Liberalism

I am going to tell a short version of a story. The long version has lots of interesting details, many twists and turns, Numerous subplots, a myriad of secondary characters, and so on. I am going to leave all of that out in my super-condensed version. nevertheless, I think this “Cliff Notes“ edition of the story still captures its highlights successfully.

In the 17th century, England was in great turmoil. The English fought two civil wars and at the end of the second, a class that might be called the “rising bourgeoisie“ emerged triumphant. And having one, then actually wanted to put in place a political system reflecting the values of well-off protestant bourgeoisie, in favoring that same sort of person.

Now at the “commanding heights“ of their nation, the winners were in a position to put that system in place, but they had to solve an important problem: they were now in charge. But how were they to justify their position to those who were not in charge?

Their problem arose from the fact that none of the traditional methods of justifying rulership were really open to them. They had kicked two legitimate heirs to the throne off of it, even executing one of them. So a claim to rulership based on ancestry was pretty much out.

In many places, transcendental justifications for rulership were forthcoming: the pharaoh was the incarnation of Osiris, God had anointed David king, the Chinese emperor had the mandate of heaven, and so on. but their fellow citizens were almost all Christians of one sort or another, and it was going to be very difficult to find a passage in the Bible that could plausibly be read to indicate “God favors those who have succeeded in business ventures, and has anointed them to rule over you.”

In rougher times and more cynical places, it might be that simply having won the war would be reason enough to rule the peace: “We whooped your butts, and now we’re in charge!” But once again, the predominantly Christian bent of their countrymen was not going to be amenable to such reasoning.

So what to do? These protestant, property-owning men, wanting to put in place a system that favored protestant, property-owning men, hit upon an ingenious idea: claim that political arrangements they liked and that favored them were, in fact, exactly what was called for by universally valid laws, which could be deduced by pure reason alone. Not only that, but the system they were putting in place, far from reflecting their own values, was in fact neutral among different conceptions of the good life, and would enable people with radically different fundamental understandings of what was most valuable in life each to pursue their own vision, free from the interference of “arbitrary power.“ The fact that women, and Catholics, and Jews, and enslaved blacks, and so on, seem to be excluded from enjoying the benefits of this universe valid political system was actually only an indicator that such groups had not risen to the level of reason that had been achieved by wealthy, white, protestant males: they were driven by emotion, or mired in “papist superstition,“ or were tribalists, or perhaps even mere “savages.“

The system that had been generated, which we can without to gross a generalization call “liberalism,“ worked decently in many places, so long as the fundamental contradiction at its heart could be ignored, and so long as a Protestant Christian ethic generally prevailed in a “liberal“ society, providing it with the decidedly not-neutral moral consensus which must lie at the heart of any workable social order.

But the claims to moral neutrality and universality set up in unresolvable conflict in liberalism, has driven much of the political activity, at least in the west, of the last three centuries. The result of the contradiction was that liberals divided into two camps: “conservative liberals“ tended to recognize that, practically speaking, empowering all the people whom this new, “universally valid“ social order had excluded, would tend to lead to the breakdown of that social order, since such people we’re not likely to share in the values of wealthy, white, protestant males. On the other hand, “left liberals“ recognized that, logically speaking, the claim to universality demanded the empowerment of those very people.

It is as though a branch of mathematics -- call it eleuthology -- had been founded on the axiom that 3 = 4: since the starting point is nonsense (but perhaps useful nonsense, for someone?), mathematicians making contradictory claims could both, quite validly, say that they are “true” eleuthologists.

The only way forward is to recognize that liberalism’s claim to be a “morally neutral“ framework for a peaceful society was always propaganda. As Adrian Vermuele notes, “All legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality.”

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