Liberalism Out-of-Touch With its Historical Principles

Ilana Mercer, November 2, 2000

The eerie thing about the elections now looming in the US and Canada is the profile of the voter. The folks who head for the polls in both nations have more in common than not, as are they in lockstep on the issues with voters in Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Overwhelmingly, Medicare and other entitlement programs are the deciding issues. Why then have entitlement programs become the salient feature of elections in Western democracies? Where is the debate, for instance, over foreign policy and the need to replace interventionism with peaceful unbounded free trade?

In After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State, scholar Paul Edward Gottfried offers a profound analysis as to why “democratic citizenship has come to mean eligibility for social services and welfare benefits,” and why “being administered and socialized by a custodial class is now the defining aspect of democracy.” As in any voluntary trade, what you give up you value less than what you gain. Citizens, says Gottfried, have willingly abnegated the responsibility of self-government for the guarantee of entitlements.

In tandem with an exploration of how 20th century social planners have gained leverage over citizens by dangling economic entitlements, Gottfried advances the thesis that there is no coherent liberal tradition to which the managerial state can lay claim. Based on meticulous exegesis of intellectual history, Gottfried proves that the liberal democracy that serves as the impetus for the managerial state’s social engineering has no connection to 19th century liberalism.

“19th century liberals did not believe that public administrators should work to change social classes or social values,” writes Gottfried. The liberalism of the 19th century, from which today’s faux liberals depart, stood for private property and constitutional liberty. The removal of tariff barriers and the ushering in of free trade was seen as a means to bring people together. Life, liberty and property were the natural rights governments were to uphold, no more. Social equality, which compels coerced distribution of wealth, was considered incompatible with liberty.

Absent its 19th century heritage, “liberalism now survives as a series of social programs informed by a vague egalitarian spirit,” its power maintained by wagging fingers accusingly at antiliberals. The public administrator turned into a social reformer wielding political power with the advent of the welfare state. Along the way, these 20th century social planners, who spoke of “control of production, prices and consumption”–essential socialism–began to call their social planning “liberal”. This continuity is contrived, explains Prof. Gottfried. Notwithstanding the surreptitious “semantic theft”, “punishing homophobes and sexists and trying to rearrange the income curve” doesn’t jibe with liberalism proper.

The present managerial state certainly is not an instantiation of the liberalism of the American Founding Fathers. The post-revolution federal government was not to levy any taxes, and an expansion of its power required the consent of every sovereign state. “The American Revolution,” writes economist Murray Rothbard, “was against empire, taxation, trade monopoly, regulations, militarism and executive power,” all now implicitly embraced by the US and its Western allies.

Undergirding our public administration is an unyielding ideology bolstered by a monolith of toadying journalists and intellectuals. The dubious precepts of social psychology and the enforced “public philosophy” of pluralism have become means through which bureaucrats, educators and state-anointed experts embark on crusades against “prejudice”. Together with official multiculturalism they form an instrument of control, designed to privilege a certain position and to stigmatize those who think differently. By extension, speech codes, human rights legislation, employment quotas and other infringements, contradict the classical liberal espousal of rights to property and freedom of association.

“Unlike the communist garrison state or the Italian fascist “total state,” the managerial state succeeds by denying that it exercises power. It conceals its operation in the language of caring. But “behind the mission to sensitize and teach “human rights” lies the largely unacknowledged right to shape and reshape people’s lives. Any serious appraisal of the managerial regime,” cautions Gottfried, “must consider first and foremost the extent of its control—and the relative powerless of its critics.”

Come elections, look for vestiges, however faint, of equality under the law (flat tax)–but not equality of outcome (affirmative action), reject government expansion (entitlement programs) and intrusion into people’s lives and livings, and look to the affirmation of private property rights as the mother of all liberties. The purists among you may shun most candidates. But we don’t live in the arid arena of pure thought. Prof. Gottfried’s thesis must at the very least assist us to exclude such arch-managers as Al Gore and his party, and the Canadian Liberals and New Democratic Party.

©2000 By Ilana Mercer
The Calgary Herald
November 2

CATEGORIES: Canada, Classical liberalism, Democracy, History, Left-liberalism, Multiculturalism, Political Philosophy