A Question for Liberals

A simple question for liberals (right and left), libertarians and neo-conservatives: if there is a universal human hunger for liberty, and liberality really does lead best to prosperity and social success, then liberal societies should have been the default everywhere and throughout history. Right? In that case, tyrannies and monarchies should have been extraordinarily rare, no?

Not.

Here’s a radical notion. Instead of devising ideal constitutions for ideal utopian societies, as intellectuals have done since Plato, perhaps we should examine the sorts of societies that have most often prevailed, and that are therefore presumably most fit to man as he really is, and think about the smallest ways to adjust them at the margin so as to ameliorate their characteristic deficiencies (if such there really be, from the perspective of their members).

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44 thoughts on “A Question for Liberals

  1. Well, I’m not one of them, but I suspect they’d say there was a collective action problem.

    Freedom does seem to be strongly correlated with human happiness (even after you control for other factors), so it appears to be at least an important value for humanity as a whole. A summary is here:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/willwilkinson/2011/03/23/happiness-and-freedom/

    Perhaps American fusionism has at least something to say for itself after all.

    None of this, of course, means that foreign adventurism is at all advised.

  2. What a peculiar question. As one of the only liberals in existence who bothers to read this blog, I guess I will reply.

    Liberals believe in progress. So the fact that monarchies might have been dominant for a few millennia unitl the necessary conditions for liberalism were achieved has absolutely no bearing on the current desireability of one system over another. Liberal democracy requries (for example) a literate and somewhat educated populace, something which did not exist for most of human history.

    I find it odd for a traditionalist to make such a fundamental mistake. You seem to make the unstated assumptions that the entire panopoly of possible social systems is forever available, and societies throughout space and time have made a choice between them. So if Egypt was ruled by Pharonic dynasties for 4000 years, that is supposed to be evidence against liberalism, because they could easily have chosen to become a liberal democracy if they wanted to. I hope you can see how ridiculous that is.

    The notion that liberalism equates to an “ideal constitution for ideal utopian societies” is also wrong, of course – liberalism is the opposite of that. But perhaps that’s an advanced topic.

    • A.morphous, believe me when I say I understand all those hackneyed arguments. We all got them almost from our mothers’ breasts. Being among the very most basic political notions into which we are generally inculcated, they should be the very first things that a modern political philosopher should put to the test.

      Traditionalists don’t disbelieve in progress. We think it would be great progress for society to get over its puerile utopianism and reform its institutions so that they actually made sense.

      Widespread literacy does not seem to be any sort of salve for the defects of a liberal society. What’s needed in electors is not literacy, but prudence and sagacity. An electorate of literate wanton fools will vote itself limitless bread and circuses. Their literacy will serve only to make them vulnerable to the suasions of demagogues who promise to give them what they want, and to pass judgement on those who fail of their promises.

      These too are first principles of politics, of even the liberal persuasion.

      Nevertheless, we’d be in much better shape today if suffrage were limited to the literate. Even better if it were limited to those capable, say, of reading the Constitution aloud, without stumbling, and explaining the signification and importance of all its clauses. Better yet if electors were required also to have a firm grasp of history, geography, science, technics, economics, and moral philosophy. Finally, we’d greatly improve our prospects if our electors had demonstrated their practical wisdom and far sight by, say, having married and engendered children, or having succeeded in business or war, or being responsible for managing great wealth. At that, we’d be down to an electorate of less than 1% of the population. We’d be governed by extraordinarily noble men. And we would not be living in a liberal society. We’d be living in the sort of society that humans most often seem to have preferred for themselves.

      • An electorate of literate wanton fools will vote itself limitless bread and circuses.

        More precisely, they’ll soon vote themselves into illiteracy, which is exactly what’s happening.

      • You’re changing the subject. Your question was about the relative rarity of liberal societies compared to monarchies. Now you seem to have abandoned that nicely focused topic for a more general ranting against liberalism. You are living up to my pseudonym.

