6 Myths About Liberalism Debunked (and 3 Inconvenient Truths Conceded)

Critics of liberalism sometimes - though rarely - get it right in their criticisms. But when they get it wrong, they get it very wrong.

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Much has been written about liberalism on these pages, and I am sure much more will be written. The main thrust of this article is to debunk 6 myths about liberalism – mostly from conservative communitarians – but also to concede 3 points where critics of liberalism do get it right. 

1. Liberalism opposes community

This is the main myth that critics of liberalism throw at its feet. Its mythical nature stems from the fact that no notable liberal – Locke, Mill, Bastiat, Hayek, Mises, Rothbard – has ever condemned the concept of community, or what critics usually call “intermediary institutions”. In fact, all liberal thinkers worth their salt have noted the importance (and inevitability) of intermediary institutions that stand between the individual and the State.

The likely reason for the prevalence of this myth is because communitarian conservatives – like socialists and other statists – are unable to distinguish between “rights” and “right”. Liberalism is about the recognition and protection of individual rights. There is no such thing as a group right. This is not a liberal insight – it is simply in the nature of rights, something that South Africa’s Roman-Dutch common law theory backs up: A subjective right does not flow around in a vacuum; it must always attach to a legal subject. A group formed into a corporate person – a firm, a body corporate, etc. – certainly possesses rights, but these rights are suited to the nature of the subject they attach to. What can never happen is that the corporate person possesses more rights than the individuals that constituted it (nemo plus iuris ad alium transferre potest quam ipse habet).

Communitarian conservatives (and I use both qualifiers because all political theories already regard community as important) have trouble saying what “rights” they want groups to have – they simply want to lambast liberals for not recognising group rights. Liberals, of course, are happy for communities to have powers that further limit the power of the State, but these can never jurisprudentially be regarded as rights. That liberals do not wish to break legal science is construed as opposition to community per se. The fact that liberals do not recognise group rights however says nothing about the (very supportive) liberal approach to community.

2. Liberal individualism is atomistic

This myth is related to the previous one. Prominent conservatives claim liberalism believes in detached, unsocial individuals who operate as islands unto themselves. This is obviously false. Conservatives are confusing liberal rights discourse with a worldview. Liberalism is not a worldview, it is a legal-political philosophy. That liberalism recognises only individual rights as a matter of jurisprudence does not mean liberals in general care only about individuals.

Liberalism would have no use for rights, liberties, or individualism if the nature of human civilisation were not social or communal. If liberals truly believed every individual were Robinson Crusoe, what use would there be for recognising Crusoe’s liberty? There is nobody to deprive him of his freedom, after all.

The liberal legal-political philosophy says that because humans are social creatures, because humans have to live, work, and thrive amongst one another in peace and harmony, they have certain inborn rights that make this possible. Perhaps the primary liberal right is that to private property, which sets out precisely where and how individuals may enter into one another’s affairs, so as to ensure violence and conflict are (as far as possible) averted.

Conservative communitarians are unhappy about this state of affairs because, regrettably, they wish to reserve to the community the arbitrary “right” to overrule dissenting individuals.

Liberals naturally recognise the right of property owners – including that of a corporate person taking the form of a community – to overrule the decisions of those who are not owners. In this way, the owners of Orania, or (in an ideal world where it was privately owned) the Ingonyama Trust, can easily overrule the choices of inhabitants and, depending on the agreement between the owners and the inhabitants, kick them out if they so wish. But conservative communitarians are not content with this – they wish for “a community” (used euphemistically for State officials to act as “representatives” of “the community”) to step outside of its property, into the property of the dissenting individual or group, and dictate to them there, on their property.

That liberals wish for boundaries to be respected does not make of liberalism “atomistic”. It makes liberalism a profoundly social philosophy. Those who do not wish to respect boundaries, however, are the ones who must reconsider their anti-socialness.

3. Liberalism is about reason

Liberalism, like any other political ideology, requires reason. One cannot conceive of ideas or political theory, of whatever kind, without reason. Conservative communitarians make use of the same reason that liberals do.

Liberalism, as the name implies, is about liberty – freedom. It is not known as rationalism, reasonalism, or anything of the kind.

What is true is that many liberals have identified reason as the source of individual liberty. That is fair. But an equal number of liberals identify God as the ordainer of freedom, and more others identify nature or biology. Liberalism does not reject faith – although liberalism is popular among atheists for the same reason “libertarianism” is sometimes popular among bigots: as a political ideology it allows them to freely practice and express their beliefs without State violence being used against them – and it does not worship reason or science.

