Is ‘essential liberalism’ a straw man?

Old friends continue to complain that I’m not making sense. Here’s a comment on my most recent post from a second friend (who cc’d the first friend):

“You wrote: ‘Liberalism is basically the abolition of the transcendent.’ That drastically overstates it though. If liberalism were the abolition of the transcendent then most ordinary people would be incapable of having liberal commitments. But most ordinary people do, in fact, have liberal commitments. Even saying that liberalism is the abolition of the political authority of the transcendent overstates it. Most liberals are religious, or at least nominally so. Most liberals historically have been religious. Liberalism is not atheism. Liberalism is the belief that freedom and equal rights are the test of legitimacy in politics. The transcendent can have all the influence on politics that it wants, as long as its influence is mediated by the choices of free and equal people and doesn’t violate anyone’s equal rights. ‘Liberalism is basically the abolition of the transcendent’ still strikes me as an overwrought straw man, after all this time, even though it is true in effect.”

Some comments:

  • It’s odd he views my description of liberalism as a straw man when he admits that it’s true “in effect” now that liberalism is victorious and so has presumably attained its implicit goals. If something important is true in effect of a thing in its fully-developed state I should be able to use it in my description of what that thing is really all about. The pragmatists say that truth is that upon which inquiry converges. Someone else said “By their fruits shall ye know them.” If the liberal tradition converges on something that liberals see as the obvious and necessary fruition of their philosophy, then that’s good reason for thinking the thing is in fact the truth of liberalism.
  • Since liberalism involves the view that what individuals want should prevail, it seems to me the liberalism of ordinary people who claim to be religious is either confused or quite limited. Who needs God when the real standard is what you want?
  • Historical liberalism—liberalism as a system of attitudes, beliefs, institutions etc. actually existing at some particular time in the past—is of course different from liberalism as the principle that determines how conflicts within such a system shall be decided, or liberalism as the perfected system that arises when liberal principles are repeatedly applied to resolve conflicts over a period of several centuries. I was talking about the last, which is pretty much today’s advanced liberalism. I felt justified in doing that because it’s what we have, and because it seems that the essential principles of an evolving system will be best displayed when the system is most fully developed.
  • To say liberalism is just a matter of politics that leaves the spirit untouched doesn’t work, since man is social and political and the advanced liberal state takes on far-reaching responsibility for human development, relations and well-being. And if you mediate the transcendent though freedom and equality—if you treat it as simply a feeling some people have that’s no more or less authoritative than any other feeling—you deprive it of transcendence. That’s the same as abolishing it.
  • The question behind all this is why freedom and equality have become the ultimate political standards. They are wholly formal and content-free. Why would they be chosen as the ultimate standards unless men had already decided that substantive transcendent standards are unavailable? My friend suggests elsewhere that freedom and equality have become ultimate standards because of fear of tyranny. That makes sense if to recognize a transcendent principle as valid is to believe that one fully understands and possesses it, and can specify and enforce exactly what it requires. But then the principle woudn’t be transcendent. Totalitarianism and fear of totalitarianism are both results of the social abolition of the transcendent. The transcendent is the only thing that can possibly limit government, but if there’s no transcendent you still need a practical substitute and the obvious substitutes are either the ruler’s will or one’s own will.

6 thoughts on “Is ‘essential liberalism’ a straw man?”

  1. I would have to disagree with
    I would have to disagree with, or at least question, several of the premises of the objections to your post on liberalism.

    1. “But most ordinary people do, in fact, have liberal commitments.”

    This is debatable, and depends on what you mean by “ordinary people” and “liberal commitments.” Most ordinary people, for example, don’t share the liberal commitments to gay marriage and an unlimited abortion license. But, most share the liberal commitments to limited government, consent of the governed, rule of law, free speech, and free elections (if these may be considered liberal commitments anymore).

    2. “Liberalism is the belief that freedom and equal rights are the test of legitimacy in politics.”

    This is a nice political science description of liberalism, but it is hopelessly constricted in this day and age. The first problem with this description is that politics, within advanced liberalism, has no boundaries and invades all parts of life. “The personal is political.” One can now be sued in a federal court for random comments, made to no one in particular, in a place of business, on the grounds that such comments create a hostile work environment. Such examples can be multiplied a hundred-fold.

    I doubt if liberalism has much to do with either freedom or equal rights. In practice, liberalism is the abolition of all distinctions, because all distinctions are invidious. This uber-principle has several consequences. First, the search for truth ends, for truth reveals distinctions, and distinctions are impermissible. If the search for truth ends, thought comes to an end. If thought comes to an end, there can be no ideas, because ideas based on thought reveal distinctions. Therefore, liberalism, as a matter of principle, must be devoid of ideas, thought, and the search for truth.

    To be a liberal, therefore, one must self-administer a lobotomy and become brain-dead, and begin to mouth slogans like “tolerance,” “celebrate our differences,” and “inclusion.” A great liberal character trait is to condemn as “bigots” those who don’t practice the great moral virtue of “inclusion.” Liberals are therefore compulsive bigot-hunters, because liberals must exclude anyone who makes any distinctions.

    Under this regime, both “freedom” and “equal rights” are meaningless. In fact, this regime is contemptuous of freedom, particularly freedom of thought.

    People of great character, in this liberal environment, are the ones who think the least, the ones who make no distinctions, and those who are totally non-judgmental. In fact, the greatest character flaw is to be “judgmental” (that is, to think). If one in fact thinks, one cannot share those thoughts with anyone else.

  2. The interrogator’s premise is
    The interrogator’s premise is this: If liberalism were the abolition of the transcendent, then most ordinary people would be incapable of having liberal commitments.

    Here are some liberal commitments: any female, without regard to the biological father, can kill her unborn child; those with less money can take what they deem appropriate from those with more money; women and men are equal; and homosexual behavior is the same as heterosexual behavior.

    What transcendent ideas justify one or more of these commitments? A valid argument would be responsive; in other words, someone please state the premises so that we can examine them cheerfully.

    • Knowledge is Retarded Without Rebuttal
      Is the issue patently trivial or do the liberals choose to avoid the issue?

  3. A Liberal’s Excellent Adventure
    How excellent that a liberal admits the liberal beliefs freedom and equal rights are legitimate politics. This liberal is on an excellent adventure.

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