What is a Liberal?

May 22, 2017

The constant thread running through my work for the past half-decade has been a critique of Liberalism, which challenges and questions the worldview of most global elites, including the intellectual elites from whom I received my own academic training.  I’d therefore like to take a few pages to clarify what I mean by Liberal.

Liberalism’s so-called birth might be dated to the American and French Revolutions, or to the Enlightenment philosophy from which the political experiments received their inspiration.  Thomas Jefferson declared that Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Francis Bacon were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.”  Liberalism should not be confused with the left or “progressive” side of the prevailing spectrum, but encompasses the full range of today’s predominant political choices; when I use the label “Liberal,” I am therefore referring both to political liberals (like the Democratic Party in the U.S.) and so-called political conservatives (like the Republican Party).

Most radicals on the left are also Liberals, even when they try not to be.  Right-wing radicals may have a slight edge on coming up with a truly operable alternative.  That’s what makes my project both risky, but also necessary.  It is risky because abandoning Liberalism has usually led to right-wing tyranny; it is necessary because we need a broader range to choose from in the face of Liberalism’s demise.

So how can we define a Liberal?  I would start with John Stewart Mill’s definition in On Liberty.  Accordingly, a Liberal is someone who believes the following: people are and should be free to do whatever they like up to the point at which it keeps others from doing as they like.   “The individual,” according to Mill, “is sovereign”; “in the part which merely concerns himself,” Mill explains, “his independence is, of right, absolute” (emphasis added).  Until he or she ventures into territory that concerns others, the individual has complete freedom in “framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow.”  This pursuit of self-interest with limited constraints was articulated by Adam Smith, of course, and is enshrined in the American Constitution, which mainly addresses the many details of trying to put this principle into a governable order.

There is this no natural or supernatural obligation on people’s behavior, only a pragmatic or, we might say, “juridical” one.  True, many Liberals have sought backing, as well as additional guidance for the questions not explicitly answered by this formula, in the natural or supernatural realm.  But at least from today’s perspective, these backings appear to have eroded away, leaving a central core dedicated to fulfilling individual wants and desires, whatever they may be; only the infringement on the same rights shared by others might serve to limit one’s own.[i]  If there is a great crime in Liberal thought, it is prohibiting people from “doing as they like” when it doesn’t hurt anyone else in pragmatic or material ways.

Mill’s formulation is equally useful in distinguishing between what I call political liberals and political conservatives, who might be more aptly described, today, as neoliberals or classical liberals.  Political conservatives maintain that the upshot of Mill’s articulation is that people can in fact do what they want almost all of the time, without, in fact, infringing on others.  As neo-liberal P. J. O’Rourke puts it, crediting Adam Smith with the insight, “most of the things that people spend most of their time doing are none of our business.”

The particularity of this view can be seen by comparing it to the view of political liberals.  They, in contrast, believe that the principle of harm or interference kicks in far more frequently than political conservatives do.  In other words, they still believe that people should be permitted to do whatever they want up to the point at which it keeps others from doing the same, but they just believe that this “point” appears more frequently: many more of our wishes and desires, if fulfilled, affect others than conservatives are apt to admit.  Political liberals believe that in a society one may not be able to do whatever one wants without harming others as consistently as conservatives do.  About the basic principle, there is little disagreement.

To put this less abstractly, take something like economic competition.   Both conservatives and liberals like the idea of economic freedom and the entrepreneurial spirit and ideally would not put limits on it.  But a political liberal would note that unfettered markets lead to domination and effective oppression and the desires of capitalists to accumulate and use their ever-increasing leverage to accumulate more limits the freedoms of the poor to do whatever it is they want.  Political liberals therefore are prone to placing limits on some economic freedoms to protect the freedoms of people who may appear to have been out-competed.  Political conservatives, in contrast, would respond in one of two ways (or by combining them together): that the imbalance of results we see when there is unfettered economic freedom is itself the result of fair competition in which “the best” win, or that trying to regulate and create more fairness ultimately does more harm than good.

