Why are people attracted to liberalism?

Jeff in England writes:

Please answer one question even if I have asked it many times before and whether you feel you have answered it before…. Many many people choose liberalism as their primary framework and I would like an answer to the question of why that is…. I simply want to know why, if liberalism is/has been so flawed (and I am not arguing it isn’t/wasn’t), people have chosen to live under it, whether it be traditional liberalism or modern liberalism. Why are people attracted to liberalism?. What has it and does it offer them?

LA replies:

I think I’ve discussed this many times, but I’ll try it again.

“Liberalism” has meant many things over the last 300 years and has provided significant benefits to the human race. Though the three main stages of liberalism are distinct from each other, what they have in common is the belief that the purpose of society is the advance of freedom, equality, and human happiness. Despite the fact that I discuss them separately, the three stages also overlap and co-exist with each other.

Classical liberalism (American-style)

“All men are created equal” really meant no one is born to a different order, above other men, as in monarchy and aristocracy. Liberalism meant the removal of traditional or arbitrary distinctions that were imposed on people. Liberalism meant the removal of social obstacles enabling each man to have, as Lincoln put it, “an equal chance to run the race of life.” Liberalism meant restraints on the power of the state. Liberalism meant a government of laws, not of men. It meant the self-government of a people, through their constitution and system of laws.

Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society liberalism

Liberalism then came to mean the use of government to prevent the economically powerful from having too much power, and to improve and raise up people’s condition and (in its Great Society phase) to make them equal. Instead of meaning restraints on government (because unrestrained government had earlier been seen as the main threat to liberty), liberalism now meant the indefinite expansion of government to expand the provision of concrete social goods, ranging from Social Security to hydroelectric dams to art and music to organizations devoted to every kind of supposed social improvement. If you want to be astounded, get a copy of the United States Budget and see the number and types of things that the U.S. government funds.

Modern (post World War II, post Sixties) liberalism

Liberalism then came to mean that there is nothing outside or above the human self, that any higher or collective social reality (or even natural reality, such as sex distinctions) is an oppression. It came to mean that nations, religions, families are not legitimate because they impose a collective order on individual selves. It came to mean that the only legitimate order is a global world consisting of radically free persons, as in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It came to mean that truth itself is an oppression because if there is truth then the person is not absolutely free to do as he likes. It came to mean the elimination of self-government, because a people acting through its majority will still be exercising power over minorities and individuals. Therefore it came to mean unelected unaccountable elites enforcing the individual rights of the whole of humanity—the EU model, embodied in such laws as Britain’s Sexual Orientation Regulations.

People have gained real values from each of these three stages of liberalism. There’s no secret why people like liberalism. But now in its final stage, liberalism has plainly turned destructive of the very possibility of social order and of a continuing culture. Yet people are still so committed to liberalism, because of the benefits it has brought and is still bringing, that they have no ability to think outside liberal assumptions. And this produces paralyzing cognitive disjunction. Take the Islam question. Someone like Newt Gingrich sees the threat of fundamentalist Islam and speaks in extremely bellicose terms about waging war on it, yet at the same time he is still so completely ensconced in modern liberal assumptions about a single borderless global world consisting of radically free individuals that he cannot even imagine ceasing to admit more Muslims to the United States. He’s in a spectacular contradiction that he is not aware of, because, the liberal framework being the only one he knows, he is incapable of seeing it let alone criticizing it. So, he perceives the Muslim threat, and he imagines that he is taking a very serious stand against it, but in reality his liberal framework makes it impossible for him to take a serious stand against Islam and it also makes it impossible for him to see how laughably inadequate and contradictory his response to the Islam threat really is.

So, liberalism has formed much of the modern world and is associated with all kinds of goods, but has now been carried to an extreme that is destructive of civilization itself. But because people still have such a positive image of liberalism, they are unable to see the destruction that the liberalism is actually wreaking or to imagine a social order that goes beyond liberalism, or at least beyond modern liberalism, which is what liberalism has become.

- end of initial entry -

Complementing the above discussion, Simon N. writes from England:

A UK Conservative party think tank has just released a security report on “uniting the community.” On my reading it seeks to reject cultural Marxism/left liberalism, while also rejecting conservatism, and seeking to adhere to classical liberalism, thus keeping the door open to cultural-Marxist values: “Integration is a two way street” - i.e. we must change our way of life to conciliate hostile immigrants.

