Make The West Liberal Again: Full Transcript
In recent years, it has become unfashionable to identify as a liberal in many parts of the West, especially in intellectual circles. As I have previously said, the Right started this trend by making ‘liberal’ a dirty word in the 1980s, but in recent years, the Left appears to be outdoing them, attacking anyone who is disappointing to them as a ‘lib’. In a sense, the Left and the Right have become allies on this issue, burying liberalism together, even as they can’t agree on almost anything else.
I believe the problem with this decline in liberalism is that, it will necessarily lead to a decline in morality, or even a total collapse in morality, in the Western world. This will likely be accompanied by an increasing dysfunction of our political systems, which I fear we are already beginning to see. Let me explain.
In our moral system, the post-Enlightenment Western moral system, it is generally held that people should be entirely responsible for their own actions. Indeed, I would argue that, if this principle does not hold, our whole moral system would collapse. Hence, to be moral, in the context of our code of morality, is to be fully responsible for our own choices, our own decisions, and our own actions, and to make sure that these don’t result in negative outcomes, especially on other people. Our moral system places a particular emphasis on individual accountability and responsibility, and for our moral system to work, our culture and politics must support these notions clearly, and to the fullest extent possible. Furthermore, the individualistic nature of Western morality means that, whenever power is concentrated in a few hands, those few people will exercise their power solely according to their own sense of morality, not because it’s their fault, not because it’s the system’s fault, but because it’s what Western morality actually expects people to do. In this situation, there will inevitably be a lack of moral accountability, which means a lack of moral responsibility.
The Moral Libertarian principle of Equal Moral Agency for every individual is a principle derived from the individual accountability requirements of the Western moral system, and seeks to prevent the aforementioned lack of moral accountability. It ensures, as much as possible, that nobody has moral agency over another person’s actions, and that every person can act according to their own moral agency. This is where I believe the true heart of liberalism lies, and it is why I say that liberalism is the best expression of morality, as it is commonly agreed upon in our shared moral system. Given our individualistic moral code, I believe this is the only way to ensure morality is upheld. Anything else would violate the basic assumptions of our moral code, which would lead to deep confusion about what constitutes morality, as interwar Europe under fascism had shown, in a very disastrous way.
Some revolutionary minded people may say that the current Western political system, as well as its underlying moral code, is faulty, and must be completely deconstructed and replaced. This is really the core motivation of criticalism, I think. However, this not only won’t work, it could lead to dangerously immoral outcomes, as we saw in interwar Europe under fascism. Fascists thought they could turn their countries into collectivist cultures by decree, but their regimes turned really ugly, as we all know. I think the lesson here is that, when you destroy the moral code of a civilization, you can’t expect even ordinary morals to continue to be upheld. A culture’s moral code takes a long time to develop and evolve, and you can’t just replace it with something entirely different and expect it to work. So far, I have described the Western moral code as being based on individual responsibility ever since the Enlightenment. But if you look at it from a broader historical context, the Enlightenment was only a refinement of ideas that came before it. Western moral individualism clearly had earlier roots, as seen in historical events like the Magna Carta. While I won’t deny that some cultures may be able to maintain a very moral society with a more collectivist system, I am certain that the West cannot do that. For the West, rejecting moral individualism will inevitably lead to the rejection of morality itself.
Moral individualism also has important implications for our politics. Modern Western democratic systems are founded by people who believed wholeheartedly in Enlightenment values, including the idea that people should be entirely responsible for their own actions. In fact, our systems would not make any sense without this belief foundation. This starts with the simple things, like how our criminal justice system is set up. Expanding this to our political system, voters are also entirely responsible for selecting the people that govern them, with an approximately one person, one vote mechanism. We, the voters, choose our government, and we get the government we deserve. Voting is an individual exercise. Each individual is entitled to vote differently, nobody is forced to vote in a way based on membership of a race, gender, class, or anything else.
