair and consensual society. Liberalism is thus inspired by the dream of political principles that rule without oppressiveness because they have the universality, transparency, power and modesty of logic. Equal freedom, like the principle of non-contradiction, is to apply everywhere without interfering with anything one might legitimately think or do.

The dream of a truly free and rational political order survives all criticism, comes back from all defeats, and only grows stronger with the passing of time. Liberals may claim to be realistic, skeptical, multicultural, postmodern or whatever, but all the rethinking and reformulation of their views leaves untouched the fundamental standards everyone is expected to accept without challenge. The only real questions are what justification shall be given to principles already settled in advance, and how those principles shall be realized. To reject the liberal principle of equal freedom as the ultimate political standard is unthinkable. It would be to accept the power of some to force their preferences on others, and thus in principle to accept oppression.

Accepting equal freedom as the standard, however, means an attempt to abolish politics. Compulsion is the stuff of politics as well as a denial of equal freedom. The liberal response is to try to settle an ever-broader range of issues pre-politically. An example is their insistence on continual expansion of constitutional and international human rights guarantees. If effective, such provisions would progressively reduce the role of force in society by defining the goals and methods that are legitimate in public life in such a way that only minor choices and administrative and interpretive questions could arise. Public life would by stages lose its importance; in the end each person would be able to pursue his private ends friction-free, without interfering with the ability of others to do likewise.

Some such goal is necessary for liberalism; to abandon it would, once again, be to accept oppression in principle. Liberalism thus aims at utopia. It is moderate in secondary respects, but the utopianism is fundamental. A view that makes liberation of individual preference the standard must accept established patterns of conduct to some degree while it works to transform them. In the long run what counts, however, is that liberalism puts a single abstract standard with comprehensive implications for all human affairs at the center of politics. Whatever its preferred manner of operation, liberalism is therefore essentially perfectionistic.

That perfectionism has serious practical consequences. Liberalism is not able to borrow authority from transcendent faith but must rely on what it has to offer in this world. Its idealism has to do with results in the here and now and not pie in the sky. Further, its moderation is not backed by substantive principles that set definite limits to the demands of equal freedom. When liberalism is victorious, equal freedom therefore pushes moderation aside. Its requirements are peremptory, and nothing but practical difficulties, which ingenuity and effort can presumptively overcome, stand in the way of doing what seems right. If, for example, rooting out the social importance of sexual and ethnic distinctions turns out to be an endless process requiring an ever-more pervasive regime of re-education, quotas and thought control, then that is what there will be.*

[* Liberalism nonetheless maintains the appearance of reason and moderation by defining whatever opposes it as ignorance and bigotry. Part of the liberal abolition of the political is treating opposition as sub-political. To oppose “affirmative action” now smacks of extremism, for example.]

Because liberalism is opposed to compulsion, in a sense it must oppose extremism. That opposition does not mean that the demand for equal freedom cannot go to extremes, however. What it means is that the demand for equal freedom defeats itself when taken as ultimate. To become an ultimate political standard equal freedom must be treated as an aspect of rationality, since if it is not simply rational it is only one preference among many and as such is entitled to no special authority. Treating it as simply rational, however, means thought control and tyranny, since it means that those who object to its ever-ramifying implications, which have come to include the continuing transformation of all social relations, must be treated as lunatic or criminal.

Fundamental opposition to liberalism therefore becomes unacceptable and even unspeakable in a liberal society. Political correctness is no vagary. Advanced liberalism imposes a sort of soft totalitarianism; indoctrination of the people, medicalization of dissent, and ritualistic treatment of democratic forms are its necessary consequences. In the end liberal opposition to extremism becomes less a restraint on liberal governments than an aspect of their final self-contradiction: liberalism necessarily opposes what it necessarily becomes.

