The Roots of a Renaissance

We can share the Ten Commandments of Liberalism with our children and get realigned with our ideals.

Published in Underthrow Series .

Red vs. Blue is such a crude distinction. It always has been. It pulls people into partisan team sports, locks them in affiliation binaries, and pits them against one another in memetic warfare (sometimes street violence.)

It is destroying our souls.

More troublingly, though, left-right politics obscures a more fundamental dynamic: the rise of illiberal culture.

Authoritarianism is ascendant on the left and the right—but no longer just at the extremes. Americans are losing their liberalism (not the partisan platform Limbaugh once croaked about, but rather the doctrine of the American Founders.)

The rules, norms, and moral frameworks of the liberal order allow each of us pursue our particular life plans while socially cohering in peace. That was the idea, anyway: E pluribus unum. But Illiberal culture is paving the way to illiberal politics as authoritarians are in an arms race to dissolve what’s left of the liberal order.

Today, therefore, the critical distinction is not left or right, really. And the sooner we wake up to that, the less likely we’ll be set upon each other, tagged, and herded by authorities.

Those aggressively pushing illiberal doctrines seek to destroy our ideals because they are the basis of a peaceful, pluralistic order.

Just what ideals?

Ten Liberal Ideals
So, what is true liberalism? And why do we need to preserve it?

I offer the following as simple heuristics, mainly because most people adopt heuristics more readily than theories. I refer to “degree” so as not to be accused of being doctrinaire. In other words, we strive for these, even if we fall short.

One can consider oneself liberal by degrees using the following ten dimensions:

1. Nonviolence

Limit state violence or mass compulsion to serve a particular conception of the good.

Such is the essence of liberalism. Whether we appeal to ahimsa in the East or the Harm Principle in the West, we improve upon the ideal of nonviolence through conscious, continuous practice—even in politics.

Applying such to politics limits the ambitions of those who seek to impose their notions of the good through mass compulsion. You can think of this prime value as comprising more familiar freedoms, such as religion, expression, and self-defense. Or more simply, Don’t harm people in their peaceful pursuits.

2. Toleration

Tolerate other forms of nonviolent expression or ways of living—as long as they do not injure anyone. (Injury is not hurt feelings, by the way.)

Toleration is a basic virtue in a diverse society. It doesn’t mean we must be forced to associate with one another; it simply means we must respect one another’s life plans because we will most certainly all have different life plans. An ethic of toleration first acknowledges the fact of pluralism—we’re all different and sometimes emphasize different values—then builds on it with the reciprocal practice of live and let live.

Those who abandon that reciprocity are enemies of liberalism. This is the fundamental asymmetry between liberalism and other doctrines.

3. Rule of Law

Support equality before the law or equal application of the law.

We want a society of rules as opposed to a society of rulers. If we’re to live together peacefully within some jurisdiction, the rules must apply equally to everyone. Historically, the extent to which the U.S. government has abandoned equal treatment is the extent to which it has been illiberal. Such always needs to be rectified—certainly in the past, but also today. Just as you can’t fight fire with fire, you cannot fight illiberalism with more illiberalism.

Justice is not a cosmic scoreboard to be equalized by powerful bureaucrats allocating favors, privileges, or intergenerational redress to groups. Liberal justice requires equality before laws that privilege no person or group–whether agents of the state or their supplicants.

4. Category Blindness

See our common humanity beyond someone’s superficial characteristics and avoid imposing group categorization schemes.

Sometimes, it can be hard to ignore someone else’s skin color, the way she speaks, or her apparent sexual identifiers. But these categories are not pertinent to questions about her capabilities, various life plans, or “the content of [her] character.” Liberals seek to celebrate our common humanity as we variously pursue our missions.

Continuous preoccupation with irrelevant categories diverts people from realizing a peaceful, prosperous liberal order together. Therefore, we are committed cosmopolitans, attuned to both our common humanity and the sacredness of every person, whatever their race.

5. Real Community

Appreciate the importance of membership in healthy communities or systems of mutual aid without lapsing into collectivism.

Americans have been mired in illiberal politics for so long that we have forgotten how to take care of each other. Whether you observe the decline of mutual aid in America through the lens of Kropotkin or Tocqueville, real community is dying. American voters, politicians, and bureaucrats have slowly created a zero-sum transfer state in which voting blocs seek to take from one another through lobbying and activism.

Too many Americans outsource their concerns to distant capitals instead of building community and becoming the social safety net. They are turning to crude twentieth-century collectivism. We need to turn back to each other in real acts of compassion.

6. Private Property

Embrace the institution of private property, private ownership of capital goods, and private ownership of assets.

Property ownership creates strong incentives to be productive and is, of course, a precondition of trade. Sustainable patterns of production and trade give rise to greater overall prosperity. The abstract rule of private property is not enough, though. We must practice stewardship, whether in taking care of our homes or in being responsible stewards of capital as executives or investors. While there are certainly healthy, locally managed Ostrom Commons, such systems should exist in balance with institutions that respect private property.

Private property is one of the first institutions the enemies of freedom will attack.

7. Truth Tracking

Seek truth in an ongoing discovery process that includes reason, evidence gathering, and falsification.

We all have an enormous responsibility to seek the truth, even if we are limited in our sensemaking. We can admit that we are, in some ways, always trapped in our own perspectives. But we can also use observation, falsification, and good discourse to track the truth. It’s vitally important to develop and improve upon our sensemaking methods, starting with how we communicate with one another. Appeals to one’s “lived experience” and subjective constructions are not enough. Just-so stories are the enemy of collective sensemaking. We should be open to the reality of others’ experiences but also to data that conform—at least in some way—to a mind-independent reality.

