Of late, I have repeatedly claimed that the Left’s core goal is to achieve a utopia where all people have complete equality combined with wholly unfettered liberty. This has occasioned numerous queries (especially when one book review was linked on Reddit), asking, in effect, whether this is not internally contradictory. That is, if liberty is unlimited, is it not the case that inequality, rather than equality, is the inevitable result, so that it is false that the Left simultaneously pursues both goals?
Now, I have no intention of offering a complete analysis of liberty and equality, replacing all previous thought on the matter. While I am presumptuous on a regular basis, that takes more chutzpah than I have on hand today. Alexis de Tocqueville can rest easy. But I feel obliged to respond to the question, since it has been asked repeatedly by not-dumb people (I don’t waste my time answering questions from dumb people). Also, to be honest, when making the claim I have sensed myself glossing over this underlying question, so intellectual honesty demands I address it. My focus here, therefore, is limited to equality and liberty as those terms are actually used by the modern Left, not on philosophical abstractions.
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You have to define terms, of course—or, in this case, define those terms as they are used by others. “Equality,” in the terms of the Left, in essence means that (a) many people and groups are oppressed by other people and groups, both currently and historically and that (b) those oppressions result in differential, inferior outcomes for the oppressed, the ending of which is “equality.” While some make a distinction between an equality of outcome and an equality of opportunity, the Left rejects this as a false dichotomy, holding instead that inequality of outcome is merely proof positive of oppression, rather than a result of lack of opportunity, so the only possible goal is equality of outcome made possible and enforced by ending the supposed oppression.
Turning to “liberty,” the term definitely does not mean freedom from government coercion or the right to engage in political activity. Instead, for the Left it means, as Roger Scruton most ably outlines, atomism—freedom from nearly any constraint, and in particular from the constraints that constitute “the shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society,” from any authority outside the individual himself. The only constraints to be left are the ever mounting constraints on any person who would defend or maintain those norms and values; those are to be crushed by increasingly brutal laws and social action directed only at them. Both these goals are to be achieved “by a comprehensive rearrangement of society. . . .” Thus, liberty means only the liberty to choose atomization. Anything else is, in the eyes of the Left, false liberty, which must be crushed, for it digs craters in the smooth road to Utopia, leads innocents astray, and undercuts self-actualization. For current purposes, I am leaving aside whether it is true that this Utopia leads to happiness, or instead leads to self-hatred and societal self-destruction. I merely point out that for the Left nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of this unfettered, atomized liberty; thus the Left’s approach to liberty is characterized, famously, by Ryszard Legutko as “coercion to freedom,” which bears eerie parallels to Václav Havel’s analysis of creeping totalitarianism. This results in government using an ever-heavier hand against those perceived as daring to contradict, by belief or action, the demand for ever more freedom of action, especially by those believed to have been earlier oppressed—which provides a philosophical link circling back to the Left’s definition of equality.
With these two concepts, equality and liberty, as the two main pillars, the central program of the Left is, as they will be only too happy to tell you, “emancipation,” often given a populist flavor by using the term “social justice.” By this they mean not only relief from oppression and therefore resultant equality, but even more relief from any unchosen ties that bind. Again, whether emancipation is necessary or desirable is a different question; I am just pointing out what they claim. Thus, emancipation is a means to both equality and liberty. (I think that the only worthwhile emancipation, past, present, and future, is that of African Americans; all other “emancipations” are some combination of unnecessary, undeserved, and pernicious.) Yes, if you squint hard enough, equality and liberty as defined by the Left are not actually wholly compatible; differences of talent, if used to achieve, can lead to inequality of outcomes, which implies that someone must be oppressed, somewhere. The Left never addresses this conflict. This is deliberate, because doing so is unnecessary and hurtful to their overall goals. Scruton deftly analyzes this, showing that the Left always obscures this conflict between their definitions of equality and liberty, simply “by declaring war on traditional hierarchies and institutions in the name of its two ideals. . . . Moreover, ‘social justice’ is a goal so overwhelmingly important, so unquestionably superior to the established interests that stand against it, as to purify every action done in its name.” If you accept this claim, there is still a theoretical conflict between the logical extension of equality and liberty, but no conflict in practice, since the target of direct action is the same in either case. Perhaps, the Left says, someday when we are eating peeled grapes in the Utopia of complete emancipation, we can find a way to reconcile the theoretical problem, but for now, it doesn’t really matter, because we are out to crush all norms and traditions, for the sake of increasing both liberty and equality. Bring up the guillotine!
The response of some people to this is, doubtless, some version of “Didn’t John Rawls say. . . . ?” or “Didn’t Ronald Dworkin say. . . ?” That is, didn’t those pinheads address this question, and resolve the supposed conflict? I don’t care what Rawls or Dworkin said. Both of them are liars and fools, as are all their ilk, and everything I have ever read from either is abysmally stupid and transparently designed merely to justify wholesale the pernicious premises of the Left. The reality is that despite whatever contorted philosophical justifications, usually based on begging the relevant questions, can be conjured up, what I describe above is how the Left views the world, and facing this challenge, and breaking it, is the order of the new century, and preferably of the upcoming decade.
