Double Betrayal

Is liberalism its own worst enemy?


The Betrayal of Liberalism: How the Disciples of Freedom and Equality Helped Foster the Illiberal Politics of Coercion and Control, edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 248 pages, $28.95/$14.95 paper

In the long march from Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, liberalism has undergone a personality change—several, in fact. Originally a political philosophy predicated on safeguarding the individual from unwelcome intrusions, especially intrusions by an overbearing state, eventually it transmogrified into the view that the only way individuals can be adequately protected from each other and from themselves is via a large and ever-growing batch of state interventions. This transformation is now an old and familiar story. Less often recounted, though, is the corresponding transformation of opposition to liberalism. What is it to be an anti-liberal today? Is it to reject the primacy of individual rights in favor of the claims of tradition and community, or is it to affirm those rights against a century of distortion? The evidence of this collection is that it is both, and that the combination is fundamentally incoherent.

It is appropriate that a volume wrestling with itself should carry an ambiguous title. Is "the betrayal of liberalism" a betrayal carried out on liberalism or one carried out by liberalism? If the former, then liberalism is the disfigured victim; if the latter, it is the perpetrator. The 10 essays contained herein are split; some identify liberalism as the aggrieved party and some as the culprit, and a couple confusedly stumble back and forth, certain that there's something in the political atmosphere that doesn't smell right but unable to identify the offending scent. That a compilation of independently prepared essays manifests a variety of viewpoints is unsurprising, but here we have pieces all of which first appeared in The New Criterion, a major intellectual outpost of the new right, and which are advertised by the editors as deployed against a common foe. If a coherent conservative philosophy isn't to be found here, then it likely exists nowhere.

For former Thatcher adviser Roger Scruton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the pri- mordial snake in the Edenic garden of traditional civil society. By insisting on holding up the credentials of ancestral institutions to rational scrutiny and justification, Rousseau began a process of undermining their authority, the costs of which are ongoing and incalculable. For Rousseau and his successors, that which has not been grounded in first principles known to reason has no claim on the allegiance of thinking, self-directed people. Obeisance to traditional forms of life is an unworthy intellectual servitude we must throw off. Familiarity does not count in favor and novelty does not count against, so the efforts of enlightened social engineers to improve old ways are to be welcomed. And if the suggested alterations are radical rather than reformatory, sweeping away venerable customs in the name of progress, well, all the better.

The fallacy in Rousseau's reasoning is that, unlike mathematical theorems, salutary social practices typically are not susceptible to step-by-step rational analysis. Rather, they have arisen via inscrutably complex processes of spontaneous adjustment and readjustment, and they resist being pigeonholed in tidy theoretical niches. This rebuttal to political rationalism was pioneered by F.A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott, and Scruton borrows freely from them. However, he spectacularly muddles their insights.

On the one hand, Scruton observes that Hayek's arguments support institutions in which the transactors are voluntary cooperators, not pawns of a monolithic bureaucracy. On the other hand, the essay is largely given over to fulminating at modernity's corrosive effect on the authority of Parliament, churches, the military, and schools. These are hardly paradigms of voluntary association and spontaneous order. What they share is hierarchical structure and authority grounded on prescription rather than consent. Scruton is nostalgic for the days when these institutions enjoyed unquestioning deference, but what he considers the corrupted heirs of the Enlightenment insistently demand a peek at their credentials. So in a half-hearted way, Scruton obliges. By way of affording them a jerry-rigged defense, he pilfers an argument central to liberal theory and then twists it into an indictment of liberalism. This is not merely a quirky conservatism but one that completely misidentifies its own foundations. Even the eccentric Jean-Jacques did it better.

Rousseau was a brilliantly original theorist, but he also embraced several potentially tyrannical ideas. For example, his enthronement of the "general will" as overruling the chosen ends of individuals is not simply a bad idea within liberalism; it is flatly illiberal. Although Scruton wildly overstates his prominence within the history of liberalism—Rousseau more often does duty as patron saint to Marxists and other partisans of command-and-control politics—at least Scruton knows his culprits when he sees them.