4. The French Revolution was liberal

This is a popular myth that is often laid at the feet of liberals, and is perhaps the most bizarre on this list.

How can the French Revolution be liberal if the very French liberal school of thought – an economic precursor to the Austrian school known today – opposed the bad ideas of the Revolution?

Those who claim the French Revolution was liberal invariably point to the fact that “rights” were part of the revolutionaries’ insistence, and found their way into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But the Code of Hammurabi could also be read in such a way as recognising “rights”, yet nobody claims Hammurabi was a liberal.

The Declaration contains many “rights” that liberals do – and did – balk at, and which communitarian conservatives might endorse wholeheartedly. That sovereignty is found in “the nation” and that no individual or association may deprive that sovereignty; that the law is about the “general will” (whereas in liberalism the law is simply protective of inborn rights); and that property rights may be limited for “the public necessity” are all conservative, not liberal, inclusions in the Declaration.

The fact is that the French Revolution entailed some profoundly illiberal aspects.

Church property was nationalised (not privatised). The government engaged in what is essentially money printing. The Revolution did not place substantive limits on democracy (democracy and liberalism are often, bizarrely, confused). The authorities arrested political dissidents.

The American Revolution is a more apt example of a liberal one, where great strides were made to limit democracy in favour of individual rights, decentralise power to state and local levels, and institute a justice system based on sound common law principles.

5. There is a liberal-to-socialist pipeline

It is by now a common refrain that liberalism is an introduction for many into socialism, or as Ernst van Zyl puts it, liberalism has Marxist children.

It is an easy jibe that is thrown at liberals for several reasons. The first is that American “liberals”, indeed, are socialists, and because American political culture is very popular (particularly among South Africa’s communitarian conservatives and their lay followers) this seems intuitively correct. The second is that in the olden days, many South African liberals did indeed “slideaway” to radicalism and Marxism. The fact that liberals distanced themselves from these slideaway “liberals” is conveniently ignored. Finally, it is an easy jibe because it is difficult to counter. Not because it is true for liberalism, but because it is so universally true for all political ideologies that nobody can deny it.

Indeed, this is only seen as a pattern because opponents want to see it. For instance, liberals, in turn, can easily claim that there is a conservative-to-fascist pipeline and find isolated examples as “evidence” as well. Even a conservative-to-socialist pipeline can be found, with former arch conservatives like FW de Klerk becoming centrists who agreed to a constitution with some notable socialist elements. There is also the liberal-to-conservative pipeline that many South African communitarian conservatives (many of whom are my colleagues) rode on, and the conservative-to-liberal pipeline that others have rode on.

There is nothing intrinsic in liberalism that leads to socialism. Communitarian conservatives would claim that both liberalism and socialism share universalism as a characteristic of their respective ideologies, but Nicholas Woode-Smith has already explained why universalism is simply a characteristic of any political philosophy. The moment communitarian conservatives claim that “every community must decide its own rules”, it has established a rule that is no less universal than the liberal rule that “every individual must decide for themselves”. Karl Marx was a fervent critic of liberalism – indeed, his main claim to fame is his criticism of liberal economics (otherwise known as capitalism). And liberals have been far greater opponents of socialism than have been communitarian conservatives, who often support socialist welfare programmes.

The truth is that there are liberals who become socialists. But (to our equalled dismay) there are also liberals who become conservatives. To call any of this a pipeline or an inevitability is to misunderstand the nature of political ideology.

6. Liberalism must tolerate intolerance

Recent “anti-globalist” critics of liberalism have pointed squarely to liberalism’s inability to respond to the authoritarianism of Russia and China, or the political correctness that has taken the West by storm. But liberalism at its heart is a militant, muscular philosophy. Locke wrote that when government oversteps its limits, it may be overthrown with force. Hayek strongly implied that illiberal states must be brought to book.

The irony, of course, is that these same critics of liberalism’s apparent tolerance for intolerance would also criticise it for “imperialism” if it did not in practice tolerate intolerance. If liberal states took substantive action against the Afro-Asian bloc in the previous century which imposed its collectivist agenda on the world, they would today be decried as neo-colonial.

But liberalism’s essence is strong and uncompromising. It regards the liberty of the individual as the primary value of political organisation, and any detraction from this value must be righted with whatever necessary force.

