Liberalism Revisited

When I say that I both embrace and reject “liberalism” I am not trying to be ironic. The problem is that liberalism has been applied to many different things by many different people. Labels stand as convenient representations of abstract concepts. Over-generalization, however, can lead to trouble.

In ancient times, to be liberal simply meant to be magnanimous. It implied a liberty of means. A sufficiency of power and goods was needed in order to freely exercise one’s generosity. We see an expansion of this idea with regard to the liberal arts. This term referred to the education appropriate for a freeman, as opposed to a slave or serf. In time liberalism came to mean the advocacy of political liberty. But there has always been ambiguity about this point. Sometimes this idea was favored by radicals. On the other hand, consider the Italian Cardinal Robert Bellarmine who, in the name of religious conservatism, promoted a degree of political liberalism. In De laicis (“A Treatise on Civil Government”) he opposed the tyrannical theory of the “divine right of kings” and advanced the idea of government by consensus of the governed. At the time that he wrote this, the absolutism of many European monarchs was actually considered progressive.

I am therefore a “classical liberal” in politics, as regards the methods, but I am a conservative in rejecting complete and unrestrained liberty. Liberty is a means to certain ends. However noble, it is always defined by other criteria. Liberty implies free will and the ability to do good or evil. Without liberty we would be the robotic creatures of Rousseau and Marx. We require freedom in order to exercise virtue, whether for the benefit of ourselves or others, and this always implies the potential to act badly.

Politics are the prudential achievement of certain social aims. If my aim is justice, liberty and stability, then I will seek out whatever form of government can fulfill this. As Newman said in  matters of polity: “It is no principle with sensible men, of whatever cast of opinion, to do always what is abstractedly best.” Insofar as being “liberal” refers to a way of employing and advancing rational liberty for the individual, I agree with it. Unfortunately intellectual conflict on this point has been confused. Traditionalists (rightly) condemned moral liberalism but they sometimes (mistakenly) condemned aspects of political or economic liberty.

In conclusion, it appears that there is no such thing as a monolithic “liberalism.” It has always be full of diverse and sometimes contradictory trends. As experience shows, modern statism can simultaneously embrace totalitarian controls while permitting individual libertinism, which represents a false and shallow kind of liberty. Most of what passes for “liberal” today is in fact leftist and the antithesis of older forms of “liberalism.”

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