There Is No Such Thing as Liberalism

This post is much less a direct response to Dustin Howes’s book and more a cross between a report and a rant.  A report on something I have been thinking about for quite some time.  A rant against the silly and thoughtless ways that the term “liberalism” gets thrown around in numerous places.

The claim: there is no coherent political philosophy that is captured by the term “liberalism.”  The heterogeneous grab-bag of theoretical principles, grounding assumptions, political sentiments, and value commitments that get labeled as “liberal” do not constitute an identifiable position, especially because completely contradictory things are considered “liberal.”

Some arguments to render the above claim plausible.

  1. What do F. A. Hayek, J.S. Mill, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, John Dewey, Martha Nussbaum, Jurgen Habermas, FDR, and Margaret Thatcher have in common that would justify characterizing each of them as “liberal”?  Any label that encompasses all of these figures is already bursting at any seams that might hold it together.

  1. What do habeas corpus, Social Security, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Veterans Administration, and gay marriage have in common? Each of these is related to the state and its perceived limits and/or responsibilities.  And each of them is generally considered, in general parlance, to be “liberal.”  But we would be hard pressed to identify the common principle or essential characteristic that unites them.  Rather, my argument is that each of these things were developed at specific historical moments to address specific problems or issues.  There is no necessity that says that proponents of habeas corpus, as that notion was developed from the 14th to the 19th century, also (logically, on the pain of self-contradiction) should be proponents of gay marriage.  The various commitments of people who are called “liberals” simply do not “hang together” in some way that is attributable to a set of articulable principles.

  1. Take for example, Medicare, Obamacare, and the Veterans Administration hospital system. Here we have, in order, a single-payer system utilizing non-state facilities and care-givers; a multiple payer system of insurance that is underwritten by government subsidies; and, finally, a state-run system where the hospitals and their staffs are government employees.  Which one of these is more “liberal”?  Each of them, I argue, was created in relation to a felt need and in relation to what was politically possible at the time of its passage as well as what seemed workable.  To try to hold each up against some idealize portrait of “liberalism” in order to figure out which is “more liberal” is not, as far as I can see, analytically or politically useful.  We can certainly argue about which gets the job done in a better fashion.  But to worry—or to care—about which is more liberal just seems silly.

  1. Everybody hates liberalism. The term, it seems to me, has proved so unkillable because it gives everyone—on both the left and the right—something to sneer at.  Liberalism serves as the theoretical original sin of the West’s politics, the wrong turn taken at the very beginning that explains everything wrong with our societies.  For the right, liberalism is the progenitor of the “nanny state,” whereas for the left it is the enabler of ruthless capitalism.  And for both it is mealy-mouthed, sentimental, ineffective, and hypocritical.  So what is liberalism?  It is everything that you think bad and believe that your non-liberal position avoids.

  1. Let’s apply this way of thinking to the understanding of liberalism to which most leftists subscribe. Liberalism is tainted by a deep commitment to individualism.  Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families” strikes the authentic liberal note.  It’s Locke’s assumption of totally isolated individuals prior to the formation of the state that defines liberalism and explains its persistent anti-state and anti-collective biases.  Liberalism invalidates any collective action and justifies selfishness of various kinds, not least economic greed.  In this way—along with its specious division between the “public” and the “private”—liberalism is the political philosophy that goes hand-in-glove with capitalism.  The problem, of course, is that liberalism is also associated with an activist state—and it is hated by the capitalists.  Only “socialism” is a dirtier word for our industrialists and Wall Street financiers.  Are they simply mistaken that liberalism is their foe?  To solve this problem, we now have introduce distinctions between “classical liberalism,” “FDR or American liberalism,” and “neoliberalism.”  And then we get to worry about how “neoliberalism” is different from “conservatism”—and pretty soon American conservatism, which despises liberalism, turns out to be more liberal than the liberalism it abhors because the conservatives are the rugged individualists and the opponents of all governmental regulation of the “private sector.”  Since the conservatives proudly call themselves “conservative,” what is gained by insisting they are actually liberals.? Yet the contempt piled on “liberalism” by leftists more accurately describes the positions adopted by today’s soi-disant conservatives.  The head spins.

  1. So my complaint is that various writers throw around the term “liberalism” as if we all know what it means—and then proceed to blame various ills on the hegemony of that self-same liberalism.  I am accusing these writers of sloppy and lazy thinking.  If you want to discuss Locke, Mill, Nozick, Hayek, FDR, or Rawls, all to the good.  But don’t talk about “liberalism,” because there is no referent for that word, at least not a coherent, understandable referent.

  1. My next post will attempt to consider some sign-posts that can function to identify some political positions.

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