Conservatives in this way believe that the liberal emphasis on “equality of results” saps incentive and innovation, and further believe that unless incentive is rewarded we won’t experience progress.   Liberals might counter that conservatives mainly say stuff like this order to maintain the power they have gained at the expense of the freedom of others, a position that is backed by the way conservatives have had a tendency to invoke things like tradition and religion when it helps maintain existing hierarchies and inhibit the rise of others.  Political liberals or progressives might add that paying attention to the common good raises more boats than the tide pulled by the extraordinary success of the few.  And back and forth they can go.

From the day to day perspective of life within a modern democracy, liberals and conservatives appear as opposites.  But this is an overly narrow view that lacks historical perspective, a perspective needed during a time (like now) when we should expect more far-ranging political changes that will disrupt the stable spectrum that we are used to.   So let’s try to gain a wider perspective.  We can see the way liberals and conservatives inhabit a single side of the coin by contrasting them to political and moral belief systems that are not liberal.  While these alternatives are relatively scarce today, they have dominated human history until the last few centuries.  Non-liberals, as we’ll call them for now, believe that people have obligations that have nothing to do with their freedom or the freedom of others.  These obligations, moreover, put distinct limits on what people can do, regardless of what they as individuals or a group want or desire.

The clearest example would come in the form of religions, especially in a theistic form.[ii]  God’s law, Pope Francis has argued, obliges people to care for others and the earth regardless of their pragmatic wants or material desires.  God made the Earth, he says, and we have been charged with its stewardship.  It is not for our own good that we must protect the Earth, but because “our father” commands it; this may happen to be good for us as well, but only because we are also God’s creation.  Similarly, according to most religions, humans are required to obey deities, whether they want to or not.  Framing our own life plan, rather than following God’s, is a very modern and atheistic view of the world’s moral order.

In addition to supernatural non-Liberalisms such as those, there have also been varieties of natural non-Liberalism, which replaces God’s Law with Natural Law.  It holds that humans have a distinct nature or a telos to which we must be true and that we are obligated to pursue.  Instead of obeying God, we are required to (or do best by) obeying the laws of nature.[iii]

Communitarianism has attempted to create a non-theistic, non-naturalistic, non-Liberal alternative.  Briefly, it maintains that people are a product of their communities and are constituted by history and culture. For this reason, human good lies not in the pursuit of individual values but ones that emphasize the group.  But while the communitarian view of human development offers great insights, and has aided in the evolution of Liberalism, it has been hard pressed to develop an effective governing philosophy or a culture in which modern people willingly submit themselves to the common good except by means that can only be described as Liberal choice.  And get rid of the Liberal choice, at least in modernity, and group identity becomes forced and begins to look a lot like a quasi-theistic or teleological tyranny.  That, in short, is the dilemma of Communitarianisms, and perhaps of my project as well.

One of the reasons why I think of my work as a critique of Liberalism rather than an alternative comes from the way I triangulate between these various belief systems.  Put as simply as I can, I don’t believe that there are any supernatural or natural obligations on humanity, at least not as obligation might be conceived within any modern idioms.  I don’t believe that there is a divine law we must obey and, following the evolution of modern Western philosophy into deconstruction and pragmatism, don’t believe that human nature or human authenticity might be usefully and transcendentally defined or articulated.  As post-modern philosophy has shown, supernaturalisms and naturalisms alike are social, political, economic, and historic constructs.  It is no coincidence that the radical beginnings of most genealogies or deconstructions end up in a democratic, sometimes libertarian, often relativistic, almost always pragmatic valorization of individual desires—the only thing left standing when all is said and done and the only thing remaining once God has died and his naturalistic proxies have faded to dust or melted into air.[iv]  Even the fact of our social and historical construction offers little “actionable” alternative to the pursuit of individual wants; this awareness warns us, merely, that these wants are contingently produced, rather than deep, authentic, or foundational.   Our individualism might, like our attempts at communal identity, be a fiction.  But within the modern context (a context, note, that is rapidly changing and disappearing as I write) it has appeared the least hazardous fiction at play.

