Definition of liberalism

November 18, 2013 § 75 Comments

Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the primary legitimate purpose of government.

A liberal is a person who has a significant degree of commitment to this doctrine.

The liberal’s commitment may be derived from pragmatic considerations, or it may be ideologically derived from the preliminary doctrine that the just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed.  But whatever the source of commitment, a person who is committed to the doctrine of liberalism is a liberal.

A liberal doesn’t have to believe that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the only legitimate purpose of government: he just has to see it as a primary legitimate purpose.

The notion that liberals aren’t genuinely committed to individual freedom and equal rights is false.  They are.  But the notion that they aren’t leaves the door open for other kinds of liberals to claim that their own conception of liberalism (which they may or may not label “liberalism”) is the authentic conception.  Thus the fracturing of modern politics into different factions of liberalism: in the United States the two main factions are the right liberals (represented by the Republican party) and the left liberals (represented by the Democratic party).  Despite the apparent division, all respectable political opinion inside the Overton window – and indeed much political opinion outside of it – is liberal opinion.

But who, then, are the authentic representatives of liberal doctrine?  In fact there is no authentic conception of liberalism, because liberalism is incoherent.  An authentic conception of liberalism does not exist: it is impossible in principle.  Government by its very essence is a discriminating authority which initiates force to support a particular conception of the good.  That’s what government is.  A concept of government with the primary purpose of preventing authoritative discrimination is therefore self-contradictory.

A right is a specific discriminating authority possessed by an individual; for example a property right discriminates between the owner and the trespasser, treating the former’s claims as authoritative over the latter’s claims.  The doctrine of equal rights requires that rights be distributed without discrimination: it requires that in the distribution of discriminating authorities (rights) there shall be no discrimination and no authority (equality).

Intuitively one might think that this internal incoherence would make liberalism non-viable as a political doctrine, but in fact the opposite is the case.  When the doctrine one embraces is self-contradictory in a way that is (perhaps) not obvious, it is possible to derive all sorts of conclusions – even conclusions which are in conflict with each other – from that doctrine.  In practice this makes the doctrine very ‘flexible’, and creates a subtle (or not so subtle) shift of frame.  The frameshift makes considerations of what is true turn blurry, and makes what individuals will come sharply into focus as paramount.

So when liberals tell you that they are “pro choice” in an undistilled abstract sense independent of the actual content of those choices, they are telling the truth.  The reason that each faction of liberalism in practice treats some choices as legitimate and some as illegitimate – with different understandings depending on the faction, setting up the intramural conflicts between different sorts of liberals which dominate modern politics – arises from the fact that in order to govern at all it is necessary to discriminate authoritatively.   Thus the implicit corollary doctrine of the superman which inevitably appears in every form of liberalism as its self-contradictory substrate encounters particular realities.

Update 11/19/2013: tweaked the definition slightly, added the bit about other purposes of government, and made a few other tweaks.

§ 75 Responses to Definition of liberalism

  • Zippy says:

    Incidentally, I think this may be why “hypocrisy” is such a pervasively used polemic in modern politics. Everyone agrees about freedom and equality, so all you have to find are the inevitable unprincipled exceptions made by a particular liberal and accuse him of not supporting authentic freedom and equality. It is basically an accusation of heresy. Only outright apostasy could be worse, and apostasy is so marginalizing for the apostate that it isn’t particularly important.

  • Elspeth says:

    Like.

    Government by its very essence is a discriminating authority which initiates force to support a particular conception of the good. That’s what government is. A concept of government with the primary purpose of preventing authoritative discrimination is therefore self-contradictory.

    And since we “know” that man was meant to be governed, the only alternative to government is anarchy, from which can spring no good thing.

    I’d be interested in a further exploration of libertarianism from you. Or have you already done that and I missed it?

  • Ian says:

    Good post.

  • Zippy says:

    Elspeth:
    I have written a number of things about libertarianism. They may make more sense – at least in terms of understanding my perspective – with the OP as background.

    I do view libertarianism as a particularly autistic form of liberalism, despite the fact that on a practical level, as a supporter of subsidiarity, I do appreciate some of their policy proposals at least when it comes to state and national government. But I am afraid that I am far too ruthlessly authoritarian and particularist to have anything but a very tenuous alliance with libertarians even in those places where we agree.