8. Discourse Norms

Practice the principle of charity when in dialogue with others.

Avoid fallacy and rhetorical tactics that interfere with the pursuit of mutual understanding and improved collective intelligence. Human beings count on being able to understand the world to operate within it. Much of that understanding comes through the dialogical process, or what meta-relating expert Michael Porcelli calls “weaving shared reality.”

But to engage in constructive dialogue, one must commit to certain discourse norms and be charitable to another’s perspective, as long as the other perspective is not invective. Civilized society thrives on weaving shared reality, even if that reality is sometimes socially constructed. Dialogue that works toward common understanding starts with assumptions of good faith and good rules of engagement.

We should never waste time dialoguing with liars.

9. Internalized Costs

Adopt good institutions that minimize the imposition of harms or costs by one group onto others.

Whether in individual behavior or corporate enterprises’ conduct, we ought to settle our disputes within some form of common law system that minimizes the imposition of costs and harms onto others. In other words, any liberal doctrine-forming law should disqualify cost-shifting to the extent practicable. Corporate entities and individuals must be held accountable for imposing costs onto others. Still, we acknowledge that the mode and manner of that accountability should also be liberal–for example, rooted in due process.

10. Skepticism of Authority

Remain skeptical of political power, even when you think it can be used to achieve good ends. Once institutionalized, it will be weaponized.

The true liberal disciplines herself not to accept illiberal means to any desired end. The liberal knows that architectures of violence, once built, will eventually be hijacked by those who do not have our best interests at heart. That’s why we must develop impartial systems of peaceful interaction. Though such systems do not always yield equal outcomes, they offer open access. And they create many opportunities for people to self-organize in diverse communities. By contrast, political authorities simply cannot build communities. Communities are built by individuals who share common missions, interests, and needs.

I like Alastair McIntyre as much as the next guy, but virtue must be practiced over politics, and communities are stronger that are chosen.

I can’t help but think that there are still plenty of liberals in America, but our numbers are dwindling. Many have forgotten that one can hold conservative or progressive values and still call herself a liberal. So, of course, some liberals might emphasize certain points above and deemphasize others. To the extent that we hold most of these principles by degree, we must join in solidarity against illiberalism. Whether it’s extremists on the right with their tiki torches or activists on the left with their Molotov cocktails, illiberal politics threatens to burn America down.

Liberalism and Its Enemies

I won’t distract you, Dear Reader, with the sordid history of how the term liberal was corrupted through time. Instead, I’ll just say that true liberalism is the doctrine that animates the American project. It is the only hope for any pluralistic society to thrive. In our sense, a liberal is concerned with liberating people–from violence, oppression, and poverty.

Libertas perfundet omnia luce.

Freedom will flood all things with light. The liberal project, begun in earnest during the Enlightenment, animated a band of polymaths who drew up the blueprints for the first liberal order in Philadelphia, 1787.

The men who drew up those documents were imperfect. The resulting order has always been imperfect. The American Project has struggled mightily through various eras to realize its ideals and has more than occasionally fallen short. It has succumbed to the temptations of power. It has mired itself in horrors such as slavery, eugenics, subjugation, internment camps, and unjust wars. It has allowed unholy alliances between corporations and the state. To many, all these failures mean we must abandon our liberal ideals.

As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write in Critical Race Theory,

“Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

It’s not just that many social justice advocates question that legal order. They seek to dismantle it. And that would be precisely the wrong path if one desires peace, freedom, and abundance.

If you thought attacks on liberalism were only coming from the left, the right is developing its own illiberal cultures. Patrick Deneen represents a growing group of national conservatives who claim that liberalism is a materialist, libertine “anticulture.” Remember that liberal pluralism is the social arrangement most likely to make Deneen’s local theocracies possible. Deneen thinks freedom and free enterprise have run roughshod over America’s moral order. Yet we find different fingerprints when we look closely at everything corrupted. Though Deneen routinely conflates modern left progressivism and classical liberalism, he’s ultimately hostile to both.

But he shares one thing with the left he despises: intolerance and the urge to control.

So Deneen advocates a strain of conservatism that strays too far from our Founding Ideals despite the latter’s religious freedom protections. It’s not hard to see how, if successful, Deneen’s religious localism could expand into dystopia like that depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. While Deneen represents this illiberal right’s new intellectual pillar-sainthood, he has a long way to go to convert reactionaries into religious operatives serving a theocratic superstate.

I have always been suspicious of Manichean variations on you are either with us or against us, but the rise of these authoritarian mind viruses is pushing us to pick teams.

Liberal or Illiberal

Illiberalism is dangerous not only because it lacks certain moral principles but also limiting principles. Its adherents simply declare claims to political authority until they herd more followers. In this decidedly postmodern age, one might ask why we would want to have any principles at all. The answer lies in creating a moral universe that doesn’t tilt too far toward arbitrariness or absolutism.

Liberalism is the middle path.

Without liberalism, we have no moorings. We jettison the neutral adjudication, mediation, and truth tracking that allow us to live together in healthy pluralism. If all discourse is to be reduced to proclamations of political power, then partisans are playing a dangerous game. The “winner,” after all, will shove his utopia down your throat.

Why? Because political power is just the institutionalized threat of violence.

Liberalism is the only doctrine designed to accommodate real diversity, which means it protects different experiments in living and recognizes people’s rights to pursue different ideas of the good. All other doctrines require submission to The One True Way.

If we have to pick a team soon, we should no longer ask whether that team is left or right. We should ask whether that team is liberal or illiberal.

A version of this article first appeared at AIER.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates, you can read more from him at Underthrow.

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