3 Inconvenient Truths About Liberalism

1. Liberals tolerate intolerance

Despite the fact that liberalism, as a political ideology, is militant, muscular, and uncompromising, liberals for the most part have tolerated intolerance. The liberal West has allowed authoritarian states to grow in power and influence. “Anti-globalists”, in this respect, are entirely correct, even though their suggested remedy (further Western retreat from international politics) is likely to exacerbate the problem.

But the liberals’ tolerance for intolerance is not related only to geopolitics – it is also evident in domestic politics. Liberals in South Africa have stood silently by as the Economic Freedom Fighters has risen. Many liberals treat the EFF as a legitimate political formation, despite its complete inconsistence with the social contract as laid down by Locke and others (not to mention our own Constitution). I have even heard liberals claim the EFF is good for South Africa’s parliamentary democracy.

The only liberal answer to the EFF is this: it is a fundamentally illegitimate organisation founded on an ideology of terror – communism – and it often follows through in practice with such acts of terror. In any liberal society, an organisation like the EFF would be barred from registering as a political party because of its total poisonous nature to various guarantees and safeguards in the Constitution. Liberalism has never required allowing deprivations of liberty – or threats to deprive liberty – and liberals who have stood by and in fact allowed it ought to be ashamed.

2. Liberals have become effeminate

This truth is related to the previous inconvenient fact about liberals. Most liberals are unwilling to fight for their philosophy. Liberals tend to be comfortable and lazy. Any suggestion of militant protest action – or even any protest action – is shrugged off and dismissed out of hand. We will discuss and debate the matter is the contemporary liberal answer, because the best arguments will win. I respect these liberals for continued adherence to our principles – personal liberty, private property, and constitutionalism – but I cannot help but regard them as virtually useless in the political game we should all be playing.

With “effeminate” I am not making a statement about the sex or gender of liberals. Men tend to have more muscular traits than feminine traits, and women tend to have more feminine traits than muscular traits. Both traits are necessary for a balanced life, and it is not uncommon to find feminine men and muscular women. It is also very possible for people to have muscular traits for very specific circumstances. Firebrand women in politics can be very muscular in their day jobs but at home or in a social setting allow their feminine traits to shine through.

But liberals, on average, appear to have adopted femininity as their political stance. Compassion, caring, steelmanning, tolerance for intolerance, sensitivity, are all prioritised above forcefulness and being uncompromising in our values. This is a problem.

There is a total unwillingness among contemporary liberals to get our hands dirty. Liberals keep wanting to assume the best from our opponents, even as they burn down the very liberal institutions we prize around us.

Truth be told, liberalism is simply a hobby to many liberals. It is what they do when they get home from work at 17h00 and before they go to bed at 22h00. Our opponents live and breathe their ideologies. Until we find such commitment to our political philosophy, we will continue to lose.

But before the communitarian conservatives develop smug smiles at this particular concession, they are not far behind the liberals. It must be conceded that they have in recent years developed more of a willingness to get their hands dirty and to take on our mutual enemies without compromising, but they by no means do so to the extent that both liberals and conservatives should be. While liberals have something to learn from Ernst Roets in this regard, both liberals and conservatives have much to learn from Saul Alinsky and other leftists who mastered the art of no longer giving a shit.

3. Liberals are not engaging in the culture war

Liberals have dropped the ball on the culture war. This is simply a fact that cannot be denied.

The left has perfected playing in the culture war, and conservatives tend to have a “homefield advantage”, although it cannot be denied that even conservatives have dropped the ball on this war to an extent.

A great example of this failure is to compare the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s liberal party, to the African National Congress today, and the National Party during the previous century. Both the ANC and the NP can be rightly described as movements, even though they are/were incorporated as political parties. The DA and its predecessors cannot readily be described as a movement.

The ANC and NP had/have their own media. The ANC has the Independent Group, and the NP had the National Press. The Progressive Party had sympathetic media but not media that it controlled. Even the weak United Party had Die Landstem between 1950 and 1967 as a mouthpiece. The Democratic Alliance has no media whatsoever, and it is almost universally hated by the South African corporate press. The DA has not even attempted to fill the gap by establishing its own media house.

It is true that the DA has podcasts, blogs, and a few columnists scattered around the media who report favourably, but this is insufficient. And this does not even speak to other cultural institutions necessary to make a movement. The NP had the Afrikaner Broederbond (among a host of other cultural organisations, some of which continue to exist) and the Conservative Party (to an extent) had the Afrikanervolkswag. The DA has none of this.

