Whither (Wither) Classical Liberalism — and America?

John O. McGinnis, in “The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism“, bemoans the state of the ideology which was born in the Enlightenment, came to maturity in the writings of J.S. Mill, had its identity stolen by modern “liberalism”, and was reborn (in the U.S.) as the leading variety of libertarianism (i.e., minarchism). McGinnis says, for example that

the greatest danger to classical liberalism is the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. This has been the greatest ideological change of any party since at least the Goldwater revolution in the Republican Party more than a half a century ago….

It is certainly possible that such candidates [as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg] will lose to Joe Biden or that they will not win against Trump. But they are transforming the Democratic Party just as Goldwater did the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party will win the presidency at some time in the future. Recessions and voter fatigue guarantee rotation of parties in office….

Old ideas of individual liberty are under threat in the culture as well. On the left, identity politics continues its relentless rise, particularly on university campuses. For instance, history departments, like that at my own university, hire almost exclusively those who promise to impose a gender, race, or colonial perspective on the past. The history that our students hear will be one focused on the West’s oppression of the rest rather than the reality that its creation of the institutions of free markets and free thought has brought billions of people out of poverty and tyranny that was their lot before….

And perhaps most worrying of all, both the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good. Previously, pressure on classical liberalism most often occurred when times were bad. The global trend to more centralized forms of government and indeed totalitarian ones in Europe occurred in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of a global depression. The turbulent 1960s with its celebration of social disorder came during a period of hard economic times. Moreover, in the United States, young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose.

But today the economy is good, the best it has been in at least a decade. Unemployment is at a historical low. Wages are up along with the stock market. No Americans are dying in a major war. And yet both here and abroad parties that want to fundamentally shackle the market economy are gaining more adherents. If classical liberalism seems embattled now, its prospects are likely far worse in the next economic downturn or crisis of national security.

McGinnis is wrong about the 1960s being “a period of hard economic times” — in America, at least. The business cycle that began in 1960 and ended in 1970 produced the second-highest rate of growth in real GDP since the end of World War II. (The 1949-1954 cycle produced the highest rate of growth.)

But in being wrong about that non-trivial fact, McGinnis inadvertently points to the reason that “the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good”. The reason is symbolized by main cause of social disorder in the 1960s (and into the early 1970s), namely, that “young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose”.

The craven behavior of supposedly responsible adults like LBJ, Walter Cronkite, Clark Kerr, and many other well-known political, media, educational, and cultural leaders — who allowed themselves to be bullied by essentially selfish protests against the Vietnam War — revealed the greatest failing of the so-called greatest generation: a widespread failure to inculcate personal responsibility in their children. The same craven behavior legitimated the now-dominant tool of political manipulation: massive, boisterous, emotion-laden appeals for this, that, and the other privilege du jour — appeals that left-wing politicians encourage and often lead; appeals that nominal conservatives often accede to rather than seem “mean”.

The “greatest” generation spawned the first generation of the spoiled children of capitalism:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it. And, sadly, they passed their principles, if one may use the term so loosely, down the generations to the point where young people today are scarcely worth using for fertilizer.

In 1919, or 1929, or especially 1939, the adolescents of 1969 would have had neither the leisure nor the money to create the Woodstock Nation. But mommy and daddy shelled out because they didn’t want their little darlings to be caught short, and consequently their little darlings became the worthless whiners who voted for people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama [and who Bill Clinton and Barack Obama], with results as you see them. Now that history is catching up to them, a third generation of losers can think of nothing better to do than camp out on Wall Street in hopes that the Cargo will suddenly begin to arrive again.

Good luck with that.

[From “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism”, posted in October 2011 at Dyspepsia Generation but no longer available there.]

I have long shared that assessment of the Boomer generation, and subscribe to the view that the rot set in after World War II, and became rampant after 1963., when the post-World War II children of the “greatest generation” came of age.

