July 22, 2010
Delegitimizing LiberalismBy J. Robert Smith
Five decades after liberalism began to fail, it's still with us and finding potent ways to diminish liberty. Liberalism has -- or seems to have -- more lives than a cat. It's sustained principally by two things, both powerful: myth and interest. If liberalism as a political and societal force is ever to be marginalized, it first must be separated from the myth that it grows in the same garden of liberty and republican virtues as conservatism and libertarianism. Voters and the public need to learn and appreciate that liberalism is largely a statist creed alien to the nation's heritage.
Within the Tea Party movement, this message has resonated. But the challenge is to spread this message into broader communities, where the independent-minded and the independent voter have little or no familiarity with the argument that liberalism has never been moored to founding principles.
It's through myth that liberalism draws much of its legitimacy. Much of the myth is that liberalism partakes in a common heritage with the aforementioned conservatism and libertarianism (classical liberalism). We are, as liberals would like Americans to believe, all sons and daughters of the revolution; we share broadly in the principles that founded the nation.
But this is untrue. Liberalism's roots are in the middle to late 19th century, not in the late 1700s. It owes far more to Hegel, Marx, and Darwin than it does to Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Hamilton and the Federalists may have desired more energetic government, but they would react with jaw-dropping revulsion at today's statist liberalism. Modern liberalism, which is increasingly a captive of the hard left, is more and more a Marxist construct.
Liberalism is a rejection of the belief that there are universal and enduring truths. It's rooted in relativism and historicism, or the beliefs that truth is situational and changes throughout history and that human nature is malleable. And beginning in the middle to late 20th century, liberalism's march leftward divorced itself from the belief that Providence is the wellspring of liberty and the rights of man.
The great misapprehension by conservatives and freedom-loving Americans has been that liberalism's manifest failures, and conservatism's conspicuous successes, would marginalize liberalism (such was the prevailing conviction with the Carter debacle and Reagan's ascendancy). Empiricism was believed to the antidote to infectious liberalism. But such has not been the case.
Liberalism's claim to compassion, fairness, and equality (of result) resonates with a good portion of the electorate and the public. But, tellingly, liberals have always claimed that they aim to create a more compassionate, fairer, and equal society without diminishing the birthright of liberty. Liberals stoutly deny that consolidating power in a central government to achieve their ends tramples the Founders' intent -- or, moreover, that it reduces freedom.
Most liberals still praise Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson while seeking to increase government and arrange a less free society. But liberalism has always been a silent repudiation of the Founders and founding principles -- and a hypocrisy. From the earliest days, liberals twisted themselves into pretzels trying to rationalize and justify their statism as one with the revolution and founding. When liberals can't persuade Americans that their beliefs square with those of the Founders, they fall to sophistry.
Anyone who has sat through an undergraduate class in political science, political philosophy, or history has been subjected to the argument that there are such things as "negative" and "positive" freedom. However elegant or clever the arguments, there's nothing positive, nor is freedom regarded, when government uses the law and the implicit threat of force to achieve redistributionist ends. Forcibly taking from one person to enhance the "freedom" of another prostitutes the principle of freedom.
Is there really any doubt among honest men and women how Jefferson and Madison would view today's government overreach and mangling of the Constitution? Would these men see liberalism as benevolent or dangerous? Freedom-giving or freedom-taking?
As Thomas Jefferson wrote simply: "I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive."
The other fallback argument liberals make when confronted with their hypocrisy is truer from their standpoint. They argue that the Founders were right in their time, but the times changed. America at its founding was a raw nation of modest coastal commerce, little manufacturing, farmers, and frontier. Limited, decentralized government worked because it was a better fit for the nation as it was.
But with the industrial revolution, with the great influx of immigrants, America changed. Complexity came to the nation with industrialization and population diversity, and so government had to change fundamentally to meet the needs of the new America. Government needed to assume more of a role in the regulation of commerce; it had to attend to the welfare, betterment, and assimilation of immigrants. Government had to erase inequities amongst all Americans.
The argument that a complex America needed greater government, more centralization, and control in Washington reveals a convolution of reason and liberal conceit. If anything, complexity begs more freedom, not less. Simplicity is more susceptible to control. By that understanding, infant America should have been more amenable to strong central government. The notion that a complex America is better-run by a relative handful of Washington politicians and bureaucrats would be farcical if it weren't proving to be such a liability and danger to liberty.
Make no mistake; the Founders would utterly repudiate statist liberalism. After all, the men who made a revolution and then made a nation did so explicitly rejecting the statism of the day: monarchy. One need only read Jefferson and Madison, especially, to appreciate their fear of tyranny developing in the emerging national government. The Founders would be leading the opposition -- one thinks fiercely -- to Mr. Obama and the left.
In the American experience, while liberals have no legitimate claim to the Founders, they do have their ancestors. Modern liberalism is the descendant of early-20th-century progressivism, which was embodied by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and yes, Teddy Roosevelt (progressivism enjoyed favor in both parties then -- at least portions of both). Roughly, Wilson is the liberals' Jefferson, while FDR is their Washington. But to read anything of Wilson's thoughts and ideas about government and its relationship to the people is to read a man who is nearly the antithesis of Jefferson.
Today, we are a nation divided; a nation, if you will, of two peoples with distinctly different heritages -- politically, at least. Liberty-loving Americans have Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Adam Smith, while statist liberals have Marx, Hegel, and Darwin -- and, lest we forget, Saul Alinsky. Freedom-loving Americans embrace the Founders, while statist liberals have Wilson and FDR. A solid majority of Americans are lovers of liberty, however. It's they who must be rallied to the great cause of reclaiming lost freedoms and returning government to its proper limited role in a free society.
Contemporary liberals mustn't be permitted to get away with making claims on the Founders or founding principles. The narrative against liberalism must include arguments as to why liberals are deeply divorced from the founding principles that make America truly free. Knowledge is power, and the more Americans are equipped to make right choices at the ballot box and in their daily lives, the greater the chances of marginalizing that century-long deviancy called liberalism.