The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Is Classical Liberalism “Selfish?”

One of the oddest criticisms of classical liberal political theory one encounters is that it is inherently selfish; if we use the word “selfish” as it is usually meant this is a most peculiar accusation. I distinguish between selfish and self-interest. Self-interest is not at the expense of others. When most people use “selfish” they mean an act that is at the expense of others.

Liberalism, properly understood, is a political philosophy. As such it is not directed inwardly at all. It is an outward-directed set of ethics. What liberalism defines is the minimal obligations we owe others. It requires the political system establish a respect for the boundaries others establish around their own lives.

The classic definition of liberal rights theory is no individual may violate the life, liberty or property of others. It restricts the powers of the individual to inflict harm on others. It forbids any one person,or collective, from putting their perceived interests above those of any one else through the use of force against them. Such force reduces, or removes, their control over their own life, liberty, and property.

Liberalism is a political theory which inherently respects the values and choices of others.

More importantly, because it restricts the use of power and force, it is most restrictive on those who have the most power and the greatest ability to engage in force against others.

Who then is most restricted by the boundaries of classical liberalism, if not those who have the most influence, the greatest wealth, or the most brute strength?

When we consider the plight of those who are poor and/or powerless in our society they are the ones who have the least ability to violate the life, liberty or property of others — at least in any systematic way, or on any massive scale. The most they might do to others is an individual crime against a specific victim, which is then a matter of the criminal justice system. But, the widespread, systemic violation of rights that is done within a society is done by those with power and wealth. Not only does the politicized justice system not prevent such assaults, it protects those who commit them. It is precisely these groups that would be most restricted under a liberal political system.

Multiple administrations plundered the working people and the poor in order to redistribute wealth to corporate elites. Obama calls it a “stimulus package.” Trump laughs about “using other people’s money.” Both Republicans and Democrats take money from those who have little to spare, gives it to wealthy individuals and corporations, which stimulates their interest in political donations in return. Cover that up with flowery, meaningless rhetoric about the poor, and you’ve got the perfect con game.

Consider the segment of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her companions are cringing in terror before the “powerful Oz”. Toto pulls a curtain aside and they see a man operating the mechanisms that make Oz appear powerful. When Oz realizes that he has been discovered he orders Dorothy and the others to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” In the movie they do pay attention. In politics, when the people are told to ignore the man behind the curtain, they do. They watch the “great and powerful Oz” in all his loud, flashy manifestations and simply ignore the method by which the charade is carried out.

For that reason the presidential con will go undiscovered by most. Some academics will write about how the wealth transfers instituted by the progressives in power actually benefitted the rich and the powerful. Entire books will eventually be written about the subject. The bulk of the public will never read those books and will never know that Progressive politics is like the Great and Powerful Oz; behind the curtain it just isn’t what it appears to be. It’s almost as big a con as when Republicans pretend they support free markets and balanced budgets—even as they endorse protectionism, crony capitalism and vote for massively destructive budgets.

Historians have already exposed previous periods when the Progressive Left controlled America. Gabriel Kolko, in his The Triumph of Conservatism, showed how Progressive Era legislation to control “Big Business” was a godsend to the corporations who then used the controls to their own advantage, against the interests of the nation as a whole. Historians and economists have shown how FDR’s “New Deal” didn’t end the Great Depression but spread it out over a much longer period of time. (See FDR’s Folly.) Now we need honest economists to expose the fraud of conservative “support” for capitalism.

It seems to me that the reality of politics is that a theory is almost guaranteed to be interpreted in a direction that is the complete opposite of its results. Progressive statism, which benefits the wealthy and the powerful, will be seen as compassionate and selfless. Liberalism, which restricts the power of these same elites, and which forces them to respect the rights of all, will be seen as selfish and cruel.

One area where liberalism is attacked as selfish is that it doesn’t take kindly to the idea of coercive “charity.” It doesn’t force individuals, through the sate, to donate to charitable causes. The critics forget two important facts.

One is that liberalism is merely a political philosophy which sets the boundaries of how we as individuals, and as a collective, may treat others. It sets out minimal obligations only, not what sort of ethical system we may follow beyond that. Yes, liberals would defend the individual’s right to live according to their own rational self-interest. But. it equally defends the right of others to live “selfless” lives for the sake of others, or something in-between.

The Progressive confuses ethics, those rules about how we ought to live, with politics. They want to use the force and power of government to make people nice. This fallacy is committed by conservatives as well, just in a different direction. Conservatives want the political mixed with private ethics in that they wish to force people to be virtuous. The Left statist wants state power to mandate charity while the Right statist wants state power to mandate chastity. One forces us to be “our brother’s keeper” and the other forces us to avoid “sin.” They have far more in common than they admit.

The liberal alternative does not oppose either charity or virtue. It just wishes to remove these aspects of personal life from the political arena. Politics is about the minimal requirements necessary for living in social harmony. It is not about the ethical norms we ought to follow in our private life.

Liberalism draws a line between true charity and compassion, which can only be privately directed, and fake charity and compassion, which is politically directed. There is nothing charitable or compassionate in giving away someone else’s wealth. Charity and compassion requires you to reach into your own pocket, not pick the pockets of your neighbor.

A second point liberals would make to Progressives is the political process is simply a bad way to be charitable. Politics is inherently controlled by the powerful — not the powerless, by the wealthy — not the poor. This remains true no matter how flowery the rhetoric of the leading politician.

When government has the ability to be charitable the process is always open to manipulation by the powerful who will usually succeed in redirecting programs so the true beneficiaries of the program are rarely the people who are pointed to when the program is initiated.

Even when some of the wealth trickles down to those most in need, the bulk of it will be absorbed by the layers of bureaucrats who, if they are not well-off, are far better off than those they are supposed to help. The general thrust of the program will be to first protect the interests of the political elite who manage it, and to promote the political careers of those who created it. Even something as clearly beneficial as preventing child abuse can be turned into a system which harms children while benefitting the child savers. (See Wounded Innocents by Richard Wexler for details on that.)

Numerous books, such as The Lords of Poverty, have shown how global antipoverty programs benefit the purveyors of charity and not the world’s poor. Lord Peter Bauer showed how foreign aid often inhibited economic development while creating political power elites who then used their power to plunder whatever wealth the peasant classes were able to produce.

Liberalism shuns such centralized, coercive structures because they do NOT accomplish the goals used to justify their existence. More importantly we recognize these structures are actually counterproductive and inflict harm on those they are meant to help.

I would argue depoliticized markets benefit the poor and the powerless. Politicized markets, on the contrary, benefit the rich and the powerful. Political solutions rarely offer benefits to the objects of their charity, but always offer benefits to those who manage them. They are a system which replaces the preferences of the “needy” with the preferences of the political classes.

No reasonable liberal would argue that political solutions for such problems never work, or that some worthy individual was not actually helped. But, the bulk of such programs do not accomplish their goals and the good done for those in need is just a fraction of the good done for those who create and manage the program. The result is the small amount of good that is done is counterbalanced by the excessive costs of doing the good. Among the costs are the reduction of economic opportunities for those in need. In the end the class of people identified for state help is more likely hurt for the benefit of a few. More harm is likely to be done than good.

Liberalism is fundamentally a political philosophy that asks whether we are treating others as an end in themselves, or as a means to our own ends. It rejects the latter premise. Liberalism is other-oriented because it limits what any of us may do to others in the way of violating the sanctity of their own choices. At the same time liberalism imposes no limits to the charity that each of us may wish to engage in individually. To call this “selfish” is to invert what is meant by the term.



A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.