Liberalism of the modern variety is a manifestation of authoritarianism — a statement that will surprise no one but a liberal (a.k.a. progressive) and many libertarians. Libertarians? Yes, because there are many who side with modern liberals in wishing to use the power of the state to impose an agenda that suppresses freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights. (In the rest of this post, I use “modern liberals” and “modern liberalism” to refer to leftists and leftism, by whatever name.)
Modern liberalism attracts persons who wish to exert control over others. The stated reasons for exerting control amount to “because I know better” or “because it’s good for you (the person being controlled)” or “because ‘social justice’ demands it.” Such attitudes would seem to flout the central tenet of classical liberalism — the “harm principle” enunciated in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (Chapter I, paragraph 9):
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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.
What happened to Millian (classical) liberalism? Arnold Kling quotes Kim R. Holmes’s The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left:
American progressives and classical liberals [i.e., Millians] started parting company in the late 19th century. Progressives initially clung to freedom of expression and the right to dissent from the original liberalism, but under the influence of socialism and social democracy they gradually moved leftward. Today, they largely hold classic liberalism—especially as manifested in small-government conservatism and libertarianism—in contempt. Thus, what we call a “liberal” today is not historically liberal at all but a progressive social democrat, someone who clings to the old liberal notion of individual liberty when it is convenient (as in supporting abortion or decrying the “national security” state), but who more often finds individual liberties and freedom of conscience to be barriers to building the progressive welfare state….
[A]lliances between libertarians and leftists… can be found in most policy areas, in fact, except for economics….
The postmodern left … embraces principles, attitudes, and practices that sanction the use of coercive methods, either through legal means or public shaming rituals, to deny certain people their rights and civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and conscience, in ways that undermine American democracy and the rule of law.
[Earlier progressives] could not have imagined an unending conflict between identity tribes trying to capture the state for their own narrow group interests… [They] were still liberal enough to believe in universal justice. Multiculturalism, for example, stands completely opposed to the progressive vision of community. It promises not to build a common vision for everyone but to tear the community apart in an ethnic and racial conflict of all against all.
I agree with Holmes’s characterizations but not with his reification. There were undoubtedly some classical liberals who turned leftward in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but today’s leftists — modern liberals, progressives, and left-libertarians — were never classical liberals. They are made of authoritarian cloth. They are the intellectual heirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century herald of Marxism. This is from an old version of Wikipedia‘s entry about Rousseau:
Perhaps Rousseau’s most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order. Published in 1762 and condemned by the Parlement of Paris when it appeared, it became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. Building on his earlier work, such as the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau claimed that the state of nature eventually degenerates into a brutish condition without law or morality, at which point the human race must adopt institutions of law or perish. In the degenerate phase of the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men whilst at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. Whilst Rousseau argues that sovereignty should thus be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereign and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens, known as magistrates…Much of the subsequent controversy about Rousseau’s work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will are thereby rendered free….
Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is often considered a forebearer of modern socialism and communism (see Karl Marx, though Marx rarely mentions Rousseau in his writings). Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority.
In other words, the magistrates decide what’s best for the people. And so it is with modern liberals. To enforce their will they (yes, even so-called libertarians) invoke the vast power of the “technocratic” state that emerged in the 20th century, and which has found its greatest champion yet in Barack Obama. The “technocrats,” under the influence of pundits and academicians, define the “general will” of the people. There is, of course, no such thing as the general will or collective consciousness or “We the People.” The technocrats are simply bent on imposing their personal preferences and those of the pundits and academicians from whom they draw inspiration — with ample support from much of the citizenry (for venal reasons, to which I will come).
Modern liberalism didn’t begin to flourish until a century after Rousseau’s death. And when it did begin to flourish, it was due in large part to the capitalist paradox, which enables the interest-group paradox.
