Monday, September 08, 2008

The Two Liberalisms

Politics bores me. That’s why I have not written a blog on politics or on the upcoming election. Let this post suffice as my comment on today’s politics.

The Democrats’ loss in 2004 led to much soul-searching to define what the Democratic brand of liberalism should be or represent. Advice given focused on the usual concretes—guns, abortion, gay rights—the kinds of issues that would excite no one except conservatives. My advice is this. Reexamine the meaning of liberalism. Note its fundamental principles, especially as they evolved out of the Enlightenment. Then, in a radical departure from “politics as usual,” adopt those principles as vanguard for freedom worldwide.

The problem is that two liberalisms came out of the Enlightenment. The first was classical or market liberalism (today also called libertarianism). The second, developing in the latter part of the nineteenth century in England and the United States, is social liberalism, an amalgam of ideas ranging from mixed-economy features of part capitalism, part socialism, to Fabian or democratic socialism.

Market and social liberalism have the same genus, which means they share certain principles, and for advocates of market liberalism, this is an argument for possibly seeking common ground with some of their social counterparts. The common principles are these: emphasis on self-realization or self-actualization of the individual human mind as the essence of liberty, which translates to demands for the freedom of speech and press; strong value placed on reason, science, and technology as the source of modern material civilization; and the complete separation of church and state, with an emphasis on secular naturalism, including the naturalization of consciousness.

Where market and social liberalism differ is in their attitude toward business. Social liberalism holds that business, especially big business, is the new aristocracy that, through its positions of power and privilege, coerce the poor into remaining poor and generally disrupt the good taste of society. Hence, government might must be brought in to make right.

The history and theory of capitalism as understood by social liberals, of course, is patently false and has been demonstrated so by Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, among many others. And social liberals are mistaken to think that reason, science, and technology by themselves created modern material civilization. Without capitalism, at the end of the eighteenth century, reason, science, and technology would have remained, respectively, little more than a mental exercise, a curiosity, and a hobby. Instead, capitalism unleashed their creative and productive powers.

It is these errors of social liberals that market liberals must articulate in conversations. Reality exists in a continuum; so do people. Social liberals range in thought from those who are merely mistaken to those who are explicitly and rabidly socialist and are out to destroy business. It is the former with whom one can make common cause, because such social and market liberals share many of the same values, namely freedom of the individual human mind, reason, science, technology, separation of church and state, and naturalization of consciousness. It is a challenge to the market liberal, then, to convince the mistaken social liberal that true liberalism is the market or libertarian variety. If Democrats want to remain advocates of freedom, they should make their liberalism consistent and adopt market liberalism.

So what about religious conservatives and today’s Republicans? People exist in a continuum, so some conservatives do still understand capitalism and promote it correctly, but most pretend to advocate capitalism, while rushing to outdo the Democrats, and usually succeeding at the job, in expanding the welfare-warfare state.

Lew Rockwell, president of the Mises Institute, has this to say about conservatives:

The problem with American conservatism is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than risk losing one soul to heresy.

This is a good statement about conservatism, but one question remains: why does conservatism hate the left? The answer is the secular naturalism of liberalism; from its beginnings in the Enlightenment, liberalism has always seen religion and the church as enemies of individual rights and freedom. The phrase “pinko-commie atheists,” with emphasis on the last word, summarizes the motivation of conservatism. It is intolerant of irreligion. That identifies conservatism as a movement that is pre-Enlightenment.

Conservatism is not a friend of capitalism, nor is it a philosophy of liberalism.

The fundamental problem with both social liberalism and religious conservatism is that both identify morality with altruism. Social liberals may force their children to give all proceeds from a lemonade-stand sale to charity, but the religious conservatives force their children to give ten percent or more of their allowance to the church. Both advocate as gospel self-sacrifice in their personal, social, and political lives.

Eliminating the premise that government might makes right requires first that the premise of self-sacrifice be challenged and replaced by the right, whether child or adult, peaceably and cooperatively to pursue ones’ own values.


Marc Sheffner said...

"Reexamine the meaning of liberalism. Note its fundamental principles" could be a slogan for the future. Just substitute any important concept for "liberalism", e.g. "freedom", "individualism", "progress", "growth", "happiness", "liberty", etc. etc.
This clarifying post prompts to re-read Hayek's essay Why I am not a conservative. Thanks.

Kevin Currie said...

"Conservatism is not a friend of capitalism, nor is it a philosophy of liberalism."

The two have very different historical lineages (On many issues, Adam Smith and Edmunde Burke were very opposed.) Also, conservatism is a social movement while capitalism is an economic system, so conservatism and capitalism do not even deal with the same thing (one does not entail, or have a logical relationship, with the other.)

I always thought the best essay to illustrate the point that conservatism and capitalism are not the same was Hayek's "Why I'm Not a Conservative." Many folks thought, and continue to think, that Hayek was a conservative because he advocates for a minimal state. This essay does a remarkable job explaining the difference between the two "isms."

I also empathize with Rand here, as many people were at a complete loss at how to categorize her: (a conservative that clashes with William Buckley?!)