How liberalism became an intolerant dogma
My reaction to this article is multifaceted: on the one hand, I am glad that Damon Linker made these points, and on the other hand, I would like to argue against some of the implications and assumptions he makes.
To start with, I would like to clarify the difference between liberalism and libertarianism. Linker conflates the two concepts, and, while they are similarly related, they are not altogether identical.
According to wikipedia:
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is a political philosophy or worldview founded on the idea of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and a right to life, liberty, and property.
Libertarianism is the group of political philosophies which advocate minimizing coercion and emphasize freedom, liberty, and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with significantly less government compared to most present day societies.
These definitions suggest that liberalism has a stronger focus on equality, while libertarianism is more strongly focused on small government. My take is that liberalism is more willing to explore the options for achieving equality, whereas libertarianism is staunchly wedded to the idea that small government will produce equality. It’s arguably impossible to know which camp is “right.”
The problem that I have is Linker (who is directly influenced by Mark Lilla’s essay) conflates the two concepts without fully examining the differences.
He is correct, however, in identifying that the libertarian concept can be aptly applied to both sides of our bipartisan political systems:
“…Libertarianism in this sense fuels the American right’s anti-government furies, but it also animates the left’s push for same-sex marriage — and has prepared the way for its stunningly rapid acceptance — in countries throughout the West…”
Linker then goes on to say:
“…What makes libertarianism a dogma is the inability or unwillingness of those who espouse it to accept that some people might choose, for morally legitimate reasons, to dissent from it. On a range of issues, liberals seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life — and sometimes coerced into compliance by the government…”
Now, I don’t know much about those who espouse libertarianism. I’ve only had the chance to talk in depth politics with one self-assigned libertarian and so my knowledge of the matter is limited. However, I have a much deeper understanding of liberalism as I was raised in a liberal household, have liberal friends, and generally support “liberal causes.”
And, yes, I would say that I have witnessed a trend of liberals who “seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life.” I experienced this type of liberal primarily when I was attending college and they, more often than not, came in the form of well-meaning feminists who wanted so badly for women to be “liberated from the oppressive regime of Western society” that they would criticize any and all who remotely participated in seemingly “oppressive” actions, thoughts, and social roles. For example, I was “looked down on” for wearing makeup and shaving my legs.
And, yes, I can see that that kind of liberal is in the public eye right now thanks to the media and high-profile liberal groups who, although fundamentally well-meaning, insist on casting blame instead of focusing on shared hardships (see my previous blog post “The Day I Became a Men’s Rights Activist” for further examples).
However, that loud-voiced minority does not accurately represent all liberals as a whole. And it is always unfair to utilize synecdoche when describing any group of human individuals.
Linker acknowledges this point without actually realizing it when he says:
“…The latter tendency shows how, paradoxically, the rise of libertarian dogma can have the practical effect of increasing government power and expanding its scope…”
This is where Linker’s previous mistaken conflation of libertarianism and liberalism comes into play. Again, I don’t know as much about libertarians as I do liberals, but if they were interchangeable they would not have different guiding principles.
He then brings in some examples of “liberalism’s dogmatism… in recent months”:
- “Brendan Eich resigned as the chief executive of Mozilla, a company he helped found, after gay rights activists launched a boycott against the company for placing him in a senior position. Eich’s sin? More than five years earlier, he donated $1,000 to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state. It didn’t matter that he’d explicitly assured employees that he would treat them fairly, regardless of their sexual orientation. What mattered was that Eich (like the 7 million people who voted in favor of Prop 8) had made himself a heretic by coming down on the wrong side of an issue on which error had now become impermissible.
- Liberals indulged in a wildly overwrought reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, with seasoned journalists likening the plaintiffs to the Pakistani Taliban, and countless others taking to social media to denounce a government-sanctioned theocratic assault on women’s health — all because some women working for corporations that are “closely held” by religiously conservative owners might have to pay out of pocket for certain forms of freely available contraception (as, one presumes, they currently do for toothpaste). Apparently many liberals, including the Senate Democrats who seem poised to gut the decision, consider it self-evident that these women face a far greater burden than the conservative owners, who would be forced by the government to violate their religious beliefs. One highly intelligent commentator, inadvertently confessing his incapacity to think beyond the confines of liberal dogma, described the religious objection as “trivial” and “so abstract and attenuated it’s hard to even explain what it is.”