Paradox is not new within liberalism. The development of the liberal tradition has been marked by reversals of meaning. Contemporary and classical liberalism may be unified in principle but they are radically opposed on particulars. The political tradition that once called for small government, property rights, individual responsibility and bourgeois morality now demands guaranteed security and sexual freedom for the wards of the custodial state. The opposition between older and newer forms of liberalism has led some to deny that they can sensibly be treated as part of a single continuing political tradition.* Nonetheless, the transformation from old to new was compelled by the very principles that made classical liberalism what it was, and not by some external influence that subverted and destroyed an outlook that would otherwise have remained stable.

[* See, e.g., Gottfried, op. cit.]

Since its beginnings liberalism has been based on rejection of claims to moral authority that transcend human purposes. The consequence has been recognition of the equal value of wills and their goals; if there is no authority higher than individual desire, then individual desire becomes authoritative. Those principles have been constantly at work in the liberal tradition, but their implications have varied depending on the social setting and the possibilities it offered.

Liberalism was originally defined by opposition to religious and hierarchical institutions that obstructed the equal right to do what one chooses. It therefore abolished those institutions to create a public realm in which each could do as he liked. It did not abolish inequality and compulsion, however, but only limited them to private life, the role of which it expanded by limiting the state. "Private life," which was exempt from liberal standards, included economic and home life, not to mention religion, scholarship and the arts, and thus constituted by far the greater and more important part of social life. It was not at all private in function. Under classical liberalism the social order was therefore able to go on much as before, relying on established sex roles, ethnic and class distinctions, unequal property, and particularistic cultural norms. Such things had been clearly legitimate in earlier, more particularistic and hierarchical forms of society, but the liberal principle of equal freedom deprived them of ethical justification. Once the possibility arose of replacing them with a comprehensive rational system of social management, it therefore became very difficult for liberals to continue to accept them. The consequence has been contemporary liberalism.

Classical and managerial liberalism are thus successive stages of a single tendency of thought. As such they share both fundamental principles and a fundamental flaw. Liberals who have fallen behind the times complain that political correctness is oppressive and therefore illiberal. They are right, but from the standpoint of equal freedom the straight white male upper-class standards that applied during the classical liberal period were also oppressive and illiberal. Political correctness does no more than reconfigure the contradictions present in all liberal societies between the demand for equal freedom and the social necessity of hierarchy and constraint. All forms of liberalism attempt to abolish that necessity, at least in appearance, by making inequality and compulsion pre-political and so taking them off the public stage. In classical liberalism the distinction between public and private provided a way to make what was considered political life free and equal by restricting inequalities to what was considered private life. In contemporary liberalism, the concept of "human rights" serves a similar function. Now as before, some people—husbands, factory owners, diversity consultants—tell others what to do, and the compulsion is squared with equal freedom by treating it as pre-political and silencing those who question it as bigoted, crazy or immoral.

Those who treat liberalism as a continuous and relatively coherent tradition are therefore right. It is in fact a tradition of enormous strength and stability that has endured for centuries and has now triumphed almost everywhere. It is strongest in the societies universally judged most successful, and is especially strong among the intelligent and well-educated, most of whom can conceive of no other political position. Even those who understand the difficulty of making liberalism coherent and justifying it rationally almost never reject it, but rather attempt to re-invent it in one way or another. Such success cannot be by chance. In its fully developed contemporary form liberalism claims universality, demands transparency, and opposes the use of force against legitimate opposition. Such qualities impose a high standard. To justify by that standard the success liberalism itself has achieved, especially among the enlightened classes that support it most strongly, it ought to be based on clear and coherent principles acceptable to all reasonable men.

Liberalism is plainly not so based, but is ever more visibly self-contradictory. The contradiction at its heart, reflected in the transformation of classical to contemporary liberalism and in the absurdities of political correctness, is already implicit in the notion of government based on individual consent. Government is compulsion. If there is consent, government is not needed; to the extent it is needed, it must therefore be based on something else. The notion of "equal freedom" extends the self-contradiction: it proposes a state of affairs in which no goal is given preference over any other, an impossibility since to achieve one goal is necessarily to thwart others. It follows that equal freedom cannot coherently become the center of political life, as liberalism would have it. When it takes priority over substantive common goods, so that politics becomes a matter of keeping one preference from oppressing other preferences, the impossibility of achieving any preference without suppressing others means that for the sake of equality suppression must become universal. Anything anyone does that affects others can be an unwanted imposition and thus an act of aggression. Prevention of oppression therefore comes to require government to control everything. Taken seriously, "equal freedom" turns out to be the same as comprehensive despotism.

