Mere Liberalism

A response to a common caricature of liberal beliefs

There is a rhetorical trope in contemporary critiques of liberalism and libertarianism, especially those coming from the political right, that holds it for fundamentally flawed because it conceives of individuals as “atomized”, isolated, a- or even anti-social creatures moved by no higher emotion than crass self-interest. We have even hosted one critic who made this argument as a guest on this blog.

A recent post on Law and Liberty, in which Luma Simms “reviews” Ilya Somin’s book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, encapsulates this argument very neatly. I put “review” in scare quotes because, as Professor Somin points out, it misrepresents his book. But the exact same caricature is used to attack not only Professor Somin’s work, but liberalism and libertarianism more broadly; nor is it used by Mrs. Simms alone. So I think that a general response is warranted.

Mrs. Simms writes, summarizing the worldview that ― according to her ― underpins Professor Somin’s arguments in favour of greater freedom of movement and of personal choice more generally:

Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness. It is autonomous individualism through and through.

As a summary of the liberal worldview ― and, to repeat, many critics of liberalism use descriptions like this one in just this way ― every one of these statements is grossly exaggerated or outright false.

Man is a rational being

Liberalism ― and for that matter conservatism or socialism ― does presuppose a measure of rationality in human beings. There would be no point in advocating for, say, freedom of speech, the Rule of Law, or democracy if human beings weren’t rational in the sense of thinking, making and carrying out plans, responding to incentives, and seeking to act on their (physical and social) environment in ways calculated to produce consequences.

But liberalism doesn’t require or depend on complete rationality. Liberals and libertarians can acknowledge failures of rationality: Bryan Caplan is no less of a libertarian for having explored at length The Myth of the Rational Voter. Liberals and libertarians can recognize that human beings are emotional, too. Love of freedom is an emotion, and no less than love of God or love of hearth and home.

His actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason

As I have just noted, liberals and libertarians know that human beings can emotional or irrational. Needless to say they also know that their choices are constrained and their actions are shaped by the circumstances ― familial, economic, cultural, environmental ― in which they find themselves. Perhaps Mrs. Simms means that liberals want, as a normative matter, to create a state of affairs where humans are free to act exactly as they choose; but they do not. On the contrary, liberals respect property rights and the autonomy of individuals, families, and voluntary associations (including businesses, churches, NGOs, etc.), which means that they will uphold private arrangements that may diminish individuals’ choices.

Now, there are difficult questions that liberals and libertarians can struggle with about private choices that radically deny individual autonomy: self-enslavement is perhaps a silly example best left to philosophy seminars, but, say, parents who refuse to provide a minimum of education or healthcare to their children are a grim reality. But of course liberals recognize that interference with the freedom of some to secure some core of autonomy to others is still interference.

His judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture)

I don’t think that any liberal or libertarian believes this. Yes, liberalism values independent judgment; yes, liberalism wants individuals to be free from legal compulsions of their judgment: hence its insistence on freedoms of conscience, thought, opinion, and so on. If this is what Mrs. Simms derides as liberalism’s rejection of “obligations and constraints that come from … country”, there’s something to the charge. If the critics of liberalism want “country” to introduce indoctrination and state ideology, let them say that clearly; better yet, let them spell out what they are going to indoctrinate us in (beyond platitudes about the common good), and give us a chance to decide whether we want to drink their particular kool-aid.

But as for other kinds of duties and compulsions, not only do liberals not reject them ― on the contrary, leading liberal thinkers have specifically insisted that the point of freedom is to have the ability to do one’s duty, as one sees it. Hence Lord Acton’s definition of “liberty”, in The History of Freedom, as “the assurance that every man will be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (3). Hence Hayek writing, in The Road to Serfdom, that

[r]esponsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.

Liberals regard obligations to family and friends, to God if one so believes, and even to country and “culture”, whatever that might be, as matters of conscience. The claim they reject such obligations is preposterous calumny. What they reject is the claim of “authority and majorities, custom and opinion” to interfere with an individual’s conscience to impose obligations of this sort when they are not felt.

If he acts with others it is by his choice alone

Again, it’s a bit difficult to say whether this is supposed to represent what liberals believe is the case or what liberals believe ought to be the case. But neither representation is accurate. Liberals neither deny the existence of social ties, such as those of kin, in which individual autonomy is far from complete, nor wish to abolish them. Liberals also do not deny nor, except for anarchist libertarians, wish to rid themselves entirely of collective political action, which is also involuntary as to many individuals who are forced to go along with the decisions of the authorities.

Liberals do want to provide exit opportunities for people who may find themselves bound by social ties that are or become abusive. They also want to limit the ability of majorities to impose on dissidents through the political process. But they want to do these things precisely because they recognize that human beings belong to groups, associations, and communities which they have not freely chosen and because they have no wish to abolish such groups, associations, and communities.

He must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest

I don’t know many, if any, flesh-and-blood liberals or even libertarians who believe this. It sounds like a paraphrase of Randian objectivism, but I must confess that I’ve never read Rand, so I don’t know if it’s an accurate representation of her views. What I think I can assert with a good deal of confidence is that these views, if indeed she held them, are not at all representative. There just isn’t anything in classical liberalism or (non-Randian?) libertarianism that says that people must be navel-gazers, hedonists, and egotists.

