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The death of liberalism has been hailed or feared for well over a century now. In the United States, the tribal collectivists of identity politics and critical race theory insist that America has never been about freedom. It has always been a racist society born with the institution of slavery. The idea of liberal individualism is a ruse to hide the oppression and exploitation of women and “people of color” by capitalist white males.
Among conservatives, liberalism is rejected for not fostering a proper moral sense in people and creating a group loyalty of something outside of and better than “merely” the autonomy of the narrowly self-interested individual, both inside and outside of the marketplace. The role of a properly led political order is to inculcate and instill such views and values in the American citizenry. A renewed sense of national identity and purpose is necessary to save the “soul” of America.
Both on “the left” and among conservatives, there is an intolerance and vehement dislike for many, if not all, forms of intellectual and cultural diversity (the latter having nothing to do with the scam notions of “diversity” among the “politically correct”). There is a deep desire among both these political groups for a far greater homogenization of humanity in thought, deed, and societal identity.
“Progressives” and conservatives want to plan your life
This is reflected in their respective willingness to turn to those in political power to use the coercive authority of government to impose their dogmas on the general population. Those on “the left,” in the name of “racial and gender justice” and saving the world from “climate change,” wish to use the government to control, regulate, and plan the economic and social activities of everyone in society. Their ideal is the centrally planned economy under which “right-thinking” people in government (that is, people like ‘them”) would determine and dictate the wages we could earn and the prices we might pay, the types of employment and workplace environments we would be required to accept, and the variety of goods and services and the means of production to provide them.
Our use of words is to be circumscribed to fit their ideological lexicon of race and gender. But if someone is looking for a revised dictionary of clearly defined new terms and meanings that can serve as a “safe space” to assure one does not offend any in society, they will not find it. Male and female and all imaginable things in-between are now amorphous concepts that have no linguistically certain meanings. What else are we to think when a president of the United States says that his selection for a new appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court had to be a “black woman,” but when that nominee was asked during the Senate confirmation hearings if she could define a “woman,” she declined, saying that she was not a biologist. So, a “black woman” accepts being nominated for the highest court of the land, but she cannot explain what makes her eligible for that appointment under the declared criteria.
Among a good number of conservatives, the continuing desire is to control, regulate, or prohibit the personal and interactive choices and decisions of their fellow Americans and many others around the world. Most conservatives are still determined to ban or severely restrain a wide variety of actions among “consenting adults.” For well over a century, now, the U.S. government has been fighting a “war on drugs.” The idea that individuals should be at liberty to peacefully ingest whatever substances they choose without interference of others, while, of course, being legally liable for any rights-violating actions on their part while under the influence of such substances, is unacceptable to those who want to force others to be morally “good people.”
Many conservatives want to restrict what we might read or watch, the social media forms and content we choose to use, or the “life styles” some might wish to follow. In other words, they want to impose a good number of things on others in society, with simply a different content and purpose than those on “the left.”
The idea of just leaving people alone, as long as they are peaceful and honest in whatever they freely choose to do on their own or in voluntary association with others is just unacceptable to those determined to mold society in their preferred image. That is why so many on “the left” and among conservatives reject and condemn “liberalism.”
The importance of principled liberalism
But what is liberalism? We can get both clarity and confusion from a little book published in 1919 called Is Liberalism Dead? by Elliot Dodds. It is indicative of the trends in liberal thinking over the last 100 years or more. Many people thought that in the wake of the First World War and the vast government controls and regulations that had accompanied the conflict, much of the personal and economic liberty of the prewar period would now be gone, a thing of the past, in the face of war-created paternalistic and planned economies.
The book contained a preface by Charles F. G. Masterson (1873–1927), a relatively well-known British liberal politician of the time who served nearly 10 years as a member of Parliament. He forthrightly declared:
Only by the Liberal outlook and the Liberal spirit can the world be saved…. Liberalism can never die unless the world is to turn back its history of progress in emancipation, and man’s soul to abase itself before new tyrannies as ruthless as the old. The death of Liberalism would mean the suicide of the hope for man…. Liberalism … finds Socialism and Conservatism — both upholding the principle of Authority, and both careless of individual Freedom — in many respects more allied to each other than each allied to itself.
