Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Introduction

It is a commonplace among academics to say that questions are always more complicated than they seem, but, the more experience I acquire, the more I have come to realize that such statements serve more to keep academics employed than cast any light upon the truth. There are some questions for which the answer is complex, and there are some areas of knowledge, such as engineering, where the details can become very involved, but in my experience, in most fields of endeavor, and especially in those fields dealing with human behavior and human choices, the big truths are quite simple.

Not that they always appear that way.

In fact, this whole essay started out because I tried to explain something I could not understand, a simple question I had asked very early in the history of my blog. (And which had previously been asked in another form by Frederic Bastiat, among others.) I had been considering the fact that liberalism, by its nature, required one to assume that people were unfit to make important decisions, as otherwise there was no need for the minute control liberalism exercises over every private choice. That single fact was not a problem in itself, but, it was difficult to reconcile with modern liberalism's dedication to representative government. After all, if people are unable to make decisions for themselves in private life, how could those same people make identical decisions for everyone after being elected to office?

I never did find a satisfactory answer to that question, but in asking it I was led to examine the underlying principles of liberalism, the assumptions about government and human nature upon which liberalism, and all other interventionist philosophies, rest.  It took time, and I fumbled about quite a bit as I worked out these three basic principles, which explain everything about liberalism.

And what are these three principles? First, that humans are, in general, incompetent to make decisions for themselves.  Second, that for every question -- political and economic -- there is a single correct answer, which is appropriate for all individuals. Third, that there are individuals who are in possession of this correct answer. This last is often omitted, or at least not explicitly stated, as liberals fear charges of arrogance or elitism, but admitted or not, it is the only way one can make sense of liberal thought.

Obviously, we will be looking at each of these in great detail in the work proper, but let us take one moment to explain each.

The first, and most essential assumption is that there is a "right" answer. Now, before anyone gets aggravated and starts accusing me of ethical relativism, I am not speaking here of morality, religion or "right" in any cosmic sense. I am instead arguing that there is a single course of action which will produce optimal results for all individuals. For instance, everyone would benefit from eating less salt, or from listening to Joni Mitchell. I wrote before about the absurd results when the government or an individual declares something, for instance "health" an "absolute value", that is something to be pursued "at any cost". The inherent logic of such a valuation is that absolutely all other goals must be sacrificed to this end. This is a related error. It says that there is a single "right" set of valuations, and all citizens would be better off in some sense if they pursued those values rather than what they believe they desire. In some cases this argument assumes people's desires and "needs" (whatever that means) are in opposition, others assume people simply do not truly know their desires and will be happier once they are forced down the right path. Whatever the logic, the one basic assumption required for intervention is that there is a "right" set of behaviors which are knowable, and known, at least to some, which would produce, by some definition, optimal results.

The second assumption flows from this first. Given this optimal set of behaviors, the assumption is that individuals are incapable of choosing these correct behaviors. It may be because of inherent intellectual deficit, or perhaps because of moral turpitude, or maybe even because they are easily misled, either by mundane efforts to exploit them, or by more sinister and expansive forces, but whatever the reason, the assumption is that the public, left to its own devices, will choose the wrong course resulting in outcomes which are undesirable.

Finally, there is the third, often unspoken assumption. And that is the one which opens liberals to charges of arrogance. This assumption is that there exist individuals who, because of greater knowledge or greater intelligence, are capable of discerning the right path to take, and that these individuals should be entrusted to lead their fellows onto the correct path, as well as take actions, if such are needed, to curb the freedoms of those who would mislead and exploit their fellows. This is embodied most obviously in the tendency of modern liberals to appeal to academic expertise whenever their theories are challenged, though even then they never explicitly declare that only a small elite can know the truth. While they clearly imply as much, such open elitism is a hard sell in an elective government, so they often go to great lengths to disguise the degree to which they denigrate the judgment of their fellow man.

And those three rules, simple as they are, are the foundation of all liberal thought. But not just liberal thought, all theoretical justifications for interventionist government. At least all modern justifications. One could imagine alternate justifications, resting on racial/nationalist theories, or Hobbesian postulates of an inherently evil nature to man, but those are unpopular in modern societies, to say the least. And while some academics may find it "bold" to endorse some sort of social Darwinism, there are few willing to embrace an explicit rule of brute force, so, in any meaningful sense, this justification is the single viable basis for all modern intervention.

What is interesting is how closely this model matches the traditional Platonic model, either from the Republic or the Laws, postulating an enlightened minority given the role of shepherd over their benighted fellows. While some of the Platonic model was meant as allegory, there is clearly an element which was also intended to be normative, and, to the degree that it was, it is clear that liberal philosophy would be a good fit to Platonic theory.

But that is something I will put off to discuss in the essay itself, here I wanted only to lay the foundation for the essays to come. We have already laid out the road map for the first few chapters, the importance of the trinity of beliefs, the significance of each, and their implications. Following that, it will probably be best to move directly into the other end of things, examining the outcomes that such assumptions make logically necessary. Finally, I will look at some variations upon the theory and their consequences, such as the difference between the assumption of an innately incompetent public and one manipulated by hostile forces, and the different results flowing from the two theories.

And having written all of that, there are only a few odds and ends that require some clarification. For example, the strange history of our supposed "political spectrum", the origin of the modern left in the merger of populists and laissez-faire parties, and the consequences of those historical accidents. Beyond that, I would also like to examine oddities such as the left's love-hate relationship with free speech, its origins, the role of their socio-economic and educational background in such beliefs, and so on. Not to mention the interesting contradiction of the movement embracing both a racial equality movement and a host of racial separatist movements.

Of course, in discussing all of these historical accidents, my eyes will be turned, not just to illuminating the history, but examining how those historical events were shaped by the basic assumptions underlying liberalism, or how the beliefs of those involved made them open to such beliefs.

Before I end, I would like to thank all those who read my original posts that inspired this, and especially those who posted comments. I admit that my thoughts were partly shaped by the debates I had with readers, both friendly and hostile, and this essay would not have been the same without those readers and their comments.

Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 1 - The Trinity and Its Necessity".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".


The links in the preface covered most of the topics I have mentioned above. The only topics that wer enot covered were the historical topics, covered in "The Political Spectrum", "The Best Historical Example" and "A Passing Thought". In addition, my earlier essay on absolute value can be found at "Absolute Values" (with some additional thoughts in "Two Questions About Health Care") and the history of the headaches caused by readers misunderstanding my point can be found in "A Point I Thought Clear" and "Why Republicans Lose, We Eat Our Own". Finally, as I mention the strange concept of "needs" differing from wants, which I will deal with in detail in a later chapter, I will suggest interested readers check out my post "The Most Misleading Word", which discusses the many strange arguments based upon the ill-defined word "need".

UPDATE (05/07/2010): I forgot to include the link to the question  which inspired this whole topic. It can be found at "A Question". It then inspired a series of posts starting with "The Essence of Liberalism", running through "Man's Nature and Government", then finding its clearest expression in "The Citizen Dichotomy". Since then I have been clarifying the meaning of those posts, in essays such as "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Deadly Cynicism", but those original posts laid all the groundwork for this essay.

Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/05/06. 

NOTE: As I was reading these posts again in September 2012, preparing to write the final installments (at long last!), I noted a few grammatical errors, as well as some sentences, which, while technically correct, did not read very well. So, though the date of publication is still listed as 2010/05/06, there were edits made on 2012/09/19 as well.

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