Still, I’d like to explore this a bit more, from the conservative perspective, or, more accurately, from the Reactionary perspective. Most conservatives would say that equality is fine, as long as it is equality of opportunity. At the same time, most would suggest that society has some obligation to “level the playing field.” The limits of that are, of course, opaque. Should a child far less intelligent than another be given intensive extra education such that he can better compete with the more intelligent child? Should children from families without both a mother and father, who certainly on average do much worse in life than children with a single parent, be given intensive support to make up the difference? Of course, with welfare programs in the West successfully preventing children selling matchboxes on the street from freezing to death, we already generally accept some leveling of the playing field, but the question is to what degree this should be done—and in a world of scarce resources and trade-offs, including that we cannot enhance the abilities of the most talented if we spend the money on enhancing the abilities of the less talented, the answer has to be that choices must be made. Merely reciting how we need to give everyone equal opportunity is facile.
I have a more important question, though, which is whether beyond the basics of life we should even want equality of opportunity in general, and if so, at what cost. First, let’s stipulate that conservatives are in favor of retaining many or all unchosen bonds, the same ones that the Left wants to emancipate everyone from. (This is not true of all conservatives, but let’s ignore that for now.) But doesn’t allowing unchosen bonds mean that there cannot be equal opportunity? If we ban abortion, so that women cannot escape from the consequences of their actions by killing their children, that means women will have less opportunity, all else being equal. If we encourage a society where, more broadly, people behave similar to the Amish, believing that they are responsible for, and have obligations to, their entire extended family or grouping, blood or otherwise, that means less opportunity. And so on, and on. Second, and totally separate, the most efficient means to enforce equal opportunity, and thus the one often chosen in practice, is to enforce mediocrity. We see this in today’s public education system (it is much of the meaning of “diversity and inclusion”), and in the characteristics of certain defective societies, such as Australia’s “tall poppy syndrome” or the Danish “Jante Law.” Thus, in practice, excessive creation of equal opportunity is a synonym for either shattering necessary bonds in society, or societal stagnation, or both. This implies that refusing to create equal opportunity may be better for society.
Perhaps a structure where people succeed based on their talents and luck, with luck including who your parents are and thus what class you’re born into, makes the most sense. Most people probably recoil from that, instead saying they want a meritocracy, which implies that unearned advantages, at least those such as rich or connected parents, should not give people a leg up. (Naturally, contained within this question are fraught matters like “white privilege,” though here I mostly mean economic advantages from one’s parents.) Maybe, but maybe the opposite is true. Maybe not creating a level playing field is better, because a non-level playing field, where advantages can be concentrated in families and social classes, tends to create a natural hereditary aristocracy, a ruling class. Certainly we can’t do worse than the ruling class we have now, and replacing it with a hereditary one would probably make our society better off. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the rich getting richer—other than that today’s rich are, largely, an awful class, so we’d have to erase their wealth and turn them into coal miners, before restarting a program to create a new, virtuous, ruling class. We’d need some opportunity, of course–you can’t have too rigid a system (that would prevent me from rising, heaven forbid, since my parents were neither rich nor connected). But too much enforced opportunity is probably as bad, or worse, than too little.
And as for liberty in the conservative viewpoint, most conservatives, at least those in the American or Enlightenment tradition, agree that liberty is good. It’s just like apple pie, good for us and totally American! Give me liberty or give me death, and all. But that means political liberty, a different concept, even to the French revolutionaries of 1793, than today’s conception of liberty, on the Left but also on the Right. Conservatives therefore divide on whether atomized liberty is good, and to what degree. Some deny that liberty in the sense of self-actualization and release from unchosen constraints is good at all, and say we should return to the older definition of liberty as ordered liberty, guided and constrained by virtue, with the liberty meaning not so much free choice of action as freedom from slavery to passions. Others, from libertarians to conservatives who are really people of the Left, like neoconservatives and most #NeverTrumpers, buy into atomized liberty, and are just interested in adding a little drag to the ship of fools on which the Left has set sail.
Me, I think neither liberty nor equality, in their modern sense, have much value at all. They have been tried as the bases for society, and found wanting. I think there should be equality before the law, and that only. I think there should be the ordered liberty to lead a virtuous life, and beyond that to live one’s life as one chooses, without undue interference from the government (which should be tiny and based aggressively on subsidiarity), but nonetheless tightly constrained by societal norms and demands, combined with no necessary right to political participation, much less universal suffrage and the pursuit of more democracy. But all this is a topic for future expansion—for now, my conclusion is that I was entirely right that the Left project combines a simultaneous demand for unfettered liberty and universal equality, and there is no contradiction in practice in the Left’s implementation of their demands.
