Liberalism is a Political, Not a Personal Philosophy

I believe one of the principle causes of conservative criticism of classical liberalism is a lack of appreciation for what it is. Or, to put it a little more accurately, these critics think it is more than what it is. Liberalism of the type popularized in the 18th century is a political philosophy dedicated to proposing how best to organize the political society. It is not a general philosophy of life.

That is not to say that liberal theorists didn’t also promulgate more general principles to be applied to every day life. What I am suggesting here, rather, is that what unifies these disparate thinkers is their approach to political life. What separates some of them is their approach to everyday life.

This, ultimately, is what separates conservatives of a classical liberal stripe (such as yours truly) and libertarians. While we might be united in our general approach to governance and how laws should be applied, conservatives and libertarians have different moral foundations.

This is best exemplified by the recent spat of “porn wars” which broke out in the realm of social media. A few social conservatives mentioned how they would like to censor pornography, contending that it has no special first amendment protections. Furthermore, they argued, a just society couldn’t allow the spread of this social evil which had such deleterious effects upon its younger viewers and their sexual development.

Libertarians – and most conservatives – generally agreed that the censorship approach was flawed on both a theoretical and practical level. Censorship entails government dictating what is and is not appropriate for popular consumption. Giving the government this power is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. Attempting to censor pornography now would be pointless.

But the agreement between libertarians and conservatives ended there. Many (though not all) libertarians denied there was anything fundamentally wrong with porn. I read more than a few tweets suggesting that having parents seeking to prevent kids watching porn was more destructive to their development than the actual watching of it.

Conservatives who have a more libertarian streak didn’t exactly agree with this prognosis. As exemplified by authors such as Ben Shapiro, their objections to porn censorship were grounded in the objections laid out above. But Shapiro doesn’t just end the argument there. He notes that there is a role for smaller platoons (my use of a Burkean phrase) to try and change the culture. As he concludes this piece:

But you can solve politics with cultural change. And this is where conservatives ought to be putting their focus: On minimizing the size of government, growth of which threatens both liberty and conservative culture, while simultaneously changing the cultural milieu through cultural engagement.

The Founders, at least with regard to the federal government, sought a society of Burke-ians ruled by a government of Mill-ians. Danger lies in a libertarian society of self-described Mill-ians who don’t understand the concept of social fabric, and make light of it; danger conversely lies in a society of self-described Burke-ians who don’t understand the concept of “rights-based” government. The happy medium was a moral and religious people with a limited government devoted to the protection of rights. The Founders weren’t wrong. Everyone else is.

In other words, while Shapiro doesn’t agree with the anti-liberal conservatives and their approach to using government to endorse certain cultural norms, he also disagrees with the libertarians who doesn’t understand or appreciate the importance of culture.

I think what this shows is that “liberals,” however we loosely we might be using the term, can agree on general political boundaries and principles, but agreement stops there. And again, that’s because liberalism is not a broader philosophy of life. If we’re being technical, a “liberal” morality might be considered one which veers from traditional morality, but this kind of liberalism has a different connotation from classical political liberalism.

This is a subtle difference that anti-liberal commentators such as Patrick Deneen miss. His book, Why Liberalism Failed, is replete with examples of him discussing liberal philosophers and applying to them an almost hedonistic attitude towards social mores (not to mention Deneen fails to appropriately distinguish between very different philosophers, as though Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Alexander Hamilton are one and the same). The implication is that because one favors a pluralistic society in which the government does not favor one viewpoint or another, one cannot at the same time personally believe in the importance of virtue, as though virtue can only be transmitted by the government.

Ultimately I think what frustrates anti-liberals on both the left and right is that they perhaps perceive liberals (also on both the right and left) as being insufficiently eager to use government policies to achieve ends they seemingly both desire. So a right-wing anti-liberal sees a liberal right-winger’s unwillingness to censor porn as a tacit endorsement of porn. Similarly, leftist anti-liberals are frustrated by leftist liberals refusal to completely abandon free markets in pursuit of favored economic outcomes, especially ones which seemingly achieve greater equality. What is thus common to both strands of anti-liberalism is a frustration with a seemingly legalistic philosophy that is more concerned with process than justice. Or at least that’s how they perceive it.

This leads to perhaps a separate topic, though I’m not sure they’re unrelated. I think liberalism also frustrates anti-liberals because it’s a very legalistic, rational policy. I’m not suggesting that anti-liberals are irrational (though I’m also not not suggesting it), but it’s fair to say they are far more eager to ignore or just tear down procedural impediments to their preferred policy outcomes.

And frankly I think this is a real political weakness for liberalism. It’s easy to fall into almost a Randian unconcern for society. It is, in a certain sense, a very cold political philosophy. It is accepting of imperfect outcomes. Better yet, it is an anti-utopian political philosophy. Classical liberals don’t think we can order society just and achieve perfection. In the United States of America – heck, in just about any society – a politician running on a platform that doesn’t say “I can fulfill your wildest dreams” can be lethal. Populism has an emotional appeal that is very difficult to overcome, and a great many liberals don’t do a particularly good job of overcoming that emotional appeal. Technocratic liberalism might be the best approach to developing the political order, but isn’t exactly a winning appeal, at least to the hearts of most voters.

Honestly I’m not sure how to solve this dilemma. Either way, it is important for liberals, on both sides of the aisle, to understand the gap in understanding between them and non liberals. Closing that gap is the real hard part.

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