The author, Elliot Dodds (1889–1977), was a journalist who was active in liberal political causes for a good part of his life. He tells the reader that, “Its purpose is to rediscover the fundamental principles of the Liberal faith and to restate them in the terms of modern needs.” He insists, however, that, “Policies may change but principles remain.” Too many in politics have “thought too much in terms of expediency and too little in terms of principles….Playing for safety never yet won a vote, and (more important) playing for safety never yet established a principle.” His primary justification for writing the book was, “I claim only the enthusiasm of one who has been born and bred a Liberal, and believes that in Liberal principles lies the best hope for the peaceful and orderly development” of modern society.
In a series of chapters, Dodds summarizes the history and ideas of liberalism. Fundamental to the British political experience was the “insistence on law against prerogative … the attempt to curb the law-making power of an irresponsible and autocratic monarch.” As part of this centuries-long fight for freedom was John Milton’s “magnificent appeal for freedom of thought, of speech, of press … and his political tracts may be taken as the textbooks of modern Liberalism.”
Natural rights as the idea underlying individual liberty
Equal to this was John Locke’s “all important thesis of government by consent” the goal of which was “the realization of individual liberty within the commonwealth.” Dodds said that John Locke and others following him introduced the concept of rights: “The high explosive which destroyed the old order was, philosophically, the doctrine of ‘Natural Rights’.” Quoting from the original French declaration of the Rights of Man, Dodds says, “the end of every political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man, which rights being the rights to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” Added Dodds:
The first object of [liberal] reformers became the limitation on the functions of government to their minimum, and the extension to every citizen of the fullest opportunity to exercise the ‘rights’ of which he had been deprived…. The limit which was set upon the exercise of “Natural Rights” is that no man, by his free action, shall impair the rights of another. Beyond that, let us have done with government: the individual is supreme.
Not too surprisingly, in his brief overview of the history of liberal ideas and policies, Dodds devotes a chapter to the “Manchester School,” the British proponents of freedom of trade at home and abroad that was led by the likes of Richard Cobden and John Bright. They campaigned for and helped bring about the unilateral end to, especially, agricultural protectionism in the mid-1840s. Behind the fight for free markets, Dodds explains, was a particular philosophy of man and society:
“Enlightened self-interest” was the guiding star of its philosophy….This attitude was based on a legitimate and necessary respect for individual liberty. Its object was the freedom of each citizen to work out his or her own salvation…. It’s ideal was that of “self-help,” and its purpose was to encourage individual initiative and enterprise.
Up to this point in his narrative and analysis, Dodds laid out a fairly clear and readable case for the classical-liberal ideal of a society of free individuals, secure in their respective rights to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, with human relationships based on mutually advantageous voluntary associations and exchange both inside and outside of the marketplace. The role of government in a classical-liberal social order, therefore, is limited to the narrow, though essential, duty and responsibility for the legal recognition and securing of such individual’s liberty and interpersonal freedom from the use of force or fraud by others in society.
The “new” liberalism of state compulsion for “right living”
But after this, Dodds’ exposition demonstrates the tragic and dangerous turn that too many of those who continued to declare their loyalty and devotion to the ideals of liberalism made in the twentieth century. He now informs the reader that for all of the important, even “majestic,” work that the older liberals had undertaken with great success to free the individual from the oppressions and abuses of arbitrary governments in the past, this was not enough. Following the lead of nineteenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882), especially in his posthumously published Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1885), it is not enough to be free from the threat or use of force and fraud by others if each is to be “truly free.”
He quotes Green saying, “True rights are powers which it is for the general well-being that the individual (or association) should possess, and that well-being is essentially a moral well-being,” which meant that true “rights” mean “a positive power of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying.” In Green’s view, it is not enough for the state to protect each individual’s “negative” rights from the aggressions of others. Freedom means having a sense of a purpose beyond and outside of yourself in the form of a moral obligation and commitment to the greater society in which an individual lives and within which he is permitted degrees of personal liberty. Educating members for a good society means ensuring that they have an awareness of a wider “common good” and that their “rights” depend upon such a shared allegiance to a “common good.”