To be sure, liberals acknowledge the fact that human beings are generally pretty self-interested. They have their altruistic impulses too, but they are often selfish. Liberalism’s response is to try to channel self-interest through institutions that can turn it to the greater good. The market is one such institution, as Adam Smith explained by pointing out, famously, that “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. And liberals try to use politics in this way too: hence Madison’s insistence that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.

But, to repeat, none of that precludes or condemns altruism. In trying to channel selfish behaviour for the benefit of society, liberalism certainly does not say that unselfish behaviour should somehow be disapproved of. What liberalism does insist on is that there are limits ― depending on one’s version of liberalism, perhaps very stringent limits ― on the degree to which people can be coerced into acting and living for the sake of others. But liberalism has a better opinion of human nature than those theories that apparently say that human beings will be navel-gazing hedonistic egotists (or, all manner of other unedifying things, as other critics of liberalism claim) unless forced to be virtuous by the government. (Liberalism asks: how is government going to be more virtuous than the governed?)

He has no moral duty to others

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about Lord Acton’s and Hayek’s championing of freedom as the space in which individuals can understand and discharge their obligations ― not one where they have none. Let me, instead, remind you of the Lockean argument for the state. In a nutshell: individuals have inherent natural rights and a moral duty to respect the rights of others; unfortunately, left to their own devices, they are not very good at complying with this duty even when they earnestly try; an authority that can clarify the scope of individual rights and corresponding duties, and impartially adjudicate allegations of breach is necessary. A concern with moral duty is that at the foundation of liberal politics.

Again, what liberals deny, with greater or lesser vigour depending on their preferred flavour of liberalism or libertarianism, is the claim of the state to create moral duties incumbent on those subjects to their jurisdiction. If they subscribe to the doctrine of natural rights, they will say, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted in order to secure these rights, and that, therefore, the creation of duties not tending to secure natural rights is beyond their just powers. But it does not follow, and liberals do not believe, that moral duties to others cannot arise otherwise than through the state.

Let me make just two additional points. One, which follows directly from the foregoing is that critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life. Liberal political institutions (understood broadly, to include things like constitutions, laws, and courts) serve to preserve the space in which individuals ― either alone or in community with others ― seek to live a good life, as they understand it. Some liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith or even, to an extent, Lord Acton, had ideas about the good life. Being a liberal doesn’t mean taking no interest in moral questions. It only means renouncing the imposition of one’s own answers to such questions by force on others whose answers might be quite different.

The second point I’ll make here is that while I have responded to a critique of liberalism coming from the right, this critique would need only minimal adjustments to its language to be embraced by the illiberal left. The view that liberalism is nothing more than a smokescreen for egoism and selfishness is a staple of socialist doctrines going back a century and a half. The criticism of liberalism as denying social ties, and the limitations that community and belonging impose on individuals might seem newer. Indeed, many right-wing critics of liberalism are convinced that it is no different from socialism in this regard. But real-life socialist regimes were actually quite nationalistic themselves. More importantly in 2021, the ascending left considers human beings to be largely shaped by their intersecting identities, and bound by the resulting sums of privilege and oppression. They use a different vocabulary from the one that appeals to the right-wingers, but their message, and their critique of liberalism, is much the same. And, of course, it is wrong for much the same reasons.

Left and right alike criticise liberalism for its commitment to respecting the autonomy of individuals in ordering their own moral universe, based on their understanding of their place in the world and their relationships with family, community, and perhaps God. They think they can do better: give people a purpose in life and a morality which, left alone, they sometimes fail to find. But there is, and can be, no agreement on an all-encompassing morality that is not imposed by force, and as difficult as it may be to find one’s purpose without coercion, it is more difficult still to accept a purpose imposed on us by others. The others, after all, are still our fellows, albeit that an accident of birth, or the privilege of education, or the fortune of an election, or the force of a coup has elevated them to a higher social ― not moral ― station.

Thus the illiberal right and left alike are doomed to failure in their quest for a better world. As Hayek wrote, they have “nothing to put in … place” of the individualist, liberal virtues ― “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors”. In their place, they can only make a “demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good”. And because they know that they cannot persuade people to abandon liberalism with such demands, they try to caricature and defame it. Do not believe them.

Common Good and Evil

Removing constitutional obstacles to power in the name of the common good is a dangerous, delusional idea

Last month, I wrote about what I termed “right-wing collectivism“, an emerging political doctrine that blends support for using the power of the state to advance traditional moral values, a hostility to free markets, and nationalism. Two texts published last week have prompted me to return to this subject: Adrian Vermeule’s instantly-notorious essay in The Atlantic urging a “robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation”, and Thomas Falcone’s guest post on this blog defending right-wing collectivism against my criticisms. Between them, they show this ideology’s incipient authoritarianism and incompatibility with any genuine belief in human dignity, freedom, and the Rule of Law.

Before proceeding further, I should note that one reaction people have had to Professor Vermeule’s argument has been to wonder whether he is simply trolling everyone. Sarah Isgur made this case quite forcefully on the Advisory Opinions podcast, for instance. And certainly his “response” to criticism of his article, over at Mirror of Justice, is trollish. But, as David French argued on Advisory Opinions, Professor Vermeule’s argument reflects a real, if eccentric, current of thought on the political right. Randy Barnett, in his reply to Professor Vermeule, also worries about “a disturbance in the originalist force by a few, mostly younger, socially conservative scholars and activists … disappointed in the results they are getting from a ‘conservative’ judiciary” in the United States. I too will treat the arguments of Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone seriously; all the more so since the rhetoric of combating epidemics of various ills, which they both employ, is, as Anne Appelbaum points out, already being used by the Hungarian dictatorship ― much admired, as Damon Linker has observed, on among American right-wing collectivists.