LA replies:

It actually says, “Integration is a two-way street”? Amazing. Proof that liberalism is incompatible with the continued existence of any particular society.

Jeff writes in reply to my earlier reply:

I thought “we” were going back to the time of the emergence of Judaism which has much classical liberalism contained within it. Followed by the emergence of Christianity which also has many classical liberal aspects within it. However, I’ll put that aside for the moment. [LA replies: Good, because, though the Hebrew Bible obviously has proto-liberal elements, such as the humane treatment commanded in Exodus even toward slaves, it would be wrong to use the word “liberalism” in the context of the Bible.]

First I will say that I do see many of the severe flaws of liberalism, in particular what you call “modern” liberalism. They are severe and dangerous to mankind, particularly Western society.

You say (and I agree) that there were benefits of “classical” liberalism for the human race and infer that is the case for Western society. And you then say that people have gained real from all three stages of liberalism though you are unclear what they have gained from progressive and modern liberalism. So it seems logical that whatever system/way of being you (and VFR) suggest Western people adopt (leave aside the problems of ethnic immigration for the moment) should include a reasonable dose of liberalism, (the “good” parts only).

Now, you may reply to that by saying that you don’t advocate liberalism because when it is implemented it cannot disassociate itself from its flaws (which I won’t list but are fairly obvious). So I ask you if it is possible to separate the flaws of liberalism (classical or modern) from its good points? If not, why not?

Why not recommend a system which includes the best parts of traditional conservatism (and maybe the best parts of some other types of conservatism) plus the best parts of liberalism? In addition people seem to want a degree of liberalism in Western society…. it is generally popular. Why deny people the best parts of liberalism?

As far as I can see, you have a website that is advocating traditional conservatism. But not only do you admit that liberalism is popular, you also admit it (particularly the “classical” variety, has many good points and gains for people. Why not then have a website that advocates traditional conservatism plus the best aspects of classical liberalism plus certain good aspects of modern liberalism (if you feel there is any)?

The two answers I can see you giving are:

1)That traditional conservatism includes the best aspects of liberalism

2)That though liberalism has certain good points, its flaws are too severe to recommend it as a system and that the so called good points cannot be separated from the flaws.

LA replies:

I think I have addressed this question so many times, but Jeff will never accept yes for an answer. So maybe I have not been clear enough.

I’ll try to boil this down to its essentials. The older or classical liberalism was not just defined differently from modern liberalism, i.e., as the belief in certain basic human rights rather than the belief in non-discrimination, but it was also different from modern liberalism in that it was contained within and limited by a particular culture. The older liberalism was a feature of the society rather than the society’s exclusive and ruling principle. But to the extent that the older liberalism becomes the exclusive and ruling principle of the society, then (1) the older liberalism tends to evolve into modern liberalism, i.e., the liberalism of non-discrimination; and (2) this non-discrimination will be the ruling principle of the society.

Schematically, then, there are four possibilities:

1. Older liberalism as a feature of its society.

2. Older liberalism as the ruling principle of its society.

3. Modern liberalism as a feature of its society.

4. Modern liberalism as the ruling principle of its society.

The latter three possibilities are all destructive. The only acceptable form of liberalism is the first, namely, the older liberalism as a feature of its society.

So, to answer Jeff’s question in Jeff’s terms: Traditional conservatism, or rather traditional American conservatism, by definition includes the best aspects of liberalism.

LA continues:

Extending the discussion further, I suppose we could divide modern liberalism into three stages:

1. Early modern liberalism (1945 to 1965);
2. Middle modern liberalism (1965 to 1990);
3. Late modern liberalism (1990 to present).

I’ll discuss these later.

Ken Hechtman writes:

The best conservative explanation of the liberal mind I’ve ever seen is Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed. Key quotes available here.

Jeff wants to know what’s the psychological pay-off of liberalism, what do liberals get out of being liberals on those occasions where our policies themselves were failures.

It’s this: We get to be the Anointed. We get to believe we’re not only smarter than everyone else, we’re also better people, more generous, more compassionate, etc. We get to believe our opponents are the Benighted, the forces of medieval superstition.

LA replies:

Is that your reason for being a liberal?

Ken Hechtman replies:

It’s not my only one, but it’s there.

