Liberalism’s Enemies

  • August 31, 2021
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What do Glenn Greenwald, Steven Pinker, and Jonah Goldberg have in common?

Left vs. right is such a crude distinction, after all. It always has been. It pulls people into partisan team sports. It locks them in affiliation binaries. It pits them against one another in memetic warfare, and sometimes even street violence. It is destroying their souls

More troublingly, though, left-right politics obscures a more fundamental dynamic: the rise of illiberal cultures. 

Authoritarianism is ascendant on the left and the right — but not just at the extremes. That means Americans are losing their liberalism. The rules, norms, and moral frameworks of the liberal order allow each of us pursue our particular life plans while socially cohering in peace. Or that’s the idea, anyway: E pluribus unum. But Illiberal culture is paving the way to illiberal politics as authoritarians seek to dissolve the liberal order.

Today, therefore, the critical distinction is not left and right. It is liberal and illiberal. Those aggressively pushing illiberal doctrines seek to destroy American ideals, which are the bases of a pluralistic order.

Ten Liberal Ideals

So what is true liberalism? And why do we need to preserve it?

I offer the following as simple heuristics, mainly because people adopt heuristics more readily than theories. I refer to “degree” so as not to be accused of being doctrinaire. In other words, these are ideals to strive for as liberals, even if we fall short.

One can consider oneself liberal by degrees using the following ten dimensions:

1.) Nonviolence. Limit the use of state violence or mass compulsion in service of a particular conception of the good.

Such is the essence of liberalism. Whether we appeal to ahimsa in the East or the Harm Principle in the West, we improve upon the ideal of nonviolence through conscious, continuous practice–even in politics. Applying this ideal to politics limits the ambitions of those who seek power to impose their notions of the good through mass compulsion. You might think of this prime value as comprising more familiar freedoms, such as religion, expression, and self-defense. As in Don’t harm people in their peaceful pursuits.

2.) Toleration. Tolerate other forms of non-violent expression or ways of living–as long as those ways injure no one. (Injury is not hurt feelings.)

Toleration is a basic virtue in a diverse society. It doesn’t mean we must be forced to associate with one another; it simply means we must respect one another’s life plans because we will most certainly all have different life plans. An ethic of toleration first acknowledges the fact of pluralism, then builds on it with the reciprocal practice of live and let live.

3.) Rule of Law. Support equality before the law or equal application of the law.

We want a society of rules as opposed to a society of rulers. If we’re to live together peacefully within some jurisdiction, the rules must apply equally to everyone. Historically, the extent to which the U.S. government has abandoned equal treatment is the extent to which it has been illiberal. Such always needs to be rectified–certainly in the past but also today. Just as you can’t fight fire with fire, you cannot fight illiberalism with more illiberalism. Justice is not a cosmic scoreboard to be equalized by powerful bureaucrats allocating favors, privileges, or intergenerational redress to groups. Liberal justice requires equality before laws that privilege no person or group–whether agents of the government or their supplicants.

4.) Category Blindness. See our common humanity beyond someone’s superficial characteristics and avoid imposing group categorization schemes.

Sometimes it can be hard to ignore someone else’s skin color, the way she speaks, or her apparent sexual identifiers. But these categories are not pertinent to questions about her capabilities, her various life plans, or “the content of [her] character.” Liberals seek to celebrate our common humanity as we variously pursue our missions. Continuous preoccupation with irrelevant categories diverts people from realizing a peaceful, prosperous liberal order together. Therefore, we are committed cosmopolitans, attuned to both our common humanity and the sacredness of every person, whatever their race.

5.) Real Community. Appreciate the importance of membership in healthy communities or systems of mutual aid, without lapsing into collectivism.

Americans have been mired in illiberal politics for so long that we have forgotten how to take care of each other. Whether you observe the decline of mutual aid in America through the lens of Kropotkin or Tocqueville, real community is dying. American voters, politicians, and bureaucrats have slowly created a zero-sum transfer state in which voting blocs seek to take from one another through lobbying and activism. Instead of building community and becoming the social safety net, too many Americans outsource their concerns to distant capitals. And they are turning to crude 20th century collectivism. We need to turn back to each other in real acts of compassion.

6.) Private Property. Accept the institution of private property, private ownership of capital goods, and private ownership of assets. 

Property ownership creates strong incentives to be productive and is, of course, a precondition of trade. Sustainable patterns of production and trade give rise to greater overall prosperity. The abstract rule of private property is not enough, though. We must practice stewardship, whether in taking care of our homes or in being responsible stewards of capital as executives or investors. While there are certainly healthy locally managed Ostrom commons, such systems should exist in balance with institutions that respect private property.

7.) Truth Tracking. Seek truth in an ongoing discovery process that includes the use of reason, evidence gathering, and falsification.

We all have an enormous responsibility to seek the truth, even if we are limited in our sensemaking. We can admit that we are in some ways always trapped in our own perspectives. But we can also use observation, falsification, and good discourse to track the truth. It’s vitally important to develop and improve upon our sensemaking methods, starting with how we communicate with one another. Appeals to one’s “lived experience” and subjective constructions are not enough. Just-so stories are the enemy of collective sensemaking. We should be open to the fact of others’ experiences but also to data that conform — at least in some way — to a mind-independent reality.

