For the past several years, at least since sometime in 2008, I have been inclined to describe liberalism in a very specific way. Originating in my tendency to ascribe liberalism to an arrogant belief that liberals know better than others what to do, I developed a more comprehensive explanation of the liberal mindset, or perhaps I should call it "interventionist", as not all who ascribe to it place themselves on the left. As developed in my, as yet unfinished, series of essays "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", this philosophy consists of three part. First, the belief in objectively "best" answers of questions of governance and economics. Second, the belief that the majority, perhaps almost all of humanity, is too ignorant comprehend the correct path. And finally, that there exists a group which does know the right way. There are a few variations, for example sometimes the failure of the masses to do the right thing is ascribed more to the machinations of evil forces than ignorance, but as said forces can be so easily thwarted by simple government action, it seems their ability to do evil is, at the least, aided by an inherent ignorance of the masses.
And even now, I still believe that characterization is completely accurate, especially when making allowances for the small variations, such as the belief in evil conspiracies and the like. However, as with so many matters involving human choice, there is more than one way to perceive things. As I wrote once, we can look at scar tissue as the unfortunate result of an injury, but we can also see it as the body providing a small cushion to prevent future harm. Similarly, when humans internalize a given philosophy, it often so strongly colors their every thought that much of what they do seems to them completely disconnected from those core beliefs. Thus, it may be useful at times to move away from a given description, no matter how useful it might be in some contexts, and take a new look from a different perspective.
And this is what I have recently done.
In part, as with an earlier essay ("Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset"), and one that remains to be published, my thoughts were inspired by Fischer's Albion's Seed, which I have been reading recently. While reading about the radically different perspectives on life, justice, childhood, marriage and the like held by Virginia "cavaliers" and New England Puritans (as well as the author's somewhat subtly, but noticeable bias), it struck me how ancient many of our arguments are, not to mention how much of what we believe rests on but a handful of basic assumptions, though we often fail to recognize it. even more interesting, and especially relevant to our topic, is how many of those beliefs continue to exert their hold on us, even when we reject the old justifications that once supported them. For example, much of Virginia and Maryland continued to behave as they had in the 17th and early 18th centuries, even after rejecting the aristocratic beliefs and royalist ideas that justified them. Similarly, many beliefs which were founded on Puritan concepts persisted in New England long after that faith ceased to represent a majority, and today even many who reject all faith continue to behave in a manner that arose from Puritan concepts.
Another peculiarity that struck me was the way in which completely discordant beliefs can often produce very similar expressions. Somewhat similar to the biological concept of "convergent evolution", that similar environments produce similar forms, regardless of the starting materials. For example, though Fischer makes much of the differences between the ways they expressed the veneration of the old, the fact remains that the very different beliefs and cultures of the tidewater and Massachusetts Bay both produced systems which set great store by age, in which, at least in certain age ranges, individuals were inclined to overestimate their ages in official records, unlike today's tendency to stay 29, or 39, forever. In both cases, there was a very sound reason for such a practice, provided one accepted the premises on which the society rested, so it is impossible to argue that one or the other somehow adopted the belief from an external source. No, quite clearly, despite very different beliefs, they both somehow reached the same point.
All of which brings me to the first point I wished to discuss, an aspect of liberalism, in fact almost all interventionist beliefs1, that I have only rarely discussed before today. ("Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism") That is what can best be described as the "postmillennialism of interventionist belief". And, from that name, you can probably see why I brought up the last two topics, as I intend to show, not only that relatively secular liberalism is driven by what amounts to a religious motivation, but also how both liberal and other interventionists, from the temperance movement to many social conservatives of today, reached the same belief despite radically different starting points.
For those unfamiliar with the distinctions of various eschatological beliefs, "postmillennialism" is the belief that, prior to Christ's return, there shall exist a period (there is disagreement as to the length) or righteous Christian rule on Earth2. In practice this belief has led many religious movement to argue for the enforcement of various ethical codes, even upon the unwilling, as any deviant behavior will prevent the righteous from seeing Christ's return. This is opposed to the much more well known "premillennialist" belief, which believes Christ will carry away the righteous before all of the events at the end of the world, and thus does not require universal good behavior for the righteous to be saved. As should be obvious, the two produced very different beliefs about the role of the state, and of coercion, in religious matters.
Of course, liberalism, and most other interventionist philosophies, do not base their philosophies on Christian eschatology, but I chose this term because, quite, simply, it is the only belief that finds an expression anything like modern liberalism.