As liberals go, I care more than most about what empirically works and what doesn’t. I’ll argue for dropping something that doesn’t work faster than most even if its goal is noble. But yeah, the idea that overall I work for the good guys means something to me. It ain’t the big bucks they pay me, I can tell you that much. The idea that our overall guiding principle is “We’re all in this together” and not “Screw you Jack, I’ve got mine” means something to me.

LA replies:

You are mixing up two very different things.

First you said:

“We get to believe we’re not only smarter than everyone else, we’re also better people, more generous, more compassionate, etc.”

Then you said:

“[T]he idea that overall I work for the good guys means something to me…. The idea that our overall guiding principle is ‘We’re all in this together’ … means something to me.”

Do you see the difference? The first is about “us,” how good WE are, our wonderfulness and virtue. The second is about believing in something because it’s the right thing.

Ken Hechtman replies:

Not at all. That’s the source of our wonderfulness and virtue—that we’re smart enough to know what’s the right thing for everyone and generous and compassionate enough to do it even if it goes against our own personal interests.

Tom S. writes:

Mr. Hechtman is surely too intelligent to believe that the guiding principle of conservatism is “screw you, I’ve got mine,” or that conservatives are simply “selfish.” As for self-interest, most of us conservatives could actually get ahead by professing moderate liberal beliefs, while a lot of liberals like Ted Kennedy behave in a far more self-centered way than do most conservatives. We conservatives also believe that we are doing the right thing, if in a less sanctimonious way than leftists. This should be obvious.

LA replies:

You’re right, I was remiss in not pointing that out to him. But that is the way people on the left uniformly view conservatives, is it not? How often does a liberal opinion organ or spokesman acknowledge that conservatives believe in the good, and are not acting out of base motives? However, it’s really far worse than what I just said. In the Web today, the typical stuff you see by liberals about conservatives is unbelievably rancourous, hate-filled, profane, and mindless. Compared to all that, Mr. Hechtman’s passing cut at conservatives seems positively gentlemanly, sort of the way James Bond’s bedding of women had by the late 1970s come to seem almost Victorian compared to the depraved sexual liberationism that had taken over much of the culture by that point.

Tom S. continues:

Mr. Hechtman wrote that leftists are “smart enough to know what’s the right thing for everyone.”

Might I suggest that this lack of any sort of intellectual humility is the true dividing line between liberals and conservatives, rather than any difference in “compassion”? We don’t think that we have all the answers, whereas liberals do, which is pretty funny, seeing how the “answers” have changed in the last 50-60 years. Once again, I’d wager that Mr. Hechtman is actually too smart to believe this, so his liberalism remains a mystery …

Mr. Hechtman continues:

If you’d asked me the question five or six years ago, before I was invited onto an e-mail list with conservatives, before I started getting into debates on VFR, before I had any direct personal knowledge of what conservatives had to say for themselves, I’d have said the same thing. I’d have said conservatives are the way they are because there are things they don’t know. If they only knew what we knew, they’d want what we want. Now I believe it’s not that simple.

M. Mason writes:

Mr Hechtman writes:

“I’d have said conservatives are the way they are because there are things they don’t know. If they only knew what we knew, they’d want what we want. Now I believe it’s not that simple.”

Well, such an attitude at least represents some progress, glacially slow as it is. But I would say in response to his other comments above that Mr.Hechtman’s left-liberalism appears to be tempered somewhat by a more pragmatic turn of mind which no doubt provides a convenient dodge for him at times when he wants to evade the truth about actual reality. How can a person who apparently fancies himself as one of those who is “smarter than everyone else” just blithely rationalize away and dismiss the horrendous catastrophes that “the Annointed” have left behind as merely projects that “[didn’t] work” without some honest intellectual questioning as to why their imagined panaceas failed? Why does he also refuse to recognize and admit that such failed utopian schemes have caused more sheer human suffering than all the injustices they have ever challenged? Someone who is truly intellectually honest would have done that and unflinchingly faced the real truth about it, making the necessary ideological course corrections along the way.

He has certainly read enough and seen enough to know this, but for too many other modern “progressive” leftists I’ve encountered over the years none of that matters, you see. They just continue to prattle on, constructing elaborate, absurd fantasies of being superior moral and intellectual specimens based solely on their “good intentions.” It’s all nothing but self-glorifying, empty “big talk” that makes them feel as though they’re “better, smarter, more generous, more compassionate, etc.” than the “benighted forces of medieval superstition” without actually having to prove it. That’s the psychological core of this pathology and where the emotional gratification come from.