Professor Vermeule’s argument is, on its face, about constitutional interpretation. But he makes it clear from the outset that constitutional doctrine is, for him, only a tool in the service of politics. Addressing conservatives, he argues that they should give up on originalism, which many have supported in recent decades, because it has become “an obstacle” to the promotion of “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good”. Mr. Falcone too defends, if less articulately, an activist government acting, supposedly, in the service of “the highest good”.

What, then, is the “common good”, the banner under which Professor Vermeule wants to make a stand against and defeat what he says as “the relentless expansion of individualistic autonomy”? Generally speaking, it consists in

respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority.

In terms of substantive policies, the common good involves “cop[ing] with large-scale crises of public health and well-being—reading ‘health’ in many senses, not only literal and physical but also metaphorical and social”. It means “protect[ing] the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events”, “from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment”. It also means and “enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources”, and empowering “[u]nions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, … as will the traditional family”. 

Mr. Falcone too suggests that “when we evaluate public policy proposals we adjudicate their desirability against whether or not they help or harm our shared social goods, like the family”. Like Professor Vermeule, he abhors the idea that the state ought to be impartial as between competing conceptions of the good life, illustrating it with the example of a “state … ‘neutral’ as to whether people choose have [sic] jobs or sit around smoking cannabis”, which he claims “would be nonsensical to the average person on the street”.

Professor Vermeule outlines a fairly detailed agenda for constitutional law, put in the service of the common good, so understood. Its “main aim” would be “certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power” (an idea that Professor Vermeule declares “incoherent”). Mr. Falcone does not provide detailed prescriptions for the law, but he similarly rails against the idea, which he attributes to me (only half-correctly) “that power itself is an evil and thus there should be no power”. Professor Vermeule argues that, rather than limiting power, constitutional law must “ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well”. So too Mr. Falcone is adamant that “power is real and always will be”. The question is who wields it, and against whom.

Indeed, the ruler needs to be able to exercise this power

for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

To achieve this, constitutional language can be repurposed and read so as to suit the new agenda. More importantly, constitutional doctrine should be built not on textual provisions, but on insights into “the general structure of the constitutional order and in the nature and purposes of government”. And so, much of the existing constitutional jurisprudence ― in areas such as “free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters”, as well as “property rights and economic rights” ― will be “vulnerable”, “have to go”, “fall under the ax”, or indeed “be not only rejected but stamped as abominable, beyond the realm of the acceptable forever after”. (This latter sentence is reserved for “[t]he claim, from the notorious joint opinion in Planned Parenthood v Casey, that each individual may ‘define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life'”.)

This will enable government “to protect the public’s health and well-being … even when doing so requires overriding the selfish claims of individuals to private ‘rights'”.  Mr. Falcone echoes Professor Vermeule, denouncing what he describes as libertarians’ ” religious devotion of individual preference maximization and” desire to “ruthlessly supress [sic] any suggestion that time, tradition, community, or common sense may occasionally contain more wisdom than the proclivities of any one person”.

As noted at the outset, Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone are defending authoritarianism against the claims of freedom and the Rule of Law. They think that the government can identify moral objectives that deserve to be pursued, and the citizens ― or rather the subjects ― have no moral claim against conscription into this pursuit. At best, those who disagree with the objectives or with being made to serve them will come to see the error of their ways, as Professor Vermeule hopes. But if not they will simply be silenced. After all, politics is nothing more than a power struggle; to limit power is a fool’s hope ― the wise man knows that he must put himself into a position to exercise it. These disciples of Saruman are wrong at every step in their reasoning.

How are the governments to decide on their definitions of the common good, on the morality they will legislate? Professor Vermeule is coy about this ― in his essay in The Atlantic. But, as Professor Barnett notes, from his other writings, we know that he makes “an argument for the temporal power of the state to be subordinated to the spiritual power of the [Catholic] Church” (emphasis Professor Barnett’s). Mr. Falcone’s position, as best I can tell, is that moral the appropriate moral values are already widely shared. Now, these two are obviously at odds with one another: it is quite clear that, to the extent that Americans or Canadians share values, these values are certainly not those of the Vatican. This makes Professor Vermeule’s position all the more remarkable ― his understanding of the common good is rejected by an overwhelming majority of the people whose common good it purports to be. It can only be forced on them by a ruthless dictatorship. But Mr. Falcone’s position is no more attractive. If Canadians already agree on the importance of particular values, what’s stopping them from living accordingly? Why do they need to be coerced by the government into acting in accordance with what are supposedly their beliefs? If people already prefer working to “sit[ting] around smoking cannabis” ― as I agree with Mr. Falcone most probably do ―, then why does the state need to subsidize or force them to do so?