Which brings me to Bryan Caplan’s post, “Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families”. Caplan — who is all wet when it comes to pacifism and libertarianism — usually makes sense when he describes the world as it is rather than as he would like it to be. He writes:

[W]hen leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian.  Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind.  That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

Case in point: Kathryn Edin and Maria KefalasPromises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.  The authors spent years interviewing poor single moms.  Edin actually moved into their neighborhood to get closer to her subjects.  One big conclusion:

Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups [between cohabitating parents]… Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor.  It is usually the young father’s criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.

Furthermore:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education.  Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect.  Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

These passages focus on low male conscientiousness, but the rest of the book shows it’s a two-way street.  And even when Edin and Kefalas are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit.  After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs”. It will be the bane of the Gen Yers who do the same thing. But, as usual, “society” will be expected to pick up the tab, with food stamps, subsidized housing, drug rehab programs, Medicaid, and so on.

Before the onset of America’s welfare state in the 1930s, there were two ways to survive: work hard or accept whatever charity came your way. And there was only one way for most persons to thrive: work hard. That all changed after World War II, when power-lusting politicians sold an all-too-willing-to-believe electorate a false and dangerous bill of goods, namely, that government is the source of prosperity — secular salvation. It is not, and never has been.

McGinnis is certainly right about the decline of classical liberalism and probably right about the rise of leftism. But why is he right? Leftism will continue to ascend as long as the children of capitalism are spoiled. Classical liberalism will continue to wither because it has no moral center. There is no there there to combat the allure of “free stuff“.

Scott Yenor, writing in “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty”, makes a point about J.S. Mill’s harm principle — the heart of classical liberalism — that I have made many times. Yenor begins by quoting the principle:

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. . . . 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. . . .The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

This is the foundational principle of classical liberalism (a.k.a. minarchistic libertarianism), and it is deeply flawed, as Yenor argues (successfully, in my view). He ends with this:

[T]he simple principle of [individual] liberty undermines community and compromises character by compromising the family. As common identity and the family are necessary for the survival of liberal society—or any society—I cannot believe that modes of thinking based on the “simple principle” alone suffice for a governing philosophy. The principle works when a country has a moral people, but it doesn’t make a moral people.

Conservatism, by contrast, is anchored in moral principles, which are reflected in deep-seated social norms, at the core of which are religious norms — a bulwark of liberty. But principled conservatism (as opposed to the attitudinal kind) isn’t a big seller in this age of noise:

I mean sound, light, and motion — usually in combination. There are pockets of serenity to be sure, but the amorphous majority wallows in noise: in homes with blaring TVs; in stores, bars, clubs, and restaurants with blaring music, TVs, and light displays; in movies (which seem to be dominated by explosive computer graphics), in sports arenas (from Olympic and major-league venues down to minor-league venues, universities, and schools); and on an on….

The prevalence of noise is telling evidence of the role of mass media in cultural change. Where culture is “thin” (the vestiges of the past have worn away) it is susceptible of outside influence…. Thus the ease with which huge swaths of the amorphous majority were seduced, not just by noise but by leftist propaganda. The seduction was aided greatly by the parallel, taxpayer-funded efforts of public-school “educators” and the professoriate….

Thus did the amorphous majority bifurcate. (I locate the beginning of the bifurcation in the 1960s.) Those who haven’t been seduced by leftist propaganda have instead become resistant to it. This resistance to nanny-statism — the real resistance in America — seems to be anchored by members of that rapidly dwindling lot: adherents and practitioners of religion, especially between the two Left Coasts.

That they are also adherents of traditional social norms (e.g., marriage can only be between a man and a woman), upholders of the Second Amendment, and (largely) “blue collar” makes them a target of sneering (e.g., Barack Obama who called them “bitter clingers”; Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables”)….

[But as long] as a sizeable portion of the populace remains attached to traditional norms — mainly including religion — there will be a movement in search of and in need of a leader [after Trump]. But the movement will lose potency if such a leader fails to emerge.

Were that to happen, something like the old, amorphous society might re-form, but along lines that the remnant of the old, amorphous society wouldn’t recognize. In a reprise of the Third Reich, the freedoms of association, speech, and religious would have been bulldozed with such force that only the hardiest of souls would resist going over to the dark side. And their resistance would have to be covert.