What do I mean? I begin with a post at Imlac’s Journal (no longer available) that includes this quotation from Matt McCaffrey’s “Entrepreneurs and Investment: Past, Present, … Future?” (International Business Times, December 9, 2011]:
Schumpeter argued [that] the economic systems [which] encourage entrepreneurship and development will eventually produce enough wealth to support large classes of individuals who have no involvement in the wealth-creation process. This generates apathy or even disgust for market institutions, which leads to the gradual takeover of business by bureaucracy, and eventually to full-blown socialism.
This, of course, is the capitalist paradox. The author of Imlac’s Journal concludes with these observations:
[U]nder statist regimes, people’s choices are limited or predetermined. This may, in theory, obviate certain evils. But as McCaffrey points out, “the regime uncertainty” of onerous and ever changing regulations imposed on entrepreneurs is, ironically, much worse than the uncertainties of the normal market, to which individuals can respond more rapidly and flexibly when unhampered by unnecessary governmental intervention.
The capitalist paradox is made possible by the “comfort factor” invoked by Schumpeter. It is of a kind with the foolishness of extreme libertarians who decry defense spending and America’s “too high” rate of incarceration, when it is such things that keep them free to utter their foolishness.
The capitalist paradox also arises from the inability and unwillingness of politicians and voters to see beyond the superficial aspects of legislation and regulation. In Frédéric Bastiat’s words (“What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“),
a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
The unseen effects — the theft of Americans’ liberty and prosperity — had been foreseen by some (e.g., Tocqueville and Hayek). But their wise words have been overwhelmed by ignorance and power-lust. The masses and their masters are willfully blind and deaf to the dire consequences of the capitalist paradox because of what I have called the interest-group paradox:
The interest-group paradox is a paradox of mass action….
…Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:
- Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
- Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
- Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
- Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
- Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
- Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
- Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.
What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth)….
You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a “free lunch” — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the “free lunch” syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).
The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is…. like the paradox of panic, in that there is a crowd of interest groups rushing toward a goal — a “pot of gold” — and (figuratively) crushing each other in the attempt to snatch the pot of gold before another group is able to grasp it. The gold that any group happens to snatch is a kind of fool’s gold: It passes from one fool to another in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, and as it passes much of it falls into the maw of bureaucracy.
Then there are the state-dictated programs of social engineering so beloved of modern liberals, such as affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and open borders. (The second and third of these occasion the “liberaltarian” alliance.) These and similar causes are undertaken in the name of “victims” (without regard for the rights and well-being of blameless non-victims), but are really undertaken for the sake of upending a pluralistic social order that offends the sensitivities of modern liberals.
The upshot of all this is not just the loss of essential aspects of liberty — freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights — but the insidious erosion of America’s prosperity through government spending and regulation. The greatest costs of government spending and regulation are unseen; beneficial economic activity is aborted before it is born. Thus most Americans have been lulled into believing in the proverbial free lunch — that big government somehow makes them richer and freer, when the opposite is true.
The alternative to modern liberalism — the only viable and truly libertarian alternative — is traditional conservatism. I turn to Michael Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition):
To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire. In short, governing is understood to be just like any other activity — making and selling a brand of soap, exploiting the resources of a locality, or developing a housing estate — only the power here is (for the most part) already mobilized, and the enterprise is remarkable only because it aims at monopoly and because of its promise of success once the source of power has been captured….
Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration. A government of this sort does not need to be regarded as the agent of a benign providence, as the custodian of a moral law, or as the emblem of a divine order. What it provides is something that its subjects (if they are such people as we are) can easily recognise to be valuable; indeed, it is something that, to some extent, they do for themselves in the ordinary course of business or pleasure…. Generally speaking, they are not averse from paying the modest cost of this service; and they recognize that the appropriate attitude to a government of this sort is loyalty … , respect and some suspicion, not love or devotion or affection. Thus, governing is understood to be a secondary activity; but it is recognised also to be a specific activity, not easily to be combined with any other…. The subjects of such a government require that it shall be strong, alert, resolute, economical and neither capricious nor over-active: they have no use for a referee who does not govern the game according to the rules, who takes sides, who plays a game of his own, or who is always blowing his whistle; after all, the game’s the thing, and in playing the game we neither need to be, nor at present are disposed to be, conservative.