Of course, as Jonah Goldberg points out in a recent episode of his The Remnant podcast, even when people largely agree on values stated in the abstract, as they do on the proverbial motherhood and apple pie, it does not follow that they agree on any particular policies that purport to implement them. To value work may entail the sort of wage-support policies to which Mr. Falcone refers or it may, on the contrary, suggest repealing the minimum wage to avoid pricing people out of the labour market. Similarly, valuing families may well push us towards policies of which right-wing collectivists would disapprove, be they marriage equality that helps people form families in the first place, free trade that leaves more money in families’ pockets, or school choice ― even when it is exercised in favour of schools that transmit decidedly non-conservative values.

But, beyond such policy disagreements, important though they are, understandings of both the common good and of personal morality and the nature of the good life are subject to endless debate. Again, the only way to avoid this is to simply prevent the expression of all but the officially approved views, as Professor Vermeule recognizes on at least some points. If the debate is allowed to continue but the majority is empowered to impose its views on the minority, then, as Professor Barnett explains “[i]n the legislature, might will make right”. And as the price of political defeat is nothing short of one’s annihilation as a morally autonomous individual, prospective losers are unlikely to accept this outcome. As Professor Barnett further writes: “what happens to social peace as the government starts incarcerating the dissenting minority for failing to adhere to their moral duties? Religious war, anyone?”

This is why state neutrality as between the competing conceptions of the good life is both morally right and good policy. It allows people of divergent views to remain in a political community with one another, combining their efforts for those limited common purposes on which they agree, such as self-defence and the enforcement of a limited subset of universal rights, notably life, liberty, and property through of framework of stable and general laws. This framework allows individuals and freely-formed associations ― although it should certainly not allow coercive “[u]nions [and] guilds” ― to pursue their moral aims, including charitable and benevolent ones, with minimal interference on the part of the state. A liberal society is not one of “atomized” individuals with no ties to one another; but the ties that exist in it are a web spun by individuals themselves, rather than a chain forged by the state.

But is neutrality simply a delusion, as Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone both contend? In a sense, of course, they have a point. Not all law is based in morality ― as Lon Fuller explained, there is a very real element of fiat in law (he spoke of the common law, but the same goes for statute), in addition to reason or morality. But, to be sure, the basic norms of criminal law, and arguably contract, tort, and property law too, have moral foundations ― notably those universal and widely agreed-upon rights. Yet there is a fundamental difference between this sort of background law and legislation enacted for “the promotion of morality”, as Professor Vermeule puts it. The former, even if it has moral underpinnings, leaves individuals almost entirely free to choose the purposes to which they want to devote their lives and largely, although not fully, free to choose the means by which they pursue their purposes. The latter doesn’t ― its whole point is to shape and limit both the ends and the means available to individuals.

A related point is that neutrality as between conceptions of the good life is not a cover for the enforcement of a progressive moral orthodoxy as Mr. Falcone, in particular, claims, with his bizarre insistence that libertarians “will ruthlessly suppress” conservative ideas. (I would have thought that, if not my outspoken advocacy for freedom of expression and conscience ― including for the benefit of conservatives whom I personally find bigoted, like the Trinity Western University ― then at least the fact that Mr. Falcone is able to publish such a claim on the blog that I founded should be proof enough that this just isn’t so.) A neutral state knows and accepts that not all individuals, families, and communities will orient their lives towards self-actualization, let alone self-indulgence. Some will devote themselves to religion or to community; some may reject the value of autonomy and extol obedience. The neutral state faces some difficult questions at the margins ― notably about the limits, if any, to the capacity of such individuals, families, and communities to shape and control the lives of their children. But there is nothing paradoxical about, at least, a very strong presumption that adults get to shape their lives in ways they choose, regardless of official approval. Libertarianism is a philosophy of politics and government, not an ethical programme ― and it’s a philosophy of politics whose point is to reject the imposition of ethical programmes by the government.

Perhaps the belief that a libertarian or classically liberal neutral state will in fact impose its own values and ideology on dissenters is due to a confusion between liberalism and a progressivism that has sometimes borrowed its name but consistently rejected its ideals. This progressivism, which would impose its beliefs ― originally technocratic with an egalitarian or at least populist flavouring, more recently egalitarian with a technocratic or at least pseudoscientific streak ― is just another version of collectivism. Indeed, the right-wing collectivism promoted by Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone, with its deep distrust of free markets (whether in goods, services, labour, or capital) and, apparently, a rather Marxist belief in “the primacy of production over consumption”, to use Mr. Falcone’s words, is not so different from its left-wing cousin.

But the other apparent explanation is that ― once again similarly to left-wing collectivists, at least those of the Leninist persuasion ― right-wing collectivists have come to believe that “who, whom?” is the central question of politics. That is to say, they believe that politics is a race to seize power and use it to silence or eliminate opponents. If you don’t do it, then someone else will do it to you. (This strikes me, if I may say so despite not being Christian, as a rather odd view for people who supposedly believe in turning the other cheek to embrace, but what do I know?) Hence their insistence that limiting power is an absurd or pernicious idea, an insistence whose vehemence reminds me Bulgakov’s Pilate, hysterically yelling, in response to Yeshua’s statement that all power is violence and will one day vanish, that “[t]here never has been, is not, and never will be any power in this world greater or better for people than the power of the emperor Tiberius!” Hence also their rejection of or at least desire to severely curtail constitutional rights; hence their attacks even on civility in argument.