      • a.morphous, you have yourself missed the point of my reply, which was to vitiate your suggestion that literacy is a sine qua non of democracy, and that this accounts for the scarcity of democracies in human history. I doubt that this is so. I see no reason why an electorate of prudent, sagacious illiterates could not succeed at democracy – could not, that is (to define “success”) survive in the face of competition from other, differently ordered societies, ceteris paribus.

        I suppose I must define a little more explicitly what I mean by this. Given two societies otherwise completely identical in every respect, one being democratic and the other being tyrannical, but both being composed of prudent sagacious men who are illiterate, it seems plain to me that the democracy will prevail over its competitor. Hayek has it seems to me made this abundantly clear. This being so, democracy should be the default form of social organization, pretty much everywhere we look.

        It is not. Now this could simply be due to the fact that human societies are no longer “natural,” but rather “civilized.” But this should perhaps indicate to us that the “natural” form of “civilized” society is not democratic.

      • Literacy is merely one manifestation of broader changes in society that enable liberal democracy (as some of the other commenters have mentioned).

        If society is composed largely of impoverished and ignorant peasantry, it is easy for an aristocracy to dominate them. A modern economy (which involves urbanization, industrialization, and specialization in addition to literacy and democracy), less so.

        I’m not sure why any of this is problematic. It’s all entirely independent of whether you like modernity or think it’s a terrible mistake. My point is simply that these are all interlinked and it does not make much sense to think that they can occur independently of each other.

      • ” Finally, we’d greatly improve our prospects if our electors had demonstrated their practical wisdom and far sight by, say, having married and engendered children, or having succeeded in business or war, or being responsible for managing great wealth. At that, we’d be down to an electorate of less than 1% of the population. We’d be governed by extraordinarily noble men.”

        Ha, ha! There are plenty of people in out government today who would meet these requirements, and they’re bums!

      • @rogerunited: quite so. Yet it would be a far more prudent and sagacious electorate than we now enjoy. Even so, it would be rife with scoundrels and fools. Truly discouraging for the democrat …

      • @ a.morphous: OK, so let’s say that instead of prudence and sagacity, there are in addition to literacy a whole raft of things that are each a sine qua non of successful democracy. How does this make democracy more stable and perdurant, and thus more likely to prosper over the long run?

        What is the worst possible state of affairs that our political order will have to endure, with any likelihood? I.e., not cometary impact, but just *ordinary bad stuff.* Like illiteracy, lousy education, bad work ethic, cultural faction, disintegration of the family, nonexistent moral catechesis, spreading social pathologies, plummeting fertility rate, low IQ, etc.; assume that all the logs of your raft are rotten to the core (this being the way they are all headed at the present time). That’s the situation you should design your political system to deal with, and survive.

        Does it really seem likely that an electorate composed of products of the rotten logs just itemized is likely to make good electoral decisions?

      • a.morphous wrote,

        “If society is composed largely of impoverished and ignorant peasantry, it is easy for an aristocracy to dominate them.”

        Is this not exactly what obtains in the US today? Millions of Americans, while not monetarily impoverished per se, are in debt up to their ears, and are just a paycheck or two from bankruptcy. We have lots of stuff, but very little wealth.

        Even more striking is the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the majority of Westerners today, but that’s not what you were talking about.

        As for ignorant? We moderns have it in spades! Most Americans know so little of their own history (other than it was “bad”) that the college-educated of today look downright retarded compared to the grammar school graduates of a century ago. We also know next to nothing about economics (hence the massive credit card debt), science (hence the belief in global warming), and a raft of other practical and

        And these masses are, in fact, dominated by an aristocracy: the ruling liberal elite. When properly educated, Americans tend towards tradition and conservatism. When cut off from their own heritage, kept ignorant, and entertained by porn, violence, and lowest common denominator “music,” they are easily led to self-destruction, as the past 50 years or so demonstrates.

