Does Liberalism Destroy Liberty?

That’s the title question of an essay by Arnold Kling, a sensible economist with whom I usually agree. Not this time, however.

Kling begins with Patrick Dineen’s Why Liberalism Failed. In Kling’s account of Dineen’s argument, modern liberalism (state-interventionism) is an outgrowth of classical liberalism (individualism). Evidently, Dineen takes that view because classical liberralism doesn’t account for civic virtue, and it is a lack of civic virtue (i.e., community) that invites statism.Near the end of the essay, Kling says that

I would not concede that liberalism has failed. But it certainly seems to be going through a rough patch, and we can still wonder why this is the case.

Kling is wrong — the “rough patch” is nothing less than the death of liberalism at the hands of its natural enemies: statists. But liberalism bore the seeds of its own destruction, as Dineen evidently believes, and as I will argue in what follows.

Civic virtue, to my way of thinking, is really just an aspect virtue: general adherence to widely accepted social norms (including religious ones). Adherence to those norms, among other things, binds a community in mutual trust, respect, and beneficial cooperation. That, by the way, is liberty, which isn’t a free-floating essence that can be attained by putting words on paper but a modus vivendi that can only be attained by continued adherence to social norms.

Anyway, here is Kling, commenting on and quoting Dineen:

According to Deneen, classical philosophers focused on the importance of virtue. Individuals must have the virtue of self-restraint to function well in personal realms. They must have civic virtue to have thriving communities.

Liberalism, Deneen argues, disregards this need for virtue.

The classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation and self-rule relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue—and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny—came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation. (page 25)

Instead, he says,

A succession of thinkers in subsequent decades and centuries [have been] redefining liberty as the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition, and the expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific inquiry and economic prosperity. (page 27)

Deneen says that liberalism departed from classical and Christian values.

What was new is that the default basis for evaluating institutions, society, affiliations, memberships and even personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God. (pages 33-34)

In Deneen’s view, liberalism’s faith in the free market, constitutional government, and science led us to tolerate and even to encourage purely self-interested behavior on the part of individuals. We trust that economic cohesiveness will come from the incentives that operate in the free market. Political cohesiveness we believe will be ensured by checks and balances embedded in an electoral process that functions under a constitution. Challenges posed by our natural environment we think will be met by scientific discovery and technology. But Deneen thinks we’re wrong.

And you (liberals) are wrong because markets, constitutions, and science are amoral formalisms. What’s “good” is what works, or seems to work. The shallowness of that conceit can be seen in the contrast between prostitution (a market transaction) and marriage (a non-market commitment for the vast majority of Westerners). If prostitution were to become a substitute for marriage, what would happen to the emotional bonds and moral commitments that (for the most part) typify marriages and families? What would the loss of those bonds commitments mean for economic and social relations between people generally?

Well, we are seeing the answer unfold before our eyes, as marriage becomes rarer and the bearing of children becomes an inconvenience to be prevented murderous means.

The shallowness of the conceit that what is “good is what works can be seen more generally in a correct understanding of liberalism as it was defined by one of its leading proponents, John Stuart Mill. I have written about Mill’s philosophical folly many times. (There is a list of links at the end of this post.) The following is based from my first essay about Mill, “On Liberty“.

Mill, in On Liberty (1869), offers a definition of liberty which has nothing to do with the real thing (see above):

It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.[1]

That description, strangely, follows Mill’s prescription for the realization of liberty, which is his “harm principle” beloved of both libertarians and modern liberals. It is as if Mill began with the harm principle in mind, then concocted a description of liberty to justify it.

In any event, the source of liberalism’s failure can be found in the harm principle:

That principle is [according to Mill], 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.

Given the individualistic thrust of this passage and the surrounding text, 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.

Libertarians and liberals, even those who claim to reject license and anarchy, embrace the harm principle, for all of its simple-mindedness.

Enter Theodore Dalrymple, writing in his In Praise of Prejudice:
The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas:

It has long been an objection to Mill that, except for the anchorite in the Syrian desert who subsists on honey and locusts, no man is an island (and even an anchorite may have a mother who is disappointed by her son’s choice of career); and therefore that the smallest of his acts may have some impact or consequences for others. If one amends the [harm] principle to take that part of a man’s conduct that concerns principally himself, rather than only himself, one will be left with endless and insoluble disputes as to which part of his conduct that is….

But, as the great historian Lord Acton said, “Ideas have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Who can doubt that many people have forgotten, for very obvious reasons, Mill’s qualifications of personal sovereignty, namely that it applies to conduct that “merely concerns himself”?

The main appeal of On Liberty to libertarians and modern liberals is Mill’s defense of conduct that (in his view) only offends social norms:

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. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,” by either the state or “society.” Lest anyone mistake Mill’s position, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In Mill’s usage, “calculated” means “intended.” By that logic, which is implicit throughout On Liberty, an individual is (except in “a few of the most obvious cases”) a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others.

Mill’s bias against the enforcement of social norms, in all but a few “obvious cases” (murder? theft? rape?), ignores the civilizing influence of those norms. That influence is of no account to Mill, as Dalrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was not possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.[9]

There is a high price to be paid for the blind rejection of long-standing social norms, whether by individuals, organized groups, legislatures, or courts wishing to “do their own thing”, exact “social justice”, make life “fair”, or just “shake things up” for the sake of doing so. The price is liberty; that is, the destruction of social norms that make it possible for people to live in mutual trust, respect, and beneficial cooperation.

So, yes, liberalism — even of the antique kind that was preached by Mill and his ilk, and more or less supported by Western governments until statist “isms” began to hold sway — does destroy liberty. It does so by undermining social norms, which then requires an ever-enlarged state to do what strong communities could do for themselves. States inevitable fail, but statists are clever arguers for the proposition that failure requires more state action. And so it goes until true community — and thus true liberty — has been ground under the heel of the state.