The problem that gave birth to this description was a rather thorny one. You see, in thinking about liberalism, I started to run into situations where I simply could not figure out why liberals behaved as they did. For example, it is easy to understand why they favor minimum wage laws, as they wants to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor, at least in their minds. Similarly, environmental laws could be explained, either from the selfish motive that claims environmental damage will injure or kill us all, or from the more altruistic motive that sees some innate value in untouched nature, and sees environmental damage as depriving us of that value. But there were so many other laws, both those of a traditionally liberal cast and those sponsored by other interventionists, which are intended, for lack of a better description, to save us from ourselves. For example, the aforementioned temperance movement, though in some cases sold as providing selfish benefits3, was largely a move to save individuals from their own bad behavior. Same for the modern war on drugs4. Or the campaign against transfats, fast food, sugar, and so on. In each case, there is no real reason to enact the laws. Those proposing them could benefit just as easily by abstaining themselves5, but they feel the need to force everyone else to do so as well. There simply is no reason for it. What is the motive for forcing one's vision of good living on everyone else? Again and again, I found myself asking this same question, and, in the end, I never could find an adequate answer. The only thing that came even close to explaining it, was my realization of the incredible similarity between these legal crusades and the beliefs of certain postmillenialists.
However, this similarity, interesting though it was, still did not quite explain why the left was so interested in forcing others to behave in the way they thought best. The postmillenial believers had a clear cut reason, they thought that the misbehavior of others would postpone the salvation of everyone, that at least provides a clear motivation. But the left does not have any such obvious motive. Perhaps a few have some similar religious inspiration, as there are still some believers on the left, even in this largely agnostic/atheist era, and perhaps a few more are motivated by the simple human desire to be a busy body and meddle in the affairs of others, but for this phenomenon to be so widespread, there has to be more of a reason6.
I suppose the easiest starting point is to take many such laws at face value and ask if perhaps the left is acting out of simple altruism. After all, given my earlier description of liberalism as being based upon an arrogant belief that liberals know better than the ignorant masses, it would make sense that they might try to enact laws to make sure those masses act in their own interests. And this description works to a degree, especially when looking at laws such as minimum wage or social security, laws which either mandate action by suspect groups (employer, "the rich", etc.) or force the unwashed masses to surrender part of their earnings. However, it becomes less tenable when we look at laws that demand punitive action against those who misbehave, such as drug laws (which are as much a creature of the left as the right) and the like. Presumably, we could argue that the laws are akin to the way we punish children, demanding a harsh action only because we want to prevent even greater harm should they not learn. Or, less charitably, we could compare them to frustrated parents who, unable to get their children to listen, lash out and harm them.
But something about the altruistic description just does not ring true, mostly because some laws are so incredibly far reaching. For example, the many expressions of politically correct language codes, as well as the near indoctrination practiced at various times by university offices of diversity for new students. These actions do not only seek to prevent acts, they actively attempt to change beliefs. That goes beyond an altruistic desire to see the ignorant masses protected from harm, simple prohibitions would do that, these policies attempt to prevent even the hint of wrongful thought, seek to reshape the masses into something else. There is more than simple altruism involved, this is quite dedicated missionary work.
So, what could motivate such a thoroughgoing effort to reshape man and society? To craft every single one of us into the liberal ideal? It certainly isn't a religious motive, unless we accept my past off the cuff comment that liberalism is a religion. But even if we were to take that seriously, it really doesn't answer the question. There are plenty of religions which do not seek converts, which have no desire to see their faith shared by all of mankind7. So, even if we believe liberalism serves as a substitute religion for some individuals -- and I am not sure whether or not I believe this, but say it is true for the sake of argument -- what is it about the tenets of that religion that demand that everyone not just genuflect properly, but actually believe the right way as well? That everyone not just go through the motions, but have a genuine conversion to the faith?
One possible argument is a rather pragmatic one. In the liberal mind it seems that anti-liberal thought is much like Milton's Satan, not just a default position for the unenlightened, but a belief that is sublimely tempting even for those who have been elevated to the ranks of the enlightened. They rarely say so explicitly, but they way they speak of conservatives using warmongering, race baiting and the like to gain support suggests they see these beliefs as strong temptations, even to those who "know better". From their portrayals of the opposition, it seems they believe keeping to the proper path is a strenuous task, and thus, it is all too easy to fall from grace.
This may sound far fetched, but so much that the left does supports it that I cannot help but believe it is true. Just look at the countless campus lectures on the way that everyone is a racist, and the need for us to each constantly peel away ever more refined layers of racism throughout our lives. Or, to turn to the radical left, look at the many nasty debates among the communists and others, with one denouncing the other as lacking true class consciousness. Or one a more mundane level, turn to popular culture, be it literature or fiction, where well meaning liberal agonize over the conflict between their beliefs and reality, be it the costs of recycling or feeling guilty for employing a maid at wages that some may call exploitation. Time and again, it seems the left is constantly plagued by fears that they will slip up and allow their beliefs to be subjugated to practical concerns8.