    • Liberals believe in progress. So the fact that monarchies might have been dominant for a few millennia unitl the necessary conditions for liberalism were achieved has absolutely no bearing on the current desireability of one system over another.

      The definition of progress certainly has bearing on the current desirability of one system over the other. Calling democracy “progress” relative to monarchy simply assumes what you want to prove. It’s better… because it’s better.

      We are not making a “choice” between systems today, either. Indeed, the entirely reasonable choice of a limited constitutional republic rather than socialist tyranny has been denied to us.

      • @Tarl, congratulations on entirely missing the point, which was not that democracy is better, but that it was not available as an option for most of human history.

      • Your post makes no sense at all unless you think democracy is a superior form of government. How can the transition from monarchy to democracy represent “progress” (your word) unless democracy is better?

      • I guess I missed the point also, because my thought pattern is following a similar vein as Tarl’s I think, mostly in the idea that it comes down to one’s definition of progress. I define progress as the furthering of oneself from one point to another. There is nothing good about progress per se, but only in the goal to which progress is bringing you. If you are at point A and point B is a bad place to be, then progress toward point B is not a good thing. When you say liberals believe in progress, I automatically think, progress toward what? The good? What then is the good?

    • The Church would seem to be an obvious refutation of this hypothesis. For much of its history, the most ardent defenders of the authoritative, hierarchical, ultimately monarchical structure were the highly intelligent, literate, educated men who became bishops, theologians, and saints. Not until approximately five minutes ago did we start seeing demands for the Church to democratize by basically the dumbest generation of narcissists ever to emerge from seminary.

      • Might I suggest you read up on St. Thomas Becket, and why he is considered a saint? Most of the medieval era has the church struggling to have its own ecclesiastical jurisdiction separate from the monarch’s, and many times you have control battles between popes and monarchs.

        You don’t even see the Divine Right of Kings until after Feudalism passed and absolutism came into vogue (about 16th, 17th century), and even then, that comes from political philosophers of the deist/atheist “enlightenment”, and not from theologians. Rather you see the germ of the idea of modern democracy in much of Augustine’s, and later Aquinas’ writings.

  3. A very simple answer is that it is a lot easier to have a monarchy – basically a benign form of despotism – than it is a democracy. Just have a leader with some wealth (land, treasure, whatever), some kind of legitimacy, and the force to back it up and – voila! – you have a kind of monarchy (whether the divine right of kings in Europe or the mandate from heaven of a Chinse emperor, or the other sorts of totalitarians which we know so well). Democracies, on the other hand, are hard – you need liberalism (which presupposes literacy, toleration, a knowledge of history, etc) along with elections, rights which much be balanced by virtue (strong families, communities, religion, etc), seperation of powers, usually some kind of middle class, and on and on and on. That’s why the Greeks and Ben Franklin realized republics are hard to keep up, because they require a lot of work, and because they are so complicated it is very easy to muck it up.

      • You point out that democracy is difficult and unstable. Exactly right. Does this indicate that it is well-fitted to our nature, or not? Probably the latter.

        What I’m suggesting is that we try to discover what sorts of civilized societies are stable and easy to maintain, on the assumption that they are probably well suited to our nature, and then see how little we can change their basic structure so as to ameliorate such characteristic defects as they have.

      • Both Pharonic Egypt and Imperial China lasted a good deal longer than any Western regime has managed to. So did the Mayans. By your logic, we should be using them as models since they had stability all figured out.

      • @ a.morphous: do you think we should just ignore the example of Egypt? Why, pray? Clearly they were doing *something* right. What was it? Who can tell that it is inapplicable to us, until we know what it was? Did Egypt, the Mayans, and dynastic China have anything in common? Hmm. Well, they were theocracies, to begin with, wherein the royal cult was integral to the general cultus … What about Rome and Byzantium? Yup, them too. Interesting. The Caliphate? Check. Holy Roman Empire, British Empire? Check. Russia? Check. Curiouser and curiouser.

