The Myth of Illiberal Liberalism
It has become commonplace to hear of the threat of “illiberal liberalism” or “illiberal progressivism.” Classical liberals believe our modern liberals and progressives are not true liberals.
According to this analysis, there’s classical liberalism, which is taken to be authentically liberal, and then there are the various strands of leftism today, which aren’t in any way, shape, or form meaningfully liberal.
While this argument is seductive for those committed to the mythology of liberalism, those of us familiar with the liberal philosophical tradition from its classical to its more modern incarnation know better.
From Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, to Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith, to John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, there is a consistency in the development of classical liberal ideas to their application in modernity. Modern liberalism is the logical fulfillment of classical liberal ideals.
Classical liberals would have you believe that social justice activism is antithetical to liberal ideals. Actually, classical liberalism laid all the seeds for the so-called illiberalism that it spends its time decrying today.
At its core, liberalism is relativistic. Thomas Hobbes, a forerunner to liberalism, argued in Leviathan that there is neither a transcendent nor a natural moral order. Terms like “good” and “bad” simply denote feelings—feelings having to do with bodily pleasure or pain. Bodily pleasure is “good”; bodily pain is “bad.” This was echoed by John Locke, who in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote that bodily pleasure is the motivation for all human action. Hobbes and Locke also agreed that individual action, aiming at minimizing one’s pain, provides the thrust for economic activity in a material world.
The good life, according to the classical liberal fathers like Hobbes and Locke, consists in avoiding harm (Locke adds that the pursuit of happiness is paramount). This is the fundamental reason for the formation of the social contract. John Stuart Mill extended this tradition when he wrote in the preface to On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Liberalism found its logical fulfillment in Rawls’ political philosophy, which justifies inequalities so long as they leave the least well off in the best position relative to their standing under any other distribution. “Justice” is thus a matter of material well-being. Man, in the liberal tradition, is not a spiritual creature with a transcendent nature but exists as nothing more than a body of matter in motion; the good life thus amounts to the avoidance of harm.
But consider that this “freedom from harm” — the real freedom liberalism has sought to manifest — necessitates a war against harm. While Mill might not have thought that speech was harmful, modern liberals who argue that speech should be limited do so precisely because they claim it harms people. They are thus in sync with the underlying presuppositions of classical liberalism. “Freedom from,” as Kathleen Donahue argues in Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer, is the inevitable end of the classical liberal vision.
Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and the other 18th-century empiricists downstream of Hobbes and Locke began to develop a theory of moral sentiments as the basis of ethics—without a transcendent moral order and a rational soul to know that moral order, these theorists privileged inward sentimentality.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, contra Steven Pinker, did not abuse the theory of moral sentimentality and therefore diverge from the liberal tradition. Rather, Rousseau brought it to its logical conclusion, producing the totalitarianism of sentimental activism. After all, it was Smith — predating Rousseau — who argued that the sixth sense of man, which he considered to be sympathy, drove moral action and engagement between people.
Smith argued that in encountering another person our moral passions pushed us to conceive of ourselves in the position of the other. Smith’s “mirror argument” was the basis for Rousseau’s notion of the moi commun, the “common me” or the “common self” that reduces all particularity of persons to the same abstract self. This was the foundation upon which Rawls built his Theory of Justice: underneath our individuating features, which distort our capacity to discern true justice, we’re all the same and want the same.
Smith’s logic implies that those who, upon encountering others, are incapable of imagining themselves in the position of the other are devoid of rational self-reflection. Self-interest, for Smith, extended to the mirror other: What would I want if I were in his or her situation? As Smith wrote:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.
Conceiving the misery of others in a lively manner is precisely the logic of Rousseau’s “common me” in the face of others. “Sympathy,” Smith elaborated, “enlivens joy and alleviates grief…by presenting another source of satisfaction.” We help others, in Smith’s view, because we gain self-satisfaction from it. Paradoxically, moral sentiment — which binds us to others—is psychologically rooted in self-interest (as is everything in classical liberal anthropology).
When sentiments play such a central role, it inevitably lays the groundwork for conceiving of freedom from harm in unaccountably subjective ways. Social justice activism relies on a framework of this sort being in place.
A pervasive myth is that classical liberalism emerged as a rebuke to big government. Actually, the liberal social contract tradition started as a justification for big government. The idea is that in order to avoid the horror of the state of nature—or, in Locke’s usage, the state of war—we ought to authorize a massive state to rule us.
The internal logic of Locke’s political theory leads to statism. Because we, as individuals, are incapable of securing our right to self-preservation in the state of nature, we surrender the power of being judge, jury, and executioner to the commonwealth and its promulgated law and authorized judges. Logically, this entails that every “right” we have is connected to the project of the state. The more “rights” we have the more power the state must have to enforce our rights. Anyone who enjoys his or her life under the commonwealth, Locke declared, “has given nothing but such a tacit consent to the government.”
