How liberals always define rightness to suit themselves

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post writes of the night some years ago when he awoke to the sound of a burglar running around in his house. “At that moment, what I wanted more than anything in the world was a gun. What I wanted at that moment—and only that moment, I hasten to add—was denied last month to airline pilots who just might have to deal with a terrorist somehow getting into the cockpit…. I am, like all reasonable people, in favor of the tightest restrictions on guns.” [Italics added.]

How typical of liberals. The liberal paradigm of denying reality always rules, except when reality intrudes so sharply that the liberal paradigm breaks down for a moment. But the liberal never draws any larger conclusions from that experience, that is, he never thinks that since he needed a gun when there was a burglar in his house, other people need a gun for the times when there is burglar in their house, which would imply that gun ownership in general is a justified and necessary thing. Instead, the liberal only relates to the issue in personal terms. He is completely self-righteous in his liberalism, but when he wants to abandon his liberalism under the pressure of circumstances, then that instantly becomes the correct position. Liberal rightness is defined purely by the whims and feelings of the liberals themselves.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 05, 2002 11:40 AM | Send


If liberal rightness is defined purely by the whims and feelings of the liberals themselves, then how come these people never disagree on matters of substance? They have endless interlocking isms and convictions.

Every once in a while, you find a liberal who breaks with one or more tenet of the faith. He opposes gun control or abortion or immigration. This person is instantly declared a right-wing extremist, even though his care values are liberal. Andrew Sullivan is a textbook example.

Posted by: Jim Carver on June 5, 2002 2:10 PM

Two observations:

1) Of course many a given individual’s liberalism breaks down when faced with reality. How can an ideology so divorced from actual experience possibly hold up against actual concrete fear, blood and pain? “I refute it thus!” What is more astonishing is the times that it does not.

2) I don’t imply that anyone has taken the position, but it would be a mistake to think that liberalism as such is just an aggregation of the whims and feelings of individual liberals. Emancipation by force — universal freedom and equality more authoritative than tradition — is the programme. The fact that this programme is self-contradictory means that it can be used to justify anything at all, but that does not imply that liberals know what they are doing when they construct their justifications, nor does it mean that their discourse is not framed by context.

Just because Satan is emptiness it does not follow that he has no face.

Posted by: Matt on June 5, 2002 4:29 PM

Speaking of liberation by force, note that socialism and libertarianism wind up agreeing on this point. Check out Cato Institute senior fellow Brink Lindsey, who openly agrees with the concept. Read this excerpt carefully:

“A society in which liberty is the primary political value is a better society than the alternatives, both because liberty is intrinsically valuable and because it is a potent instrument of our other values.

“But if people in society achieve a consensus on the primacy of liberty and then deploy the coercive powers of government to uphold that value, it should not be surprising that they will want to assert other values through collective action as well. In my view, therefore, the only defensible liberal position is that liberty should be the primary political value, and that other values should supplement rather than supplant the sphere of voluntary activity or civil society. I don’t think the position that liberty is or ought to be the exclusive political value is tenable.

“Where to draw the line on which subsidiary values can be recognized, and how, is not in my opinion a question susceptible to principled resolution. There are no analytically sustainable bright lines. Rather, such questions are matters of judgment. The appropriate distinction ought to be between supplementing the protection of rights and supplanting it, but that distinction is a fuzzy one, and it is inevitable that people within the liberal camp will disagree on particular judgment calls. But such differences are evidence of a vibrant, living tradition, and in any event pale beside the uniting principle of liberty as the highest political value that defines the liberal vision.”

You could defend anything with those suppositions.

Lindsey may say I put words in his mouth, but the “judgement calls” made to create more liberty imply the necessity of a managerial class constantly trying to massage outcomes. Where “voluntary activity” fails, the rules can supplement with demands for multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, speech controls, marginalization of the church, etc.

Posted by: Jim Carver on June 5, 2002 6:07 PM

Also, I think the business about agreement among liberals may be a bit overblown.

