November 18, 2013 § 88 Comments
Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is a 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.
April 26, 2017 § 130 Comments
It is not possible to “balance” the requirements of a rational, intelligible, coherent doctrine with the “requirements” of an incoherent doctrine.
I don’t mean that it is merely difficult to do so. What I mean is that the very idea of doing so is unintelligible, because asserting the unintelligible is always unintelligible despite what may seem to be a superficial plausibility. It may sound plausible that twas brillig in the slithy toves. But the fact that a doctrine superficially strikes us as possible or plausible does not guarantee its rational coherence.
Said differently: the principle of explosion makes everything explode, as a matter of rationality. As a social reality, popular rationally incoherent doctrines have further implications: implications we’ve explored here before.
Incoherent doctrines – precisely because they are incoherent – cannot be contained, limited, or balanced against intelligible priorities. It isn’t possible to ‘balance’ an imperative for round squares against the imperative to eat, worship God, raise children, do good, avoid evil, etc.
So the notion that liberalism can coexist happily alongside competing priorities simply assumes that liberalism is a rationally coherent doctrine, capable of being prioritized alongside other intelligible priorities.
March 13, 2017 § 12 Comments
Generally speaking there are a lot more ways to get something wrong than there are to get it right. In the Church there is a special category of lie called heresy, which involves (again generally speaking) denying or distorting a doctrine of the Church specifically. Truth is a unity, but not all truths are doctrines of the Church. That water is H2O is true but is not a doctrine of the Church, for example.
The issue has been raised as to whether one of my claims is that liberalism is a heresy in this technical (rather than merely a colloquial) sense, as opposed to simply false or a lie.
My answer to that line of inquiry, for the record, is that I take no firm position on the question[*]. It is certainly arguable that liberalism as I describe it on this blog — keeping in mind the limitations of language, and the fact that liberalism is what it is in reality independent of those limitations – is condemned in various papal encyclicals, for example Immortale Dei.
But from my point of view it doesn’t much matter, and I don’t think the point is especially worth arguing. Most folks wouldn’t balk at condemning a mass murdering political philosophy like Nazism without really caring much about whether it is or is not, in a technical sense, a heresy. One would think that political doctrines which drive the mass murder of innocents (as just the most obvious and visible in a long list of atrocities) would run afoul of a Church doctrine here or there, I suppose, at least indirectly. But frankly the whole question seems like a bit of a red herring.
The same goes for liberalism and – depending on where you feel the lines should be drawn – its close modernist cousins. Some folks feel compelled to draw the lines this way or that, probably driven by a delusion that the substance of the basic criticisms of liberalism can be deflected by some nominalist semantic dancing.
But my thought is that once the body count of innocents murdered reaches a certain point, quibbling over whether or not a particular political doctrine is or is not technically heresy is just Nazis dancing on the head of a pin.
[*] This contrasts with my position on usury, to which I have not really added any original thought. My work on usury specifically (except where stated otherwise, and of course this doesn’t apply to e.g. more general discussions of currency, securities, finance, property, etc) is simply a reiteration, to the best of my ability, of the timeless moral prohibition against charging interest on personally guaranteed loans “for consumption” (in the pertinent sense) to individuals, with a few suggestions here and there as to why the moral prohibition obtains.
That is, when it comes to usury I do my best to simply restate Church doctrine; and dissent from Church doctrine is heresy.
December 12, 2015 § 12 Comments
Conservatism just is the tendency to conserve: to tend what is conserved, to protect it from attack and disease, and to cultivate its healthy flourishing. In the political domain this means to conserve (among other things) communities, institutions, culture, and ideas. In this post I am going to focus on conservation of ideas; but it may be worth noting that most of the things we work to conserve are not ideas. Communities, for example, are not bundles of propositions.
In the realm of ideas specifically, conserving them means that criticism is assumed to be invalid even when it exhibits surface plausibility. Conservatism means that critique of a conserved idea faces a very high standard of proof. Conservatism means having faith, trust, that there are good answers to criticisms of ideas which were important to our ancestors even when we don’t have those answers immediately to hand ourselves.
In a banal sense everyone is a conservative in the realm of ideas. We are finite beings and are not omniscient. The number of ideas we can subject to explicit critique before we die is finite; the remainder, including but not limited to new questions raised by the answers, infinite. So our intellectual worlds are necessarily dominated by faith that answers exist, that the ideas in which we have faith are valid and true, even when we do not have snappy answers to every critique.
Ideas within the conservation area are ideas protected from criticism, so it makes no sense to attempt to critically define what is conserved. In a Heisenberg-Schrodinger kind of paradox, opening the box kills the cat and measuring the particle turns it into something else.
On the other hand, criticism has its place even when it comes to sacred ideas. Conservatism may properly set a high bar for the potential critic, and it is impossible to completely specify all propositions which are consistent with the truth. But when particular ideas become manifestly destructive, heresies must be condemned. Certain ideas must be subjected to critique, recognized as pernicious and false, and condemned as such.
My argument is that we have reached and passed this point with the political doctrine of liberalism specifically. Men of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s generation might be forgiven for being somewhat and sometimes equivocal when it comes to the core doctrines of political liberalism. But somewhere around the 100 millionth corpse, somewhere around the time when criticizing men for chopping off their genitals and pretending to become women became vicious bigotry, somewhere around the time when simply maintaining the integrity of a community by limiting the volume of immigration became hateful exclusion, somewhere around the time that humanity became a rabble of bonobos in the sexual domain and criticism of this became considered the height of wickedness — somewhere in there the critical bar was reached, when it comes to the political doctrine of liberalism specifically.
So we have subjected the political doctrine of liberalism specifically to criticism and discovered that it is unequivocally a lie: an incoherent lie from the pit of Hell, which destroys the good, true, and beautiful as standards and replaces them with Will. That it hides behind the fact that sometimes people of good will do good things, and when they give credit for their good will to liberalism this shores up the lie. That it makes chumps out of conservatives who attempt to conserve it.
If we condemn the political doctrine of liberalism as heresy, that obviously leaves a great many things under the conservation dome, even if we are just talking about ideas.
But don’t ask me to explicitly define the contents, because that will kill the cat.