Liberalism is the spirit which has animated the civilization that was once Christendom for at least the last two and a half centuries. It was born at the dawn of the Age that is called Modern and its conquest of what it has renamed Western Civilization was more or less complete by the end of the Second World War. It has many facets; from the standpoint of epistemology – the theory of knowledge itself - for example, it could be described as a naïve faith in man’s ability to arrive at truth through his own reason, assisted only by the findings of experimental science. Essentially, however, it is a theory about the nature of man, his society, and his freedom.
According to liberalism, man is first and foremost, an individual being. His individuality belongs to his intrinsic nature and comes before his belonging to any larger social group, be it his nation, or on a smaller scale his local community, or even his family. These latter are external to human nature as constructions formed by individuals for their advantage as individuals. The essence of man’s individuality, liberalism further declares, is his freedom which is defined in liberalism as the individual’s sovereign rule over his own self. The purpose of government, in liberal theory, is to safeguard the freedom of the individual by protecting his rights, i.e., those regions of his self-dominion that are formally recognized and guaranteed against assault from other sovereign individuals.
When liberalism began, its proponents thought that by articulating this theory they were laying the foundation of an edifice that would protect against the ancient evil of tyranny which men have struggled against throughout human history. The ancient Greek word tyrannos originally referred to someone who had obtained power through means other than the prescribed constitutional order, in other words a usurper. By the time classical Athenian civilization had reached its height the term had taken on other connotations, that of a ruler who governs autocratically, not recognizing the constraints of law, constitution, or even basic morality and decency, and in a way that is oppressive towards his people. It is not too hard to see the connection between the original concept and the later one – someone who seized power in an unorthodox way is more likely to rule in a harsh, autocratic, manner than someone who has come to a position of authority legitimately – and so we might define tyranny as power that is usurped, unrestrained, and oppressively harsh. The liberals of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, made frequent accusations of tyranny against the medieval Church, the feudal aristocracy, and especially kings. They believed that these institutions had a tendency towards tyranny which their theories would check, thus providing for government that is more restrained and responsible.
History, however, tells another story. Today, in the age of liberalism triumphant, there is scarcely an area of our everyday lives over which elected legislative assemblies and the armies of bureaucrats and regulators at their beck and call would hesitate to assert some degree of control. They may not always literally march into a man’s house and business and boss him around, as home safety inspectors and Child and Family Services social workers do, but they have nevertheless made their government virtually omnipresent in a way that any feudal king would have rightly regarded as tyrannical. Indeed, in virtually every way the size of government can be measured, from the number of ministries and civil workers to the extent of the government expenditure and how much it takes out of everyone’s pockets in taxes, government is very much larger now, than before liberalism got its hands on it. As High Tory journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne put it about ten years ago “with remarkable rapidity, from being a doctrine designed to take government off the backs of the people, liberalism has become a doctrine designed to put it back again.” (1)
Libertarians maintain that this is because today’s liberalism is not really liberalism at all but a democratic socialism that has stolen liberalism’s identity. From this point of view, the classical liberalism endorsed by the libertarian and contemporary democratic socialist liberalism are the opposite of each other. Historically, however, democratic socialism sprang forth as a budding branch from off of the trunk of the tree of liberalism itself and draws ultimately from the same root in “Enlightenment” philosophy that liberalism does. Tellingly, the nineteenth century liberal, John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is highly regarded by libertarians as a classical liberal defence of the freedom of the individual against state tyranny, himself came to accept some of the elements of socialism.
If the libertarians deplore today’s liberalism while praising that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Red Tories do the exact opposite. Red Tories are, for the most part, a Canadian phenomenon. They profess to subscribe to the same older school of conservatism that Canada inherited from Britain as this writer, namely High Toryism – the conservatism that is monarchist, communitarian, traditionalist, and favours a strong institutional church in a healthy working relationship with the sovereign. Unlike this writer, the Red Tories also have a strong affection for many left-of-centre causes and political views. According to the Red Tories, liberalism matured between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, corrected some of the excesses of its individualism, and by adopting an expansive view of the role of the state in bringing about ameliorative social changes moved closer to the classical and Tory concept of the common good.
The Red Tory and the libertarian have both misassessed the situation, in my opinion. The contemporary progressive, democratic socialist, type of liberal has not moved closer to the Tory vision of the common good. The concept of a hierarchical social order, itself part of the larger hierarchical “chain of being” starting from the throne of God Himself, was essential to the Tory vision of the common good, whereas the contemporary liberal justifies his expansion of the role and jurisdiction of the state by means of egalitarian ends. In the Tory view of the common good, the society whose common good government is supposed to serve, includes past and future generations as well as the present. Liberals may sometimes acknowledge the need to take future generations into consideration but since that acknowledgement is not joined with a similar regard for past generations, as liberals tend to look at those who have gone before them with the smug, condescending attitude that C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield dubbed “chronological snobbery” , it amounts to nothing for it is only by showing proper reverence and consideration for our ancestors – the virtue the Romans called pietas – that we can truly include future generations in the common good.
The libertarian is also wrong in that the contemporary liberal has not so much subverted the essence of liberalism and replaced it with something different but rather brought to fruition the tyranny the seeds of which have always been there within liberalism. From the beginning, liberals believed that the threat of tyranny came from kings, aristocrats and the Church and sought to transfer all real power into the hand of institutions and officials that were representative, elected, and democratic. These latter, however, have a far greater propensity for tyranny than the former, albeit a soft tyranny that disguises itself as concern for the well-being of those it tyrannizes, which disguise makes it all the more deadly.
The liberals believed that in their doctrine of human rights they were setting up roadblocks to the abuse of power. Instead, they were clearing the path for the multiplication of such abuses. A right is a claim to something on the part of a person or a group within a society which claim is formally recognized by the society. It is one thing for a society to formally recognize a man’s claim to security of his person and property against the violence of others, be they private citizens or the state. The justice of such a right is evident to all sane people, and it imposes no heavy burden upon either society as a whole or the members of whom it is composed. It is a different story completely when a society, in multiplying the rights that it recognizes, loses sight of the distinction between what someone may desire for himself and what he can reasonably and rightly claim for himself.
Take, for example, the rights that are defined as such in the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 and the American bill on which it was modelled, the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the passing of which acts of legislation are celebrated by liberals across North America as milestones in the path towards social justice and progress. In these bills, the governments of Canada and the United States formally recognized as rights, claims to protection against discrimination on the part of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as women. In recognizing such claims as rights, the governments of Canada and the United States had to forbid discrimination against women and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Discrimination is something that takes place internally, in the mind or heart. By forbidding discrimination, the liberal governments of Canada and the United States had extended the jurisdiction of law into the realm of the inner thoughts and private conscience. Liberals had objected to the laws establishing the Roman Catholic Church in feudal Europe and the Anglican Church in Tudor England on the grounds that these violated men’s freedom of conscience, but these laws pertained only to public religion, the organized communal expression of faith, and did not presume to tell people what they had to believe or think in their own hearts as liberals themselves are now doing with anti-discrimination legislation. Anti-discrimination legislation, by the way, violates more than one traditional safeguard against the abuse of power. Because such law is classified as civil rather than criminal, there is no presumption of innocence for the accused, and since what he is accused of takes place in the heart, which human judges cannot see, there is no way for the accused to establish his innocence.
Liberals, blind to the damage they have done to our traditional standards of justice and to the fact that they have benefited nobody so much as those operating the thoroughly corrupt minority grievance shakedown rackets, continue to press forward, adding more and more groups to the list of those with the “right” not to be discriminated against. Last year liberals succeeded in having the “right” of same-sex couples to “marry” recognized across North America, this year it is the “right” of males who think they are female and females who think they are male to use public facilities designated for the use of the sex they identify with that liberals feel must overrule the thousands of reasonable objections most people have to such nonsense.
All of this is plainly a huge abuse of government power, even when it is carried out with a smiley face, by nice, cheerful, types who tell us that they are doing it all with our own wellbeing at heart. It is, however, completely consistent with basic liberal principles. If freedom is the self-determination of the individual, and government exists to safeguard freedom by protecting the individual’s rights, then the more rights the government protects, the freer people will become. That is the logic of liberalism, even if the ensuing “freedom” has come more and more each day to resemble the inside of a prison run by a madman.
While John Locke, John Stuart Mill, (2) Adam Smith, and the other fathers of liberalism would probably not recognize themselves in the liberalism of today, what we are seeing was nevertheless present in their doctrines in germinal form. That doctrine has now grown to full maturity, and it has certainly not improved with age. Perhaps it is time, that instead of looking back for guidance to the earliest generation of liberals, as the right-liberals who call themselves conservatives today suggest, we look instead to those like Richard Hooker and Archbishop Laud, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, Lords Falkland and Salisbury, Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Walter Scott, and more recently Michael Oakeshott, Maurice Cowling and Roger Scruton who, drawing from wisdom more ancient than that of liberalism and its Modern Age, have directed us towards order, tradition, and stability as the true safeguards against tyranny and apart from which there can be no real freedom.
(1) Peregrine Worsthorne, "Liberalism failed to set us free. Indeed it enslaved us.", The Guardian, June 21, 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/jun/21/comment.politics2
(2) Maurice Cowling, the High Tory historian, wrote that John Stuart Mill himself, “may be accused of more than a touch of something resembling moral totalitarianism” and that Mill’s liberalism was ”no less than Marxism, is intolerant of competition” going on to say that “jealousy, and a carefully disguised intolerance, are important features of Mill’s intellectual personality.” Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, 1990), pp. xlviii and xlvix.
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