      • Don’t ignore them, by any means. But do you seriously want to live in a society that hasn’t changed for the past thousand years and will remain essentially static for the next thousand?

        All I can say is, to each their own. What do you think your role would be? The opportunities for people who express unusual and controversial views on whatever the equivalent of the internet is is likely to be pretty limited.

      • I can’t imagine enjoying a wholly static culture. But there is no reason to believe that Egypt was wholly static in a way that we both would find hard to tolerate. It may be simply that the interesting changes from one decade to the next that so absorbed their intellects are from this distance just invisible to us. All that we can see is the underlying stability of the basic cultural form.

        I can easily imagine the basic form of society remaining quite stable and predictable, while the ephemera changed and provided a great deal of interest. There could be room in such a society for, e.g., development of scientific knowledge and of technics, evolution of the arts and of the economy, and so forth, while the basic structure of family, church, polis and nation continued stably. I can see such a society providing many of the benefits moderns most enjoy about American culture, including even a very great deal of individual liberty and economic mobility. Illiberalism is not necessarily identical with totalitarian tyranny. But it looks as though liberalism may be.

        There is in cybernetics a set of three terms for various degrees of stability. A pencil lying on its side is stable (this would be our fanciful impression of what ancient Egypt was like). A pencil standing on its eraser is unstable (this would be what the West is like, since the French Revolution). A spinning top is metastable; it is standing on end, but when you give it a shove the physics of the system return it to an upright position. This is what we should aim for; it is probably what ancient Egypt was really like.

      • There could be room in such a society for, e.g., development of scientific knowledge and of technics, evolution of the arts and of the economy, and so forth, while the basic structure of family, church, polis and nation continued stably

        Sure there could. Feel free to let your imagination run wild.

        Here in the real world, however, changes in technology and changes in political arrangements seem to be quite closely coupled. Military technololgy has historically been a major determinant of politics — it’s been said the adoption of the stirrup was what made feudalism possible. In the modern era changes in media technology have driven a lot of changes (printing made possible the Reformation and nationalism, mass broadcast media enabled the early 20th-century industrial war-states, and we are in the middle of whatever the internet is doing)

      • There is of course much in what you say. Technical innovations obviously have organizational implications. Yet is it written in stone that such organizational implications cannot be accommodated in a general political structure so ordered in the first place as to be able to accommodate them, while continuing stably on its way, in rather the same way that the human body continues on as recognizably itself whether it be using stone tools or iPhones? If so, *where* is it written in stone, rather than simply asserted? I.e., what’s the argument that such a thing is impossible in principle?

  4. The point about liberals believing in progress is a good response insofar as it gets at a fundamental difference in assumptions. The liberal believes that the typical French peasant from the Vendee was, in some important sense, inferior to the typical modern American citizen.

    I doubt I’m the only person following this blog who believes quite the reverse.

