The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2014

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What’s Wrong With Liberalism?
Ryszard Legutko - 05/15/08

This essay is adapted from a talk delivered at the Vanenburg Society’s annual meeting in Gumpoldskirchen, Austria, in July 2006. It is featured in the current edition of Modern Age (50:01, Winter 2008).

To many, liberalism seems the best, in fact the only, platform that enables political leaders and social groups to cooperate and to introduce social changes and political reforms. At any rate this is the situation in Eastern Europe, but I believe that to a considerable degree it is also the case in other countries of what we call the West. Liberalism is regarded not only as synonymous with a free society, but also as the destiny of the modern world, the basic binding force of civilization, and the only basis for a political language through which we can all communicate. When the East Europeans freed themselves from the Soviet hegemony, the first thing they were told, and many of them told themselves, was that they must follow the liberal pattern. What “the liberal pattern” meant was not clear. What was clear, however, was that any open rejection of this recommendation, even if only barely spoken, or a deliberate replacement of the word “liberal” by “non-liberal” would provoke unpleasant consequences in international institutions and in international public opinion.

Liberalism is obviously a loose and rather obscure concept covering several ideas, not always compatible with one another in different historical contexts. It extends from radical free market capitalism to certain forms of the welfare state, from Ludwig von Mises to John Rawls, from Reaganomics to the European Union. Shifting from a narrow understanding of liberalism to a large one and then back to a narrow one is, especially in polemics, a common practice among politicians, political commentators, and the public at large. This makes a coherent and exhaustive rendering of “liberalism” extremely difficult. This should not, however, be sufficient reason to abandon the search for a more or less unifying definition. Coherent and exhaustive renderings of socialism or conservatism are no less difficult, yet this has never prevented critics from formulating objections against socialism as such or against conservatism as such.

Let me offer my own formula by way of definition. A liberal is someone who takes a rather thin view of man, society, morality, religion, history, and philosophy, believing this to be the safest approach to organizing human cooperation. He does not deny that thicker, non-procedural principles and norms are possible, but believes these to be particular preferences which possess validity only within particular groups and communities. For this reason he refuses to attribute to such principles and norms any universal value, and he protests whenever someone attempts to impose his profound beliefs, however true they may seem to him, on the entire social body. Liberals might have divergent opinions on economic freedoms and the role of government, but they are united in their conviction that thinness of anthropological, moral, and metaphysical assumptions is the prerequisite for freedom and peace. Whoever would thicken such assumptions generates ideological conflicts and is believed to undermine the basis of peaceful cooperation and open the door to unjust discrimination.

Can one have non-liberal or even anti-liberal views today without becoming, at best, a laughing stock, or at worst, a dangerous supporter of authoritarianism? Is the thinness of basic assumptions indeed the only way to secure liberal ends? I, for one, think that the identification of liberalism and liberty, so characteristic of modern times, is largely unfounded. Liberalism is one of several systems whose aim is to establish a certain ordering of the world. Whether this ordering is good, or preferable to other orderings, or to what extent this ordering increases our freedom, are open questions, and no definite answer seems compelling.

In what will follow I will present five arguments against liberalism, of which some will be against the theory as such while others will be against some of its claims.

First Argument

The first and most immediate reason for my lukewarm attitude toward liberalism is its modest position in the entirety of human experience. To put it simply: liberalism as a theory is not interesting. Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespere, and Dostoyevsky were not liberals. One cannot think of any outstanding writer who could be qualified simply and solely as a liberal. What is most fascinating in the picture of man and the world, in the understanding of our relation to God, to nature, to one another, was all formulated outside the realm of liberal thought. The most intriguing thinkers whom we regard as belonging to the liberal tradition in the largest sense of the word—Kant, Ortega y Gasset, or Tocqueville are all interesting to the degree to which they transcend liberal orthodoxy.

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