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’.
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.