To my mind, this is a wrong and pernicious ― indeed, as Mr. Goldberg suggested, a borderline evil ― way of looking at politics. This is partly because no one is entitled to be the “who” in Lenin’s question, and partly on the prudential grounds summarized by Professor Barnett. But this is also because, as longtime readers will recall me insisting in a series of posts, power corrupts. Power is addictive, and character can only slow down, but not prevent the poisoning of a person’s heart by its exercise; power breeds fear and, as Yeshua said, violence; it also begets lies; it encourages people to cut moral corners, not asking themselves difficult questions; and it apparently damages the very brains of those unfortunate enough to exercise it. It may be that Yeshua was wrong and Pilate right, and that “the kingdom of truth and justice” where power is not needed “will never come”. But that should not stop us from acknowledging that power is an evil, if perhaps an unavoidable and even necessary one, and from recognizing that power is to be distrusted, not celebrated.

From this recognition there should proceed, as I repeatedly insisted in my posts on the corrupting effects of power, a further acknowledgement of the importance not just of moral but also of institutional and legal constraints on power. We must continue to work on what Jeremy Waldron describes as “Enlightenment constitutionalism” ― the project of structuring government so as to separate out and limit the power of those whom Professor Vermeule calls “the rulers” and empower citizens. This project recognizes the need for power but also its temptations and evils, and the fallibility of human beings in the face of these temptations and evils. As James Madison, in particular, reminds us, we should strive to so design our institutions as to make these human weaknesses work for us ― but we can only do so if we are acutely aware of them.

This project of Enlightenment constiutionalism includes, as I have argued in my comment on Professor Waldron’s article, entrenched and judicially enforceable constitutions, with their rules on federal division of powers and on individual rights. More specifically, I would argue that it must include originalism, because originalism gives such constitutions real bite ― it creates at least the possibility, although not the certainty, that they will be enforced consistently, rather than according to the subjective and mutable views of the judges who happen to be entrusted with enforcement from time to time. The alternative, “living constitutionalist” approach, which authorizes judges to re-write the constitution does not so much limit power as transfer it to the judiciary. While this may produce results that align with a liberal theory of good outcomes, this is a failure of the power-limiting Enlightenment constitutionalism project. Thus, contrary to Professor Vermeule’s claim, originalism isn’t just a rhetorical device or a rallying banner for legal conservatives, but a legal technique which, as part of the broader toolkit of the Rule of Law, all those who rightly want power to be constrained, be they conservatives, liberals, or social-democrats, should embrace.

Right-wing collectivism ― even when it tries to make itself palatable by adopting the rhetoric of the “common good” ― is an ideology of almost unfathomable hubris. Its proponents imagine themselves to be possessed of great truths and entitled to impose these truths, at gunpoint, on those who do not agree with them. They imagine that the lessons of history ― about the bitter strife that any such attempts engender, about the misery that their quasi-socialist policies always produce ― are not applicable to them. They imagine, above all, that they are immune to the corrupting effects of power. They wrong, indeed delusional. In its embrace of unfettered power, above all, their view of the common good is a recipe for untold evil.

None of that tells us much about how we, individually and within our families and freely chosen associations and networks, should live our lives. To repeat, libertarianism or liberalism are political philosophies, not personal ethics. In a very real sense, political philosophy is of secondary importance; getting it right can do no more than leave us free to get on with the stuff that really matters. But, as Mr. Goldberg argues, it is very important not to confuse these two realms. The government cannot love us (unless, of course, it is the government of Oceania). It cannot provide us with Dworkinian “concern and respect”. Right-wing collectivists are dangerously wrong to pretend otherwise.


Conservatism is, once again, becoming a form of right-wing collectivism. Classical liberals and libertarians should stay away.

It’s not exactly a secret that classical liberals and libertarians are not very numerous. Indeed, in some quarters at least, it is our existence that has come as a surprise for some time now, and in the last few days it has been fashionable to claim that “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic“. In North America (and elsewhere) political parties that proclaim themselves libertarian tend to be minuscule and ineffective, even in comparison with the already small number of people who are at least broadly sympathetic with libertarian or classical liberal ideas. So it is unsurprising that, for decades now, the approach of many libertarians in the United States who have been interested in obtaining measurable political success has been to embrace “fusionism“: a convergence, if not quite literally a fusion, of ideology and political action with conservatives sympathetic to mostly free markets and to a considerable if insufficient measure of individual liberty and to the Rule of Law.

However, the nature of American ― and perhaps also Canadian ― conservatism has been changing in the last few years. If Donald Trump is the standard-bearer of an ideology, this ideology has little in common with that of William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan. Libertarians and classical liberals must ask themselves whether fusionism, assuming it was a defensible posture in the past, is still one now. Some conversations at the recent Runnymede Society Conference, in which I was fortunate to participate, and thereafter have prompted me to explain why I think that it is not.

Let me begin by describing what I take to be, in broad outline, the sort of conservatism with which I want to have no truck. This is no easy task, despite the proliferation of manifestos in the United States. For one thing, I have to admit that I do not keep track of them all. For another, they do not necessarily agree with one another ― that’s the point of having multiple manifestos. Besides, their authors and adherents are getting no less adept than social justice warriors at deploying what Scott Alexander once described as “motte-and-bailey” rhetorical tactics: switching between expansive-but-scary and banal-but-unobjectionable versions of their claims as suits the circumstances. More fundamentally, as Jonah Goldberg observed in a recent episode of The Remnant podcast, it seems to some substantial large extent to be reverse-engineered to justify the policies if not also the behaviour of Mr. Trump, and may yet be discarded once his political career ends.

