The Suicide of Liberalism

The far left, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, is protesting a campus speaker again. Who is it this time? Some neo-Nazi like Richard Spencer? An unscrupulous provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos? Just a garden variety scary conservative like Ben Shapiro? Nope, it’s the ACLU as represented by Claire Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Students took to the stage just a few moments after Gastañaga began her remarks. At first, she attempted to spin the demonstration as a welcome example of the kind of thing she had come to campus to discuss, commenting “Good, I like this,” as they lined up and raised their signs. “I’m going to talk to you about knowing your rights, and protests and demonstrations, which this illustrates very well. Then I’m going to respond to questions from the moderators, and then questions from the audience.”

It was the last remark she was able to make before protesters drowned her out with cries of, “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too.” They also chanted, “the oppressed are not impressed,” “shame, shame, shame, shame,”… “blood on your hands,” “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution,” and, uh, “liberalism is white supremacy.”

The moderate left has spent the past few years running interference for Black Lives Matter and Antifa, and some of us have been warning them that the far left hates the liberals, too. They’re now finding that out up close and personal, and I hope it terrifies them.

This, along with similar incidents at other universities, is a sign of the final death of American “liberalism.” It is death by suicide, because liberalism is being destroyed by the forces it unleashed and by its own inherent contradictions.

In the 20th Century, American liberalism was defined by a very specific ideological mix: advocacy of freedom of speech, political freedom, and resistance to government regulation in the field of personal morality and culture—combined with advocacy of broad and ever-growing government control over the economy.

Notice that I say American liberalism, and that I usually put “liberalism” in quotation marks. Etymologically, “liberal” derives from the Latin word for “freedom,” and historically it referred to advocates of freedom, including advocates of economic freedom. That’s still true today in some other parts of the world. In Europe, “neoliberal” is an epithet for someone deemed too accommodating toward free markets. In Australia, the Liberal Party is the center-right, more pro-free-market party.

So how is it that “liberal” came to refer to someone who advocates freedom in one area and government control in another? There is a specific philosophical answer to this, and that answer explains why today’s liberals are being eaten by their far-left offspring.

The deepest roots of modern American “liberalism” go back to John Stuart Mill and his 1859 essay “On Liberty.” Mill was a prominent member of Britain’s Liberal Party back when it still stood for free markets, and to this day its remnant, the Liberal Democrats, use a copy of “On Liberty” as a symbol of the party’s leadership.

Mill set out to make a case for liberty that was not based on “natural rights” but on utilitarianism. He starts with the principle that everyone should be allowed to do whatever he likes, so long as it doesn’t harm others: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” But what constitutes a “harm”? Refusing to give someone a job? Charging “too much” rent for an apartment? Hurting their feelings? To limit the concept of “harm,” Mill emphasized the difference between the private and the public, and between ideas and actions. The ideas you hold privately are nobody’s business but your own, while actions you take publicly might be harmful to others and can in principle be controlled by government. Here is how he summed up his argument:

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

Under this framework, you could still make a very compelling argument that, just as free speech leads to a more vibrant and creative society that benefits everyone in it, so do free markets—and Mill did just that. (His father, James Mill, was a Classical economist influenced by Adam Smith, and he learned those lessons well.) But Mill’s main legacy was the creation of this division between intellectual freedom, which he treated as an inviolate basic principle—”over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”—and economic freedom, which was to be defended on purely pragmatic grounds. The first kind of freedom was way more important than the second.

I think you can begin to recognize this outlook. What happened next was the rise of economic theories—particularly Marxism—which argued that the entire capitalist economy is a giant engine of exploitation, that it inherently consisted of people using their economic freedom to harm others. The framework created by Mill allowed the moderate left to adopt this Marxist view of the economy, but without going full totalitarian. They could agitate for control over just about everything in the economy, but they were still “liberals” because they defended free speech and political freedom and what one summary describes as “the freedom to pursue tastes (provided they do no harm to others), even if they are deemed ‘immoral.'” Free to be you and me, baby.

That’s how we got the basic mid-20th-Century “liberal.” But it couldn’t and didn’t last.

At the height of liberalism, in the early 1970s, Ayn Rand summed up the contradiction this way: “The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.” Obviously, you can’t be both of these things at the same time. This strict separation of ideas from action, of the private from the public falls apart the moment you try to apply it to reality. What’s the point of being free to think, if you’re not free to act on your thinking? And how can we say that private thinking and private preferences have no effect on others, when they clearly influence the way people act?

So the liberals either had to return to the idea of individual rights which protect our freedom of action in all of life—or they had to resolve the contradiction by calling on government to regulate everything. Guess which one they chose.

Just as Marxism created a whole system for finding real and imagined harms to be regulated in the realm of economics, the extension of Marxism to race and gender created a whole system for finding real and imagined harms to be regulated in the realm of ideas, behavior, and culture. It invoked a whole system of “triggers” and “microaggressions” that marginalize and exclude certain victim groups, even if the people in that system are not conscious of any intent to do so. Therefore, we have to be constantly on the lookout for the harm caused by ideas and root out all of these thoughtcrimes.

We could see the results during the controversy over the engineer fired by Google for an allegedly sexist memo questioning the assumptions behind their “diversity” initiatives. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer tried to invoke the old rules of liberalism: “Firing people for their ideas should be opposed.” He got an earful from critics on the left who replied that expressing one’s ideas is an act. Even holding those ideas privately is unacceptable because it inherently creates a “hostile work environment” which would be “harmful to women’s well-being.” It became clear very quickly that he was relying on an ideological framework—the framework of liberalism, going all the way back to John Stuart Mill—that has already been rejected by his readers on the left. With it goes liberalism’s distinction between ideas and action and its pretense of constructing some kind of special defense of intellectual freedom while controlling everything else.

Hence the new regime now being established on college campuses, where professors with unimpeachable “liberal” credentials now find themselves harassed and shouted down by angry mobs and students find their every action monitored for transgressions, down to their choice of Halloween costumes.

The old “liberals” wanted to dispense with individual rights so they could pursue the fantasy of setting themselves up as benevolent, all-seeing planners who would protect us from harm and order our lives to achieve the “greatest good for the greatest number.” But they wanted to do this while still thinking of themselves as the good guys, as fighters against oppression, as defenders of liberty. That is the pretense that is being torn down today in the suicide of liberalism.

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