Given this perspective, perhaps it is understandable that the left strives so mightily to eliminate not just conservative action, but even all hint of conservative belief. Think of it as a sort of quarantine measure, or perhaps sterilization. As they see the foes of liberalism as being so tempting, and not only to the masses, but even to the true believers, that they cannot see allowing even a trace of other beliefs to remain lest that taint lure back ever more of the converted. Granted, it may not be necessary to eliminate every last remnant to prevent such a mishap, but given the fear with which they view the attractive power of the beliefs of the right, as well as the innate liberal tendency toward excessive perfectionism9, it makes complete sense for them to desire nothing less than total uniformity of belief.
Of course, there is no way to really know what the motive is. Not is there likely one single motive. For some, they may hold certain beliefs because everyone they know does as well. Others may hold them because they were raised with those beliefs, or perhaps because they were raised with opposite beliefs. Some may hold to the altruistic motives. Some may do it from fear, but without fully understanding why. And some may hold the beliefs without really knowing why. So it is hard to say there is a single reason for the left's tendency to try to force comprehensive "right behavior" on everyone. However, given what I proposed above, I still believe that, for the most part, whether consciously or not, for most the belief is at least in part founded upon the fear I described, that is the need to eliminate all trace of wrong beliefs, lest they contaminate and corrupt those who have been so carefully wooed by the left.
Before wrapping things up, I want to examine one objection I have heard in the past, and expect to hear again. The argument is worded any number of different ways, but, in its most basic form it goes as follows: Granted, the left wants to use government to force people to behave in ways they desire, but is that not what government does? What is the difference between telling someone he cannot pay below minimum wage and telling him he cannot steal or kill? Is not all government a means to force desired behavior or prevent undesired?
Sadly, I have heard this argument far too many times, and from people who should know better. Perhaps, if one knew nothing else of government it would be a sound argument, but it is such a simplistic premise that I cannot believe it is so popular. Yet it does come up time and again, so, though I cannot believe it has persuaded as many as it has, I will take the time to explain the faults in this argument.
I suppose I could debunk this without offering a single theoretical argument, simply by demonstrating the absurd conclusions this argument can support. For example, I could argue "Of course the Nazis want to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, Poles and others, but isn't that the purpose of government? Isn't it supposed to remove undesirable individuals and preserve what we believe is a proper society?" Or, perhaps, to stay closer to the original argument "Yes, miscegenation laws prohibit interracial marriage, but isn't that what all laws do, prevent acts we find undesirable?" Of course, such reductio ad absurdam is a sound rhetorical device, but it does not truly prove much. So, though many dismiss theoretical argument when it comes to politics, for those who do believe politics should rest on more than brutal pragmatism, allow me to explain why this argument is so very wrong.
The basic problem with this argument, and my two variations upon it, is that they treat all government actions as equal and all goals as well. This completely ignores the very simple premise that individuals have rights, and that government is, in some way, bound up with respecting and protecting those rights. If we dismiss rights, or the proper role of government, then, yes, these arguments are quite sound, but then again, if we dismiss rights anything is justifiable. However, if we consider rights, and the role of government to protect them, then these arguments become quite silly, as an a government act is only allowable, or equivalent to an allowable act -- such as prohibiting murder or theft -- if it does not violate rights. And this is why it is absurd to consider all laws forcing "correct behavior" to be equal.
Of course, there is an even more fundamental flaw, which I shall mention before ending things. That is the basic assertion that the state exists to promote desired actions and prohibit undesired ones. Perhaps in the broadest of senses this is true, but that is akin to saying the purpose of your liver is to "do stuff". The purpose of government is not to stop all undesirable acts, or encourage anything, it is, simply, to protect rights. And it is on that basis that murder and theft are prohibited. It is not because they are undesirable behavior in some nebulous sense, but rather because they violate the rights of another. And thus, the analogy falls flat, as it rests on a completely mistaken understanding of the role of government.
But I have probably spent more time on this rather trivial argument than was necessary, so let me end things here. Having already conclude my main argument, I shall simply close by saying that, while the motive behind liberalism's postmillenial missionary ambitions may not be certain, it does provide another interesting way to look at interventionist government policies, especially the non-economic measures which I examine less frequently, and thus, in the future, may appear a bit more frequently in my essays.
1. Obviously, one could argue that all such interventionist beliefs are "liberal" and simplify the descriptions in this essay, but that seems as self-defeating as the practice of some pseudo-libertarians who call everyone with whom they disagree "socialists" regardless of political belief. Calling Pat Buchanan or militant social conservatives "liberal" because they believe in extensive government in some regards is likely to make people dismiss my arguments, not understand them. Thus, for now, I will describe those who favor larger government as "interventionist", though I may from time to time forget and speak of "liberals" when I really mean believers in all forms of interventions. If I do, please forgive the error and bear with me.
2. Some Jewish messianic beliefs, especially in the Middle Ages, had a similar tone, such as the idea that the messiah would appear only in an age where all men where entirely good or entirely evil. This second clause led to some very peculiar heresies, one of which I discussed in "Jacob Frank and Hillary Clinton".
3. In the case of temperance, there is a very good reason many women were leaders, as in an age when husbands had much more control over family finances, a drunkard husband could be a terrible burden. However, those suffering personally from drink were hardly the majority of those supporting temperance or Prohibition, so the selfish motives are far from a complete explanation.
4. The war on drugs is sold with a number of supposedly pragmatic arguments, the money lost by "society" treating for drugs, or in lost wages, the increase in crime, and so on. There are strong counter arguments to many of these, but I have covered those elsewhere. ("Guns and Drugs", "In Loco Parentis", "All Hail the Victim", "Harming Society", "Drug Legalization", "It Doesn't Matter to ME...", "The Cost of Legalization", "Addicts?", "Rationality, Drug Use and Laws", "Unintended Consequences I", "Unintended Consequences II") For now, let us point out that when the first drug laws were passed, there was no general government funded medicine, and the "crime" we associate with drugs (street corner shootings, etc) was unknown, so many of the ills postdate the prohibition, meaning it was motivated by something else.
5. Discussing this with friends once, I heard some suggest that those who wanted to abstain hated the thought others would not do the same, and so favored prohibition to make everyone do as they did. I thought it absurd until I recalled my mother speaking of parents at various schools who denied their children certain things (sweets, cola, etc) and wanted them banned from the classroom entirely so their children would not feel left out. I still don't think it is the whole explanation, but it does raise some interesting possible motives for at least some individuals. (Lest anyone bring up food allergies and call me heartless, etc, the cases I am discussing had no allergies involved, just parents deciding for their children and feeling they had the right to impose it on everyone else as well.)
6. I would also note that this examination is not entirely limited to the left, the right has a few areas in which it too wants to force good behavior on others. However, in many such cases the right argues from the harm a given action does to others, such as the belief that gay marriage damages society as a whole or that drug use leads to various social ills. Whether I agree or not (see "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Harming Society", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Another Look At Exploitation", "You've Come a Long Way, Baby!"), at least such a self-interested, pragmatic motive makes sense. On the other hand, there are still a few cases where the right does demand changes in behavior to "protect us from ourselves" or something similar, so this argument may apply to those borderline situations. (See "In Loco Parentis".)
7. Judaism is probably one of the best known Western faiths which does not seek converts actively, though it does allow for conversion. On the other hand, while it does not seek to convert the whole world, it does share a belief with other Judeo-Christian religions that, come the end of history, everyone will share one faith. Other examples can be found throughout the world. Most polytheistic/shamanistic religions, being specific to one culture or region do not seek converts, for example. Or, to move on to larger and more developed faiths, Hinduism -- outside of a few specific sects -- does not seek converts, though it does not discourage them. The same is true of Zoroastrians/Parsi. And then there are groups such as the Yezidi and Druze who not only do not seek converts but actively discourage or do not allow conversion.
8. This is not the place for this argument, but I have often held, if your ideals are that far removed from practical concerns, there may be a problem with your beliefs. Obviously, this is not absolutely true in all cases. I have at times been angry enough to strike someone, which my values tell me to refrain from doing, so there are cases where immediate urges and values can collide. But if a value system is so opposed to simple everyday tasks, as it seems many liberals feel liberalism is, then there may be a problem there. One need only look at the harmonious co-existence of free market, libertarian thought and ordinary life to see the difference. (See "The Triumph of Good", "Competition", "The Case for Small Government", "The Basics", "Greed Versus Evil", "Planning for Imperfection", "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism") Perhaps when I have time I will write more on this matter, as it is clearly a proposition which, while interesting, would benefit from some refinement and qualification.
9. See "The Threat of Perfection" and "Utopianism and Disaster".
I had initially planned to look at the reason the left chooses state solutions as opposed to private measures. (At least, for the most part. Obviously, the left does engage in some private persuasion as well.) However, the topic did not fit easily into this essay, and, as I reached the end, it just didn't seem all that relevant to this topic. Since I did not discuss it, however, allow me to offer a few quick thoughts. Obviously, the biggest difference between state and private is the ability to coerce, or, looked at from the other side, an inability to say "no" to the left's requests. And, assuming I am right about their motives, this is likely an attractive feature. On the other hand, perhaps the answer is even more simple. As I have argued elsewhere ("Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Culture and Government", "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "The Magic Bureaucrat"), as a nation we have become used to always turning to the state, not giving a thought to private solutions. Thus, at least in part, the answer may be simply that the left uses the state for these purposes because everyone else does as well. Clearly, the two motives are not incompatible, and the truth is probably part of one and part of the other. But, as this is just a postscript and not a full essay, I will leave it there for now.