The same cannot be said for Roger Kimball, The New Criterion's editor. In "Mill, Stephen, and the Nature of Freedom," Kimball identifies John Stuart Mill as the great purveyor of liberal rot. In his best-known political manifesto, On Liberty, Mill undertakes to defend the "one very simple principle" that neither private individuals nor the state may justifiably interfere with someone's liberty unless that person is threatening harm to another. Mere unpopularity or the giving of offense does not justify interdiction (consider anti-pornography legislation), nor does the prospect of self-injury (think War on Drugs). Both the individual actor and society at large benefit from freedom of conscience, unconstrained speech, and what Mill dubs "experiments in living." Although Mill was not immune from occasional infections by germs of Victorian wackiness, this stout-hearted defense of individualism has rendered him a liberal icon. Wherein lies the fault?

According to Kimball, taking up a lance originally wielded by Mill's contemporary, James Fitzjames Stephen, it is the espousal of experiments in living. That doctrine, he contends, is multiply defective. First, not all such experiments are glorious successes; many end in ignominious failure. Second, because society is infinitely complex, we cannot tell in advance which innovations are apt to benefit it and which to make it worse. Third, in promoting these experiments Mill shows himself to be an enemy of custom and traditional morality. Fourth, a Millian liberal is indifferent to the character of those among whom he lives. Fifth, Mill encourages a shallow worship of variety for its own sake. Sixth, Mill is a value relativist. Seventh, by refusing to countenance criticism of others' vices, Millian toleration promotes moral paralysis. And eighth, there is a "feminine tenderness"—[!]—to Mill's thought.

Despite emptying this machine gun clip, Kimball does not so much as nick the target. Mill is entirely aware that, even more frequently than in the laboratory, experiments in living fail. This is not interpretive speculation; Mill forthrightly says as much and then convincingly argues that we ought to be left free to pursue our own personal conceptions of happiness even when we are apt to fall short. (The Declaration of Independence advances a similar claim, but Kimball strangely declines to include that document in his catalog of cancerous liberal tracts.) And although we cannot in any given case confidently forecast the long-term effects of free activity, we have abundant grounds for predicting that the fruits of conformism will be inedible.

Mill does value variety, but not by way of making some shallow fashion statement. Rather, he does so because individuals are themselves distinct, not replaceable cogs in a grand social machine, and respect for this distinctness entails leaving them at liberty to set their own courses as they see fit.

Kimball is similarly off-base in declaring Mill an enemy of common morality. In his essay "Utilitarianism," Mill maintains that received morality embodies the collective experience of the species and thus serves as a generally reliable guide to conduct. It is not, however, flawless or sacrosanct, and the optimal environment for its improvement is a framework of "ordered liberty."

Kimball's (and Stephen's) most revealing lapse is a chronic inability to distinguish toleration from approval. The charge that Mill believes it inappropriate to criticize people's character and their way of life is breathtakingly obtuse. Mill is one of the most eloquent such critics of his century, not least within the pages of On Liberty itself. How could he advocate every other variety of liberty yet oppose a liberty to criticize? The answer, obviously, is that he cannot and does not. What Kimball neglects to observe is that one can take seriously the doings of others, can remonstrate, cajole, evangelize, debate, even ostracize, yet nonetheless reject the use of force to compel them to think and act as one wishes. This is not indifference or relativism; it is to insist on a crucial distinction between persuasion and coercion. For Kimball and Stephen, apparently, the only criticism worthy of mention comes at the business end of a cudgel. This is a doctrine as ugly as it is ignorant. Kimball dislikes Mill's characterization of conservatives as "the stupid party," but the evidence of this essay is that the appellation still fits.

