Illiberal Liberalism

For some time I have found myself increasingly disconcerted with regard to modern so-called 'liberal' politics. I say so-called, because there seems to be a fundamental dichotomy between my reading of what philosophically led to liberalism and the way supposed liberal principles actually lead to dictatorial pontification in modern politics. There seems to be a growing trend for liberals to seen as the sole guardians of common sense and reason in this country.

I must admit to being a bit left of centre politically myself, concerned about less well-off members of our community, social justice, the dignity of the human person, etc. Over the last ten or twenty years, however, I have found that some of these issues seem to have been hijacked and amalgamated with an increasingly  formulated ideology of forward thinking, development and freedom, which is then stuffed down people's throats as the only reasonable option. This seems, in essence, deeply illiberal. There has been a creeping prevalence for the liberal elite to dictate which agenda is socially acceptable, and then ostracise anyone who disagrees, labelling them moronic or worse.

It strikes me that there is a very clear precedent for this development of Liberal thought, one which is deeply at odds with the traditional British understanding of liberalism championed by Locke, Mill and Paine, and dealt with in some depth by Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, in his extraordinary work The Great Partnership (London; Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

Part of the problem is the current arrogance regarding progressive ideas: a lack of humility before history. The confidence with which some pronounce society changing policies demonstrates their successful seduction by what Hayek termed 'the fatal conceit'; the idea that we know better than our ancestors, that we can consistently determine the consequences better than those who went before us, circumvent the prohibitions they observed, and yet somehow achieve what they did not achieve (see: Friedrich A Von Hayek & William Warren Bartley, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1989).) But we all know that the truth is, there's nothing new under the sun.

This bleeds into an old theory of mine. It is said that in these modern times, people have more freedom in terms of their access to information. They want proof and question everything. As a result of this information revolution, old ideas and received opinions are crumbling. Part of this modern creed is that in the old days they just accepted what they were told. I think the opposite could, in fact, be true and the reason for this is that, although it is true that information is more readily available, the quality of that information is extremely dubious. We have also become intellectual butterflies, flitting from topical flower to topical flower without ever drinking deeply of the nectar. The result is that the population has superficial understanding, but rarely anything more than that, a mere sound-byte of the lessons of history. Our children are spoon fed information through the tv and the internet, and we accept whatever we are told as fact. After all, it was on the tele. How ironic! The reality is that today, we live in an age of disinformation and we need to tune out the noise sometimes and work a bit harder to discover the truth.

Friedrich von Hayek
The defining trait of a totalitarian state was just as evident in pre-seventeenth century society as today. It is simply this: that the victorious party imposes its view on its opponents. It was evident in the attitude of the France of the Revolution towards religion. They condemned religion altogether as they considered that it constituted a source of conflict. In England there was a different attitude, replicated later in a different way in the USA, this was that religious liberty was created by people for whom religion mattered a great deal. The difference is demonstrated by this quote from the French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville:
I enjoyed, too, in England what I have long been deprived of—a union between the religious and the political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty.—Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, London, 1861, vol. 2, p. 397
Alexis de Tocqueville
This is an example of what so surprised the French: religion is actually a force for freedom.

We have at least four modern experiments for conceptions of politics: the English revolution in 1640, the American revolution in 1776, the French in 1789, and the Russian in 1917, each with its own unique trajectory. The English and American both led to terrible wars, but they left in their wake stable societies with respect for human rights. The French and Russian led to reigns of terror. They began with dreams of utopia, but eventually they turned into nightmares of repression.

The difference between the two was that the English and American revolutions were inspired by the Bible, led by Puritans with a strong sense of covenant, and emphasised civil society, strong families, supportive communities, voluntary associations, philanthropic endeavours. These are acknowledged by de Tocqueville as the little 'associations' that keep liberty alive by serving as a buffer between the individual and the state. The French and Russian revolutions were based on philosophy and they hated these same ideas. Both Marx and Engels distrusted families and communities because they got in the way of the direct relationship between the citizen and the state.

The English version of human rights, therefore, saw rights as defining the space in which governments may not intervene. We enter into a social contract with government where we hand over some of our liberties for the sake of law and order and defence against foreign powers. But there are certain liberties which are inalienable, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out. We cannot sign these away, they define an area of freedom by setting limits to the power of the state.

The French version saw rights as an ideal description of humanity. The job of politics then, was to enforce this ideal on society. Politics is about the transformation of society by the force of law.
When a regime is by definition regarded as realising rights and freedoms, the citizen become deprived of any right to complain that he is being deprived of his rights and liberties.—J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, (New York, Praeger, 1960), p. 35.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
English liberty set limits to the state whereas, by contrast, French liberty was imposed by the state. Rousseau went as far as to say that, if necessary, we must force people to be free:
whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, uniting every Citizen to his Homeland, guarantees him from all personal dependence, a condition that ensures the control and working of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements, which, without it, would be absurd and tyrannical, and subject to the most enormous abuse. -The Social Contract (1762)
There can be little doubt that the French revolutionaries read Rousseau and walked away with a theory and justification for a democratic-authoritarian form of government. Indeed, Robespierre idolised him.

So can we say that the French tradition is displacing the English one? There is no doubting the alarming erosion of civil liberties we have witnessed in recent years. Are we witnessing a step towards totalitarian democracy?

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