One of the most nauseating perennial questions is “what is liberalism”? Ask a dozen people and you’ll probably get a dozen different responses. But as Aristotle said, “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.” Even a father of liberal philosophy like Hobbes was very Aristotelian when it came to the importance of definitions when discussing the necessity of definitions when speaking about speech (language) in Leviathan, “Seeing then that truth consists in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeks precise truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or else he will find himself entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twigs; the more he struggles, the more belimed.” In short, most philosophers will tell you that since definitions matter, we actually do know what liberalism is since it has an established tradition of thought which anyone can easily know if they actually read a few books.
Before we proceed in examining the two sides of liberalism, we must first begin with the definition of liberalism or establish the first foundations of liberalism and where it comes from. Liberalism is universally seen as a philosophy of modernity (or Enlightenment) that has its formation in the publication of Francis Bacons’ Novum Orgnanum in 1620 (the New Science). The liberal tradition is then brought to fruition through a long tradition of philosophers whose most famous names include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Denis Diderot, and the Baron d’Holbach. Readers familiar with these seminal modern philosophers will immediately note similarities (sans Locke who is a bit more nuanced due to problems with his dualism which, within the practical application of his philosophy and anthropology still comes out in uniformity with the other names but he is not, on technicality, in uniformity with the rest of the aforementioned thinkers): Monistic-Materialism in metaphysics, that humans are consuming machines in anthropology, that humans are naturally atomistic (separated and a-social or anti-social), hedonism, and a rejection of the summum bonum (the highest good), leading to an implicit rejection of teleology.
Sometimes the liberal philosophers are remembered as the “Mechanical” or “Mechanistic” philosophers because of the cross pollination of the new science (Baconinan-Newtonian-Copernican) of the era upon their philosophies. This is most apparent in Hobbes and Spinoza among the Anglo-Dutch tradition, and virtually uniform among the “French Materialists” in France. But what did it mean to be “liberal” for these thinkers and why is this important? To the liberal progenitors to be “free” meant to be continuously in motion with the greatest amount of choices (for consumption) as possible: To be free was to have no barriers that restrict movement and choice. Of course, this becomes a problem as anyone who has read Hobbes and Locke know – we end up colliding with one another in the state of nature which results in war and a not so pleasant life. Thus, as both Hobbes and Locke state, regulated movement is what is rational (vs. unregulated movement which is irrational). That is, there needs to be some guidance in our motion and consumption lest we destroy each other and the earth. But there is also a delicate balance in not wanting to restrict choice but to increase it. There is also a delicate balance to be run concerning free movement and restricting movement. If you feel that there are already contradictions, or more benignly, paradoxes, you would be correct.
The first strand of liberalism is what some people call “classical liberalism” – a term that few philosophers use despite its prevalence in the public square and media. Contrary to popular belief, classical liberalism is actually statist in origo. I do not use the term in a negative or derogatory sense. I use it in the same way that the classical liberals intended: The legitimacy and naturalness of the state and that the state is what will optimize our lives, consumer choices, and ability to be free.
Since humans are conceived as atomized self-consuming machines who are naturally in motion, anything that constricts this atomized self-consuming machine in motion is seen as a barrier to freedom. The logical consequences of this anthropology are far and wide: Community, religion, nationality, national-borders, poverty, servitude, even human biology, are all constrictions against one’s self-choosing and self-making freedom. This is where the state enters. The state is the best engine, or vehicle, in achieving humanity’s emancipation, or liberation, from the various constrictive forces that “bear down upon humans.” As Rousseau famously said, “Man is born free but is found everywhere in chains.”
As a machine of choice, the truly free human is the human with as much choice as possible. Being bound to community restricts choice. Being bound to religion restricts choice. Being bound to nation restricts choice. Borders restrict choice (and also movement). Poverty restricts choice. Servitude (serfdom, slavery, etc.) restrict choice. And yes, as we see today – human biology restricts choice because I didn’t get to choose my gender! Culture may also restrict choice. Why do my parents restrict choices for me too? Therefore it is necessary to overcome all of these barriers that restrict one’s choice and free movement.