Regarding your comment today about utopianism, inequality, and freedom, this is something I’ve written about a lot. Can I post to you one part of a very long recently published article of mine– a part that deals with precisely this subject? And if so, how?
I would be very interested in that! You can post as a comment, if you want it public; or you can email to me at [email protected].
I’d love to see more posts like this that flesh out your thinking on issues that come up in your reviews. One that interests me is your dismissal of the enlightenment. I understand that one way of thinking about it is that the French version of the enlightenment was so extreme and unmoored from reality that it led to mayhem, but I am positively disposed to a subset of enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Hume. I’d love to read a post breaking this all down and also justifying your claim (from the Pinker review) that the scientific revolution and explosion in wealth had little or nothing to do with the enlightenment.
I was discussing this with Jared the other day and he encouraged me to just ask!
I love questions like this! Moreover, I just published a review that touches (again) on this. I will offer a few off-the-cuff thoughts, but I am keenly interested in sharp responses that make me hone my own thought, so please, feel free to tell me how and why I am wrong!
1) My basic view of the Enlightenment is that enunciated by Patrick Deneen in “Why Liberalism Died.” I summarize his ideas here and there, but the basic idea is that if, following Mill, the goal is emancipation from all unchosen bonds, a never-ending increase of liberty, this ultimately destroys society and creates an overweening and oppressive state that replaces those bonds and becomes the only possible focus of the citizens’ love. This state in turn attacks any who would, in their private or public lives, contest emancipation (most notably religious believers or anyone who believes in objective virtue). This is what we see today throughout the West (except, to a limited extent, in Hungary and Poland, hence the attacks on those countries).
2) My hesitation is that I like much of the modern world, as does anyone sensible, and see a lot of good in its material accomplishments (although at the same time I sometimes wonder if a rich society can be a virtuous, robust society at all). Thus, I agree with Steven Pinker that most material things are getting better. I just disagree why that is, and have a somewhat narrower view of what things are getting better. My basic claim is that we could have all the nice things of the modern world without any of the emancipatory liberalism that is the Enlightenment’s chief “gift” to us, and, by the same token, that scientific and economic progress, most especially the Industrial Revolution, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. It sometimes appears they do, because of the occasional overlap between those who advance us and Enlightenment political thinkers (especially in places like Scotland), but that overlap is mostly coincidental or mythical, spun up by people like Pinker to add a nice gloss to the political thought of the Enlightenment. As I have put it, there is no reason we could not have the High Middle Ages with rockets.
3) That leads into my third point, on which I probably part company with people like Deneen. I like rockets. The going-to-Mars kind, not the multiple warhead kind. And (as I said today in the review) I think that what made the West great, from say 1400 on, was the desperate drive for achievement, which resulted from a unique synthesis of history, philosophy, and (Roman) Christianity. As I keep repeating, if not for the West, the world of today would be indistinguishable from that of roughly 1500, or earlier. I don’t think, with the Catholic integralists, that the world of Louis IX was superior and we should go back there. It may have been superior in terms of political organization, but without the impetus to achievement, primarily secular achievement, human flourishing, material and spiritual, will always be crimped, since we cannot all be monks, wholly focused on God. So while Rod Dreher thinks we will all be better off if we are focused on small communities, with the ideal being Tipi Loschi (an Italian community he cites), I think that is not enough, though certainly it’s good. It’s not enough, and the oppressive Enlightenment state will destroy such communities, if Dreher’s “Benedict Option” gets traction. Therefore, that state must be destroyed, and replaced with the state of, say Henry the Navigator.
Have you read the Servile Mind by Kenneth Minogue?
I have not. But I am going to order a copy!
Looking forward to reading your review! It’s a must read
Minogue is a treasure! In The Servile Mind (2010) he wryly notes in that the number of oppressed people in the West today by some counts “greatly exceeds the entire population of Western states” (p. 82). And he observes that many believe “inequality is itself the same as oppression,” a belief that in turn rests on the view that “perfection would be an order in which everyone equally shared in the goods of this world” (pp. 202-203). And he ironically observes, academic critics “are in no way more dramatically Western than in their hatred of their own heritage. It is an entrenched European tradition, though previously found largely in a religious idiom” (206).
But well before that, Thomas Sowell had made similar striking observations, in his book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1995): “People are never more sincere than when they assume their own moral superiority,” which lends them “a special state of grace.” This allows them to consider those who disagree with them as being not only in error, but in sin, a vision that, Sowell argues, has not fundamentally altered in the preceding two hundred years.
Sounds exactly right, all of it. Unfortunately, of course, pointing this out has not been effective in defeating it.
“For current purposes, I am leaving aside whether it is true that this Utopia leads to happiness, or instead leads to self-hatred and societal self-destruction.”
I think it is very clear that it leads to the second. But, Charles, what I wonder is, what could be the motivation? Why would they want to lead the world to this? The only explanation I can find is something like what C.S. Lewis proposes in That Hideous Strength, that is, that actual demons or the Lord of Lies himself is leading all of this.