  5. But there has been a radical change in human society over the past 200 years. Not a radical change in human nature, to be sure! Industrial capitalism combined with the gradual growth of democracy especially in England (starting even earlier) lead to the growth of a vast new middle class. (This is a very fundamental and simple fact of history which it seems to me both the rightists and the leftists find it convenient to neglect, each for their own reasons. Its classic analysis and exposition can be found, of course, in Braudel.) It really is something radically new that the vast majority of any population should be other than peasants, serfs or slaves just barely getting by. That doesn’t automatically mean democracy is better. But it is a historical fact which your argument initially failed to take into account. This opens up the possibility that some form of democracy (non-monarchy and non-oligarchy) is in fact the form of government that “works best” under these new social and economic conditions. This raises another issue–what should the criterion of “best” be? Your criterion is “that which leads to prosperity and social success.” But for whom? The notion of “universal human rights” ought to have at its basis that the criterion be “for each.” Now a monarchist could then in fact argue that he best way to reach that would be monarchy after all…. And this reminds me of something I have criticized in your earlier discussions: how do we know who deserves how much of what? Your discussions often seem to imply that “whoever comes out on top” by that very fact, deserves to. I doubt–and I hope–you don’t really mean that…. And finally, do you regard the U.S. constitution as an example of such misguided idealism? Earlier you said it must be seen as a good response to bad conditions. My reply then is: no matter what any one or any group attempts to do, it needs in some measure to be a response to bad conditions, since bad conditions are always present. In fact your present proposal seems to acknowledge exactly this point. And getting back to my first point, isn’t it the case that the development of democratic institutions in Great Britian is much more the result of a long slow process of tinkering and “adjustment around the margins” than it is of revolution? (even when you take the glorious revolution and the british civil war into account.) And isn’t it true that despite the silly rhetoric we may encounter in some history books, that the government of the U.S., in the bigger picture, is simply a stage or a branch of this development? Can’t the U.S. consitution be seen as an Enlightenment document which at the same time takes its natural place in the evolution of British institutions? And wasn’t the American revolution much more a revolution of political independence rather than a social or even political one?

    • “Industrial capitalism combined with the gradual growth of democracy especially in England (starting even earlier) lead to the growth of a vast new middle class. (This is a very fundamental and simple fact of history which it seems to me both the rightists and the leftists find it convenient to neglect, each for their own reasons. Its classic analysis and exposition can be found, of course, in Braudel.)”
      True. (I Probably need to read Braudel sometime.) I agree, and really find this to be one of the main determinants of culture and society in Modernity. The conclusion I draw is that a large urban middle class is itself incompatible with tradition or conservatism.

  6. The question could be put more generally. If the current state of social customs represents a myriad of adaptations optimized for the human species to survive and, in many cases, thrive, why in the world would anyone believe it is a good idea to tinker, even in view of perceived or acknowledged pathologies, with that state? Would not all cultures everywhere be at or near the best they could possibly be? Would not any human engineered change, e.g., “improvement” or “progress”, run up against the law of diminishing returns at best, and more likely be pathological itself?

    Isn’t, therefore, the notion of Progress, at least on a time scale any faster than ordinary human evolution, idiotic on its face? Isn’t such a notion obviously religious in nature? And in contrast to traditional religious claims that are largely or entirely orthogonal to science, do not such “progressive” religious claims run directly afoul not merely of science, but what everyone’s eyes see plainly every day? (As Jim Donald says, “I can see people not being equal, whereas I cannot see leprechauns not existing.”)

    • If the current state of social customs represents a myriad of adaptations optimized for the human species to survive

      Social evolution is continual, much like biological evolution. That is to say, while customs (and genetics) are adaptive, there is no particular reason to think they have reached a maximum or that the continual and ongoing process of adaptation has for some reason stopped.

      Isn’t, therefore, the notion of Progress, at least on a time scale any faster than ordinary human evolution, idiotic on its face?

      Um, no. Unless you think that 20000 years of human cultural evolution (which proceeds much faster than biological evolution) have all been a mistake and we were better off without it. But I don’t think anyone here is quite that reactionary.

      • Unless you think that 20000 years of human cultural evolution (which proceeds much faster than biological evolution)

        You say that as if culture and biology are two different things… That is, at least, not obvious. Most of those 20000 years were spent determining various local optima for various cultures. Then some folks (Europeans in particular) got in a hurry. I suppose you could say that “getting in a hurry” is itself some sort of local optimum to which we are hurdling, but it doesn’t seem nature has prepared us very well for, inter alia, ubiquitous free porn, cheap abundant carbohydrates, and practically instantaneous and cheap global travel… so the verdict is still out on that.

  7. Both Pharonic Egypt and Imperial China lasted a good deal longer than any Western regime has managed to… By your logic, we should be using them as models since they had stability all figured out.

