It is often claimed, as a matter of criticism, that liberalism is universalistic, the implication being that it is naïve and not aware of the reality that many communities around the world reject liberal rules. This abstract charge finds its concrete expression in the criticism that the liberal West has irresponsibly exported mass democracy – said to be a liberal value – to every community around the world, and this has had undesirable consequences.
This is the second in a series of five articles addressing common conservative assaults on South African liberalism. The links for all articles in the series appear at the bottom of every article.
That liberals regard liberal rules as universalistic is not denied, although those who subscribe to liberal nationalism might disagree. But two things need to be understood about this acknowledgment.
The first is that liberal universalism is not the same as claiming that everyone is a liberal or that communities around the world contain a subconscious liberalism simply waiting to be unearthed. Instead, liberal universalism is the claim that every person in every community has an inherent right or entitlement to be free, regardless of the values held by the community into which they were born. Stated differently, perhaps in more palatable conservative language, liberalism requires that there always be a right to opt out. The universalism, in other words, is the recognition of a universal rule, not a universal sentiment.
The second thing to appreciate is that liberal universalism hardly stands alone. Many forms of so-called “conservatism” also have a universalist nature. Communitarian conservatives appeal to a universal rule that every community is different and must be allowed to make its own decisions. The conservatives Ernst Roets and Ernst van Zyl in a constructive debate against myself and Hermann Pretorius also appealed to a universal rule against “imperialism.” Every ideological conviction at some level of abstraction appeals to universal rules – contemporary conservatives in the school of Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, for some reason, wish to hide their universalism, whereas liberals do not mind it.
Well-meaning and morally committed conservatives are just as universalistic as liberals. While they might not believe their cultural preferences are universally applicable – a view liberals share deeply – they do believe there are certain imperatives above those cultural preferences that regulate the “rules of the game,” as it were. The difference between liberal universalism and conservative universalism is that liberal universalism is more localised/particular and conservative universalism is more generalised/removed. The liberal regards the individual, the most local unit, as the primary subject of the rules of the game; whereas the conservative (in particular the communitarian) regards the community – however arbitrarily defined – as the primary subject of the rules of the game.
Another thing to appreciate, which relates more to the content of liberal universalism than to the nature of universalism, is that liberal universalism is not a worldview that will displace the cultural or even civilisational mores and practices of anyone. Ernst van Zyl, in a more recent conversation with Daniël Goosen of the Vryheidstigting, made this common misrepresentation – that is, to talk about liberalism so vaguely without reference to what it in fact requires.
In addition to making the same mistake mentioned above (i.e., regarding liberal universalism as meaning “everyone is a liberal”) and below (on democracy), Van Zyl also implies that somehow so-called “classical liberalism” is a “system” – implying a worldview with at least a cultural content – that must displace something else. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what liberalism by nature is.
Liberalism does not impose any positive content, only a negative rule: that those who wish to be left alone ought to be left alone. In other words – taking the example of Afghanistan that Van Zyl utilises – there is nothing in liberalism that would stop the 40 million Afghans from freely practicing every cultural and religious rite or value they hold dear. All that liberalism requires is that those Afghan individuals or communities that opt out of those values, be allowed to do so. In other words, liberalism stands against – not for, as Van Zyl implies – the imposition of cultural or civilisational values, which is something Van Zyl’s employer in AfriForum is a great champion of in South Africa.
One must also remember that the opposite of universalism is the hugely problematic relativism. Relativism holds that there are no absolute truths; other than this one, perhaps. Rape might be wrong in the West, but if it is an accepted cultural practice somewhere else, on what basis is the West to judge? To impose such Western sentiments would be cultural imperialism and would violate those other communities’ self-determination.
In this respect, Van Zyl makes the relativist case as well. There are certain societies that burn innocent people – what is to be made of this situation? The liberal universalist’s answer, Van Zyl argues, is that those societies must be forced to stop the practice. This is correct. Van Zyl adds, however, that this is precisely what is “wrong” with liberal universalism. The fact that liberal universalists would use force to stop the burning of innocents is the problem.
Relativism is as inconsistent as it is morally dubious. Committed liberals would not mind being labelled as “imperialistic” (no matter the inappropriateness of the term in this context) because of their absolute and universal rejection of rape and other forms of violent imposition, like burning innocents. It is not that rape and burning innocents is incompatible with Western culture or sentiment, but that rape and burning innocent deprives the victims of those actions of their self-determination – precisely the ability to determine their own values.
Much later in their conversation, Van Zyl argues that liberals only tolerate “liberal communities”, and that any deviation from liberal rules would entail (presumably State) force to place those communities back on the reservation. The thing is that a “liberal community” is nothing more than a community that does not impose its values on those who have opted out. There is no such thing as a liberal cultural content: Liberalism is nothing but a (small) set of rules of the game.
Relativists, in this context, should make up their minds: Do they want cultural communities to determine their own values without imposition, or are they fine with cultural communities imposing their values? Conservative relativists would claim they espouse the former and condemn liberal universalism of the latter. But it is precisely liberal universalism that is dedicated to bringing the latter to an end – liberal universalism seeks to give every community the maximum freedom to self-determine for itself, not for those who opt out of its values.
Liberalism’s universalism recognises that any individual, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, is entitled to the very same freedom to self-determine. To a liberal, it would be improper to tell Person A, because they were born in Paris, France, or Parys, Free State, that they are entitled to have their property rights respected, but tell Person B, because they were born in Kinshasa, Congo, or Pyongyang, North Korea, that they are not. This would be (unjustifiably) arbitrary. Person B could, of course, choose to never acquire property, or adopt the communal conceptualisation of property rights that exists in their community, but they could also choose not to adopt that conceptualisation. Their community (outside of its own legitimately acquired property), and certainly their government, would have no rightful authority to stop them from opting out.