  • Ita Scripta Est says:

    Alasdair Macintyre has also done tremendous work in succiently defining the somewhat amorphous nature of liberalism:

    Liberalism in the name of freedom imposes a certain kind of unacknowledged domination, and one which in the long run tends to dissolve traditional human ties and to impoverish social and cultural relationships. Liberalism, while imposing through state power regimes that declare everyone free to pursue whatever they take to be their own good, deprives most people of the possibility of understanding their lives as a quest for the discovery and achievement of the good, especially by the way in which it attempts to discredit those traditional forms of human community within which this project has to be embodied.

  • Gian says:

    In particular, the doctrine of equality seeks erasure of distinction between citizens and non-citizens. This may be effected by treating all as citizens–thus tendency towards a world-state (progressivism) and treating all as strangers (to each other), The second is libertarianism.

    Both these forms of liberalism deny the political nature of man whereby mankind is organized into particular, self-ruling morally authoritative communities we call nations.

    The progressive dislikes particularity while the libertarian has problem with moral authority of the community.

  • Fake Herzog says:

    Hi Zippy,

    As someone who has probably been infected with the virus of right-liberalism for too long (is there any hope for me Dr. Zippy?), I have to ask you the following question:

    – having just spent way too much time reading that old Larry Auster post about liberalism and equal rights and now reading this post where you re-iterate your definition of liberalism for all your fans, I’d like to challenge you on the notion of “equal rights”

    – of course, you are correct when you say the following:

    “A right is a specific discriminating authority possessed by an individual; for example a property right discriminates between the owner and the trespasser, treating the former’s claims as authoritative over the latter’s claims.”

    – but where I think you go wrong is with this second part of your definition:

    “The doctrine of equal rights requires that rights be distributed without discrimination: it requires that in the distribution of discriminating authorities (rights) there shall be no discrimination and no authority (equality).”

    I won’t pretend to speak for left-liberals, but don’t classical liberals, when they speak of equal rights, really mean the equal administration of justice? In other words, just because you are Lord Zippy and decide to murder your annoying neighbor, it doesn’t mean you won’t go to jail just like commoner Fake Herzog. We both should be treated equally, to the extent our cases require it, by the same laws. In other words, we have the same rights, when entitled to them. Or to put it another way, if you make $100K and I make $100K, we should both have to pay taxes at the same rate — you don’t get a break just because you are friends with the King.

    So yes, the government is discriminating between different types of rights held between different types of people, but to the extent we hold the same type of right we shouldn’t be treat differently for arbitrary reasons (at least that’s what the classical/right-liberal would say).

  • Zippy says:

    Fake Herzog:

    In other words, we have the same rights, when entitled to them.

    Well, yes, we are entitled to equal treatment when we are entitled to it, and we aren’t when we aren’t.

    That’s one place where people frequently get hung up, because they don’t realize that they are equivocating between a completely empty concept – where the token “equal rights” adds absolutely nothing, no additive meaning whatsoever, to the concept of justice or “the good” – and a ‘stronger’ concept that in fact asserts the self-contradiction I point out in the OP.

    Another place people get hung up is in failing to distinguish between an actual right and the theoretical potential to hold a right. “Everyone has a right to property” may be true as an expression of a theoretical potential to hold a concrete right to some concrete bit of property, but an actual concrete right to a bit of property is discriminatory to the point of complete exclusivity: only the owner holds it.

    It is no accident that the discussion examples always invoke rights to (that is, authority over) fungible or pseudo-fungible things like votes or money or taxes. Fungibility helps create the illusion of equality. But in the end even money isn’t perfectly fungible, because the $100 I have at the Bank of Starting to Run isn’t identical to the $100 you hold at the Bank of Solvent.

    IIRC I went into this at some depth with a commenter in that old Auster thread and eventually got him to see it, using the example of voting. But it took a godawful lot of discussion with an already very receptive interlocutor to get there.

    BTW I don’t even agree that the same laws should apply to commoners and aristocrats. Aristocrats should be held to a higher standard. With great power comes great responsibility.