    As a matter of fact, I think that prima facie their stability *is* a good argument for those systems. An actual analysis would be much more complicated, of course.

  8. “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”

  9. The question errs from the beginning, with the assumption that an ideal or “best” situation will automatically “default” into being. ‘Taint so. One man’s “best” is another man’s “boring”, and to some, (individuals and nations alike) rape and torture are just too ginchy for words, and in that realization do we say they have defaulted to their best?

    • Sin and error are possible, to be sure. If anything, we do default to them. But in that case, we tend to die sooner rather than later. So, what works and is virtuous tends to last and prevail. Run my gedanken policy test on any sin, and you’ll find that sin is always a losing policy as compared to virtue. That’s why the Latin for sin, “vice,” is the same word as “weak,” while “virtue” is Latin for “strength” or “excellence.”

  10. But is virtue synonymous with excellence and strength? Excellence and strength can refer to the ability to accomplish goals. But on what basis does one choose what goals? “Intelligence” for example can refer to all kinds of different abilities. It is perfectly possible and in fact quite common for individuals to indeed have all sorts of abilities and excellences, but to be quite poor at discerning right from wrong. To “succeed” in the sense of survive one need only be good at knowing what works at attaining that particular end, and have the skills to do so. That skill set is simply another matter entirely from the ability to discern ultimate ends in moral terms, and from fortitude in being true to those ends. I see in your etymological reference a dangerous equivocation.

    • Granted that it is possible to be excellent at winning by sinning. But nevertheless the wages of sin is still death, and who lives by the sword dies by it; so evil is bad policy for the sinner, and the “better” he is at it, the worse for him, in the final analysis.

      The virtuous man is virtuous along all the dimensions proper to manhood, so he is likely to have discovered that evil is evil by his excellence at moral reasoning.

  11. Again to return to A. Morphous’ posts as the most intriguing.

    The initial issue posed by the essayist was essentially: If “X” is the nature of Man, then why have historically most societies been “Not-X-Optimized”? The answer given by A. Morphous is Progress.

    Let us replace his use of the word “progress” simply with the word “change.” His proposition that there is such a thing as change is not particularly objectionable or even remarkable. It is as pedestrian as noting that doorways are higher today than a thousand years ago because of an average increase in human height. But note this example, and also note that the change that is at the crux of his proposition is a change in the nature of Man.

    The rub for Liberalism is then, in my view, twofold: The argument made is that society should/must change so that (1) Man’s fundamental nature can change for the better. The New Man. So that it change… into (2) its truer nature.

  12. An interesting question, but its premises are flawed.

    If we’re going to appeal to the weight of human history, let’s do so consistently. For most of history, we have been hunter-gatherers, and the documented evidence on hunter-gatherer societies is that they’re very egalitarian – so this line of argument leads to favouring something like communism or socialism, which I doubt is what the poster intended.

    The post is essentially an argument against utopianism, not against constitutional governance and representative democracy per se. But here we come back to Bonald’s Paradox. In developed Western societies, liberalism is the established, conservative option which has been forged and tested by history. It is Maistrean reactionary-ism that is the radical, even utopian, option. Whatever might have gone before, in the Stone Age or in feudal Europe, the most prevalent and “natural” form of government for an industrial capitalist society is constitutional liberalism (I suspect, but cannot prove, that this is because only that form of society produces a large middle class, and liberalism is a fundamentally a middle-class cause). So, while I applaud the poster’s anti-radical instincts, I would say that they lead in precisely the opposite direction from his conclusions.

  13. I’m really not sure where to begin due to the fact that I disagree with the conclusions which provide the premise for the conclusions of the article…see what I mean? That hardly makes sense.

    Essentially, I would suggest that the author is bouncing back and forth between different definitions of “liberalism” in order to make a point which may not be valid in the presence of more consistency. In short, today’s leftists/liberals are no more in favor of liberty than the author.

    Thanks.

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