In "The Bright Line: Liberalism and Religion," political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain also directs some desultory shots at Mill, but her primary target is those contemporary liberals for whom every injection of religion into the public realm is perceived to be the harbinger of a new Inquisition. There is much justice to her complaint. Liberals—and, yes, libertarians—tend to be ungenerous in portraying the motives of those who locate themselves within traditional faith communities, and they vastly overestimate the political potency of the religious right while paying less heed to more dangerous foes.

Indeed, between the religious and the secular, oppression runs mostly in the reverse direction. "Families," Elshtain writes, "have been stripped of religious freedom in many concrete ways, including freedom to educate their children in a faith tradition." Her point is well-taken, but the suggested remedy of sneaking a minute of prayer back into the schools and placing crèches here and there on public spaces is palpably inadequate.

The conclusion that should have been drawn is that education, like religion, is too precious and personal to be left to the ministrations of a state that is pledged to neutrality. That, however, would be a bold stance, so instead she ineffectually frets.

Robert Conquest's "Liberals and Totalitarianism" skillfully retells the story of left-liberals' sycophancy for totalitarian dictators but does not shed much light on why they proved to be so susceptible to this disease. In "Liberalism and the Law," Hadley Arkes deplores liberals' zeal to secure through the courts outcomes they have failed to achieve in legislatures, but he concedes that conservatives do their best to play the same game. In his telling, the rule of law is an equal opportunity casualty.

Perhaps the most curious contribution to the volume is John Silber's "Procedure or Dogma: The Core of Liberalism." Silber, the long-serving and controversial former president of Boston University, has almost nothing to say about the theory and practice of liberalism but lots to relate about his own career. It seems that in the face of ideological oppressiveness (the term "political correctness" had not yet been invented) and pusillanimity within and outside the academy, John Silber has been no less than a latter-day Socrates. Continually attacked by the ignorati, he nonetheless reliably stands straight and true for values of fairness and freedom. Perhaps this essay began as an after-dinner speech to prospective donors; how it ever made its way into this collection is baffling. It does, however, afford some clues as to why even those who broadly subscribed to Silber's agenda for the restructuring of universities often found his overweening self-regard hard to endure.

Two essays are outstanding. Military historian Robert Kagan's discussion of "Liberalism and American Foreign Policy" is erudite, nuanced, and thought-provoking. Do the ideas of those two defunct Republicans, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, hold any continuing relevance for an America rethinking its place in a post-Cold War world? Kagan will convince you that indeed they do. Equally well-informed and perhaps even wider-ranging is historian Keith Windschuttle's "Liberalism and Imperialism." Windschuttle roams knowledgeably and assuredly between the empires of ancient Rome and 19th-century Great Britain, tying together military strategy, economic expansiveness, parliamentary infighting, and moral philosophy. It is a virtuoso performance, by itself worth the price of the book.

Former National Review Editor John O'Sullivan's sharp and entertaining concluding essay attempts to delineate broad thematic connections among the various contributions. He fails, but no one could have succeeded. For what this collection reveals above all else is that cohabiting within the rhetoric of contemporary conservatism are two distinct strands of opposition to liberalism. One is friendly to liberty and regrets its restriction by excrescences that have attached themselves to classical liberal theory and practice. The other is hostile to liberty as such because leaving people free to live according to their own lights undermines deference to traditional institutions. The former maintains that political arrangements have been trending mostly downhill for the past century, while the latter sees decay setting in with the coming of the Enlightenment.

Because these two strands share various common enemies, they come together as bedfellows within the pages of The New Criterion and in this volume. It is, however, purely a marriage of convenience and is destined sooner or later to end in messy divorce. Who then will emerge with the lion's share of conservatism's assets: the grumpy obscurantists who wish that people would once again learn to keep their place, or those intent to conserve the rights of individuals freely to make their own place as best they can? That is not the least significant of the numerous questions prompted by The Betrayal of Liberalism.