  • Fake Herzog says:

    Zippy,

    Fair enough — I think you are right that the concept of “justice” is stronger and gets confused by many (including me!) right-liberals with “equality before the law”. Of course, as you and I both say, we should be treated equally by the law, except when we shouldn’t be 😉

    So justice is the better idea (as is the older idea of “the good”). It is hard to wean yourself off of classical liberal ideas…

  • Zippy says:

    Hah, I recommend cold turkey!

    One thing that I find helpful is to substitute the word “authority” wherever you see “right”. Even so-called “negative rights” are a kind of authority: an authority to tell the sovereign to back off, which discriminates in your favor versus those who prefer (say) a public space peacefully absent your free speech.

    It is also helpful to keep reminding yourself that every action of government always discriminates and restricts freedom based on a particular conception of the good. That’s why one terminus of liberal insanity is always anarchy, and liberals of all stripes generally have a love-hate disposition toward government.

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  • Gian says:

    Liberalism, by this definition, is two-pronged–one emphasizing Equality- the progressives–the other emphasizing Freedom-the libertarian.

    Now some freedom is necessary-that is subsidiarity. Thus, libertarianism can be understood as an excess or a heresy that focuses on subsidiarity.

    Similarly, some Equality is necessary (particularly in a Republic). That is Solidarity whose excess is Progressivism.

    Thus, liberalism, in its progressive and libertarian versions is a failure to attain the balance of subsidiarity and solidarity.

    Any discussion that uses the word “subsidiarity” without using the word “solidarity” and vice-versa is mischievous.

  • Zippy says:

    Gian:
    Now some freedom is necessary-that is subsidiarity. Thus, libertarianism can be understood as an excess or a heresy that focuses on subsidiarity.

    Similarly, some Equality is necessary (particularly in a Republic). That is Solidarity whose excess is Progressivism.

    I think what happens is that liberals (especially libertarians) see some good things that spontaneously emerge from authoritative governance for the common good, label those things-in-context freedom and equality, and then attempt to universalize them by fiat.

    The children of a good, strong, authoritative father naturally enjoy some autonomy of action and are treated fairly vis-a-vis their peers — as long as they behave. Liberalism is an attempt to produce a priori by universal fiat that which can only be emergent and particular, and without the pesky constraint of requiring good behaviour.

  • Mike T says:

    Totally random, but I’ve been reading a zombie book or two and it got me thinking. Would God regard as mortal sin, an act of suicide undertaken by someone infected with a zombie virus? Especially in the classic scenario where the infected is locked in a room full of other survivors who may be unable to defend themselves once the infected person reanimates.

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  • […] 14 Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. 15 See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil. 17 Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. 18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; 19 speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; 20 giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; 21 submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. […]

  • Defining liberal….and its ism….this way (by this way I’m referring to the actual exercise of defining it, not the definition or explanation itself) is useful from time to time especially in the limited confines of a discussion forum, sort of like the terms page in contracts. But the word liberal will likely never return to any sort of pure essence as laid out here. Its too far gone. There are so many people who simply adopt the ism because of a couple of very specific and defined issues, they await instruction from some social vibrations they then try to tune into.
    Its not exactly the same problem with conservative and its ism, but its the same -sort- of problem.
    I wasn’t sure if the premise link was for me or Richard when you left it at Canes.

  • alcestiseshtemoa says:

    Totally random, but I’ve been reading a zombie book or two and it got me thinking. Would God regard as mortal sin, an act of suicide undertaken by someone infected with a zombie virus? Especially in the classic scenario where the infected is locked in a room full of other survivors who may be unable to defend themselves once the infected person reanimates.

    It would be immoral, because in most zombie books killing an infected person turns them instantly into a dead walking thing capable of reanimation, regardless of whether the lethal blow is struck by oneself, or by another individual. Thereby, yes, suicide is a sin, because if the person stuck out longer, perhaps he could have found a cure, or somewhat which could have mitigated the virus, instead of spreading it faster through suicide.

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  • James Herbert Doolittle says:

    Zip,

    Are you advocating, then, a benevolent authoritarian government as the highest form of government known to man?

    Whether or not that is the case, I find it hard to understand why so many of my fellow Christian “red-pillers” (for lack of a better term for the whole group I am describing… people who read you, Dalrock, etc.) seem to think a return to authoritarian Christian monarchy would be a good thing.

