Liberalism

Previously I discussed the contradictions in conservative philosophy.  Today I’ll examine contradictions in modern liberalism, which has borrowed aims, ideas and sentiments from classical liberalism but has evolved from those roots.

Liberalism claims a fundamental belief in the inherent goodness of people, that there is an implied social contract between people to treat each other fairly.  It professes commendable goals of equality and individual freedom but is less concerned with the process of attaining those goals.  The underlying morality of the means toward an end often conflicts with the morality of the goal.  To say that liberalism believes that the ends justify the means is a false oversimplification of the philosophy because liberalism is concerned with process, but that concern is subservient to the goal.  Principles compromised in the path toward a worthy goal are an acceptable trade off.

John Locke, regarded as the founder of classical liberalism, conceived of equality as a natural state that human beings are born into.   Each person is not inherently subject to another and all people in a political society have a right to be treated equally under the law.  Modern liberalism broadens that concept of equality to mean that all people in a society should have equal opportunity to further their economic station; that each person in a society should have at least a minimum amount of goods to survive.

In Locke’s view, each person has a right to own property – property of any sort, not just land – and it is the government’s chief role to protect that property. No person may be forced to give up their property unless that person chooses to do so by some sort of implied or explicit contract.  As modern liberalism expanded the idea of equality, a contradiction in principles arose.  If a society was to ensure some level of survival to all people in that society, it would have to take property from those who had it in order to give it to those who didn’t.

Equal opportunity is a utopian ideal.  Few modern liberals would reasonably assert that such an ideal is attainable.  What is attainable is more equal opportunity.  In pursuit of that goal, public educational institutions were founded – funded not by taxes apportioned equally among the citizens but by monies – property – taken from those who had property.  No one can reasonably question the immense value that a schooled citizenry has to society.  Over the past 150 to 200 years, the outcome of such a policy has been a great boon to society.  If the means of getting there has meant some compromise of the principle of protection of private property, that is an acceptable trade off, modern liberals would argue. 

Equality, or fairness, under the law is a core concept of classical liberalism.  No reasonable person would argue that it is fair that someone starve to death on the street while those with full bellies walk by.  Although modern liberalism professes a belief in the inherent goodness of people, it does not trust in the goodness of people to freely choose to help those in need.  This contradiction is so profound that, for some, it undermines the moral basis of modern liberalism.  Modern liberals assume that there are not enough people who will freely choose to help those in need that people must be made to help those in need.  Rather than passing the hat, liberals pass a tax.

Inequality of circumstance, of station, of living standard – is unavoidable.  That is the natural state that human beings – in fact, all creatures – are born to.  To minimize that inequality in pursuit of a vision of justice and fairness may be a laudable goal but the mission is sullied by a less than principled process in pursuit of a worthy aspiration.  Some people will doubt such noble intentions, others will fight confiscatory laws or hide their property – making it all the more difficult for modern liberals to attain their ends.  Process matters.

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