To accept a way of thinking that leads to such a result seems deeply irrational. What is it about the way people view politics that makes something so self-defeating so compelling to so many thoughtful people? There may be no single answer. Anything as enduring and successful as liberalism must draw support from many sources, historical, social and psychological as well as philosophical. Further, no simple description can altogether fit a tendency of thought that contradicts itself. Liberalism is many things. It is anarchic as well as tyrannical, law-abiding as well as antinomian, puritanical as well as relativistic, averse to the exercise of power as well as fascinated by it. There is even a modest practical liberalism that serves to moderate and humanize the non-liberal principles that of necessity continue to order life in all societies. Liberal anarchy and corruption, and also a certain amount of liberal decency, tolerance and law-abidingness, therefore mitigate the liberal despotism with which I am here concerned.

Nonetheless, the contradictions are real and an explanation must be attempted. The tendencies in liberalism that I have been discussing certainly do not determine everything about the beliefs and conduct of all liberals, but they have become increasingly prominent as time has passed and they result from fundamental principles that liberals quite generally accept. It is puzzling that something with as much contradiction at its heart as liberalism should seem so rationally compelling to so many who should be good judges, and to begin to understand contemporary politics some sort of explanation is needed.

There are of course dismissive explanations. The call for equal freedom could be a way of seizing control under color of universal liberation. The reduction of politics to administration, technique and interpretation that liberalism tries to effect would put all power in the hands of the classes that find it most persuasive. While such explanations help somewhat, they are inadequate for something that has lasted as long, and aroused as much genuine conviction, as liberalism. A deep and enduring conviction of its truth on the part of intelligent, well-placed and public-spirited people has been crucial to its success. A more principled explanation is therefore needed, one that explains the rational appeal of liberalism rather than explaining it away.

The explanation I propose is that liberalism is part of an outlook associated with nominalism and modern natural science that to most educated people today seems equivalent to rationality itself. As such, it will maintain its dominance in one form or another no matter what difficulties it creates until an understanding of rationality that is to a large degree independent of that outlook becomes generally accepted.

The view that modern natural science is uniquely authoritative as a way of understanding the world is widely accepted today. The reasons seem compelling. Science gives us knowledge that is as objective and reliable as humanly possible. The model of knowledge it offers is especially persuasive to those who are skeptical of the power of reason to give us knowledge of the nature of things by grasping substantive universals like God, substance or the Good. It seems to provide a way of knowing that does not rely on such things. Further, science has the prestige that comes with overwhelming practical success. It has radically extended man’s control over the physical world, and its usefulness in attaining and holding power make it impossible to ignore or belittle. TV and modern medicine work everywhere, not to mention military jets and tanks, and men of all backgrounds can be trained to make use of them.

The scientific approach to things appears to have the advantage of clarity and cross-cultural universality. It discounts tradition and revelation, as well as habitual common understandings, which are difficult to define precisely and vary by time and place. Instead, it emphasizes things on which precise and reliable agreement can be attained, such as formal logic, mathematical relationships, and methods of observation that may require specialized training but yield reproducible results that do not depend on personal idiosyncrasy or particular cultural preconceptions. To the extent possible it ties beliefs to what we can clearly perceive, quantify, control and make clear to other observers. When it builds on such things it tries to do so as simply as possible, in accordance with Ockham’s Razor, and in ways that can be clearly specified and tested.