If we use the term “liberal” to refer to the ideology of emancipation by force, of freedom and equal rights trumping tradition in order to emancipate the oppressed, then the world wars and the cold war era conflicts all involved factions of liberalism killing each other off.

If “liberalism” refers to a subset of the above — say that faction of the above which hasn’t been too worried about its internal ideological coherence and so has been less overtly aggressive — then Hitler and Marx were not liberals semantically, but it doesn’t change the substance of the matter. The major difference between them and today’s softshoe liberal, it seems to me, is that Naziism and Communism took the core ideology seriously while most of today’s liberals try to avoid thinking about the matter any more than is strictly necessary.

Posted by: Matt on June 5, 2002 6:12 PM

Do ypu want to say that Hitler and Soviet communists were liberals? What a nonsense. Could give any justification for saying (obviously absurd) things like that?

Posted by: Ar(t)isto on June 6, 2002 3:52 AM

I don’t think that the Nazis fall easily into the liberal camp, although they did adopt some elements of the liberalism of the times, such as eugenics, and a relativistic morality.

However, I think it’s possible to view Marxism as being a form of radical left liberalism. Marxists are similar to some feminists, in wanting to take liberal principles to their logical conclusion.

In other words, radical liberals such as Marxists want to immediately overthrow those aspects of society which are impediments to individual will and reason, such as inherited forms of identity like gender and nationality, or “uncontracted” forms of authority, such as the authority of fathers or absolute moral codes.

Mainstream liberals operate on exactly the same principle, but historically were more gradualist in following through the logic of these principles. For instance, rather than immediately replacing the function of the family by the state as radical liberals might wish, mainstream liberals began by loosening divorce laws, bringing in forms of state welfare and so on (this began from at least the 1850s).

Of course, Marxists want state control of the economy which places them at odds with many right liberals who want no impediments to private capital. But left liberals have historically wanted significant state intervention in the economy - think of what Swedish liberals have done with their economy.

Although it’s important to distinguish Marxism from the liberal mainstream, I think it’s a mistake not to see Marxism as a radical form of liberalism.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on June 6, 2002 7:08 AM

I wouldn’t call Nazis “liberals” but there are connections. If there weren’t then liberals wouldn’t be obsessed with Nazism and convinced that opposition to liberalism must have something Nazi about it - that Nazism is the “other possiblity.” The connection I think is that both deny all goods that transcend the human will and so make “what I want” the same as “what is good.”

Liberals add to that basic common principle the principle of equality - since all wills are equally wills all wants are equally goods. Nazis point out that (1) the liberal principle of equality makes it impossible to resolve a conflict of wills except by obfuscation, and (2) man is a social animal, so the definition of the good must have at least a minimal social element. They solve those problems by identifying the good not with the individual will but with the will of a particular people, and then (to avoid metaphysics as much as possible) identifying the will of the people with the will of one particular man - in the case of the NSDAP regime, Adolf Hitler.

I think Matt pointed out that when out of power the Nazis argued for their position on the basis of equality. Seems likely, although I don’t know the actual facts. On the no-transcendent-standard assumption that Nazism and liberalism share any argument must be based on equality. If argument is allowed at all the conclusion must be that since everything’s its own standard, and everything’s equally itself, then everything equally comes up to whatever standard is applicable and so must be equally good.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 6, 2002 8:47 AM

Also, both liberalism and communism speak of a ‘new man’. For example, D’Souza’s reference to a ‘new way to be human’.

Nazism and fascism both sought a ‘renewal of man’ in the service to the mythology of a secular nation state.

For more discussion of this check out:

Posted by: John on June 6, 2002 11:54 AM

You can read the argument from equality directly in _Mein Kampf_, if you manage to work through all the incoherent raving. Hitler talks about how he started out as a friend of democracy and found dictatorship (and specifically the Hapsburgs) abhorrent, but that parlament and global jewish capitalism made a mockery of equality and made an oppressed people out of the Germans.

So it may or may not be true that Naziism is a form of liberalism — I tend to think that they are categorically the same at a basic level — but it is certainly true that Hitler was personally a disillusioned liberal.

Posted by: Matt on June 7, 2002 12:42 PM
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