That said, I am willing to believe that more than a few of the manifesto-writers are sincere, or will come to believe their own hype. Moreover, there is ― as I have come to realize ― a Canadian version of this ideology, presumably less beholden to Mr. Trump, but also less vocal and so, if anything, even more difficult to pin down. Still, I think one can identify three main themes in this incarnation of conservatism, and they are the ones I shall focus on.

First, there is a belief ― held especially by the Catholic, but perhaps more broadly by the religious, supporters of this doctrine ― in using the state to advance and enforce a conception of the greater good, or indeed “the highest good”. On this view, the relative neutrality of the state as between competing conceptions of the good life, or the state’s tolerance of people who drift along without such a conception are grievously wrong. The state must identify, and identify with, a particular understanding of how individuals, families, and communities ought to live, and incentivize, perhaps force, them to live in this way. The Catholic supporters of this view would, of course, wish to see the state embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church as to what the good life is like (a view known as Catholic integralism), but I suppose there are other possibilities in this regard.

Second, to a greater or lesser extent, this doctrine rejects free markets. Some of its supporters identify as anti-market; others may adopt an attitude that’s more reminiscent of Elizabeth Warren’s: ostensibly pro-market, but in reality deeply suspicious of any economic decisions people might make on their own, without the state’s intervention. (The motte-and-bailey tactic is likely to be deployed here, further confusing matters.) International trade is a particular object of suspicion, but not the only one. At least some large companies, deemed too disruptive or ideologically hostile, are also suspect and potential targets for severe or even destructive regulation. And beyond specific policies, there is a general sense that the state can and should intervene in the economy to ensure acceptable outcomes for favoured groups (such as manufacturing workers) or for a country’s citizens.

And third, there is nationalism and hostility to people and institutions deemed “globalist” in outlook. The interests of a nation ― considered as an aggregate, rather than as a collection of individuals with their own peculiar tastes, preferences, and needs ― must prevail over those of all others. There is also, to a greater or lesser extent, suspicion of or even hostility to immigration, in the name of, as Stephanie Slade (Mr. Goldberg’s interviewee in the podcast linked to above) writes in a recent Reason article, “preserv[ing] … cultural homogeneity (such as it exists) from the diluting influence of foreigners” and embracing “an anti-cosmopolitanism that seeks to throw up barriers to free markets and free trade”.

Having described its main features, I am left with the question of what this doctrine should be called. I initially thought of referring to it as a “new conservatism”, but in reality it is very old ― albeit not in North America. It is, indeed, more or less the same ideology that F.A. Hayek decries in “Why I am Not a Conservative“. A conservative, Hayek writes,

does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. … [H]is main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people. (4)

Perhaps it is the fusionist conservatism that at least purported to care about limiting government power that was an aberration, and the phenomenon I have been describing is simply conservatism tout court. But another label, which for reasons that I shall presently explain strikes me as appropriate is right-wing collectivism.

Whatever we call it, however, this doctrine is not remotely compatible with a classical liberal or libertarian worldview. The disagreement is not just limited, as it might have been, on some views anyway, between classical liberals and fusionism-era conservatives, to divergent interpretations of rights to which both groups were committed or ideals to which they subscribed. It is fundamental. Indeed, while they might not yet be promising us five-year plans, and will certainly never be singing “The Internationale”, the right-wing collectivists are just the sort of people whom F.A. Hayek had in mind when he dedicated The Road to Serfdom “to socialists of all parties” ― not just of the admittedly socialist ones.

Ms. Slade ― who writes specifically about nationalism but whose argument easily extends to the other aspects of this ideology ― explains that

[t]oday’s nationalists think the … government has an obligation to actively pursue what they call the “national interest”. Any agenda that assumes the existence of such a thing must begin by making a variety of determinations, from who should be allowed to join the polity to whether to privilege the producer’s bottom line over the consumer’s. And in anything short of a monolithic society, that means overriding some individuals’ preferences—and often their right to make choices for themselves.

As with the “national interest”, so with the “highest good” and with the “anti-market” approach to the economy. These beliefs are inherently incompatible with the primacy and autonomy of the individual ― in the individual’s right and ability to arrange his or her priorities and to live in accordance with them rather than with the diktats of authority. They are particular instantiations of collectivism, as Hayek understood it. As I explained here in the first part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom, for Hayek,

[c]ollectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own.

This is what the moralizing, anti-market, nationalist conservatism proposes to do. Just like the old socialists, its proponents think that they not only know what is right, who should trade with whom and at what profit, and which group of people is most deserving, but that they have the authority to organize the world on the basis of this supposed knowledge, or at least that a bare electoral majority would give them such an authority.

The right-wing collectivists are determined to ignore Hayek’s warning that there can be no agreement on a general scale of values ― not even on the highest good, let alone on the second highest, the third highest, etc. ― in a free society, and that any attempt to impose and implement such a hierarchy can only be accomplished by manipulation and force. It must result, ultimately, in the destruction of personal morality itself, because collectivism “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (50th Anniversary ed., 161) the state’s fiat being paramount. This might be an ironic result for the more religiously-minded of the new right-wing collectivists, but I’m not sure they will in fact notice the irony.

