“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