Is liberalism in retreat? Today the term “liberal” is used to describe so many diverse creeds and movements as to make it almost meaningless. It is used as a term of abuse by its critics and regularly used to discredit all kinds of tendencies which aren’t liberal at all.
Sometimes, the derision is deserved; in the English-speaking world, the new “liberal” mania for political and ideological purity is causing ancient liberties to be sacrificed in the name of new “rights”. And the pursuit of liberal individualism is thought to be in conflict with ideas of community. These apparent failings of the liberal idea are leading some to gather together under the banner of “post-liberal”.
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But the problem is not that liberalism has passed its sell-by date; rather, it has lost its moorings.
These can be traced back to the emergence of British Liberalism with the Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights — which enshrined many of the liberties that Parliament and the people had fought for during the previous century.
The Liberalism of 1689 was grounded, in particular, in the Christian (and more specifically) Protestant faith, born of the fight to produce an English translation of the Bible and to defend freedom of conscience. There was much intolerance and more than a few beheadings along the way — William Tyndale died for the cause of publishing his translation — but the settlement of 1689 required and established a new understanding of tolerance and freedom.
In all the great struggles of the 17th century, the calls for freedom were inseparable from the deep Christian faith of the protagonists, whether we are talking about the Parliamentarians, the Levellers or Oliver Cromwell himself. John Milton, driven and defined by his faith, wrote what is probably the foundational text in defence of free speech Areopagitica at the peak of the Civil War. It contained an impassioned argument against the introduction of the new Licensing Order (1643), which required government approval for any published work. All these calls were anchored in a shared understanding of meaning, knowledge and virtue. Meaning came from God, knowledge from the Bible and virtue from following the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.
The importance of liberalism’s moorings were not lost on the American Founding Fathers, who shared the same inheritance. In First Principles, Thomas Ricks describes how dedicated they were to assessing the problem of “virtue” — of determining that their new Republic would be anchored in a shared understanding of morality so that civil society and freedom would be able to flourish. Adams and Jefferson looked as much to Ancient Rome for these virtues as they did to the Christian faith, but in practice American society was grounded overwhelmingly in the shared values of Christianity.
De Tocqueville understood this better than most. In Democracy in America, he plants the character of “Anglo-American civilisation” firmly in two elements: “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty”. For him, religion and liberty were kindred spirits. In America, they were indeed kindred, arriving together with the pilgrims. But in England, religion was the parent of liberty rather than sibling. And in both cases, the flourishing of liberty would depend on the stability and strength of her Christian moorings.
In 19th-century Britain, Classical Liberalism carried all before it in the pursuit of great causes — widening the democratic franchise, opening the economy to free trade, educational reform, laying the foundations of the welfare state, eradicating the global slave trade. But just as it seemed to be all-conquering, its roots were being poisoned.
That poison stemmed from the Enlightenment itself. A new, anthropocentric way of thinking arrived in the 18th century, bringing with it an alternative understanding of human nature, a new theory of human knowledge and a new calculus of virtue. While Enlightenment Liberalism was aligned with the Christian worldview on certain principles of freedom, the two traditions diverge in key ways – and it is this divergence that is now proving toxic to liberalism as we know it.
Traditional British liberalism rests on the Judaeo-Christian understanding that we are all, in moral terms, fallen creatures. The writings and speeches of the great heroes of liberty in the 16th and 17th centuries came with a deep sense of humility, of mankind’s brokenness and of the Fall.
Somewhere amid the arrogance of the Enlightenment, we lost this sense of fallenness. Ayn Rand embodies the new way of thinking with her theories of rational egoism and “the virtue of selfishness”. Encouraged, no doubt, by evidence of technological progress, she assumed moral progress would move in lockstep with technology. She has many modern disciples, wittingly or unwittingly, especially in California, with its strapline of “move fast and break things”. Her Libertarianism is very different from traditional British Liberalism, despite the tendency of many to confuse the two, because of her different assumptions about human fallibility (or lack of, in her case), and about virtue.
Allied to the Enlightenment sense of human perfectibility and rationality is the belief in Progress. The origins of this go all the way back to Thomas Macaulay and the Whig interpretation of history. But Macaulay saw progress essentially in political terms – in the extension of the franchise and other associated political freedoms such as freedom of conscience and freedom of the press. Sadly, the creed of Progress has now been pushed into every walk of life, ignoring the lessons of history and defying any biblical understanding of human nature. For Progressives, humankind’s moral progress is on a perpetual upward curve in parallel with technological progress. The history of the 20th century does not give much support to this conceit — it would be fairer to say that technology simply amplifies the expression of our moral fallibility.
Enlightenment liberals also built their own theories of morality, independent of a god, starting with Benthamite Utilitarianism, and extending all the way to John Rawls. Morality became a mathematical calculus, shorn of compassion or community, let alone repentance and forgiveness. According to Jeremy Bentham, “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do.” No reference to morality here, just pain and pleasure. One of Bentham’s disciples, William Jevons, even went as far as to develop a “felicific calculus” whereby all pain and pleasure could be quantified.
Enlightenment thinkers also developed their own theories of knowledge. One built on the empiricism of Hume and Adam Smith, the other built on the Rationalism of Descartes and Rousseau. The former, with its inherent modesty, is compatible with the Christian understanding of human fallibility, the latter is not.
Hayek describes the two schools of epistemology in The Constitution of Liberty. He warned that the latter, which he called the French tradition of liberty, with its “flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason” could lead to “totalitarian democracy”. His warnings were all too well-founded and it is the Rationalist version of epistemology which has taken particular hold with today’s cult of science.
Belief in the power of science has never been stronger. It has climaxed amid Covid, with politicians increasingly wrapping themselves in “the science” to justify ever more stringent intrusions on our freedom. Scientism, in the wrong hands, can become dangerous. And the worst hands are those of politicians and civil servants too easily tempted to use the authority of “experts” to infringe on our liberties.
This type of politician, Matt Hancock being the best example, fails to understand the limitations of science, fails to understand the nature of risk and uncertainty and fails to understand the difference between observable historical evidence and predictions of an uncertain and hypothetical future.
These different understandings of the theory of knowledge, of meaning and of virtue have led to a corruption of liberalism at its source.
What we are seeing today being enacted in the name of liberalism is not liberal at all. Instead, let’s call it by the name which its proponents are prepared to use — progressivism. This is the creed which unites Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, most of the US Democratic Party, most of the British Labour Party and the New York Times. These are not traditional Liberals in any understanding of the term. They are Progressives. They believe humankind is on a permanent upward path of progress. They believe in the rule of experts and in the authority of “the science”.
So where do genuine classical liberals go, faced with the corruption of the creed? Ironically, the attacks on our most ancient freedoms such as freedom of speech, conscience and assembly, make it more important than ever to assert the foundational understanding of liberty. “Classical liberals” need to unite and stand up for their tradition. It has never been so relevant.
Meanwhile, to those who do embrace the term “post-liberal”, and believe it applies to our new era, I would just say this: be careful what you wish for.