Dec 8, 2003: Liberalism and Politics

The hollowness to be found in contemporary liberalism is neither in its brains nor in its guts.  It is in its heart, for it lacks humanity.  It is obsessed with two categories of freedom that, alone, will never truly inspire the latent liberalism in this country, because in isolation, they do not speak to the true aspirations of the human soul.  Those two categories are economic freedoms and social freedoms, and they are roughly what determine the left-right split in the liberal movement. 

Economic freedom (property rights) and social freedoms (e.g., freedom of self-expression, sexual freedom) are indispensable elements of a liberal order.  But arguments in defense of such rights, however lucid, passionate, and logically compelling, even in combination (which is mere libertarianism), cannot spur the dramatic change of course necessary to realize (note I do not say recover, conservative friends) our dream.  They are compelling insofar as they reflect the broader and deeper desire for more direct and immediate forms of self-determination and expression (which is often reduced almost exclusively to speech and art).

Liberalism must stand for more than “rights,” of whatever color.  It must stand for individual self-determination, which encompasses and breathes life into these various and innumerable rights.  It must stand for, and combine with, democracy, until they are fused together and cannot be considered apart from one another, and until we wonder how they were ever even thought of as distinct, although always known to be related.

Indeed, for those liberals and libertarians who are obsessed with property and/or personal rights, democracy is the closest thing we might have to a genuine guarantee of the protection of our rights.

Such a claim does not, as antidemocrats have pointed out over the centuries, withstand the scrutiny of history or theory, because democracy, as the rule of the majority, has no real interest in protecting individual rights.  It is merely another form of domination of one group (in this case, the majority) over another (the minority), although it is undoubtedly a vast improvement on the domination of the one and the few.  Majority rule is most likely the best political system yet devised and enacted by man.

But, majority rule (never mind ‘plurality rule’) is only a stepping-stone to true democracy.  We are not at the end of history and progress, for after the rule of the many awaits the rule of all.  And, after the rule of all is achieved, we will undoubtedly find some fatal flaw in that, which will, in turn, have to be remedied.

The rule of all is nothing less than the logical extension of the right to self-determination in the political sphere.  In whatever political community an individual may be a member of, his consent is necessary to legitimize the actions of that community.

Implementation of pure democracy, the rule of all–no, even the first conscious step towards pure democracy–would mark a fundamental and profound revolution in the life of our country and our civilization.  The current constitutional order could neither effect nor comprehend it.  But, it is the only order compatible with freedom.

Liberalism has failed to grasp that pure democracy (I have not found a prettier phrase, yet) is both the goal for which it should aim and the surest means to secure the particular freedoms it has identified with to date.  The parchment barriers erected to defend individual rights have continually proved ineffectual guarantees of individual rights and checks on government power.  They are secure only so long as they have the assent of the governors.  The greatness of majority rule is that it has come the closest to identifying the governed with the governors, but it can never realize a complete identity.

Even if one does not share the enthusiasm (hopefully) expressed here for “pure democracy,” it must strike any thoughtful liberal as quite odd that no one ever considers the possibility that there is a relationship between our modern majoritarianism and the overbearing state, or that if they do, they can come up with no better solution than a return to some supposed ideal period of constitutionalism (romantic conservatism) or the implementation of more direct majoritarianism, in the form of referenda and ballot initiatives.  Liberalism has failed to properly and seriously address the political question and jeopardizes the cause of liberty so long as it does.

December 8, 2003


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