Green, therefore, advocates government-provided compulsory schooling given that parents or other societal associations fail to inculcate the proper sense of a common good in the young. When first imposed, the generation forced to send their children to government schools may consider it an infringement on their liberty to educate their offspring as they think best, but Green was confident that by the next generation, it would be taken for granted and not even viewed as an inappropriate abridgment of liberty. Or as Green put it, “in the second generation, though the law with its penal sanctions still continues, it is not felt as a law, as an enforcement of action by penalties, at all.” Over time, in other words, a loss of liberty is no longer seen as a loss of liberty even though it remains so.
In the same way, Green’s conception of real freedom requires the government to restrict urban life to the forms determined and defined as ensuring health and proper types of living, including limiting how many people may be employed and clustered in particular industries in various geographical locations.
From natural rights to social conventions as a basis of liberty
On what basis might a government interfere in such ways with the free choices of individuals and the uses they make of the property they may own, and the associations into which they may enter with others? Green rejects Locke’s notion of property as a “natural right” as the basis of which people enter into a “social contract” for mutual protection of their life, liberty and property. Instead, Green argues that rights, including rights to property, are social conventions that have arisen historically. This includes the right to our own life, “since the right to free life rests on the common will of the society.” Thus, what property you may own and its use is equally a matter of consensus and custom.
Green further argues that in modern society, land and material wealth have been appropriated and concentrated in a few hands compared to the many who lack such means. This created a situation in which many do not possess the material means without which “in fact they have not the chance of providing means for a free moral life.” Worse, “A man who possesses nothing but his powers of labor and who has to sell these to a capitalist for bare daily maintenance, might as well, in respect of the ethical purposes which possession of property should serve, be denied rights of property altogether.”
In a “Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1880), Green endorsed the state’s takeover of schooling and education from parents; supported restrictions on child labor and the employment of women in various occupations and work hours; and hailed regulatory controls on housing and workplace conditions. More generally, Green declared:
When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellowmen, and which he in turn helps to secure for them….
When we measure the progress of a society by its growth in freedom … the mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes is in itself no contribution to true freedom…. We rightly refuse to recognize the highest development on the part of an exceptional individual or exceptional class, as an advance toward the true freedom of man, if it is founded on a refusal of the same opportunity to other men….
The institution of property being only justified as a means to the free exercise of the social capabilities of all, there can be no true right to property of a kind which debars one class of men from some such free exercise.
Liberalism converted into compulsory paternalism for a common good
Not surprisingly, since Green considered the role of the state to assure a “common good” of “moral” men, “There is no right of freedom in the purchase or sale of a particular commodity, if the general result of allowing such freedom is to detract from freedom in the higher sense, from the general power of men to make the best of themselves.” Thus, Green had no hesitation to support governmental means to oppose drunkenness. “We know that, however decently carried on, the excessive drinking of one man means an injury to others in health, purse and capability to which no limits can be placed….Here, then, is a wide-spread social evil, of which society may, if it will, by restraining law, to a great extent, rid itself, to the infinite enhancement of the positive freedom enjoyed by its members.” As for waiting for voluntary efforts to work on people to learn to live better lives, Green had no patience. “We reply,” he said, “that it is dangerous to wait.” The state had to act as the agent for “everyone,” in the here and now, to make each of us better persons in all that we do or do not do.
Though little talked about today, Thomas Hill Green, who taught philosophy at Oxford University, was an important intellectual force in the late nineteenth century for moving liberalism away from its classical basis in strictly restrained government for the securing and protecting of individual rights and liberty to, instead, a “new liberalism” that increasingly advocated “positive” rights of guaranteed conditions of life beyond protection from the violent acts of others. So, when presenting a case for “liberalism” in the post–World War I era, Elliot Dodds adopted all of Green’s presumptions, saying:
The Liberal State must provide for all its members the opportunity for a humane and useful life. It must secure to them such a minimum as shall prevent them from falling beneath the level of subsistence, and must protect from the fluctuations of trade. It must offer to all a career ‘open to the talents’…. In ‘the removal of encumbrances,’ it must include … the provision of conditions conducive to a healthy and moral existence.
This “new” liberalism was and is, in fact, a false liberalism. How are some in society to be assured an access to what others have unless those who have that greater material means at their disposal are compelled to “share” it through forced redistribution of wealth? And who decides, in the name of the “common good,” how much some are to be taxed and how much others are to receive to bring about the minimally needed capacity for a “moral” existence as defined by those like Green?
