The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Oh, Please, Give Me Another Unnecessary Lecture About Classical Liberalism

Posted on | November 19, 2020 | 1 Comment

Nothing annoys me quite so much as people who presume me to be so ignorant of political philosophy that they must tutor me. Sometimes this happens in the comments (you know who you are) whenever I use the word “liberal” to mean, roughly, whatever Democrats believe this week.

Conservatism, in the American sense, is opposition to liberalism.

An American conservative is not to be confused with a Tory. The Brits have their own peculiar system of government, their own parties and coalitions which are distinct from ours, so that their Tories — operating under the name of the Conservative Party — may in many ways align with conservatives here in the U.S. of A., but an American conservative is something different, because America is different. Q.E.D.

The conservative movement in America congealed in the 1950s, at a time when liberalism (so-called) was not merely the guiding principle of the Democratic Party — Adlai Stevenson was an avowed liberal — but when many Republicans also considered themselves liberal. It was the project of Bill Buckley to cure America of this problem, and thus his 1959 classic was called Up From Liberalism. There are those who say that the conservative movement has largely failed and, while I recognize the validity of this claim (e.g., same-sex “marriage,” mandated by a Supreme Court whose majority decision was written by Reagan-appointed Justice Kennedy), the movement has also recorded a certain number of victories. We can only imagine how worse matters might have been had liberalism been permitted to advance unopposed. But I digress . . .

Because the left wing of the Democratic Party has now gone so far leftward that one needs a telescope to glimpse its furthest extremity, there are those who say that “liberal” is no longer meaningful. There are others who say that Democrats were never really liberal anyway, that their adoption of this label in the 1920s was from its inception a sort of hijacking, since what FDR’s supporters meant by “liberal” had very little to do with classical liberalism — John Locke and all that.

Whenever I denounce liberalism, invariably someone will pop up to say, “But what about classical liberalism?” As if I never heard the term!

And if, by the steady leftward drift of the Democratic Party, they have long ago abandoned even the pretense of liberalism, so what?

Nowadays, we usually speak of “the Left” when describing the activists and ideologues who dominate the Democrats, but is “liberal” no longer meaningful to describe Democrats? Would it be better to call them “progressives,” as they now more often describe themselves?

Discussing terminology like this is a colossal waste of time. Yes, I know that Friedrich Hayek never called himself a “conservative” and preferred to be called a “liberal,” but so what? Why do you feel compelled to lecture me about “classical liberalism,” as if I were a schoolboy in need of your tutoring? All of this rant, by the way, was inspired by Ed Driscoll linking to a column about “classical liberalism” by Sarah Downey.

Downey’s main point seems to be calling out the Stalinist impulse of “cancel culture” on the Left, which I consider just a logical next step in the slide down the slippery slope. Hayek’s classic The Road to Serfdom was intended to warn Western liberals about this tendency, by which even as early as the 1940s we had already begun moving by incremental steps in a totalitarian direction. There can be no liberty without economic liberty, and the power to deprive people of their livelihood for political reasons — which is what “cancel culture” is about — is the ultimate source of totalitarian authority. Creating phony controversies (Downey discusses how transgenderism was used to “cancel” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling) is an exercise in thought control enforced by the economic power of boycott. The real issue at stake is not pronouns, but rather power; the Left is merely exploiting transgenderism in the same way the Left exploits racial issues, and for the same purpose — to accumulate political power. As always, this expansion of power involves the destruction of freedom, and if First Amendment liberties are being shredded for the sake of a transgender agenda that few people actually understand, an issue which directly affects only a tiny percentage of the population, so what? The Left seeks to increase its power “by any means necessary,” and they aren’t scrupulous as to their tactics.

People alarmed by the latest manifestation of the Left’s totalitarian impulse are missing the point if, like Downey, they imagine they can shame Democrats into abandoning their current project by pointing out how it contradicts basic principles of old-fashioned liberalism. In fact, American liberalism has always been a Gordian knot of contradictions; there was never a time when these contradictions were not apparent. Anyone who ever expect liberals to be consistent was certain to be disappointed, which is why FDR’s New Deal coalition finally unraveled during LBJ’s presidency in the 1960s. An awful lot of people who considered themselves liberals (Ronald Reagan was once a self-declared “bleeding heart” liberal) discovered that the alleged “principles” of liberalism led to policy disasters that hurt the people whom liberals claimed they were trying to help. Liberals in theory support public schools; in practice, however, liberalism ruins public schools, while every liberal sends their own children to private schools, if they can afford it. Contradictions like this rapidly multiplied in the 1960s, and some liberals driven out of the Democratic Party coalition by the catastrophic failures of liberal policy began calling themselves “neoconservatives.”

Do I want to review this entire history now? No, I do not. My point is that arguing over semantics like this is a waste of time. It is all very good for Downey to inform her young friends that speech codes and cancel culture are inherently illiberal. But do I need another lecture about “classical liberalism”? No, thank you. I am not afraid to call myself a conservative, but if you don’t like the connotations of that word, you can call yourself anything you’d prefer. As long as you never vote for Democrats (and don’t presume to lecture me), we’ll get along just fine.

 



 

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