In all this, we see that our political system requires an emphasis on individual responsibility to keep things running. This is entirely consistent with its moral underpinnings. Therefore, to weaken the assumption of individually based morality anywhere in our culture, would inevitably lead to the dysfunction of our political system. For example, to introduce group-based ‘oppressor vs oppressed’ ideas, or to allow for differential treatment of people based on immutable characteristics, which criticalism sometimes seeks to do, would not only violate our shared moral code, it would indeed make our whole political system completely dysfunctional. Which, I believe, we are sadly seeing the beginnings of right now.
Let’s examine the threats to liberalism, coming from both the Left and the Right. Let’s start with the Left. Liberalism has traditionally been considered to be part of the ‘left’ tradition of Western politics, ever since the French Revolution. Especially in North America, liberalism has been strongly identified with the Left traditionally. However, ever since the student movements of the so-called ‘long 1968’, there has been a systematic attempt to undermine basic liberal values in the Western Left, and replace them with a worldview derived from a combination of illiberal ideologies like identity critical theory, postmodernism, and radical feminism, what I often call ‘criticalism’. These theories challenge the very foundations of liberalism and its individualistic morality in several ways. Firstly, they promote a worldview of oppressor vs oppressed groups divided along lines of immutable characteristics. Secondly, they have a bias against empiricism and rationality, preferring instead questionable neo-Freudian views of psychology and humanity. Finally, as a result of the two aforementioned worldviews, there is a heavy skepticism towards free speech in the New Left.
I think we need to call out some of the dangerous trends this New Left is promoting. It is clear that part of the Western Left is now basically against free speech, and this has dangerous implications, especially in the context of how Western democracies operate. In our political systems, it is solely the people who choose their government, using an approximately ‘one person, one vote’ system, and we get the government we deserve. Therefore, the governance of society itself and the future direction of society rests entirely on the decision of the voters. If the voters do not get the full picture, they may make the wrong decision. If the New Left is able to disable speech they don’t like, they would then be essentially able to influence the future direction of society, rigging the whole system towards their goals, without obtaining the true informed consent of the general citizenry. This is no different than cheating, and must be called out. Furthermore, the New Left’s promotion of identity politics leads to a situation where people vote based on identity group, rather than their conscience as to what is right. This completely undermines the notion of individual moral responsibility that is central to the moral code of Western societies.
Having examined the increasing illiberalism of the Left, we should now take a look at the Right. While the Right has been very vocal about pointing out the increasing illiberalism of the Left in recent years, they are far from having abandoned their own authoritarian tendencies. While we don’t see much of 1990s style calls for censorship and hysteria over gay marriage anymore, beneath the surface, the tendency to generate moral panics and propose authoritarian solutions remains. The heated debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French back in 2019 was a good example of this, and plenty of conservatives actually support Ahmari in that debate. Moreover, this whole episode shows that plenty of people in the Right remain hypocritical about notions like free speech, as in free speech is sacred except for speech that I don’t like. I am worried that some classical liberals, in their recent disappointment with the Left, have identified too strongly with the Right as it exists, and refused to call them out on these things.
Furthermore, the neoconservative faction of the Right remains very influential, and they continue to hold onto remnants of the 20th century Cold War worldview, which leads to a pro-conflict international perspective and an encouragement of the military-industrial complex. This is both highly illiberal and morally problematic, and has caused real world humanitarian tragedies like the 2003 Iraq War. I believe those of us who are true to classical liberal ideals must take a stand against it. Again, this requires a refusal to fully identify with the Right, as it exists.
The biggest risk to liberalism right now is that we could end up sandwiched between an authoritarian Left and an authoritarian Right. If this happens, there is a very real possibility that liberalism will become permanently marginalized. Let’s take a moment to think about this.
With threats to the future of liberalism in Western politics coming from both the left and the right, there is a very real risk that will get sandwiched, and even eliminated as a major force, some time in the not too distant future. Facing this scenario, we liberals have two choices: surrender, or find a strategy to overcome this. We need to remember the high stakes involved here: as a Moral Libertarian, I believe a fundamental commitment to classical liberal values is the only morally sound way to do politics in the context of the West. A loss of these values will lead to a fundamental collapse in our sense of morality. Hence, I believe we need to fight hard to keep liberalism alive, no matter what.
Faced with our scenario, some people have suggested making the Left liberal again, by defeating postmodernism and criticalism within the Left. Others have suggested making the Right liberal instead, given that at least part of the Right are increasingly embracing liberal causes like free speech, and abandoning their previous pro-censorship and anti-gay marriage stances. My view is: why not do both? I mean, in the best case scenario, we will end up with two liberal sides to Western politics, which means we can go either way comfortably. This also means we have the highest bargaining power on both sides, because those who can afford to leave a movement have the highest bargaining power. That way, we will be able to keep the illiberal tendencies on both sides firmly in check. Alternatively, if the best case scenario doesn’t happen, working on both sides will double the chance that, in the future, we will at least have a political home on one side of politics. Therefore, a ‘both sides’ approach is the best way to prevent us from being sandwiched.
Of course, while we work with both sides, to encourage their liberal features and discourage their illiberal features, we must not be absorbed with tribally identifying with either side as it is. For example, some people who identify with the Left because of their distaste for the illiberal aspects of Trumpism end up making excuses for critical race theory. On the other hand, some people who identify with the Right end up making excuses for their authoritarian aspects. We must be clear about the fact that, as they exist right now, neither the Left nor the Right are comfortable political homes for a true liberal today. We want to work on them to make it so, but it ain’t there yet.
Now, I will outline my specific thoughts on engaging the Left and the Right respectively, to advance liberalism.
I believe we should work with both the Left and the Right to make them more liberal. This will require separate strategies with the Left and the Right, seeing that they currently have very different worldviews, priorities, and principles. Moreover, we should avoid identifying too much with either side, or expecting too much of individual thinkers and leaders on either side. Factions are always disappointing, individuals are often disappointing, so only classical liberal values themselves are always reliable.
Let’s start with the Right first. There are indeed encouraging signs that at least parts of the Right are liberalising. We should give credit where it’s due, and encourage further development in that direction. For example, it is very nice to see that the Right doesn’t seem to care about gay marriage anymore. It looks like they have finally realized that the sky hasn’t fallen in after all. This gives me hope that the Right will come to see the light on more similar issues. On the other hand, where people on the Right revert to their previous moral panic patterns, we should call it out and discourage it as much as possible. Old habits are hard to break, so we need to be patient if we want to see the Right completely abandon its illiberal side.
When working with the Right, I think it’s useful to distinguish between moderate conservatives, who care for the preservation of traditions and the social fabric, but are not inherently opposed to all change, versus reactionaries, who are generally opposed to change in any form. We should present the case that liberalism and its reformist approach encourage an adaptive preservation of tradition, which allows tradition to remain relevant and beloved by generations across time. Liberalism is therefore a great friend to the moderate conservative, and there should be lots of common ground we can find there.
Now, let’s look at what we can do with the Left. While we must oppose radical criticalist activism, and do our best to prevent criticalist ideas from contaminating our liberal values, there are still plenty of people on the Left we can find common ground with. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders reminds us that there are still plenty of Leftists who genuinely put the wellbeing of working people first, and refuse to engage in the culture wars started by criticalist activism. Moreover, there are plenty of people who genuinely want to get rid of all racism, to eventually achieve a truly colorblind society. Together, we can promote evidence based, race-neutral methods to combat racism, like cognitive bias based methods, and show how these are far more effective than critical race theory.
Finally, the Left has generally been strong and reliable allies on the anti-war issue, ever since the Vietnam War. Without their support, the 2003 anti-Iraq War movement wouldn’t have generated such a huge impact on our culture, and on the consciences of the Millennial generation. Given that neoconservative pro-war politics remains powerful in the establishment, we are going to need to ally with all anti-war factions and push back whenever the need arises. This is one good reason why we liberals should still maintain positive working relations with the broader Left, despite the difficulties presented by the rise of criticalist activism.