But even though I don’t believe in natural law (as traditionally conceived) or divine law, I don’t think that Mill’s Liberal formulation is useful to us at this point in our history.  I actually think it is hazardous.  Even if we are free, in theory or on principle, to pursue our desires up to the point at which they bump into others’ desires, pragmatically there is no ground on a hot and crowded planet that isn’t always already overlapping with conflicting needs and desires. We have always already passed the point, by the mere fact of our birth, where my actions will affect another’s mere possibilities.  There is, simply put, nothing that I can want and do that doesn’t affect someone else’s ability to do the same.[v]   In Mill’s terms, there is almost nothing that someone might do that “concerns merely himself.”  Contra O’Rourke, most things most people do most of the time are everyone else’s business—at least as long as doing involves consuming or in perpetuating a culture focused on consuming.

Liberals of all stripes gasp at this sort of utterance, but that doesn’t make it any the less true.  Although most of our scientists and academics ignore this fact (I would call it) of life on a crowded planet,  which suggests Liberalism is an ideology, this position might nevertheless be established by an empirical analysis of the global quantities and distribution of natural resources and waste products.  Liberalism was founded in an age when there was plenty of “empty space” in which a consequence-free freedom might be conceived, and upon the belief that this sort of empty space might exist into perpetuity.  Early Liberals (the one’s whose precepts we unquestioningly continue to follow) simply could not imagine that the still relatively small human footprint of their era might within a few centuries absolutely overwhelm the life-sustaining natural systems.  As Thomas Jefferson repeatedly declared, the American continent was, for all practical purposes, infinite.  An infinite continent was necessary for his Empire of Liberty.   Otherwise it is just an empire, and the empire of Liberty gives way to something like Trumpism when the Liberal disbelief in a zero-sum Earth begins to take on practical (if not theoretical) mass incredibility.

This is why my historical analyses have focused on the founding (i.e. conquest) of the Americas and the persistent rhetoric of the infinite and the limitless throughout the history of Liberalism.  It also explains the Liberal addiction to growth and expansion.  For growth, whether figurative or actual, maintains the promise of a growing space in which I might pursue my wants without impinging on yours.  Ours, I have argued, is a frontier morality.  And we try to create new frontiers mainly to leave this morality unruffled. Our restless searching and technological questing is born of a moral complacency and a sclerosis of the imagination.

So here’s where I sit historically (and in a tradition of Critical Theory).  On a planet that appears infinite (as it did for someone like the late Richard Rorty[vi]), a historically-minded, pragmatic, nominalist, anti-foundational view of the contingency of human obligation gives way to a Liberal view based on individual self-creation that will include pragmatic and utilitarian nods towards the common good.  But that planet is gone.  My question, then, is what to do with this same historically-minded, pragmatic, secular, nominalist, anti-foundational view of the contingency of human life on a planet that is not only finite, but that is well into ecological overshoot?  Part of the answer, almost by necessity, is that there will be limits to human freedom—drastic limits it turns out.   As a point of empirical analysis, again, it can be determined that my desire to eat whatever I want, or to travel and see the world as much as I could, or even to make as much money as I legally can, adds to the very destruction of the planet and the ability of others to have their most fundamental needs met.  One need only consider the plight of low-lying Pacific Islands to confirm this view.

On a first glance, we might then revisit the notion of natural law and reconceive it as an ecological law that puts distinct limits on us (which, in fact, it does).  This is far different than a humanistic natural law, but one might be tempted to believe that rational, self-interested enlightenment (or pragmatic anti-foundationalism) could lead us to a place where we will be ready to place limits on ourselves in the name of the Earth’s ecology.  A shallow introspection might suggest to those who have chosen limits that they have done so in the name of a Liberal-esque rationality.  But in addition to the many philosophical problems with this view (why me?, why now?), a deeper introspection will confirm the existentialist’s conviction that we are not moved by rationality, but by identity, longing for purpose, even an adversarial desire.  Favoring limits for us all, rather than accepting the bloody ascent of the strong, is not a rational choice, but a moral one, with roots spreading far beyond logical analysis or rational calculation.

Extrospection will yield parallel observations.  Humanity has never been moved simply by calculation and always by the force of historically created desires and expectations, combined with the particularities, capacities, and limits of our species.  Simple awareness of the natural or ecological requirements of our planet’s life systems and ecology will, on its own, never lead humanity to relinquish privilege and unsustainable levels of consumption.  That conclusion, at any rate, has led me towards a paradoxical interest in religion and pre-modern sociablity.  While I don’t believe in a divinity any more than I believe in forest gnomes or that sacrifice will bring the rains, I do believe that people have been willing to accept limits only according to the sort of belief that has usually been inspired by belief in a divinity—and that we therefore need this sort of belief.  Human sociability can only be bound (a word I use purposely) by ritual, prohibitions, the sacred and untouchable.  This is why Liberals cannot abide the binding force of the religion—because it inhibits the freedom and pursuit of individual satisfaction that sits at the heart of Liberalism and organizes its anti-sociable order.

