April 3, 2005

A Brief History of the Devolution of Liberalism

Carroll Andrew Morse

Over at Dust In the Light, Justin has motivated a thread about the increasingly important question of what has happened to liberalism (see Justin's original post & comments). Here's my capsule sketch of how liberalism got to the place where it is now...

1. Once upon a time, some enlightened philosophers came up with an idea called "liberalism". The individual was special. And humans should care about other humans. An early formulation was "love thy neighbor as thyself".

2. Liberalism was not an easy sell. Humans are programmed for self-preservation. Liberalism might be fine for philosophical types with lots of time on their hands, but regular folks didn't have the time to bother with it.

3. Despite the practical difficulties, liberalism spread. The basic principle -- love thy neighbor -- was hard to argue with. And there was a force in the world ready to challenge the idea that the impracticality of liberalism was a dealbreaker. Religion succeeded in taking liberal principles from beyond the realm of philosophical speculation, and challenged people to live a basic respect for others in their daily lives.

4. However, some liberals grew frustrated. They felt the ideal was not propagating fast enough. So they loaned the liberal name out -- and the respect and authority derived from its moral underpinnings -- to other, less liberal groups. These other groups, assorted forms of leftists, argued (and convinced a fair number of liberals) that government control and strong state bureaucracies and rules and regulations were the only ways of advancing the liberal ideal.

5. In the US, this took a unique form. The judicial branch of government was most receptive to advancing what was still a recognizably liberal revolution in the 60s and 70s. Having bought into the idea that a strong state was necessary to protect rights, and seeing the courts advancing their agenda, liberals began demanding absolute obedience to judges. Not only was it wrong to question a judge's ruling, but it was wrong to question the idea that judges had a final, absolute say on the scope of individual rights.

6. Then, a hostility towards religion permeated the liberal/leftist alliance. Liberals largely cut their ties to religion, but continued believing that they alone owned the unique moral authority that came with the liberal name.

7. Separated from their religious roots, or any call to a higher power than the state, but still relying on a moral authority as a source of strength, liberals began arguing that morality and the rules of the state were one and the same. In America, in particular, the formulation was more narrow. Morality and the opinions of judges were one and the same.

Thus, if a judge orders an innocent woman to die, liberals now argue -- with a moral fervor -- that there is no room for any argument against the judge's order.