It is also strikingly convenient that the Hazony and Deneen-conservatives – conservative relativists – always find themselves in free societies. They claim liberty for themselves, and use that liberty to its fullest extent. Even more striking is that in South Africa, where these conservatives form part of a small minority of people, they nonetheless (conceptually) place their ability to self-determine in the hands of whatever happens to be the majority of the community. Taken to its conclusion, these conservatives in South Africa would find themselves quickly swamped and their freedom undermined.
This takes us to the next aspect of the conservative criticism of universalism: mass democracy. Mass democracy is regarded by conservatives as a practical expression of the abstract value-system of liberal universalism. Daniël Goosen, in the previously-mentioned conversation, argues that only democracy is compatible with liberalism.
This is quite jarring. Liberalism and democracy are not related, except insofar as they recognise the individual as the primary subject of the rules of the game. Most political systems, in any event, incorporate both liberalism and democracy (and other ideological convictions like conservatism) to varying degrees.
I realise it is an uphill battle to divorce mass democracy from liberalism, but it is a battle I gladly fight and a hill I happily die on.
Friedrich von Hayek, perhaps one of the greatest liberals of the previous century, was resolute in his opposition to democracy, at least the way we understand it today. Hayek spent much of his intellectual energy on finding ways to keep democracy out of the economic decision-making of free people and their enterprises. One critic even went so far as to call Hayek an “authoritarian liberal” for his trouble.
It is true that the West has over the last century exported mass democracy around the world, but it is entirely unclear why this is associated with liberalism. Burkean conservatism, and Marxian socialism, are just as Western as Lockean liberalism. Why is the Western exportation of democracy not then identified with conservatism or socialism? Liberalism – with free-market capitalism as its economic dimension – is perhaps the West’s greatest contribution to human civilisation, but it is not the only one.
Liberalism prefers those political models that serve liberty the best. In some respects, democracy has fit this task. But at no point has a centralised democratic order fit this task, and certainly no South African liberal worth the name has supported centralisation. Centralisation will be explored in the next article of this series.
Liberalism and democracy have very different political-philosophical roots, despite agreement about the individual as the primary subject. To repeat, liberalism’s basic value proposition is this:
Every individual, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, is by right entitled to freely make decisions about their own affairs, including their proprietary affairs. No other person – outside of their property or agreement to the contrary – by right, may interfere in this reality without consent. Government, within the liberal worldview, exists to protect this reality – in other words, government must ensure that no person interferes uninvitedly or fraudulently in the affairs of another.
It must be plain why democracy and liberalism are not necessarily bedfellows.
The idea that a large enough group of people can vote (or decide) away the liberty of the individual, or even that of a community, is poison to liberalism. This is why constitutionalism is a quintessentially liberal idea when it comes to the State, and to this day remains perhaps the most universally adopted liberal institution in human history.
Constitutions have always existed, but the idea that government power must be subjected to law in the same way ordinary legal subjects are subjected to law, was a liberal contribution. Humanity still benefits from this to this day, even though the constitutional enterprise has its marked imperfections and failures.
Liberals, in other words, are constitutionalists. This means that to the extent that liberals embrace democracy as a framework to protect liberty, they embrace constitutional democracy. This does not simply mean a constitution and a democracy, but a democracy wherein the liberty of the individual (whether alone or in association with others) is protected from uninvited majoritarian interference.
This guarantee of liberty can never be as absolute in practice as it is in principle, because we are dealing with human beings, but it is a substantive guarantee that has worked remarkably well in those states that have truly put their mind to implementing liberal democracy. South Africa, too, has benefited from this over the last several decades, although this does not deny that that system is in the process of collapse.
Conservatism, on the other hand, is quite often simply democratic – often hidden under terms like “civil virtue” or “responsible citizenship” – and regards limitations upon the “community’s” ability to make decisions as anathema. The community, understood to mean the majority of that community, or the leaders recognised by the majority of that community, decides all issues. In this respect, conservatism is far more democratic than liberalism is, and modern, so-called “national-conservatives” do not shy away from admitting to this. One of their main lines of attack on both liberalism (in the form of courts enforcing individual rights against the democratic will) and progressivism (in the form of legislatures deferring to executive agencies and experts) is that the democratic right of a given nation to self-determine is undermined.
In other words, democracy is not something that must be laid squarely, or even largely, at the feet of liberals. It is simply incorrect, then, to just lay the export of democracy at the feet of Western liberals rather than Western conservatives.
But for a supposed constitutional democracy like South Africa to be successful, requires the people who live under it make it work. We have had varied successes with this in South Africa, but the ultimate reason why constitutional democracy is falling apart today is because liberals, moderates, and conservatives, abandoned their posts. Conservatives have decided to blame liberals and the Constitution for this, as if the Constitution could ever enforce itself, without looking in the mirror. Liberals, for our part, have blamed the government, also without looking in the mirror. The truth is that broadly everyone except the socialists have dropped the ball, allowing the “democracy” to in some cases almost entirely do away with the “constitutional.”
This failure, by both liberals and conservatives, will be addressed in the final article of this series.
Liberalism, far from being about mass democracy, is the political philosophy that proposed limitations upon government power of whatever nature. Democracy itself was a limitation upon the power of the monarch, but this did not mean liberals conceived of democratic government as without limitations, as conservative communitarians often do. Liberals would jump upon any viable opportunity to limit government power further than is currently achievable under modern democracy.
Article 2: Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy