How Liberalism Makes People Stupid

The main problem with liberalism is that it makes people stupid.

The paradox of liberalism is that, although one could summarize liberalism as philosophy metastasized into practical politics, there have actually been very few liberal philosophers.  The philosopher uses the Socratic method - rather than imposing his will on his opponents or students (but I repeat myself: for a philosopher, students are the enemy) and forcing them to accept his ideology, the philosopher gently asks his students questions.  The philosopher does not force anyone with any political persuasion to leave the conversation; the philosopher accepts every interlocutor, accepts everything, every idea, and dives into it as deeply as possible, and indeed has already considered every position they could possibly have, even more deeply than they themselves, who hold these positions, have considered them.  A philosopher like Socrates does this even at the risk of his own life, at the hands of those who would wish to kill the philosopher.  Liberalism attempts to form a regime that does on a political level what the philosopher does on a personal level - to accept every idea, every persuasion, every ideology - even those which are opposed to liberalism, and would destroy it.  You might say that liberalism is philosophy "writ large".

And yet, I repeat, there have been very few liberal philosophers.  Indeed, the vast majority of philosophers have been deeply opposed to liberalism.  Socrates himself, and Plato after him, were of course the very opposite of liberals.  Nor were they alone - the followers of Pythagoras were particularly opposed to democracy and its liberal ethical values.  One can find criticisms of the spirit of liberalism among thinkers as diverse as Xenophon, Plutarch, Confucius, Shang Yang, Seneca, al-Farabi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal, Berkeley, Rousseau, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Frege, and on and on and on.  Then of course there is Karl Marx, who may not have liked to be called a philosopher, (and who, by the way, had a certain liberal side...) but who produced a body of criticism of liberalism that influenced generations of critics of liberalism: Engels, Dietzgen, Kautsky, Pannekoek, Luxemburg, Bogdanov, Lukacs, Sartre, Beauvior, Merleau-Ponty, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Adorno, Althusser, Debord, and so on.  Similarly, Freud might not be considered a philosopher, but he certainly influenced a bucketload of philosophers, and he famously considered liberalism - especially its American variety - a "colossal mistake".  Then there were the anarchists, who were often at pains to distinguish themselves from liberals: Malatesta, Most, Kropotkin, Berkman, Goldman, or even Gustav Landauer.  For the vast majority of people, one can follow the rule of thumb of an inverse relationship: to the extent that writers are liberals, to that very extent they tend not to be philosophers.  They are liberals either because they live under an illiberal regime and nurture a cherished, romantic, uncritical image of what liberalism is like, or because they live under the liberal regime and have not questioned the ruling ideology particularly deeply.

There are indeed exceptions, but they are few, far between, and often partial.  Aristotle is often held up as a founder of liberalism, but he really sought a balance between types of regimes, and it is not hard to find passages in which he attacks the excessive licentiousness of democracies (and of course he supported slavery and the patriarchy).  The same could be said for David Hume: he preferred a balance between authority and liberty - one that would seem quite authoritarian from a contemporary perspective.  Ancient Greek philosophers were, as a rule, deeply illiberal. We could turn to the rather obscure figure of Archytus as an exception, but was he truly liberal?  I would say he was slightly more liberal than his teacher, Plato, but this is not saying much.  Abelard is a remarkable exception, as is Duns Scotus, and Spinoza is probably the greatest liberal philosopher of all time.  But even these are partial exceptions.  They have their limits.  John Locke, of course, is regarded as the "father" of liberalism.  But he had limits, too.  His "toleration" did not necessarily extend to Catholics and atheists.  And some thinkers that liberals might have assumed as allies may be a bit unreliable.  Montesquieu could be quite rabidly illiberal and anti-democratic, when the mood hit him.  Roger and Francis Bacon may not prove as liberal as one might hope, often offering practical advice to their sovereign on how best to control the populace - not in such an extreme way as Machiavelli's The Prince, but still.  Bertrand Russell sometimes identified as a liberal, but also sometimes as an anarchist or a socialist.  Rudolf Carnap, too, was an anarcho-socialist follower of Landauer.  Otto Neurath, the most political member of the Vienna Circle, was something of a socialist, though admittedly a quirky one.  Even John Dewey, who made democracy his supreme principle, could at times express a criticism of mere liberalism.  (Was Wittgenstein a liberal?  Some interpreters, like Chantal Mouffe and Richard Rorty, have tried to make him into one, but this is very debatable.  I, for one, am more convinced by Robert Vinten that he was not.)

Of course, most people would associate liberalism with the philosophes of the Enlightenment, so let's take a look at them.  Voltaire was a paradox - on the one hand, he clearly wrote some of the most impassioned and unrestrained praise for freedom and liberty.  On the other, he was a notorious anti-Semite, who also believed that people arose separately in different parts of the world, and that the people of Africa were a somewhat different species from Europeans.  He was a critic of autocracy and imperialism and war, who nonetheless palled around with Kaisers and Czars, made a good bit of money off of colonial trade, and might occasionally write a fiery pro-war poem or two.  Ah, well.  Diderot is another ambivalent example: he might rightly be regarded as the leader of the Encyclopedists, but he had a playful, subversive side, too, and saw beyond the rationalist Enlightenment liberal principles of his fellow philosophes, making fun of them for instance in Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream.  D'Alembert himself is a fascinating contradiction: his liberal belief in choice and freedom led him to doubt all dogmas, and to study science... but his study of science led him to conclude that free will does not exist and thus undermined his belief in choice and freedom.  Thus his materialism, borne of liberalism, points beyond liberalism.

Now we come to Kant.  Yes, Kant was a liberal... of a sort.  What Kant preached was autonomy - the ability to impose law, derived from reason, onto oneself.  The Enlightenment, for Kant, was the time when humanity liberated itself from its "self-imposed immaturity" and could therefore achieve this autonomy.  That said, looking from the standpoint of contemporary liberalism, Kant's idea of autonomy looks downright authoritarian.  After all, it was he who famously said, "Man is an animal that, so long as he lives amongst others of his species, stands in need of a master."  But also, "The master is himself an animal, and needs a master."  For "from such crooked timber as that of which man is made, nothing straight can be fashioned."  Kant broadly agreed with Rousseau's concept of the General Will and thought that individuals could be justly disciplined if they strayed too far from the General Will.  Though will and freedom are deeply connected for him, it is not the individual will in the sense of whatever one wants, or whatever is to one's own personal benefit - rather, he defines will as practical reason.  In "Perpetual Peace," Kant judges governments according to two criteria, the "form of sovereignty" -i.e., who rules, and the "form of government" - how they rule.  The form of sovereignty may be rule by one person, rule by a group of people, or rule by all the citizens.  The form of government may be "republican" or "despotic".  Thus, as far as Kant was concerned, it was entirely possible that a government could be a republican monarchy, and indeed, he hints that this is his favorite form of government.  This sounds like an oxymoron to modern ears, but Kant thought that, so long as there is separation of powers between the monarch and his ministers, this was perfectly valid.  He does not spell out how this would work in detail, but one gets the impression here that the monarch he imagines is more than a mere figurehead. In addition to all of the above, Kant was quite a vicious and intense racist - indeed he was unusually racist for his time, and influenced many currents of "race science" (really, pseudo-science) that were beginning around this time.  Kant's extreme racism has seemed to many people to be completely incompatible with his famous categorical imperative.  I tend to agree, but I'll let the Kant specialists sort that mess out.

Who's left?  Are there any philosophers whose liberalism was unqualified?  Only a handful.  Condorcet, I would say, is a consistent liberal.  I think it's fair to call Adam Smith a liberal, too, though I would immediately add that he is usually misinterpreted by many of the people who claim to be his followers.  J.S. Mill was obviously a liberal, at least in theory, though in his management of the East India Company, maybe not so much.  Besides Spinoza, whom I have already mentioned, perhaps Wilhelm von Humboldt is the most important liberal theorist, together with his brother Alexander.  Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams: I suppose they could be construed as philosophers, of a sort.  Karl Popper... Robert Nozick... Was Hayek a philosopher?  Was he a liberal?  He certainly thought he was both, though in my opinion he was neither. 

So why is this?  Why have there been so few liberal philosophers, and so many anti-liberal philosophers?  It seems to me that investigating this question leads to some mysteries that are quite profound.  As I indicated above, liberalism is philosophy writ large, philosophy metastasized into practical politics.  It might be said that liberalism is the philosophical regime.  But to make philosophy into a regime is to transform it utterly.  And this transformation is parallel to the one in Plato's Republic, where the interlocutors examine justice, and the just man - an individual, the philosopher - by blowing him up metaphorically in their imaginations to become an entire city.  The different classes contending in this city are merely metaphorical stand-ins for the different parts of his individual soul - reason, will, and appetite - and justice is the harmony between these different parts.  Though the individual whose soul this is is left nameless, Socrates, who represents philosophy, indeed the very epitome of philosophy, the just man, within a liberal democratic society, is the perfect candidate to be sacrificed - the one whose soul explodes into a city - though this city is not liberal, but the very opposite.  In the Republic and the Laws, ideal cities will be described that represent the pure, merciless, ruthless law applied and prosecuted onto reality in a suffocating perfection - airtight.  This transformation is thus a truly dialectical negation.  The mind in the liberal city is transformed into the illiberal city in the mind.  Liberalism is thus both identical with philosophy, and its very opposite.


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