How procedural liberalism leads to substantive liberalism

Is the post-’60s substantive liberalism a hijacking of the earlier procedural liberalism, or its logical evolution? Clearly there are fundamental differences between the two, yet at the same time there seems to be something within the earlier liberalism that led to the later liberalism, or, at the least, is unable to oppose the later liberalism once it has come into being.

Take the issue of blacks and civil rights. The earlier liberalism (L1) posits procedural individual equality—”equality before the law.” The later liberalism (L2) seeks substantive group equality—”equality as a result and as a fact.” Those are radically different things. However, as Stratton and Roberts show in The New Color Line, from the very beginning of the postwar civil rights movement its major leaders aimed at substantive equality of blacks with whites, and they saw L1 as a way of achieving that. But when L1 had taken blacks as far as it could take them (to legal equality, not to substantive equality), liberalism instantly switched to L2, as shown by LBJ’s redefinition of equality, quoted above, and by the fact that the enforcing agency created under the 1964 Civil Rights Act immediately began instituting group quotas. These things suggest that while there was a theoretical difference between L1 and L2, there was not much of a practical difference.

This was not just the result of cynical manipulation by civil rights leaders, but of a fundamental confusion within mainstream America itself. When America in the early to mid ’60s made racial equality its sacred ideal, it expressed that ideal in terms of “equality before the law,” because there actually had been a denial of equality before the law, and because such abstract, procedural equality was the only formulation that would be acceptable to most Americans. But the underlying hope was never for a mere abstract equality combined with a continuance of massive substantive inequality; the underlying hope was for real, racial equality—a practical merging of black and white into one citizenship, as in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. So, once it turned out that equality before the law was not actually making blacks equal (as Charles Murray recounts in the fascinating opening chapters of Losing Ground), what was America to do? It had already made racial equality its religion. By its own lights, it had no choice but to seek new ways to make blacks substantively equal. And thus we ended up with L2.

My point is that L1 and L2 are really two different stages within the same phenomenon, rather than entirely different phenomena. When neoconservatives harken back to the “dream” of M.L. King, they don’t understand that it really WAS a dream, that is, it never existed, there was never an America where there was perfect legal equality and shared common citizenship between blacks and whites, because the moment the Civil Rights laws were passed (the climax of L1), they were, as I’ve said, immediately transmogrified into L2 and group rights. Furthermore, since it was not just a dream of legal equality but of an assumed substantive equality as well, the “dream” as it’s still promoted today is not just false to any existing or historical reality, it is not even the dream that it claims to be.

The dream never existed in reality, and it cannot exist in reality. L1 assumes that you can have complete procedural equality and comity between different groups living in the same society. In fact, the very presence of large groups who are very different in terms of culture and civilizational abilities yet who all have formally equal status will tend to break down the common standards on which agreement as to procedural equality is based. That’s why the proponents of L1 always must assume the complete assimilability of minority groups to the majority culture. But if those groups in fact are not completely assimilable (e.g. most Muslims and blacks), then the system of procedural equality and individual rights will move inevitably toward a system of substantive equality and group rights. The regime of procedural equality, if it is possible at all, is possible only in a functionally homogeneous society.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 06, 2002 07:27 PM | Send


How do the neoconservatives fit into this scheme? They were members of L1 who refused to move on to L2, at least on civil rights issues. Even today Commentary and Weekly Standard will condemn affirmative action. But the neocons are making their peace with the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties to the extent that the BoBos partake of it.


Posted by: Wm. Wleklinski on June 6, 2002 7:50 PM

Yes, the neoconservatives still sincerely harken back to the dream of the earlier liberalism. They assume that if we could just return to an America imagined on an August afternoon in 1963, blacks and whites would once again walk together hand in hand in equal citizenship. But, as I said, that dream assumes a degree of substantive equality and cultural sameness between the races that doesn’t actually exist. So, even if we could somehow go back to that imagined 1963, “back to the future,” the yawning chasm between black and white would once again present itself and once again produce demands for state activism to narrow the gap, as well as endless searches for the “root cause” of the gap, which would once again end up being white racism. My point is that the neoconservatives’ belief in procedural equality depends upon an assumed substantive equality which doesn’t actually exist, and therefore the dream of the earlier liberalism can never exist. The only answer is to give up or substantially modify the belief in equality as it has come down to us from postwar and 1960s liberalism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 6, 2002 8:58 PM

Don’t forget the original liberalism. This was the right of the bourgeoisie to live free against absolute monarchy on one side and wealth redistribution on the other.

This was the old right of protestant shopkeepers, planters and settlers that transformed England, Holland and the New World. This was the world destroyed by Lincoln in the South and by FDR in the North. Yet it survives today as the Middle American subconscious.

Pich random conservatives off the street. What do they want? Law and order, low taxes, less welfare, family values, less red tape, gun rights, closed borders, no quotas, private schooling, support for small businesses and basic sexual morality.

Yet these issues are systematically ignored by the conservative media, which has strained gnats while swallowing camels since the 1950s. Neocons are obsessed with foreign policy, free trade, technocracy, Beltway trivia, open borders and assorted things that put the heartland to sleep.

I think it is high time that America rediscovered its inner Whig. We need a new Right that addresses the permanent things without the baggage left by Bill Buckley and Bill Kristol.

Posted by: Jim Custer on June 6, 2002 10:15 PM

I like your list of things that regular conservatives want, but I’m not sure what you add to the discussion by calling those things Whig rather than conservative. The problem with the Whig view, as traditionalists have discussed over and over, is that it makes the liberal, abstract, commercial ideas explicit while leaving the conservative, substantive, and transcendent values at best implicit. That is why we need not just to go back to the Founders or the Whigs, but to go back and get right the things that they got wrong.

Also, we should note that some conservative thinkers and writers of the past have viewed the Whigs pretty much as we view modern liberals, neocons, utilitarians and globalists. Here for example are Yeats’s wonderful lines from “The Seven Sages”:

The Sixth Sage: … but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye.
The Seventh Sage: All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 6, 2002 10:43 PM

Mr. Auster: Don’t read too much into the word “Whig.” One point I was making is that there are serious differences between grassroots Middle Americans and the neocons who claim to speak for them.

While some neos (e.g., the elder Kristols) seem to appreciate the world beyond Manhattan and the Beltway, the rest act like they hate it as much as the liberals. In fact, they often try to stifle or ignore conservative leaders who rise up outside their ranks.

Posted by: Jim Carver on June 7, 2002 1:21 AM

One reason there is a split between grassroots and intellectual conservatism of any sort today is that in America in 2002 it’s very difficult to make whiggery coherent. Whiggery is mostly the well-managed abolition of the transcendent. As such it wants freedom, order, prosperity, decency and progress as ultimate goals that don’t refer to anything beyond themselves. That can’t work though because those things don’t define themselves. Whiggery’s possible for a while as long as residual Christian habits continue to suggest e.g. the difference between legitimate freedom and license. The Clinton presidency demonstrates however that that time has passed.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 7, 2002 9:01 AM
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