One is simply forced to conclude that for people like this, maintaining the self-satisfying narcissistic conceit that they’re among “the Annointed” who imagine that they “know” certain Very Important Things that others don’t know, trumps intellectual honesty, trumps objective truth and even trumps rationality itself. I’ve read Mr. Hechtman’s posts three times and the half-ironic tone of them is a little confusing. Is that really how he sees himself? Since he must surely know by now that every time he comes to VFR with that sort of pretentious drivel he’s going to get it quickly thrown back in his face by people here who know better, it’s fair to ask him at this point: what was the “psychological payoff” he thought he was going to get by doing so?

LA replies:

I don’t with to pile on Mr. Hechtman, but M. Mason has asked a reasonable question. Since, as Mr. H. himself has acknowledged to me in the past, Marxism with a big M failed catastrophically, and all that’s left of leftism is lots of little M’s so to speak, and since those little M’s are also ruining society, whence comes his confidence in the left’s superior wisdom and goodness? For example, he just admitted at VFR the other day that Newsweek’s report of the multigenerational non-assimilation of Muslims in America persuades him for the first time that Muslim immigration may be a big mistake, something he said he could not accept so long as conservatives like me were saying it, but when Newsweek says it, then it must be true. Consider the hideous problem we have if Muslims with their sharia do not assimilate, that’s a rather catastrophic error for the left to have made, isn’t it? Yet two days after admitting that he and his fellow leftists may have been dead wrong on the most fateful issue of our time, he comes on VFR telling us of his confidence in the left’s superior knowledge, wisdom, and virtue.

So that’s a question Ken Hechtman ought to answer clearly and not evade.

And while I’m at it, let me put the question another way: Is there anything positive and true about leftism that Mr. Hechtman believes in, or is his support for leftism really just his way of resisting conservatism and particularly the conservative belief in an objective moral truth, which, as he has said, he considers a threat to human freedom? In other words, he doesn’t believe in leftism, but he dislikes conservatism more?

LA continues:

Also, given Mr. H.’s agreement with the statement that Muslims are not assimilating and will not assimilate in the future, does that affect his recent comment at VFR that he sees Muslim polygamy as a good thing for Canada? And does it affect his support for Muslim immigration? Remember, his explanation for supporting Muslim immigration was that, while he did not expect the immigrant generation and the first generaton to assimilate, he had expected that later generations would assimilate, and so all would work out, but if the later generations don’t assimilate either, then we have a problem.

Ben W. writes:

Jeff: Many many people choose liberalism as their primary framework.

Liberalism is the default prevailing ideology. I’m not sure people today “choose” it so much as they pass into it by osmosis.

Jeff: If liberalism is/has been so flawed (and I am not arguing it isn’t/wasn’t), people have chosen to live under it.

Once again it may not be a matter of choice. How many people today examine their philosophical and social presuppositions? Children “grow into” the liberal ethos through education, the media, etc.

Jeff: Why are people attracted to liberalism?

Are they “attracted” to it? I’m not sure Europeans can think outside their framework any longer. Liberalism is a given the day one is born. It’s in the air and in the bloodstream.

Jeff: What has it and does it offer them?

One may have to compare that which liberalism reacts against—what came previously. Was the previous framework deficient? The strength of liberalism may be in the fact that there is no going back to that which preceded it.

For example, are there deficiencies in Christian theology, that when Christianity is the paradigm that informs social relations and political structures, cause problems that liberalism attempts to remedy? It is possible that the remedies liberalism applies to these shortcomings causes problems in turn. One set of flaws is replaced by another set of flaws…

Ken Hechtman writes:

LA wrote:

“Also, given Mr. H.’s agreement with the statement that Muslims are not assimilating and will not assimilate in the future, does that affect his recent comment at VFR that he sees Muslim polygamy as a good thing for Canada? And does it affect his support for Muslim immigration? Remember, his explanation for supporting Muslim immigration was that, while he did not expect the immigrant generation and the first generaton to assimilate, he had expected that later generations would assimilate, and so all would work out, but if the later generations don’t assimilate either, then we have a problem.”