After all, just because Locke railed against “absolute monarchy” doesn’t mean his preferred view was consistent with the ideals of limited government. Locke’s views actually lead to a thoroughgoing statism. Worse: Taken to their natural conclusion, classical liberalism leads to the justification of a world government.
In the state of nature people banded together to form proto-states that were really small-scale versions of nations. Nations, however, get into conflicts with other nations. So the same dilemma of authority that justified the leviathan state further justifies the leviathan superstate, or internationalist union. The sovereignty of the liberal order can brook no rivals, since as the earliest liberal theorists all saw, the presence of such a rival (in their day, entities like the Roman Catholic Church) can destabilize a regime. How so? By generating allegiances that override the sovereignty of the state in the hearts of some citizens, the liberal project becomes compromised. What’s interesting is the same phenomenon is in play internationally.
Because conflict is bad and to be avoided, rather than potentially bad and to be managed, the liberal order inevitably ends with a world government. As Leo Strauss wrote in Natural Right and History, liberal political theory exhausts itself to the “outlawry of war or the establishment of a world state.” This is precisely what we see in liberal societies with the overriding of national laws and customs by a universally imposed law from above to regulate our lives to prevent conflict — just as Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza advocated.
The liberal internationalist Fareed Zakaria recently wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Self-Destruction of American Power” in which he laments the nadir of the American liberal order. While he feigns preference for an empire of ideas rather than of force — a shibboleth liberals use to justify imperial actions around the world — Zakaria doesn’t hide the fact that he’s an apologist for empire.
The ideas behind [the liberal international order] produced stability and prosperity over the last three-quarters of a century. The question is now whether, as American power wanes, the international system it sponsored — the rules, norms, and values — will survive. Or will America also watch the decline of its empire of ideas?
This empire of ideas is the same “world state” which Strauss argued the logic of liberal politics necessarily produces. Hence we see liberalism, whether in its neoconservative or progressive form, vigorously support internationalism, universal law, human rights, and all the usual building blocks to get us to a universal ark of fraternity.
But such order is never consummated on the basis of ideas. Order is the product of force and the forced imposition of certain ideas over others — with the displaced ideas derided as backward, xenophobic, hateful, or dangerous. At the end of the day, neoconservative or progressive liberals are all pursuing the same end; they merely differ over the means.
The turn toward intolerance is the natural exhaustion of corrupting power. In “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” Thucydides recounted how Athenian exceptionalism subsisted in the private-public distinction. “We are free and tolerant in our private lives,” proclaimed Pericles, “but in public affairs we keep to the law.” In other words, there is no toleration in the public square — all must submit to the public orthodoxy of the public law.
Toleration cannot exist in the public realm; all must be subjugated to the overriding ideological zeitgeist while forcing “tolerance” into the realm of the private sphere. But the public-private distinction is a false distinction. Humans are social and public animals. Conflict necessarily erupts. Hence the need to forbid conflict in the public square — lest the social contract disintegrate.
Karl Popper, who was hardly a good reader in the history of philosophy, argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies that a liberal society would not have to tolerate the intolerable. In fact, liberalism would have to rid society of the intolerable. Intolerable opinion, Popper maintained, would be a threat to (public) liberal values. As such, the liberal order would have to do away with all things deemed illiberal because it threatened the public orthodoxy from which there can be no dissent.
Thus, illiberalism is very much at the heart of liberal theory. Conflict is bad. Conflict is evil. Conflict leads to harm. And since freedom from harm is the highest value in liberal philosophy, anything that might cause harm, as Mill said, justifies the use of power “to prevent harm.”
Today’s so-called classical liberals promote a mythologized CliffsNotes-version of Locke, Smith, and David Ricardo instead of grappling with the primary texts of the theorists they claim have been betrayed by modern progressives. They want the economics of Smith without the moral theory of Smith. They want the anthropology of Locke without the political and logical implications of Locke’s anthropology. They want the moral relativism of Hobbes without the imposed law to prevent the “war of all against all.”
Social justice liberalism is not an aberration of the liberal tradition; it is its logical fulfillment. The politics of universal internationalism, moral sentimentality, and freedom from harm — however construed in the 21st century — originated in classical liberalism.
So it turns out there’s no such thing as illiberal liberalism or illiberal progressivism. Because illiberalism is already baked in. The qualifying words are unnecessary. The reason we’re able to see this now is because all the old constraints that held liberalism back from fully manifesting itself have disappeared—allowing it to fully realize itself.
So-called illiberal liberals and progressives are not abandoning liberalism. They are fulfilling its metaphysical impulse.