The ANC, through the tripartite alliance, controls trade unions and school- and university-based student associations. It is informally affiliated with various civil society organisations like the Progressive Professionals Forum and the Black Lawyers’ Association, etc. The Democratic Alliance has no or preciously few such associations. The DA is a political party – that’s where it starts and ends.

Liberals in general – beside the DA – do not fare much better. Only a handful of entities in South Africa would call themselves liberal: The Institute of Race Relations (and the Daily Friend), the Free Market Foundation, and the Rational Standard. Other sympathetic entities, like the Helen Suzman Foundation, Politicsweb, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, etc., would not easily shout from the rooftops that “we are liberal!” These prefer a big tent-cum-pragmatist line where “labels” are not liked.

Where are the liberal radio and television programmes? The poetry? The novels? One can still find conservative messaging on such platforms, but liberal messages are a dime a dozen. Liberalism is certainly well-suited to all these platforms – think American movies from the 1950s and a major theme in Captain America: Civil War – but the field has been largely abandoned.

Conclusion

There is a big difference between liberals and liberalism. Liberalism, as I have claimed before, is perhaps the West’s greatest conceptual invention. “Freedom” certainly existed outside the West and before the word “liberalism” was slapped onto it, but it was in the West where various strands of thinking around the philosophy of liberty were brought together. The result was prosperity at a scale never before seen in human history. Liberal economics – capitalism – brought us out of miserable poverty and made lifestyles that our ancestors could only dream of possible.

About liberalism there exists many myths that conservative communitarians today wish to peddle – and this peddling is only destructive. Conservative communitarians and liberals share a common enemy, and we would make a far better force together than apart. I can only hope that the underhanded jibes at liberalism will stop at some point.

Today, however, liberals have betrayed their awe-inspiring political philosophy. Most recently, the grandchildren of Edgar Brookes, a great South African liberal, tried to secure their grandfather’s legacy for the slideaway, something that the custodians of his legacy at the Institute of Race Relations thankfully will not allow.

But even well-meaning liberals have undermined the liberal project. Peace, love, and tolerance, might be the ideals we strive toward, but we do not get there by placing flowers in the barrels of our enemies’ AK-47s. We do not win the battle for freedom by writing long op-eds (like this one) while ignoring the crucial cultural battles being fought around us. Our hands are too clean for this game! And many of these criticisms of liberals by conservative communitarians are therefore on the money.

I do wish, however, that it was these criticisms that they focused their attention on, and not the falsehoods and myths about liberalism’s supposed opposition to community, its ostensible insistence on atomism, and the nonsensical idea that liberals are hardwired to be socialists.

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6 comments

  1. Helgard Muller Reply

    I never really read and no longer read Rational Standard. However, a friend shared this article. I am sorry to say it has not convinced me to give Rational Standard another chance. It is difficult to know where to begin with the superficial comments and the ignorance. But, let me briefly point out a few things:

    (1) Communitarianism doesn’t offer an ideological alternative to liberalism. It is a critique of liberalism. A lot like the current post-liberal critique. Communitarians hold a variety of personal views / alternatives ranging from conservatism to reform liberalism. Any way, the best way to probably understand communitarianism is to describe it as the position that identities but also our moral and political judgements are shaped by constitutive communities. That abstract away from it is dangerous. Communitarian critics of liberalism specifically attack the basis of liberalism’s claims to universalism; liberal conceptions of the self (self-sufficient outside a polis – man is a social and political animal); and like much of post-liberalism today the psychological and social effects of atomistic tendencies in liberalism (especially libertarianism and some forms of free market liberalism).

    Any way – back to you article. It is therefore silly to argue that the communitarian critique is about some binary choice between group vs individual rights. I am not sure how to read the argument that there is no such thing as group rights? Is this an ideological opinion or an observation?