But there is something more to be observed in this style of governing than merely the restraint imposed by familiar and appropriate rules. Of course, it will not countenance government by suggestion or cajolery or by any other means than by law…. But the spectacle of its indifference to the beliefs and substantives activities of its subjects may itself by expected to provoke a habit of restraint. Into the heat of our engagements, into the passionate clash of beliefs, into our enthusiasm for saving the souls of our neighbours or of all mankind, a government of this sort injects an ingredient, not of reason … , but of the irony that is prepared to counteract one vice by another, of the raillery that deflates extravagance without itself pretending to wisdom: indeed, it might be said that we keep a government of this sort to do for us the scepticism we have neither the time nor the inclination to do for ourselves. It is like the cool touch of the mountain that one feels in the plain even on the hottest summer day. Or, to leave metaphor behind, it is like the ‘governor’ which, by controlling the speed at which its marts move, keeps an engine from racketing itself to pieces.
It is not, then, mere stupid prejudice disposes a conservative to take this view of the activity of governing; nor are any highfalutin metaphysical beliefs necessary to provoke it or make it intelligible. It is connected merely with the observation that where activity is bent upon enterprise the indispensable counterpart is another order of activity, bent upon restraint, which is unavoidably corrupted (indeed, altogether abrogated) when the power assigned to it is used for advancing favourite projects. An ‘umpire’ what at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; ‘rules’ about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements to disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.
Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’. And one does not need to think that the belief in ‘progress’ is the most cruel and unprofitable of all beliefs, arousing cupidity without satisfying it, in order to think it inappropriate for a government to be conspicuously ‘progressive’. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without irecting enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight.
Contrast the conservative disposition to the attitude of left-wing intellectuals, do-gooders, and politicians to whom government “appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it.” It may be true, as Oakeshott charitably asserts, that some of them “sincerely believe [that their favorite projects] are for the benefit of mankind.” But, in my observation, the left is largely animated by power-lust.
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John J. Ray, “Authoritarianism Is Leftist, Not Rightist” (the complete version of an article later published in truncated form as “Explaining the Left/Right Divide,” Society, Vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 70-78)
John N. Gray, “Mill on the Priority of Liberty as Autonomy: Laissez-faire, Private Property, and Socialism,” Literature of Liberty. Vol. ii, no. 2, pp. 7-37. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies (as reproduced at the Library of Economics and Liberty)
Ed Fuelner, “Liberal in Name Only,” The Washington Times, May 9, 2016
Arnold Kling, “Liberalism and Its Enemies,” Library of Economics and Liberty, June 6, 2016
Steven Hayward, “Epic Correction of the Decade,” PowerLine, June 8, 2016
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Related posts (listed in chronological order):
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the Authoritarian Personality
The F Scale Revisited
Intellectuals and Capitalism
The Interest-Group Paradox
The Indivisibility of Social and Economic Liberty
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Illegal Immigration: A Note to Libertarian Purists
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
Bootleggers, Baptists, and Pornography
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
Facets of Liberty
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Myth that Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Why (Libertarian) Conservatism Works
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
Politics & Prosperity, “target=”_blank”>The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists (Redux)
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
My View of Libertarianism
The Rahn Curve Revisited
A Cop-Free World?
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
Democracy, Human Nature, and America’s Future
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
The Gaystapo at Work
The Gaystapo and Islam
The Perpetual Nudger
Privilege, Power, and Hypocrisy
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Euphemism Conquers All
How Democracy Works
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
Thinkers vs. Doers
The War on Conservatism
From Each According to His Ability…
America’s Political Profile
A Dose of Reality
Assuming a Pretzel-Like Shape
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Immigration and Crime
There’s More to It Than Religious Liberty