In “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, Hayek argued that an adherent to conservative ideology “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions”. (4) This applies also to the right-wing collectivists. Like their forbears, they lack “an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends”. (4) And, like socialists, they will come ― at least if they come anywhere near real political power ― to disparage the liberal view that “neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion”. (4)

The philosophically and morally right position, now as ever (and yes, the present pandemic notwithstanding, as I shall argue in another post), is liberalism based on individualism, understood, as Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom, as the “recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions”. (66) This applies in the personal as well as the economic sphere ― the choices of one’s conception of a good life as well as to the choice of one’s trading partners.

The right-wing collectivism being firmly opposed to individualism, so understood, there can be no fusion of liberal or libertarian ideas with it ― no merger, certainly, not a long-term alliance, not even a presumption of co-operation. No doubt there will remain particular issues on which the right-wingers will oppose their fellow collectivists of the left, and classical liberals or libertarians can work with them in these cases. But we should be under no illusions. The right-wing collectivists will not tolerate us if they take power, all the more so since, as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, it is “the worst” ― the most ruthless, the most unprincipled ― who “get on top” in any collectivist regime. A tolerant nationalist, “highest-good” conservatism is as much a delusion as democratic socialism.

Hayek’s prescription for our politics remains compelling too. He wrote ― as I put it the second part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom

we need … to accept that ends do not justify all means; that collectivist and a fortiori dictatorial instruments cannot be put in the service of the right ideals, or entrusted to the right people, without either corrupting them or being seized by the more ruthless and corrupt; that “power itself” is “the archdevil”, (159) and that power concentrated in the hands of the state “is … infinitely heightened” (159) in comparison with that wielded by private actors.

If standing on these principles leaves us politically isolated, so be it. There are worse things than political failure. Supporting those who would cheerfully trample on everything one stands for is one of them.

The Road to Serfdom at 75: Part I

An appreciation of a life-changing book

In the last 10 days, I gave two talks ― one to the Runnymede Society chapter at the University of Victoria and one at the Université de Sherbrooke ― on Friedrich Hakey’s The Road to Serfdom. In this post and one to follow tomorrow, I reproduce my notes for these talks. The page numbers refer to the 50th Anniversary Edition, which is the one I have in my possession.

Why is F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom still relevant—and not merely relevant, but compelling—75 years after its publication? It is not obvious that this should be so. It is a book written in a particular historical context, and in response to the intellectual climate of its day. It is a polemic; one is almost tempted to say, a pamphlet―and indeed Hayek himself, in a 1976 preface, refers to The Road to Serfdom in exactly this way, “a pamphlet for the time”. In this, it is unlike Hayek’s more general later works, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty.

And yet, while I wouldn’t say the two later books, especially Constitution, are obscure, it is still The Road to Serfdom that is the iconic one. It has changed the trajectory of my own intellectual life when I read it, probably in third year of law school. (It is one of those things that I find it difficult to remember not knowing, so I don’t recall the exact time or the reasons that made me read it.) And it has had a similar effect on any number of people since its publication. Clearly, it is rather more than a pamphlet, or even just a polemic. It might have began as a pamphlet for the time, but it is, as Milton Friedman described it in a different preface, timeless.

I will venture an explanation for The Road to Serfdom ongoing appeal. I will argue that it targets an evil that is enduring, and that we must confront today, with (almost) as much urgency as Hayek had to when he was writing. The defeat of the particular shapes that this evil took then—a defeat that looks much more provisional and uncertain than it did when I first read the book a dozen years ago—was important in its time. But the evil itself was not put to rest, and perhaps cannot be. It revives, shifts shapes, and must be resisted and repelled again and again, in the time that is given us.

(The reader may have noticed me echoing, and in the last sentence directly quoting from The Lord of the Rings. This is not an accident. I think there are echoes of the Lord of the Rings in The Road to Serfdom, or perhaps I should say it the other way around, since the Road to Serfdom was published much before The Lord of the Rings finally was. I believe that this is not at all surprising, since they were being written at the same time, and their authors saw—and in their very different ways responded—to much the same events, not just those of the then-ongoing war but also those of the previous one, of which both were veterans.)

So let me begin, very briefly, with the immediate context in which Hayek was writing, before moving on to the more timeless elements in The Road to Serfdom. The book was published in 1944, while World War II was ongoing, although it looks forward to the aftermath of an Allied victory. It was written, therefore, while Nazism was at or just past the peak of its power, while Soviet communism was already immensely powerful, and growing more so by the day. But the Western response to the two totalitarian ideologies was strikingly different. Even before war broke out, socialism and communism were prestigious in the way Nazism never quite was in the West; after 1941, communism was the ideology of an ally in that war. And, of course, the Soviet regime had long presented itself as the most steadfast opponent of Nazism, while the Nazis themselves employed much anti-Communist rhetoric (recall that the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan was officially called the “Anti-Comintern Pact”). The fashionable view was that fascism was the ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, development of unbridled capitalism, and that embracing socialism or communism was the only way to forestall the advent of fascism.