Paradoxically, 1984 may lie in the not-too-distant future, not 36 years in the past. When the nation is ruled by one party (guess which one), footvoting will no longer be possible and the nation will settle into a darker version of the Californian dystopia.

It is quite possible that the elections of 2020 or 2024 will bring about the end of the great experiment in liberty that began in 1776. And with that end, the traces of classical liberalism will all but vanish, along with liberty. Unless something catastrophic shakes the spoiled children of capitalism so hard that their belief in salvation through statism is destroyed. Not just destroyed, but replaced by a true sense of fellowship with other Americans (including “bitter clingers” and “deplorables”) — not the ersatz fellowship with convenient objects of condescension that elicits virtue-signaling political correctness.

“Liberalism” and Leftism

Dennis Prager, writing in “Leftism Is Not Liberalism” (Frontpage Mag, September 13, 2017), asserts that “liberalism has far more in common with conservatism than it does with leftism.” He continues:

The left has appropriated the word “liberal” so effectively that almost everyone — liberals, leftists and conservatives — thinks they are synonymous.

But they aren’t. Let’s look at some important examples.

Race…. To liberals of a generation ago, only racists believed that race is intrinsically significant. However, to the left, the notion that race is insignificant is itself racist….

Capitalism…. Liberals did often view government as able to play a bigger role in lifting people out of poverty than conservatives, but they were never opposed to capitalism, and they were never for socialism. Opposition to capitalism and advocacy of socialism are leftist values.

Nationalism…. The left has always opposed nationalism because leftism is rooted in class solidarity, not national solidarity…. Liberals always wanted to protect American sovereignty and borders….

View of America: Liberals venerated America. Watch American films from the 1930s through the 1950s and you will be watching overtly patriotic, America-celebrating films — virtually all produced, directed and acted in by liberals. Liberals well understand that America is imperfect, but they agree with a liberal icon named Abraham Lincoln that America is “the last best hope of earth.”

To the left, America is essentially a racist, sexist, violent, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic country….

Free speech: The difference between the left and liberals regarding free speech is as dramatic as the difference regarding race. No one was more committed than American liberals to the famous statement “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

… [T]he left is leading the first nationwide suppression of free speech in American history — from the universities to Google to almost every other institution and place of work. It claims to only oppose hate speech. But protecting the right of person A to say what person B deems objectionable is the entire point of free speech.

Western civilization: Liberals have a deep love of Western civilization…. The most revered liberal in American history is probably former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who frequently cited the need to protect not just Western civilization but Christian civilization. Yet leftists unanimously denounced President Donald Trump for his speech in Warsaw, Poland, in which he spoke of protecting Western civilization. They argued not only that Western civilization is not superior to any other civilization but also that it is no more than a euphemism for white supremacy.

Judaism and Christianity: Liberals knew and appreciated the Judeo-Christian roots of American civilization. They themselves went to church or synagogue, or at the very least appreciated that most of their fellow Americans did. The contempt that the left has — and has always had — for religion (except for Islam today) is not something with which a liberal would ever have identified.

“Liberalism”, as Prager describes it is not liberalism. (More about that, below.) “Liberalism” is several steps down the slippery slope toward all-out leftist oppression. Thus:

It is “liberals” who insist that race is a social construct, and that there are no inherent differences between races. This view has had a lot to do with the creation of wasteful government programs aimed at “uplift”, and with the the theft of property rights and the demise of freedom of association ushered in by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Government’s destructive economic interventions were mainly instituted by “liberals”. Leftists only want to extend the destruction that “liberals” set in motion.

If “liberals” were and are so keen on freedom of speech — and by extension, freedom of inquiry and expression — how is it that research into such subjects as racial differences in intelligence, the deleterious effects of regulation, and natural explanations of climate change have been practically shut down in wide swaths of academia, that bastion of “liberalism”?