The paradox, here (to be autobiographical about it), is that the post-modern ex-Liberal consciousness is conjuring up spirits and battle slogans of the past, experimenting with the vestments and costumery of religion and ritual without the terrible fear and trembling of true belief, but only with the historical conviction that something like true belief must be adopted.[vii]  If history repeats itself a first time as tragedy and a second time as farce, the third time might be as a practical necessity whose safe passage is yet to be imagined.[viii]


[i] More specifically, I would say this about the history of Liberalism.  In its earliest manifestations there were a set of legal and economic principles, however unevenly applied, that were almost identical with Mill’s formulation about individuals doing as they like.  But this juridical realm competed with all sorts of religious and traditional limits on personal choice and freedom.  Today, the juridical and economic principles have triumphed over the once-competing mores and social norms.   There are fewer and fewer non-Liberal norms in operation (which is not to say there are none).  In other words, the principle that morality (or limits) cannot be legislated has grown to the principle that morality (or limits) should not be taught, or even considered, not even by our religious institutions except as “information” that might help guide our “choices.”

[ii] There are of course denizens of alleged theists in the U.S.  But, today at least, their beliefs about the word of God and their required walk with Jesus have very little impact upon most “lifestyle” choices, which remain entirely compatible with individualistic sociality and the requirements of ferocious economic competition.  Except at some overstated fringes, the life path of most theists living in Western democracies seems to be set far more by the tenants of Liberalism than any reading of their holy texts that I am able to see.  Liberals, moreover, excoriate religion in large part to the extent that it maintains limits on individual wants and desires or upon the freedom to dine ravenously at the Liberal banquet of choice.

[iii] The erosion of Divine Law into Natural Law, however, is something that occurred in the earliest days of Liberalism, and the natural laws that we have been pressed to obey have, with some notable exceptions, appeared quite similar to the laws of capitalism, commodification, and competition.  This has led me to wonder about the potentially unique and irreplaceable role of Divine Law in human society, about which I say more below.  By mentioning the telos, I am making a nod to Aristotelian ethics, which was separated from Liberalism by a great many years.  Without confusing Greek democracy with Liberal democracy, it would not be entirely wrong to insist upon some connection between the two.

[iv] One of the best examples is Michel Foucault’s evolution from quasi-structuralism in The Order of Things to his aesthetics of transgressive self-creation in The History of Sexuality.  Derrida likewise swung between the idea of serious critique and/as/of philosophical play, where the best one could do is free oneself as writer/artist/intellectual from naïve complicity.

[v] This makes Trump and his boat-sinking pursuit of singular power and advantage a viable option.

[vi] This is by implication.  Like others of his time and philosophical tradition, Rorty didn’t spend much time imaging any ecological or physical limits to the potential of his “North Atlantic bourgeois democracies” in which a firm and useful line between the public and private spheres might be maintained and in which values like irony and contingency might help us remain tolerant and accepting.  Though looking at the historical conditions of his own favorable view of contingency were not at the forefront of his project, he does interestingly ponder at the very end of an essay on Jefferson and the “Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” the possible collapse of liberal democracies.  Although buried very far in the background at this point, no one has been more important to my thinking than Rorty.

[vii] And if adopted it is not true.  Kierkegaard, in other words, was wrong but may still be among our best options.

[viii] I don’t think it is possible to overstate the hazards.  Himmler’s SS was in large part a cult used to instill this sort of conviction in its members.  With great success he managed to get hundreds of thousands of young German men to sacrifice the self for the sake of “something greater.”  How does one achieve this sort of success without the power and its near-inevitable abuse?  The Liberal of course has an answer, and a good one.  There is nothing greater than individual rights, wants, and desires.  But this is perilous in its own way.  What, in short, is the alternative and how does one get there?

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: democracy, liberalism, limits to growth