    We tried that, and it didn’t work. Even God himself told Israel he didn’t want to put a king over them, and they insisted, to terrible result.

    I believe that, given what we have seen in the past 3000 years of human history, the founders had it right – since we need a government, the best type of government is one that is extremely limited in scope, and which simply provides a defense against foreign enemies, a guarantee that the government may not interfere with the actions of the governed unless those actions come into conflict with the free exercise of others, and a form of redress (courts) for internal differences that does not require duels or other constant violence.

    That type of government, as you mentioned in your post, would classically / traditionally be called “liberal” but in modern American parlance would be laissez faire libertarian. No?

  • Zippy says:

    James Herbert Doolittle:

    I am sympathetic to monarchy but am not recommending pursuing it as some kind of strategy. In general my critique of liberalism is precisely that: a critique. Whether my critique is right or wrong is an independent question from what to do about it.

    I don’t think that structure or formality or procedures or written Constitutions can solve what is fundamentally a spiritual, cultural, and intellectual problem. In one sense the American founders were right that democracy is only suitable to a moral people, because governance of any sort is only suitable to a governable people.

    I do think though that democratic forms of government tend to reinforce liberal ideas and vice versa, in a kind of “lex orandi” liturgical relationship to liberalism’s “lex credendi.”

  • James Herbert Doolittle says:

    Zip,

    Thanks for the clarification. Good points. Yes, it is clear that you at least harbor a sympathy for monarchy.

    What I can’t understand, though, is why? It seems to me that the ancients (and those from the medieval eras) understood something about kings that we (including anglophiles who love the royal pomp) moderns seem to have forgotten: that nearly all monarchs and royal families / dynasties came to power through violence… specifically, by exerting violence to achieve that which they wanted (power, riches, control).

    Because kings come to power through violence (or, sometimes, chicanery), a valid path in earlier times for personal advancement was to rise to the sub-royal level where you could at least attract an audience, and then try to use violence yourself to wrest control of the sovereign’s chair. For this reason, in the real world, true monarchies almost always lead to never-ending cycles of violence (which the monarchs themselves often try to head off through ever-deepening acts of public torture to scare off would be kings). For proof, one only need look at ancient Rome, medieval England, or any of hundreds of other historic monarchies.

    To me, harboring a sympathy for monarchy because of its one or two good points means you ignore the reality of true monarchies in the sinful human condition… similar to the way the proponents of socialism or communism ignore the on-the-ground realities of those systems of government.

    Thanks again for your reply. Love the site.

    JHD

  • Zippy says:

    JHD,

    With apologies to Churchill, hereditary monarchy is the worst form of government we’ve tried — except for all the others.

    But like Bonald I am not in favor of imposing it by force on peoples who are not ready for it.

  • James Herbert Doolittle says:

    So instead of a marketplace of ideas determining the course of action of a people based on popular will (the idealistic goal of a democracy),

    Or a marketplace of ideas determining the course of action of a people based on the will of a large group of benevolent elites (arguably the goal of the early American republic),

    You think the best form of government is a might makes right arms race, where the course of action of a people is based on which ever strong man is in place at any given time (which is the normative state of a human monarchy)?

    I still don’t get why that would be your, or Bonald’s, preference. Arguing that violence is not the norm in a hereditary monarchy when a people is “ready” for it is like arguing that communism works as a benevolent support for the good of all people when a country is “ready” to implement it the right way. i.e. both ignore the reality of the human condition. No communist government, and no absolute monarchy has ever succeeded in human history for more than one or two generations without violent power struggles.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack this comment thread. Just something I have been wondering about for a long time in reading yours, and others, blogs. Thanks again for your thoughts, I’ll stop commenting now 🙂

  • Zippy says:

    JHD:

    There is no such thing as a metaphysically neutral marketplace, and non-neutral marketplaces of ideas exist in all societies. Also, “absolute monarchy” doesn’t describe anything that I favor.

    Monarchies are as screwed up as any human family or institution; but at least you know who is accountable personally. And they have inherent limits – natural checks and balances, if you will – which make them more self-correcting than ideological marketplaces like (the various structures favored by) liberalism.

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