8.) Discourse Norms. Practice a principle of charity when in dialogue with others. 

Avoid the use of fallacy and rhetorical tactics that interfere with the pursuit of mutual understanding and improved collective intelligence. Human beings count on being able to understand the world in order to operate within it. Much of that understanding comes through the process of dialogue, or what meta-relating expert Michael Porcelli calls “weaving shared reality.” But to engage in constructive dialogue, one has first to commit to certain discourse norms and then be charitable to another’s perspective. Civilized society thrives on weaving shared reality, even if that reality is sometimes socially constructed. Dialogue that works to common understanding starts with assumptions of good faith and good rules of engagement.

9.) Internalized Costs. Adopt good institutions that minimize the imposition of harms or costs by one group onto others.

Whether in one’s individual behavior or corporate enterprises’ conduct, we ought to settle our disputes within a form of common law that minimizes the imposition of costs and harms onto others. In other words, any liberal doctrine forming law should disqualify cost-shifting to the extent practicable. Corporate entities and individuals alike must be held accountable for imposing costs onto others. Still, we acknowledge that the mode and manner of that accountability should also be liberal–for example, rooted in due process.

10.) Skepticism of Authority. Remain skeptical of political power, even when you think such power can be applied to bring about good ends.

The true liberal disciplines herself not to accept illiberal means to any desired end. The liberal knows that architectures of violence, once built, will eventually be hijacked by those who do not have our best interests at heart. That’s why we must take care to develop impartial systems of peaceful interaction. Though such systems do not always yield equal outcomes, they offer open access. And they create a multitude of opportunities for people to self-organize in diverse communities. By contrast, political authorities simply cannot build communities. Communities are built by individuals in pursuit of common missions, common interests, to address common needs.

I can’t help but think that there are still plenty of liberals in America, but our numbers are dwindling. Many have forgotten that one can hold conservative or progressive values and still call herself a liberal. So, of course, some liberals might emphasize certain points above and deemphasize others. To the extent that we hold most of these principles by degree, we must join in solidarity against illiberalism. Whether it’s activists on the right with their tiki torches or activists on the left with their Molotov cocktails–illiberal politics threatens to burn America down.

Liberalism, The Liberal Project, and Its Enemies

I won’t distract you, Dear Reader, with the sordid history of how the term liberalism was corrupted through time. Instead, I’ll just say that true liberalism is the doctrine that animates the American project. It is the only hope for any pluralistic society to thrive. In our sense, a liberal is concerned with liberating people–from violence, oppression, and poverty. Libertas perfundet omnia luce. Freedom will flood all things with light. The liberal project, begun in earnest during the Enlightenment, animated a band of polymaths who drew up the blueprints for the first liberal order in Philadelphia, 1787.

The men who drew up those documents were imperfect. The resulting order has always been imperfect. The American Project has struggled mightily through various eras to realize its ideals and has more than occasionally fallen short. It has succumbed to the temptations of power. It has mired itself in horrors such as slavery, eugenics, subjugation, internment camps, and unjust wars. It has allowed unholy alliances between corporations and the state. To many, all these failures mean we must abandon our liberal ideals. 

As Richard Delgado writes in his book, Critical Race Theory,

“Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

It’s not just that many social justice advocates question that legal order. They seek to dismantle it. And that would be precisely the wrong path if one desires peace, freedom, and abundance.

If you thought attacks on liberalism were only coming from the left, the right is developing its own illiberal cultures. Patrick Deneen represents a growing group of national conservatives who claim that liberalism is a materialist, libertine “anticulture.” Never mind that liberal pluralism is the social arrangement most likely to make Deneen’s local theocracies possible. Deneen thinks freedom and free enterprise have run roughshod over America’s moral order. Though Deneen routinely conflates modern progressivism and classical liberalism, he’s ultimately hostile to both. So he advocates a brand of conservatism that is pretty far away from our Founding Ideals, despite the latter’s protections of religious freedom. It’s not hard to see how, if successful, Deneen’s religious localism could expand into dystopia like that depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. While Deneen represents this illiberal right’s new priesthood, he has a long way to go to convert reactionaries into religious operatives serving a theocratic superstate.

To be honest, I have always been suspicious of Manichean variations on whether you are either with us or against us. But the rise of these authoritarian mind viruses is forcing us to pick a team.

Liberal or Illiberal

Illiberalism is dangerous not only because it lacks certain moral principles, it lacks limiting principles. Its adherents simply declare claims to political authority until they gather adherents. One might ask why — in this decidedly postmodern age — we would want to have any principles at all. The answer lies in how one avoids creating a moral universe that has tilted too far towards arbitrariness or absolutism. Liberalism is the middle path.

Without liberalism, we have no moorings. We jettison the neutral adjudication, mediation, and truth tracking that allow us to live together in healthy pluralism. If all discourse is to be reduced to proclamations of political power, then partisans are playing a dangerous game. The “winner,” after all, will shove his utopia down your throat. Why? Because political power is just the institutionalized threat of violence.

Liberalism is the only doctrine designed to make room for real diversity, which means it protects different experiments in living. Liberalism is the only doctrine that recognizes the rights of people to pursue different ideas of the good. All other doctrines require your submission to one true way. If we’re going to have to pick a team soon, then, we should no longer be asking whether that team is left or right. We should be asking whether that team is liberal or illiberal.

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