FDR was a long time ago, so he has nothing to do with the supposed love of America felt by “liberals”. Leftists are honest (if abhorrent) in their hatred of America. “Liberals” are often so apologetic about being Americans (as in the recoil from Trump’s UN speech) that it’s easy to infer that their hatred is repressed rather than non-existent. In the case of rising and affluent “liberals”, the suppressed hatred is expressed as a love of things European.

With regard to religion, Prager’s use of the past tense is especially telling. Now, “liberals” like Senator Diane Feinstein deem it perfectly appropriate to challenge nominees for high office because of their religious beliefs. “Liberals” are no different than leftists in their obeisance to the god known as the state. In their view, if religion is to be permitted it must adhere to the policies of the state rather than inform (but not dictate) those policies, as intended by the Framers of the Constitution. But the Framers were true liberals, in the old meaning of the word.

Prager has fallen into the trap of mistaking “liberalism” for liberalism, or classical liberalism as it is now called. Classical liberalism eschews government interventions, except to defend citizens against force and fraud. For its restraint, classical liberalism can be thought of as applied conservatism.

But “liberalism” is not liberalism, and therefore not at all like conservatism. “Liberalism” is nothing more than leftism in disguise, and all the more insidious for it.


Related reading: Ludwig von Mises, “Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism“, address delivered before the University Club of New York, April 18, 1950

Related posts:
Inventing “Liberalism”
Ethics and the Socialist Agenda
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Euphemism Conquers All
Superiority
Whiners
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”
Leftist Condescension
The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
The Left and Evergreen State: Reaping What Was Sown
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What’s Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Leftism and the related bibliography

The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State

John Stuart Mill is the father of modern liberalism, though he is usually thought of as a proponent of classical liberalism. The mistake arises from Mill’s harm principle, enunciated in his long essay On Liberty (1869). It is the sand upon which liberalism (classical and modern) is built:

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. [Chapter I, paragraph 9]

This seemingly libertarian principle is in fact anti-libertarian, as I explain at length in “On Liberty.” In that post I focus on harm. As I say there,

the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.

In this post I turn to Mill’s definition of society. Here is Mill again:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. [Chapter I, paragraph 5]

But here’s the rub. Who decides when the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling” is too oppressive? The state.

“State” is nothing more than an impressive-sounding word that really denotes the amalgam of elected and non-elected officials who wield governmental power. There are those who say that the state embodies the nation, which is like saying that the lion-tamer embodies the lion. The state most certainly is not society, but it is has the power to be far more tyrannical than society’s “prevailing opinion and feeling.”

Recourse to the power of the state has become the first resort of individuals and groups who object to prevailing opinion and feeling. And when the state meddles with prevailing opinion and feeling it creates new grievances, which produce resistance and resentments that splinter the nation rather than unite it.

What kinds of prevailing opinion and feeling could be so oppressive that their effects must be undone by the oppressive state? Mill devotes Chapter IV of On Liberty to examples of oppression, but they are examples of state action at the behest of sectarian and moralistic interests. Mill conflates society and state, which is excusable in 19th century England, where nation and society were far more congruous than they are in 21st century America.

At any rate, Mill says that

the likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. [Chapter I, paragraph 7]

And opinion, in Mill’s view, becomes inimical to liberty when it is converted into law and bars such things as music, dancing, drinking, the expression of unpopular views, and free trade. In sum, On Liberty should be read as a warning against statist oppression at the behest of powerful factions. Though, as I show in “On Liberty,” it also — and contradictorily — can be read as a justification for behavior that subverts civilizing norms which underlie liberty.

But no matter, the harm principle lives on in the minds of leftists as a justification for using the power of the state to overturn norms of which they disapprove, while it also serves as a justification for anti-social behavior of which they approve. They are faux-individualists because their penchant for governmental intervention against social norms in the name of liberty actually results in the diminution of liberty.

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Related reading: Theodore Dalrymple, “The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth,” Library of Law and Liberty, July 20, 2015

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Related posts — everything listed at “Social Norms and Liberty,” but especially “On Liberty” and
Anarcho-Authoritarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Facets of Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Romanticizing the State
“We the People” and Big Government
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined