‘Liberals’ are taking your Liberty

The word ‘liberal’ has now come to mean its opposite, and the progressive Left are authoritarian wolves in sheep’s clothing, argues Gavin Rice.

 

In the USA, people who support tighter business regulations, higher taxes, stricter gun ownership laws, a larger welfare state, positive discrimination, a strict interpretation of equality legislation over and above religious liberty and freedom of conscience, seek to narrow the limits of acceptable speech, and otherwise seek to expand the frontiers of government at the expense of the individual, are referred to as ‘liberals’.

Confusing, isn’t it? The reason is that the word ‘liberal’ has undergone an almost perfect 180-degree turn in the last century. British journalists have, sadly, started adopting the American terminology, and this causes enormous confusion when it comes to interpreting the political spectrum, as well as thoroughly confusing our understanding of who liberalism’s main opponents are.

What does a ‘liberal’ in 21st Century Britain look like? Well, we would expect them to be, rather on the US model, a social progressive, a supporter of same-sex marriage and transgender normalisation, someone who believes in the regulation of the private sector by the state in order to protect workers and the environment, a second or third wave feminist, an atheist and an critic of the perceived oppression of ethnic minorities. Oh, and of course they would be Europhiles.

Their opponents are the reactionaries, real and imagined – the Church, the bourgeoisie, supporters of stifling institutions such as marriage, immigrant-hating nationalists and their tabloid newspaper-owning whippers-in, the Thatcherite lauders of unfettered, heartless capitalism. The benign power of the democratic state must be used to smash what Tony Blair called the ‘forces of conservatism’ so we can be truly free.

But what about any of the above is ‘liberal’? Pretty much nothing. The British Liberal Party was founded to support ‘reform’ and ‘progress’ in certain areas, certainly; mostly on electoral and constitutional matters  such as expanding the franchise and  reducing the power of the House of Lords.

Its principal guiding philosophy, however, was classical, or Gladstonian, liberalism:  free trade;  low taxation;  private property rights; freedom of speech and political association, and individual autonomy with the general rule of thumb provided by J.S. Mill that, prima facie, if your actions deprive no-one else of their own liberties directly, they should be allowed.  In other words, the opposing philosophy to classical liberalism is not conservatism, but authoritarianism.

It’s a quirk of modern political history that the key doctrines of classical liberalism have found their way into the intellectual umbrellas of conservative, rather than ‘liberal’ or socialist, parties. Famously Margaret Thatcher slept with a copy of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a classical liberal sacred text, on her bedside table, and her epithet that “there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families” would not look out of place in the pages of Mill’s On Liberty.

Similarly, the desirability of a small state is a core guiding principle of the US Republican Party. The mantras of classical liberalism run throughout Ted Cruz’s arguments in his recent debate with Bernie Sanders on healthcare – the state is there to provide protection for personal safety and private property, or, as Sr. Cruz puts it, there is a right to have access to healthcare; this is very different from saying that there is a right to healthcare, which really comes down to saying that certain individuals have a legal obligation to pay for the healthcare of others.

He points out that if liberty is to have a real, as opposed to disingenuous or dishonest meaning (i.e. liberty to do the things that I approve of), it will always take the form of liberty-from; liberty from government overreach, liberty from unconstitutional imprisonment, liberty from theft and violence – as it were, liberty from tyranny. The state is there primarily to prevent rather than to provide, because to go beyond this would be to compromise someone else’s liberty. And all the time, the statist  Sr. Sanders is described as the ‘liberal’.

The website Political Compass  explains this confusion well, and plots the Western political divide on two axes, one economic (Right to Left) and one social (Authoritarian to Libertarian). Because of the ill-deserved comfort and false sense of security that Leftists derive from their label of ‘liberal’, many probably regard themselves as falling into the fluffy-looking ‘Left-Libertarian’ bracket. What could be nicer than all of that lovely liberty from ancient sources of oppression?

Such Leftists sometimes go on to define themselves more precisely as ‘socially liberal’; this essentially means that they take a permissive stance on moral issues like abortion, sex and gender. If one is socially liberal then one is averse to making moral judgments on others’ actions, and that sort of tolerance is a good thing, the argument runs.

But what if someone makes the moral choice to use politically incorrect language? Or to refuse to use pronouns that they consider to be factually false? Or to choose a school for their children that instils conservative religious morality? All of a sudden, the ‘social liberal’ becomes much less tolerant purportedly because those things that he/she regards as intolerant are unworthy of toleration. I need not explain to you, intelligent reader, why this is question-begging.

The reality is that modern Leftists are not liberal at all. They fully believe in deploying state power to coerce others into living according to their own understanding of what a good life is.

Modern Leftists are, in truth, Left-Authoritarians. If you criminalise certain language, if you ban speakers you don’t like from your university, if you force Christian bakers to write slogans they disagree with on wedding cakes, if you force an employer to pay for someone else’s abortion or sex change, or if you force people to undergo equality, diversity and consent training, then you are an authoritarian. The shorthand for being this type of authoritarian Leftist is ‘progressive’.

political_chart-svg

Of course, only travelling north-west counts as “progress”. All the other directions are “backwards”.

 

Dave Rubin of the Rubin Report, who started out as a progressive on the far-Left show The Young Turks, recently released a video explaining that the Left is no longer liberal (“Why I Left the Left”). In it he identifies the Left’s tendency to group people according to racial category rather than treat them as individuals, their hostility to freedom of speech and intellectual diversity, their lack of respect for rival worldviews,  and their attempt to control the institutions of intellectual formation and of power with a hegemonic and dogmatic ideology.

The truth is that progressives do not value human freedom; they only value the type of freedom their ideology favours, and are very happy to ride roughshod over the freedoms of those who disagree.

A genuine liberal prizes personal and economic freedom above all else, and does not seek to use government to impose the type of society that he or she would personally like to see.

Why? Because somebody else may have the poor manners and lack of taste to disagree with you. A liberal does not believe that government can fix everything, and believes that even if it could, that does not mean that it should.

For every ‘problem’ to which the state provides a solution, there is a price in human liberty.

The progressive Left seeks to use government to address problems as the Left itself defines and interprets them, imposing solutions designed to bring about a Leftist society. The ends justify the means, the cost of human freedom is unimportant, because to a Leftist the freedoms of non-Leftists don’t really matter. If you are a progressive utopian and you think that coercion should be used to bring about the ideal society, then you may agree with this line of thinking, but there’s nothing liberal about it.

 

Gavin Rice teaches Philosophy & Theology at a leading British independent school and read Theology at the University of Cambridge.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to The Quad. The featured artwork in the masthead is the political poster “The Contrast” 1793. The Political Compass ideology chart is in the public domain.

7 thoughts on “‘Liberals’ are taking your Liberty

  1. Again, many issues. Chief amongst them:

    “A genuine liberal prizes personal and economic freedom above all else, and does not seek to use government to impose the type of society that he or she would personally like to see.”

    Where does this sit with the interventionist foreign policy of Thatcher, Blair, Friedman, Reagan, etc? Or are those no true liberal either? Where do you stand on Thatcher’s section 20? Very few people are genuinely tolerant of what they perceive to be intolerance, and few of those are on the right.

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    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for the question and for reading!

      OK, so in turn:

      1. Tony Blair’s interventionist foreign policy. First, Blair was not a liberal, but a utopian social democrat with *some* liberal economic inclinations. In many respects he was quite authoritarian, and I think most classical liberals would be suspicious of him. I think I name him specifically as an example of a non-liberal.

      2. The relationship between classical liberalism and foreign policy is an interesting one, and one there wasn’t time to address here. Some classical liberals believe in using a robust foreign policy to enhance liberalism (small government, democracy, capitalism, property rights, political pluralism) overseas, while others believe in a more laissez-faire approach. Few classical liberals are opposed to all use of military intervention when it comes to foreign policy, especially when it comes to self-defence (see below).

      3. Classical liberals DO believe that the state should provide safety and security so that free markets and private property can flourish. You might need to use military force in order to protect these things, in the same way that you need the police in order to protect individuals from theft and violence.

      4. I don’t think many classical liberals would support Section 28. The interesting thing, going into more detail, is that Section 28 did not prohibit teaching about homosexuality in schools, only its “promotion”. Well schools don’t “promote” heterosexuality either. Most classical liberals would wonder why schools rather than parents are “promoting” or “not promoting” one sexual orientation or set of sexual practices over another anyway. In short, why are schools even talking about this?

      So in short, sure, those are some guys, some of the stuff they did was liberal, and some wasn’t.

      Best wishes,

      Gavin

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your reply Gavin. I feel like you’ve dealt with the letter of my comment but not the spirit. My broader point is that as a statement of liberal belief, the sentence I highlighted was quite wrong because actually liberals have consistently used foreign policy to impose ostensibly liberal societies (and certainly liberal economics) on all kinds of people. Perhaps you can find me some liberals in power who didn’t, and I don’t know enough about Hayek, but everyone from the Chicago school onwards seems to have been quite happy to allow all kinds of infringements on liberty as long as they happened to socialists (or anyone else standing in the way of profit margins). In case my point isn’t clear, I’m referring to juntas, client states, and propped-up-dictators across the globe, but especially in what the US has regarded as its sphere of influence.

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    • Hi Sam,

      So I guess what I’m trying to say is:

      1. classical liberalism can be interpreted in different ways when it comes to foreign policy, but this doesn’t have a bearing on the basic point that modern Left-liberalism is *not* liberalism.

      2. The fact that the USA behaved in certain ways in the past in order to prevent Socialism and Communism spreading is neither here nor there, because I’m defending classical liberalism, not the United States. The US doesn’t always behave in a classically liberal way.

      Thanks!

      Gavin

      Like

  3. I feel like this doesn’t really contribute to the debates surrounding liberty. You’re just making a semantic point about the definition of the word “liberal”. Couldn’t one of these leftist ‘liberals’ you write about simply say “well I think that “liberal” means [insert principles contradictory to your own]”? Why should we treat your definition as any better than theirs?

    Granted you may claim to do a better job at reposing on the ‘natural language’ definition of “liberal”. Or you might not. Either way your argument fails to reach beyond the level of petty semantics into any substantive point about the nature, value or application of liberty.

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    • Hi Nathan,

      My intention was the expose the intellectual shift that the concept has taken, and hopefully to demonstrate that US-style “liberals” are not being true to the intellectual tradition that people may assume they spring from.

      Of course you could just change the word to mean “authoritarianism that is designed to bring about the freedoms that I personally like and restrict the ones that I don’t”, but I think that’s contrary to the plain meaning of the word “liberty”. I think definitions are important because they do tell us what it is we’re talking about; when the definition of a word inverts but people still use it as they did before, they may not realise that they may now disapprove of the concept that the word now describes unless their attention is specifically drawn to this change. “Liberal” is a nice-sounding word, I’d argue because of its original meaning, but is now used where “progressive Leftist authoritarian” should be used. The latter phrase sounds much less appealing, but is far more accurate when describing the politics of, say, the American Democratic Party, the British Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats (or indeed some statist Tories). People can mask a multitude of sins by choosing a nice name for themselves, and I think “liberal” is the biggest case of this in recent political history.

      I may well write a second piece address exactly your concern, i.e. why is classical liberalism a better form of government than progressivism? I think there are many key reasons, and I touched on them here (for example, making room for the fact that others may disagree with your own moral and economic priorities, and that interfering with someone else’s private life, property and individual choice is prima facie undesirable), but I hope to expand on them.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

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