Such procedures have proven extremely effective where they can be applied. They draw enormous power from self-imposed limitations that minimize ontological commitments, and success seems to justify the wisdom of those limitations. Such procedures also create a certain bias in connection with ethical issues. In particular, they lead men to treat satisfaction of preferences as the goal of morality and social order. After all, the things relevant to action that can be most readily recognized, measured, compared and controlled are pleasures, pains, desires and preferences, what works and what does not. Sticking to those things as much as possible seems a requirement of Ockham’s Razor and the scientific approach. What we want and how to get it have therefore become authoritative for modern morality, just as our senses and ability to control nature are authoritative for modern natural science.

To turn the hedonistic bias that makes human preferences the standard of value into full-blown liberalism all that is needed is the logical consideration that since all preferences are equally preferences, each has equal claim to be a standard of value. The transcultural success of science thus seems to support the universal validity of the fundamental goal of liberalism, equal freedom for all preferences, because it is the goal that seems most consistent with the scientific way of doing things. That way of doing things even makes liberalism appear simply rational. Since equal freedom seems sufficient to give rise to an ethical system, to go beyond it in any substantive way would apparently violate Ockham’s Razor and thus rationality as now understood. Any value other than maximum equal freedom for all preferences therefore seems, to most educated people today, an arbitrary personal addition that cannot claim objective validity or serve as a public standard of morality.

It is of course impossible actually to treat all preferences equally. The goals of Catholics, Muslims, Nazis and liberal secularists clash irretrievably, and no government can be neutral among them. The liberal response is to make what seems the minimum deviation necessary from strict neutrality by turning neutrality itself into a substantive principle. Since not all goals can be accommodated, the preference will be given to neutral ones, those that interfere as little as possible with the goals set by others. After all, if the conflict of goals is the problem, and each goal is intrinsically as good as every other, it appears reasonable to favor the goals that cause fewest conflicts. Such a principle seems as little substantive as possible, and accepting it therefore seems in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor and modern natural science. Certainly people feel it as such; any other substantive ethical standard is denounced as dogmatic and oppressive. There is enormous reluctance today to propose substantive moral principles that are to be authoritative for those who reject them; the appeal of the liberal approach is that it seems to minimize the need to do so.

Making neutrality a positive standard is not neutral in its effects, however. It abolishes all traditional cultural and religious understandings of morality, dependent as they are on authoritative substantive universals such as human virtue or the will of God, and therefore destroys traditional family and communal arrangements that rely on those understandings. In replacement, it gives us the managerial liberal state. Liberal neutrality turns the purpose of moral and political order into helping men attain their goals, as long as those goals are consumption goods and other private indulgences that are not essentially connected to the goals of others. Such neutral goals, of course, are the ones managers and markets can deal with most easily. To put them at the center of things is to make public life a matter not of public goods but of administration, technical skill and interpretation of formal a priori principles such as equality and value neutrality. Popular participation becomes out of place, because such issues are best handled by experts, and because majorities might enforce their substantive preferences on others. And since acting on non-neutral preferences that affect others—traditional loyalties and moral understandings, for example—is now to be treated as an act of oppression, uprooting tendencies to act that way becomes an important government function.

Politically-correct managerial liberalism is thus the natural consequence of an outlook that affirms modern natural science as the model for substantive knowledge of the world and makes equal freedom the highest goal. It is so firmly founded in understandings now generally established that it is hard to see how it can be replaced without radical transformation of intellectual life. Regardless of the problems it runs into, the arguments it presents have become unanswerable in current discussion. Liberalism resolves disputes by letting each do as he likes consistent with the equal freedom of others, and in case of conflict the more tolerant wins. Which part of that approach is to be rejected, and how? If equal freedom is to be rejected as an ultimate standard, some public source of knowledge regarding substantive morality is necessary that justifies subordinating some preferences to others simply because of what they are. What is that source to be, and how can people come to agree on it?