    (2) Again the critique about “atomism” is poorly understood and framed. As noted earlier post-liberalism and communitarian critiques of liberalism argue that liberalism isn’t merely a legal & political philosophy. That it in fact encourages a culture of it own and a worldview (this is more post-liberalism). From a type of anti-culture to just the simple observation that in modern liberal societies (where liberal individual rights culture has gone too far according to the critics) the transgender male girl scout is always going to win…Again the actual academic and political debate here is a lot less extreme and more about the correct & healthy limits on a continuum between individual rights and communal attachments…In general some prominent communitarian thinkers are not that far apart from liberals if they are fair with their own characterisations of liberalism. However, libertarianism and some more modern conceptualizations of individual freedom in both progressive and free market liberalism are attacked with much more vigor (correctly so in my own view)…

    I would just suggest you read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on Communitarianism or for that matter some of the more recent post-liberals (Unherd has a lot of them…). The argument here is not for some return to group rights or collectivism – but a concern with the unintended consequences of unbounded liberalism (specifically extending individual rights and positive rights) in practice on politics, society / culture and those institutions between the state and individual. Again there are different views on what the solution could be…

    (3) I am not really sure what to make of the section on reason? You do realise there are philosophical critiques of rationalism, natural rights and consequentalist moral philosophy – including justifications of liberalism based on these three accounts? I would not call it settled at all…

    Any way – here I would just refer to Oakeshott when it comes to rationalism in political ideology (again check Stanford EoP entry):

    *The rules that are thought to govern practice are not independent of practical activity but abstracted from it. They are “abridgments” of customs, habits, traditions, and skills (RP 121). To borrow language from Michael Walzer, they are interpretations rather than discoveries or inventions (Walzer 1987). And what they interpret are ways of doing things:

    the pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but of meditation upon a manner of politics. (RP 51)

    Rationalists, unaware of the local origins of the universal principles that they imagine they have identified, reject knowledge gained through experience in favor of something they call reason or science. Whether deductive or computational, this abstract reason is thought to guarantee greater certainty than experience and judgment can provide. The fallacy of Rationalism, in other words, is that the knowledge that it identifies as rational is itself really a product of experience and judgment. It consists of rules, methods, or techniques abstracted from practice—tools that, far from being substitutes for experience and judgment, cannot be effectively used in their absence.*

    Again, a lot of post-liberal and communitarian critique feeds of a similiar “abstraction” present in some forms of liberalism and liberal argument (especially progressive and towards the libertarian end of the spectrum). I happen to think South African liberalism suffers from a similiar abstraction of South African political practices, judgements and experiences…

    (End first part)

  2. Helgard Muller Reply

    I will be briefer on what remains. Although it gets worse…

    (4) Again, I am not actually sure what to make of this section. There are those that argue that the French Revolution is an example of top down imposition of an abstracted rational ideology. That the American Revolution is an example of a more conservative and organic codification of an existing traditions, culture and norms.

    Think ideas wise something like this:

    https://www.amazon.com/Great-Debate-Edmund-Burke-Thomas/dp/0465050972

    Law & Liberty has a nice symposium on creedal vs more conservative notions of the American founding. So I would not call it settled that it was liberal – I am personally with Huntington. Americas English heritage and the influence of its reformist religious norms is key to the founding.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Are_We%3F_The_Challenges_to_America%27s_National_Identity

    (5) The pipeline argument is just silly on both sides. Just as silly to argue there is a right kind of liberalism (classic liberalism) and wrong liberalism (progressive liberalism). Again I would refer to the SEoP:

    “Given that liberalism fractures on so many issues — the nature of liberty, the place of property and democracy in a just society, the comprehensiveness and the reach of the liberal ideal — one might wonder whether there is any point in talking of ‘liberalism’ at all. It is not, though, an unimportant or trivial thing that all these theories take liberty to be the grounding political value. Radical democrats assert the overriding value of equality, communitarians maintain that the demands of belongingness trump freedom, and conservatives complain that the liberal devotion to freedom undermines traditional values and virtues and so social order itself. Intramural disputes aside, liberals join in rejecting these conceptions of political right.”

    (6) I don’t recognise anything you say here in the context of liberal IR theories…Which focus on international law, institutions and human rights to resolve conflict and provide stability in the international order. Muscular and militant – well unless you want to make the post-liberal and conservative point that this is what you get if you abstract away culture, tradition and political communities for universal liberalism and impose these liberal values on countries which are not ready or likely to endorse them through a barrel of a gun…

    I am not going to comment in detail on the rest – which seems to totally undermine your point that liberalism is not a worldview and only a political / legal philosophy. Here I agree with the critics – it is either because liberalism cannot intervene on principled ideological grounds and /or because it actually ideologically encourages a type of anti-culture of continuously providing more and more liberty through an individual rights framework that it cannot stop what you complain about…

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