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Our illiberal liberals

One of the more frustrating aspects of American politics is our misuse of ideological labels, including the tendency to reflexively refer to everyone on the political left as "liberals" even when they hold views bearing little resemblance to liberalism, properly defined.

The idea that everything on the left is "liberal" is inherently nonsensical, suggesting that among the most liberal societies on earth were Stalin's Soviet Union and Chairman Mao's China.

In reality, the "classical liberal" tradition developed out of the ideas of David Hume, Adam Smith, John Locke and the broader European (more precisely, Scottish) Enlightenment. It decisively influenced the American founding and guided the spread of freedom and self-government to all points of the globe, defeating illiberal challengers like monarchy, fascism and various strains of communism along the way.

The movement away from this form of liberalism in the first nation founded explicitly upon liberal principles has been a gradual one, but has now produced what is in many ways the antithesis of the original thing.

The differences can be seen along four key dimensions:

• In views of freedom and equality. The quintessential classical liberals, the American founders, considered "liberty" to be the highest political value, defined as the right of people to live as they pleased so long as they respected the right of others to do the same.

Contemporary liberals place much lower emphasis upon such a form of freedom, preferring to subordinate it to newer, more radical conceptions of equality. Although classical liberals insisted upon equality before the law and in terms of rights, today's liberals increasingly embrace equality of outcome or result drawn from socialist rather than liberal thought.

In many ways, the more free the society the less "equal" it becomes, at least in terms of the forms of equality most valued by the left.

• The role of government/the state. Whereas classical liberalism was distinguished by efforts to diffuse political authority and thereby limit the power of the state (in order to prevent the kind of tyranny that threatened liberty), contemporary liberals wish to centralize political power in order to pursue increasingly egalitarian policies.

The "natural inequalities" which the founders saw as the inevitable consequence of the exercise of freedom are for contemporary leftists to be eradicated by abridging freedom, even if doing so removes the constraints upon state power historically undergirding liberalism.

• In attitudes toward private property and capitalism. Classical liberals felt that the protection of private property, the essence of what Karl Marx called "capitalism," was crucial to liberty. In James Madison's formulation, the protection of such property, which flowed from the inevitable diversity of human ambitions and "faculties," was the "first object of government."

For the contemporary left, such property rights present an obstacle to the desired redistribution of wealth by an all-powerful state. The pursuit of equality of result/outcome thus requires the replacement of market economic arrangements with collectivist and statist approaches.

• The basis of rights. For classical liberals, "unalienable" rights inhered in us by virtue of our shared humanity, not as members of groups based on race, ethnicity, or gender. The very notion of "group rights" was thought to be an illiberal derivative of pre-liberal feudalism with its rigid class hierarchies.

Ironically, given the historical role that liberalism played in replacing group with individual rights, contemporary liberals now assign rights and opportunities for political participation purely in terms of such "group" identity and membership.

For the "intersectionality/identity politics" left, rights are granted or (withheld) not to individuals but according to the degree to which they can demonstrate membership in the right racial, ethnic, or gender groups along precisely the kinds of rigid hierarchies that once characterized medieval life; with "right" defined by their capacity to claim victim status at the hands of the "patriarchy" or "whiteness."

Race, ethnicity and gender determine political status because everything else in life is assumed to be determined by race, ethnicity and gender.

These inversions of classical liberalism help us to explain much about the contemporary left, including its rejection of due process and presumptions of innocence (the Kavanaugh hearings), the discarding of constitutionalism ("living constitution" jurisprudence, which is actually little more than a grant to impose leftist values without formal constitutional amendment), and the embrace of the "administrative state" (with roots in the progressive vision of impartial "experts" managing an increasingly complex society, and which endorses centralized power without accountability).

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, leftists have now abandoned the core liberal principle of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the First Amendment, even to the point of demonizing those who support it as defenders of "hate."

But enforcing speech codes, silencing dissent by "de-platforming" speakers, and imposing rigid forms of (leftist) orthodoxy under the guise of political correctness doesn't come from liberalism. They come purely from totalitarianism.

The problem with contemporary liberalism isn't just that it isn't very liberal, but that it also represents in so many ways everything liberalism opposes.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 12/03/2018

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