On the subject of assimilating Muslims, there are a few things in our bag of tricks that have worked well where I live in Quebec but haven’t been tried recently in America. I’d start with public education and public housing. The same public education system that turned my grandfather from a shtetl Jew into an American 80 years ago could do the same thing for the second generation of Muslim immigrants if we force them into it. If we let them go to Saudi-funded mosque schools, it’s our own lookout. It’s also our own lookout if we dump every wave of Shia Muslim immigrants into Dearborn because “that’s where those people live.” We should use the subsidized public housing system to have Iraqis living next door to Haitians and Mexicans and Cambodians and all the rest all across the country. If nothing else, when they need to talk to each other they’ll do it in English.

This is the thing that some liberals have forgotten. Assimilation isn’t an easy or painless process. We need to subject immigrants to it anyway. The first generation will scream blue murder. Their grandchildren will thank us, the same way I give thanks that I’m not a shtetl Jew just because my great-grandfather was.

As far as the rest of it goes, somebody (Jeff from England) asked a question I happened to know the answer to—Why does liberalism appeal to people. So I gave the general-case answer. Then you asked if I personally bought into that. And I said “Yeah, kind of, a bit, it’s not my main motivation but I’m not 100 percent immune to it either … ” That was it. Nothing more. I’m a guest in your house. I try to remember that. I don’t come here to rub anybody’s nose in my supposed mental, moral, physical or genetic superiority. I come here to dispel my own illusions about what conservatives want and why they want it. Along the way, if someone asks a question I know the answer to, I won’t be able to resist throwing it out. That’s just the way I am. So is the half-ironic thing. I use it to say “I take what I do seriously but I don’t take myself seriously.”

M. Mason wants to know if I’ve reflected on the reasons for the left’s failures. All I’ll say is yes, I have. More than most people I know. Hopefully he understands why I haven’t shared those thoughts on VFR. Surely he understands why I haven’t shared them before I’ve come to a solid conclusion myself.

LA replies:

Just on the assimilation question, there is no comparison between the public schooling of 80 years ago that turned children of European immigrants into Americans, and the vast social engineering efforts Mr. H. is suggesting as the way to assimilate Muslims. If it’s that difficult to assimilate them, doesn’t that suggest that we shouldn’t be letting them in to start with?

Hannon writes:

I think some folks find liberalism appealing and adopt it as their own ideology simply because it fills a vacuum. With the falling away of religion and tradition having eroded and broken many families within the past several generations (along with other causes), a natural void has been taken up by user-friendly liberalism, not exactly by default but as the more facile of two competing major ideologies.

Conservatism in any form appears relatively inflexible and anachronistic, especially to younger people. Conservatism mainly holds back: it does not support the promise of multiculturalism, it does not necessarily endorse any “right” that amounts to a government dole, it seeks restraint in immigration. Perhaps even more vexing to the liberal mindset, conservatism also demands a few things like the decent and responsible participation of citizens in society, recognition of and loyalty to our national sovereignty and the Constitution, and genuine tolerance of the habits and customs of natural groupings of people. By contrast liberalism essentially does not hold back on or demand anything, except that conservative idealism be curbed. How could it not be appealing?

What consistently amazes me is that with such rampant success, like cattails in a roadside ditch, how liberalism and liberals have managed to develop and sustain the truly impressive levels of vituperativeness and spitefulness we know them for today. Conservatives may be at times angry (a creative force) but liberals more often exhibit contempt (a destructive force in the extreme) in their review of the opposition. Interestingly, the former seem more inclined to ardent ideological debate whereas liberals, since they are vastly superior and so have no position to cede, seldom feel the need to engage in this way. Are such traits an outgrowth of the attractiveness of liberalism or are they endemic in those who are predisposed to begin with?

Mark P. writes:

Whatever benefits liberalism may have, for those born into a liberal system, liberalism is mainly a form of status-seeking among whites. Ken Hechtman pretty much admits this if being members of the “Anointed” is a component of his liberalism.

This would not be so bad, except liberals simply do not practice what they preach. The degree of liberalism increases with the means to socially isolate oneself from the consequences of liberalism. Thus, the more wealthy a person is, the more likely he is to be a liberal, since he has the means to make sure that liberalism never enters how he arranges his personal life. For example, ask any liberal what his zip code is, or the zip code in which he grew up, and you will find and upper class neighborhood with a demographic profile out of the 1950’s. Some of the most ardent liberals I’ve talked to live in places like Palo Alto, CA and Amsterdam, NY.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 02, 2007 06:22 AM | Send

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