It is unlikely that such agreement can come about within the bounds of a world-view defined by modern natural science. None of the solutions offered for the pathologies of managerial liberalism that stay within such a world-view seem workable. Classical liberals and libertarians propose subordinating the claims of equal freedom to limitations on government action. It appears impossible to do so in a way that will stand up to objections. Every attempt at line-drawing—property rights, states’ rights, family privacy, constitutionally limited government, freedom of association, increasingly even freedom of speech—has eventually been discredited as a hypocritical and intolerable shield for oppression. When the central government claims that to protect equal freedom against some concrete threat it must extend its authority at the expense of lesser jurisdictions, the benefits of maintaining local autonomy always seem too indirect and speculative to worry about in the face of a specific abuse.*

[*If the central and subordinate jurisdictions had different reasons for existing, for example common security on the one hand and religious solidarity on the other, effective resistance to centralization might be possible. It is difficult, however, to have a political union in which the principle on which the union is founded does not become authoritative for all its parts. It is the union, after all, that is responsible for the defense and survival of the political society, and it must therefore have first call on the political loyalties of citizens who may be called upon to make ultimate sacrifices. It is therefore doubtful that liberalism can be reconfigured as a principle governing relations among legitimately particularistic lesser jurisdictions, since it would eventually become the standard for public authority in the lesser jurisdictions as well. (In a particular case, of course, a group of substantive polities might negotiate arrangements for handling common defense or other matters that happen to comply with some liberal principles.)]

Some suggest trumping the managerial state by making democracy the final standard, but letting the will of the greater number simply as such outweigh equal freedom seems clearly tyrannical.* Any polity that avoids the excesses of managerial liberalism must no doubt have a populist element. By itself, however, populism seems less an answer than an attempt to avoid the necessity of dealing with troublesome issues by appealing to the people as a sort of deus ex machina. Progressives have expected the people to do away with class society and its oppressions, while conservatives have expected them to save traditional ways from social planners. Both have hoped they would save thinkers the trouble of defining an alternative to liberalism. Such strategies have always failed, and with the growing incoherence of "the people" look less promising than ever.

[* The will of the people can not be an ultimate political principle in any case. “The people” is not a natural person, and can exist as a political actor and deliberate as to its actions only by reference to political principles that are more fundamental than its own will.]

How then can we go forward, when it seems impossible either to leave things as they are or to change anything fundamental? Managerial liberalism appears to leave no line of development open except further extension of principles that have become visibly self-defeating. Political order need not be derived from reason, but unless it is thought just it will be unstable. It must therefore enjoy the support of whatever standards are thought entitled to compel assent, and such standards constitute rationality as socially understood. If modern natural science is the standard for rationality then ethics and politics become irrational, because they require substantive principles of a kind neither science nor anything like science can give us. When the irrationality becomes notorious the regime faces a crisis. It is difficult to abandon science as a standard, however, because of its overwhelming success, its rigorously critical attitude toward nonscientific modes of thought, and the availability of liberalism as a moral and political principle apparently consistent with it.

What lies before us is therefore most likely to be repeated attempts among intellectuals to reinvent liberalism. Those attempts will be unsuccessful, and will correspond in practical politics to incoherence, arbitrariness and the reign of brute fact. All things come to an end, and the liberal state will eventually do so as well. It is more likely, however, to end through stupidity and the force of circumstances than through intelligence and transcending its own limitations. It is impossible to predict the specific effect of future contingencies, such as changes in populations, loss of moral unity and social cohesion, environmental catastrophe, terrorism and war. It seems likely, however, that the demands emergencies make on social systems that are becoming less and less able to rely on informal connections and settled popular loyalties will make politics increasingly unprincipled and brutal. Recent proposals for reintroduction of torture and trial by military tribunal may be only the beginning. In the end, liberalism may become little more than a formal justification for societies that work in a far more primitive way.

Eventually some new principle of moral and political coherence will no doubt emerge. If current understandings of reason are too narrow and too insistent on their own rigor and self-sufficiency, then others will develop that draw on more resources and recognize the need to rely on knowledge of universals attained through particular religious and cultural traditions. A common understanding of reason cannot be produced to order, however. Our understanding of reason is an aspect of our fundamental understanding of things, of what we cannot help but believe about the world. Until such things reorient themselves—a development that cannot be planned or controlled—we may be in for a period in which speculative political thought will be desperately needed, but rare and unlikely when found to have much public effect.