On View from the Right, Auster has posted James Burnham’s liberalism test from his Suicide of the West published in A.D. 1964. It is an interesting list of questions, though I share some of the frustrations of Auster’s commentators about it. As I noted in “Your Morals,” political tests often do not supply the contexts that would determine one’s answers to their questions. Nonetheless, in true blog fashion, I’ll narcissistically offer my own answers to the test in next week’s posts.
However, it bears repeating that I find the American use of “liberal” problematic. In “A Diagnosis of Modern Political Disease,” I briefly examine liberalism. We see the seeds and development of liberalism in Locke, Montesquieu, the physiocrats, Constant, Mill, and the American founders, where the central political goals involve individual liberty and autonomy and where the main political problems involve securing such liberty and autonomy for all members in a human community. Yet, Americans call “liberals” those who readily dismiss considerations of liberty for those of equality. Egalitarianism and its socialist fruit have coevolved with liberalism as the twin spawn of the Enlightenment, and the lovers of equality no doubt share many traits with their liberal brethren, but they are not the same. One cannot long seek liberty and equality as political goals without soon having to sacrifice one for the sake of the other.
Auster attempts to handle this divergence in modern politics with the distinction between right-liberals and left-liberals. As far as I can tell, Auster thinks that both right-liberals and left-liberals adhere to liberalism’s fundamental principle that the supreme political end is individual autonomy—and perhaps individual fulfillment through selecting and achieving one’s own version of the good. What distinguishes right-liberals from left-liberals, it appears, is that right-liberals want individuals to carry out this process free of political coercion, while left-liberals want the power and resources of the state to facilitate such fulfillment for everyone.
I may not understand Auster’s distinction well, but as it stands, I do not agree. Auster’s left-liberals do not want communal support for individual “fulfillment” because they really believe that each individual has the right to choose his own good and to live for it. Rather, they are driven by a devotion to equality. For without collective support, many individuals will not be able to attain the good that they choose, and such inequality is unjust in the left-liberal’s eyes. Yet, a society’s resources to indulge the attainment of these various goods are limited; they do not magically appear but they must be expropriated from individuals in the community by the leaders of the community. In a purely left-liberal system (as Auster imagines such a thing to exist), this transference of resources would have to proceed voluntarily. Otherwise, it would not be liberal at all; there is no liberty or freedom in suffering theft. However, such left-liberal systems do not work because people do not readily give up their labor and its fruits for others who are not closely related by blood or friendship. Thus, left-liberalism does not exist except perhaps as an ephemeral development in the soul of a blossoming socialist.
Rather, socialists, Communists, egalitarians, and their ilk exist, but their concern for liberty is quite limited and often idiosyncratic. We may justly ask why a hypothetical but altogether representative Vermont socialist would believe fully in authoritarianism for so many aspects of human life but then harbor intense liberal beliefs about sexual freedom. Congress is full of elected officials who want the state to micromanage human life but who wax Jeffersonian when it comes to whether the state can regulate certain drugs. These beliefs do not make such socialists—who are statists through and through—“liberals.” It rather makes them inconsistent managerial authoritarians.
Links to this series of posts:
“Are You a Liberal?”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Prelude”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 1-6”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 7-12”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 13-18”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 19-24”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 25-31”
“Burnham’s Liberalism Test: Questions 32-39”