Whose Liberalism?

(A)s though handing over Augustus’s powers to the tribune of the plebs would constrain the imperial tendency.”

Interesting piece by Kevin D. Williamson.  I can still recall 29 years ago when Professor Hinchman called me a “liberal” just to shock me.

Hayek, like the liberals who came before and after him, believed that the liberal economic order and the liberal political order are intrinsically linked. (Modern experiences ranging from Northern European welfare states to Singapore suggest that these linkages, while real, are less robust and operate in a less straightforward manner than Hayek assumed in The Road to Serfdom and elsewhere.) This is important to understand because the Left’s fundamental intellectual defect — at least in the critique of those liberals who are now obliged to call ourselves “conservatives” — is that it seeks to establish something very much like the arbitrary princely powers that Smith and Hayek warned against, and that Washington fought against. The Left believes that this power can be made benevolent not by the strengthening of democracy — that is not precisely right — but rather by making ever-greater portions of society subject to arbitrary princely powers when those powers enjoy the endorsement of a plebiscite, as though handing over Augustus’s powers to the tribune of the plebs would constrain the imperial tendency.

Whether we call what the Left believes “liberalism,” “progressivism,” or pumpkin pie, we must address that assumption.

This speaks to an ancient but fundamental disagreement over the nature of human beings and, consequently, over the nature of human society. Conservatives — those who seek to conserve the liberal national order formalized by the founding of the American republic — tend to be oriented toward process, toward a narrow reading not only of Constitution and statute but also of the meaning of rights (negative) and the role of the state (limited); in our view, rights are enjoyed by individuals rather than by collectives, even when those rights are exercised in aggregate. Forrester characterizes this habit as “polar thinking,” and against it opposes what she calls “practical thinking” and “practical compromise.” Readers of Jonah Goldberg will be familiar with the endless mutations of familiar ideology that are folded into the assumptions of self-proclaimed pragmatists.

Forrester has no patience for the “unbridled individualism of the market economist,” just as John Nichols, also writing in The Nation, laments “unfettered capitalism,” a favorite phrase among so-called liberals (Chris Hedges invokes it in The Death of the Liberal Class). Which brings us back to a linguistic question: What is the opposite of “unbridled”? What is the opposite of “unfettered”? Excising the negative prefixes and considering the implications is a much more illuminating argument that “liberalism,” as we perversely call it, “doesn’t start with liberty” than anything one might read in The Nation lately.

Suetonius reports Caligula’s stated wish that “all Romans had one neck.” From a purely practical point of view, it would be easier to affix a bridle that way. A “liberalism” that is chiefly concerned with the many clever uses of bridles and fetters does not deserve the name. It never has.

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