What is the meaning of personal liberty and property rights, if it is now claimed that all such notions are merely arbitrary outcomes of customs and traditions that are the result of the accidents of history in different times and places? And that may fundamentally change in changing circumstances? Government regulations and controls over the marketplace become based upon what seems “fair” and ethically “right” at particular times. But are we not, then, back to the imposing and arbitrary government against which the older, classical liberalism had so long fought? This is no longer the liberalism of John Locke or Adam Smith or the economic liberty of the Manchester School advocates of freedom of enterprise and trade.
Modern American liberalism the wrong type of paternalism
Let us return to where we started from. This modern American liberalism is, in reality, a blend of the socialist critique of “capitalist” society and the conservative insistence on the moral molding of all those in society into good citizens. The “progressive” and “politically correct” in American society reject this twentieth-century “liberalism” because it is not radically “leftist” enough, that is, it does not do away with enough of the remaining remnants of the older liberalism in that it still does not redistribute and regulate and centrally plan the society enough, particularly in the face of just how “racist” and “sexist” it has now been discovered America has always been.
A variety of conservatives reject modern American liberalism because they disagree with the morality (or “immorality”) it cultivates and fosters in schools and society at large. They want less of condom-use training and gender reassignment prodding in grammar schools, and, instead, more pledges of allegiances to the flag and more emphasis on sexual abstinence, along with inculcating a need for individual sacrifice for a higher “national purpose.”
In other words, “the left” and these conservatives reject modern American liberalism not because they disagree with the means chosen — the use of governmental power to control, regulate, redistribute, and indoctrinate — but because they object, respectively, for what ends compulsory and coercive means are to be applied. With moral arrogance and lustful desire for power, they all want to remake people and society into the image they want, respectively, to see created. What is wrong with the American liberalism of the last 100 years or so is that it is the wrong kind and intensity of paternalism in the eyes of those more radically on “the left” or more “traditionalist” among conservatives.
Classical liberalism the rejected alternative by all
Lost is all this is that older, classical liberalism, which all of them (“leftists,” conservatives, and “new” liberals) reject from their own ideological perspectives. The older, classical liberalism said that each human being should be recognized and respected in his personal liberty so he could plan and direct his own life as he saw fit, guided by his own ideas of the good and happy life — even if others did not share or always approve of the path he had chosen for himself. The older liberalism insisted that there was no moral good outside of or greater than the individual’s good. All that was expected from each person was his respect for the equal rights of others to freely go about their own peaceful and honest business.
That some were materially better off than others was not a secret to the older, classical liberals. Their defense of freedom and free enterprise was not only that it was morally right but that it has shown itself as the great engine for wealth creation and rising prosperity for an ever-increasing number of people, bringing about the end to poverty and want nearly everywhere around the world.
Furthermore, the classical liberals considered that charity and philanthropy were meritorious sentiments reflecting an appropriate benevolence toward others not as well-off as ourselves. But an ethics of liberty required the decision to offer helping hands to be left with free individuals, and that competition among voluntary charities was as important in finding the best ways of helping those less well-off as it is in the profit-oriented marketplace in the service of consumer demands.
There was an underlying humility in the older classical liberalism that assumed that each person could better find his own way than to presume that political paternalists could make better decisions for them. There was a tolerance for recognizing that there was no “right fit” for society as a whole, since society did not exist separate from the individuals comprising it. A “higher morality” of the “common good” was considered a smoke-screen for those who did not like the patterns created by a society of free people, and instead wanted to force everyone into the patterns considered better by those who wished to compel people’s submission to a politically engineered design.
So, to give our own answer to Elliot Dodds’ question, “Is liberalism dead?” Not for as long as there are any who cherish the liberty and autonomy of every human being, along with their own freedom. Not as long as it remains the inescapable truth that free markets deliver the goods and offer the widest opportunities for the improvement of all without the false illusions of paternalism and planning. Not as long as there remains in any of us the desire to say “No” to those who want to force us into the role of pawns on their compulsory chessboard of social engineering. Not as long as there remains you and me.
This article was originally published in the October 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.
Stopping Socialism is a project of The Heartland Institute and The Henry Dearborn Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit association of professionals and scholars.