Hayek saw things differently. For him, Nazism and Socialism were denominations in the same totalitarian church, whose adherents had a great deal in common even if they professed unfailing enmity. (The enmity was, in any case, less constant than advertised: recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939, leading to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, and much of Eastern Europe.) What Nazism and Socialism had in common was collectivism. Both held that society had to be organized around the supposed interests of particular groups of people, and devoted single-mindedly to the pursuit of some alleged common purpose. Both rejected liberalism and individualism. Nazism simply defined the group that was supposed to define the purposes of political action differently, along racial rather than class lines. Despite this, it had, as the title of one of the chapters of The Road to Serfdom had it, “socialist roots”. Hence Hayek’s dedication of the book “to socialists of all parties”, on the right as well as on the left.

This brings me back to the timeless evil which The Road to Serfdom responds to. On the surface, significant parts of the book rebut arguments that were prevalent in the years preceding its publication about the desirability and feasibility of Soviet-style central economic planning and government ownership of the means of production. And of course advocacy of such policies is now unusual, although I wonder whether the ground is shifting even on this, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and, even more so, Elizabeth Warren, whose plans for telling companies exactly how to behave, what to sell, and for whose benefit, go nearer the central planning of yore than anything a serious candidate for office has proposed in decades.

But these are issues primarily of form. Look below the surface, and the impulse toward collectivism is no weaker now. What has changed is not its origin or orientation, but its direction. 21st-century collectivists are not only preoccupied with economic inequality, on which they forebears mostly (but not exclusively) focused in Hayek’s time, but (also) with the environment and, especially, with identity―whether it is the identity of groups purportedly defined by gender, race, sexuality, etc., or that of nations.   

What does Hayek mean by collectivism, and why is it, after all, such a bad thing? Collectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own. The attraction of collectivism is that it seems to make possible the realization of purposes on which we might all agree―say, racial or gender equality, or putting an end to global warming, or perhaps something more diffuse, such as simply “the public welfare”―by directing all, or at least some very significant part, of society’s efforts to them.

What’s the problem with this? Collectivists tend to forget that purposes that all appear desirable in the abstract can be in conflict, and that sometimes “any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others”. (59) If the efforts of society are to be centrally directed by government, a hierarchy of aims will need to be established to determine which will yield to others. Yet where is this hierarchy to come from? Comprehensive agreement on a scale of values does not exist in a free society, where individuals have their own moral scales. The hierarchy of aims must, and can only be, generated by the government; and not by a democratic process, which is bound to reflect the disagreements that exist in society. Indeed, it is precisely the failure of democracy to generate all-encompassing agreement that “makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough ‘to get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal”, (150) and is set up in a position of unaccountable technocrat or dictator, which amounts to more or less the same thing.

As for individuals, if they cannot be expected to agree on a common hierarchy of aims, they must still be made to agree to it. An official dogma, extending not only to values but even to “views about the facts and possibilities on which the particular measures are based” (170), must be spread, by means of relentless propaganda, by twisting the meaning of words, especially of words describing moral and political values, and by resorting to censorship and ultimately force, since dissent compromises the mobilization of society toward the chosen aims. Instead of truth, “[t]he probable effect on the people’s loyalty to the system becomes the only criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of information is to be published or suppressed”. (175-76) And people, like ideas, “more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’”. (106) Moreover,

[i]f the ‘community’ or the state are prior to the individual, if they have ends of their own independent of and superior to those of the individuals, only those individuals who work for the same ends can be regarded as members of the community. It is a necessary consequence of this view that a person is respected only as a member of the group, that is, only if and in so far as he works for the recognized common ends, and that he derives his whole dignity only from this membership and not merely from being man. (156)

Note, too, that aims do not exist in the abstract; they are those of individuals, sometimes of groups (that is, of individuals who agree). A hierarchy of aims imposed―ultimately at gunpoint―by the government is also a hierarchy of people. A collectivist government will choose whose interests to favour, and whose to subordinate. It might say it aims at fairness, but it will apply a particular standard of fairness: its own, not one of society at large, since the latter does not actually exist. Indeed,

it is easier for people to agree on a negative program―on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off―than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. (153)

Collectivism, whatever its initial aims, tends toward factionalism and nationalism, and this tendency is only exacerbated by “that glorification of power … which profoundly affects the ethical views of all collectivists”. (158)

Ultimately, collectivism is destructive not only of freedom―both political and personal―but of morality itself. A collectivist system “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (161) because the needs of the collective―as interpreted, of course, by the political leaders or technocrats purporting to speak on its behalf―are always regarded as more important than individual scruples. Collectivists

lack … the individualist virtues of tolerance and respect for other individuals and their opinions, of independence of mind and … uprightness of character and readiness to defend one’s own convictions against a superior … , of consideration for the weak and infirm, and of that healthy contempt and dislike of power which only an old tradition of personal liberty creates. Deficient they seem also in most of those little yet so important qualities which facilitate the intercourse between men in a free society: kindliness and a sense of humor, personal modesty, and respect for the privacy and belief in the good intentions of one’s neighbor. (163)

In The Road to Serfdom, this is a description of Germans, whom Hayek regards as epitomizing collectivism. But it applies, in our day, just as well to “social justice warriors” as to the supporters of Donald Trump. And it applies with double force to those in positions of political power in either movement, who more than all the others are required to  demonstrate “readiness [to] conform[] to an ever changing set of doctrines” laid down by the leader in the pursuit of his chosen goals (or, in a development Hayek did not anticipate, emerged more or less spontaneously in activist circles), whatever these doctrines may be, and to enforce such conformity on those over whom they rule.

Part II follows.