Contrary to libertarians and self-styled classical liberals (such as Dave Rubin in America), classical liberal political theory conceived the state as the guarantor and liberator of human freedom. While in its so-called “night-watchman state” or its logical end point, the Leviathan, classical liberalism sees the state as the best vehicle to achieve the maximization of human choice and movement, and therefore human freedom. Those who call for the state to be the engine of human progress, liberation, and freedom are actually classical liberals at heart. This is why political philosophers see little distinction between classical liberalism and social liberalism. The principles and aims are the same. In fact, social liberalism just takes classical liberal principles and applies them to “social problems”: poverty, education, racism, etc., since all of these forces restrict choice and movement.
The second strand of liberalism is the one that “classical liberals” and (American) Libertarians more vocally support and see themselves as being part of – and often think is the “only true liberalism.” This is the liberalism of Adam Smith and the classical economists. But as we will see the principles are the same.
Since humans are atomized self-choosing, self-making, and free moving people, rather than the state being the guarantor and liberator of human freedom, the “market” is seen as the best guarantor and liberator of human freedom. Concerning free movement, the free movement of capital (global capitalism, free trade, and the allocation of capital to new places) fits perfectly with the idea of free movement. Concerning choice, the expansion of choices via economic industrialization, trade with other countries and peoples, and so forth, is seen as the perfect realization of the free-choosing individual.
Economics, then, is seen the true embodiment of the mechanistic, materialistic, and monistic anthropology of the Enlightenment. The reduction of the human being and human life to materialistic choice consumption and movement is called “Economism.” The idea of the economic self-chooser is called homo economicus. (Locke straddles both the classical liberal statist tradition and the economistic liberal tradition because of his dualism: Politically speaking he is a statist, anthropologically speaking Chapter 5 of Two Treatises gives the best early Enlightenment account of the self-choosing and self-consuming animal that is the baseline for homo economicus anthropology). Economics is also seen as the universal nature of humanity that transcends community, religion, nationality, national-boundaries, culture, and so on, so the expansion of economics will necessarily transcend (destroy) community, religion, nationality, national-boundaries, and culture and in doing so liberate (or emancipate) the individual from those constrictive forces thereby making him or her a free choosing, free moving, self-choosing, self-moving, individual.
Those who believe that economic growth, economic expansion, and economic choice will best enhance human freedom (choice and movement) are economistic liberals. Today we tend to call this brand of liberalism “Neo-Liberalism.” Although it’s not really new. The baseline foundations of this strand of liberalism go back to Locke. It is also found in Smith and the 18th century liberal economists. And it takes as its starting principles the same ideas of statist liberalism concerning the understanding of the human being and human freedom. It merely reaches a different conclusion as to what engine best guarantees and liberates individual freedom.
Looking at these two sides of liberalism one realizes – especially in the English speaking world – the debate between “liberals” and “conservatives” is really an intra-liberal debate. The “conservatives” (who aren’t really conservative by philosophical tradition) are the economistic liberals who see economic forces and the market as the best engine for achieving human individual freedom and liberation. The normative liberals are the classical to- social liberals who see the state as the best engine for achieving human individual freedom and liberation.
American historian, political philosopher, and political jurist Philipp Bobbitt proposes that the new liberal project is actually the breakdown of this dichotomy and is seeking the synthesis of the two sides together as a singular force. He calls this the “market state.” According to Bobbitt liberals have realized that both sides are actually remarkably successful in achieving their aims. Thus, it is natural that the state would seek to create the economic market to help achieve human freedom and liberation and that market forces (businesses, corporations, economic institutions, etc.) would also turn to the state to aid it in its own expansion which is considered good for humans.
Bobbitt also notes that monistic foundation of liberal philosophy leads it to support the global, universal, hegemony of the “global market state.” By eradicating distinct communities, cultures, nations (in the form of free trade blocs and economic zones), and by giving greater economic opportunities to people (whereby they leave their communities and families in pursuit of economic options), the global market state creates a homogenous culture of free choosers and free movers who have no permanent homes, no permanent cultures, no permanent families, etc., which is the fullest expression and embodiment of the liberal ideal of freedom: Infinite choice and infinite free movement.
Yet one wonders if this picture of liberalism has any bearing to historical experience and reality. Are humans not bound to particular communities, cultures, nations, religions, traditions, and histories? Are humans really a-social consumers or are they social creatures which causes them to seek community in the many myriads of forms community takes?
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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