A funny thing happens when an idea is truly successful: its acceptance among the masses becomes so universal that some people may come to doubt its universal acceptance, leaving a once-unimpeachable notion subject to attack and repudiation, frequently by the very people who benefited most from its widespread adoption. Such is the case of liberalism. I imagine this is what caused my fellow columnist here at The Clyde Fitch Report, David Terrell, to reject the label of “liberal,” though I worry that he, like frightfully many people over the past decade, might actually be rejecting the liberal project as a whole. To reject either the word or its meaning, however, is a dangerous move, one that threatens two centuries of human progress and can only really be justified either because of an embrace of authoritarianism or by a misreading of liberal thought. While I would never assume that Terrell is advocating for an illiberal society, I do think he is misunderstanding liberalism and throwing his lot in with those who, while certainly on the political left, are not liberals at all.
As I see it, there are several causes for concern as his argument is laid out. One significant concern is in the way in which he takes up economic issues. While Terrell is inarguably correct that “the economic system that worked so well for this country, for so long, is not working now” (at least for several demographics for whom it once did work quite well — mainly male, mainly white), his solution lacks nuance beyond its ability to “help those who need help, rather than those who do not.” Clearly, this is a worthy goal, but there is a lack of concern around how this might happen within the larger question of individual liberty, how it might betray the core identity of liberalism. For liberalism, as a notion, is primarily directed at the freedom of the individual, not — for better or worse — the safety of the group.
Perhaps nothing represents this problem better than when Terrell invokes John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham immediately following a paragraph that largely attacks the wisdom and the success of capitalism (not to mention an earlier reference to the beloved working-class and to Thomas Frank’s unbearable book, Listen, Liberal). The mention of Mill and Bentham, the founders of modern liberalism, comes in connection with the doctrine of Utilitarianism, for which both men are best known. Terrell rightly describes the aim of Utilitarianism as creating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This sounds positively Marxist if one hasn’t read Utilitarian philosophy, particularly Mill. For what Mill proposed was altogether different than the state-led redistribution of wealth advocated by Marx and his descendants — including, it might appear, Terrell. Mill believed something quite to the contrary, actually: the economic liberty of the free market is part and parcel with political liberty; and both are essential to human freedom and happiness. Marx and Mill agree that the greatest number of people possible should be given an opportunity for happiness. How this happiness is to be achieved, however, is a source of significant disagreement. The conflict between Marxist and Millian philosophy underlies the circular firing squad now taking place on the left across the Western world.
Marx and Mill were virtual contemporaries (Mill was 12 years older). They even had dinner once in Mill’s London home, one of philosophy’s most famous evenings at the end of which they agreed to disagree. Marx was writing Das Kapital at a time when Mill’s Principles was the most discussed and influential piece of economic philosophy in circulation. Strangely, Marx seldom mentions Principles, except to paint it an inconsequential proof of the failed nature of certain esoteric aspects of nascent capitalism. Mill, after all, decried state intervention in the economy as contrary to the general good and spent a good deal of his political energy arguing against even progressive taxation on the grounds that it disincentivizes work. Mill distrusted Marx’s focus on the group and worried (it would turn out rightly) about the fate of the individual under such a system. Both men were progressives — that is, they believed that society could and should be reformed through human effort. Mill was a liberal because, unlike Marx, he believed that no social reform should come at the expense of the individual. Indeed, all reforms should be in the service of the individual. For Mill, the individual was sacrosanct.
And not only for Mill. Liberalism, as it developed through the 18th and 19th centuries, was characterized by its focus on the individual. One would hope that is still is — that the individual, his rights and his happiness are justly at the center of government action; that civic life lies at the heart of the liberal project. For some, including Mill, this means progressive reforms. For others, like Edmund Burke, this means a conservative safeguarding of traditional institutions, such as the family and monarchy. Liberalism is, therefore, not a comprehensive political philosophy, but an approach to politics, one that prides the individual above the group in all matters. Terrell invokes the support of “gay marriage, abortion, immigration” as social issues in which “fake-liberals” like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama distinguish themselves from the far-right, characterizing support for these things as centrist. But an even passing knowledge of the history of thought demonstrates that the right to marry whom one chooses, the right to control one’s reproductive fate, and the right to live, work and love whoever and whenever one wishes, despite where one might have been born, are all liberal notions, though not necessarily progressive ones. Expanding freedom within the institution of marriage, for example, has been viewed by many as an essential conservative position, one aimed at preserving marriage and the family as important institutions in the face of changing cultural norms. All the issues Terrell lists, however, do demand that the individual be allowed to pursue his own course, even if that course conflicts with custom, tribe, family or nation. It is this glorification of the individual that is at the heart of liberalism, that is liberalism’s great insight.
And it is because of this great insight and because of the fear of its loss that I get nervous when I see people whom I should consider political allies rejecting the liberal label. Because anyone — conservative, progressive — is a threat to freedom if not a liberal. I would argue that the crisis we face today is that too many people across the political spectrum reject liberalism. On the right, this has come in the form of the defeat of neoconservatives by a dangerous breed of far-right nationalists. On the left, it has been the rejection of the Third Way politics of New Labour and the Democratic Leadership Committee in favor of a populist progressivism that has nearly as little respect for the individual as its far-right counterpart. “Not Me, Us,” right? Well, no. Me. Because it is in the gathering of all the individual “Me”‘s, each pursuing our own happiness, where freedom is found.
As Mill wrote in his seminal On Liberty:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
This is why I am a liberal. This is why I fear the day that we are not, at least a majority of us, all liberals. I am very much a progressive. I believe that human beings can make the world a better place for ourselves. I believe that this improvement comes in the form of improving the lot of all though discovery, technology and innovation. I believe there is a role for governments in this project. But, before I am a progressive, I am a liberal. I know that any progress that disregards and disrespects the individual and the individual’s rights is not progress I am willing to support. I know with absolute certainty that the aim of progress is that the individual human being enjoys more freedom and more comfort. Outside of this, all progress is merely tyranny by another name.