- Beyond the Beltway, related expressions of liberal dogmatism have led a Harvard undergraduate to suggest that academic freedom shouldn’t apply to the handful of conservatives on campus — because their views foster and justify “oppression.” In a like-minded column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania argued that religious colleges should be denied accreditation — because accrediting them “confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education,” one of which is to pursue “skeptical and unfettered” (read: dogmatically liberal and secular) inquiry…”
His portrayal of these events is arguably myopic and one-sided. Linker presents each event in an overly-simplistic way that distorts the reasons behind them.
First, Brendan Eich was only CEO of Mozilla for two weeks. Yes, he was one of the co-founders of Mozilla, but the original revelation of his donation was back in 2012. It only became an issue recently because he was promoted to CEO. According to the New Yorker:
“…While Eich attempted to defuse the problem with conciliatory blog posts and interviews about diversity and inclusiveness, he didn’t actually say that his views on gay marriage had changed. That, inevitably, provoked a uprising within the Mozilla community: a public petition was circulated demanding that he step down, the dating site OkCupid recommended that its customers stop using Firefox, and some Mozilla employees (though far from all of them) called for his resignation…
The problem was that Eich’s stance was unacceptable in Silicon Valley, a region of the business world where social liberalism is close to a universal ideology. At this point, a tech company having a C.E.O. who opposes gay marriage is not all that different from a company in 1973 having a C.E.O. who donated money to fight interracial marriage: even if there were plenty of Americans who felt the same way at the time, the C.E.O. would still have been on the wrong side of history. And since the role of a C.E.O. as a public face of an organization is more important than ever these days, Eich’s personal views were inevitably going to shape his ability to run the company.
That’s especially true because of the unusual nature of Mozilla. Mozilla is not like most companies. It’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, and is just one part of the broader Mozilla community, which includes thousands of open-source software developers and other volunteers around the world. These people still do much of the work behind Mozilla’s products—contributing code, technical support, design improvements, and so on. This means that Mozilla depends on the goodwill of its supporters more than most corporations do; it relies on their willingness to donate their services in pursuit of the broader Mozilla project, which is all about keeping the Web transparent and accessible. If it alienates them, Mozilla’s entire mission will be at risk…”
Furthermore, board members at Mozilla didn’t even want to have Eich as CEO in the first place. They had wanted “an outside CEO, presumably to shake up the organization”:
“…Three of the company’s six board members actually resigned before Eich was appointed… Eich himself told VentureBeat that the board had interviewed twenty-five candidates before settling on him; he even wondered aloud why they didn’t pick Jay Sullivan, who was the other internal candidate for the position…”
In other words, Eich’s resignation was much more multi-faceted than Linker implies.
Linker’s second bullet point is even more blatantly sensationalized, as obvious in just the first seven words:
“Liberals indulged in a wildly overwrought reaction…”
“Indulged”? “Wildly”? “Overwrought”? Really, Linker? That’s how you present a balanced report on recent events?
“…all because some women working for corporations that are “closely held” by religiously conservative owners might have to pay out of pocket for certain forms of freely available contraception (as, one presumes, they currently do for toothpaste)…”
Now that’s a new low, your biases are showing Linker.
Hobby Lobby stated from the beginning that it isn’t against all forms of birth control, just certain ones such as Plan B, Ella, and intrauterine devices. Hobby Lobby does provide insurance coverage for 16 other forms of birth control, including pills that prevent ovulation. They object to these certain forms of birth control because they are supposedly “abortion-causing,” which is “against their religious principles.”
These contraceptive options in fact do not cause abortion, they merely prevent the attachment of a potentially fertilized egg to the uterine wall. Some intrauterine devices don’t even regulate or administer hormones. Their science behind the decision is blatantly wrong, regardless of what their actual argument is.
Yes, those forms of contraception are “freely available” but they are also highly expensive if you don’t have insurance to help cover the cost. I personally have an IUD and it cost me $300 out of pocket, it would have cost me $800 if I hadn’t had health insurance to help. That is significantly more than “toothpaste.”
For Linker’s third bullet point, I would agree that it is unfair to deny accreditation to religious colleges. But, again, that is one individual liberal that Linker is using to characterize the entirety of liberals. Synecdoche, much?
However I should give him some credit since he does acknowledge this:
“…But wait, some will object: You can’t reduce contemporary American liberalism to the illiberal outbursts of loudmouthed activists, intemperate journalists, foolish undergraduates, and reckless Ivy League professors!
To which the proper response is: True!..”
He goes on to say:
“…Still, I wonder: Where have been all the outraged liberals taking a stand against these and many other examples of dogmatism — and doing so in the name of liberalism? I’ve been doing that in my own writing. And I’ve appreciated the occasional expressions of modest support from a handful of liberal readers. But what about the rest of you?..”
I have to admit I agree with the sentiment, but the way Linker phrases it stinks a bit like egotistic intellectual masturbation: “I see it, why don’t you see it?”
Linker then goes on to offer an explanation for why, in the first place, we find ourselves “in a world dominated by libertarian dogma.” He says that,
“…From the dawn of the modern age, religious thinkers have warned that, strictly speaking, secular politics is impossible — that without the transcendent foundation of Judeo-Christian monotheism to limit the political sphere, ostensibly secular citizens would begin to invest political ideas and ideologies with transcendent, theological meaning.
Put somewhat differently: Human beings will be religious one way or another. Either they will be religious about religious things, or they will be religious about political things.
With traditional faith in rapid retreat over the past decade, liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good…”
I would first like to point out that Linker uses the phrase “religious thinkers” to mean “Western society’s religious thinkers.” Not all religious thinkers follow “Judeo-Christian monotheism.” That aside, his use of the word “religious” is a bit ambiguous. Religious can mean a variety of things, according to dictionary.com:
1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with religion: a religious holiday.
2. imbued with or exhibiting religion; pious; devout; godly: areligious man.
3. scrupulously faithful; conscientious: religious care.
4. pertaining to or connected with a monastic or religious order.
5. appropriate to religion or to sacred rites or observances.
More often than not, most arguments, opinions, and statements boil down to semantics and it’s very difficult to fully and accurately understand or convey meaning in today’s rapidly evolving language environments.
The phrase “religious thinkers” is obviously referring to thinkers associated with specific, established, recognized religions. And, if we are to extend that meaning to his later statement that “human beings will be religious one way or another,” then we are to understand that he really means that “human beings will be associated with a specific religion one way or another.” However, I don’t think that’s what he wants to say.
Thus, the phrase “either they will be religious about religious things, or they will be religious about political things” is inherently contradictory: he is changing the meaning of “religious” from one sentence to another. He then extends this new meaning to the next paragraph to make his point.
Thus, I have to admit that I have little understanding of what he means by, “liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good.” And, consequently, I don’t understand what he means by,
“…But liberalism’s leading theoreticians (Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Mill) never intended it to serve as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good. On the contrary, liberalism was supposed to act as a narrowly political strategy for living peacefully in a world of inexorably clashing comprehensive views of reality and the human good…”
Wouldn’t a “narrowly political strategy” be one aspect of “a comprehensive view of reality and the human good”? I don’t know.
Linker concludes by saying that “the proper response to the distinctive dogmatism of our time is to urge liberals to return to their tolerant roots.” However, I would instead urge them to logically and thoroughly follow their liberal ideals which would then result in a “return to their tolerant roots”. I’m disputing Linker’s method, not end goal.
More often than not, people don’t follow the logic structures of their arguments and opinions to their logical conclusions. This plagues liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike. They get so caught up in advocating for “what they believe in” that they often don’t examine why they believe what they believe and what further implications come along with that.
Take the minimum wage debate as an example: If you are against the minimum wage raise, you are hurting your own prospects as well as the prospects of others. If wages were raised, money would be pumped into the economy making life better for EVERYONE. Just look at the states that have raised the minimum wage this year, they’re seeing higher employment growth than the states that didn’t. A recent article on Salon.com is a perfect example of this: “I was poor, but a GOP die-hard: How I finally left the politics of shame“.
Overall, I think Linker has a great message to send to the masses. However, I think he could have thought a little bit more about his delivery and wording to make his meaning clearer and could have made an effort to not sound biased. But that doesn’t mean his article should not be read and shared and discussed.
Even if you agree with someone’s overall point does not mean you should not critically examine what they say.