Coffee & WisdomPodcasts

Coffee & Wisdom 02.65: The Holes in Liberalism Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


Please Subscribe



Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom. Each week we take up a topic and think it through a little bit things that have to do with American culture, from religion, politics, theology, philosophy. This week we want to look at the idea of liberalism, and I’m calling it “The Holes in Liberalism”, as I want to look at some of the contradictions and challenges that the idea of liberalism might have for us. I should start with a definition, I suppose, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; I mention this source quite often. It is online, but it is a juried magazine that takes up these issues with professional philosophers, and so usually the definitions are pretty darn good. We should know that there is no one form of liberalism and that would be one of the problems is how do we define it? The fractures in these definitions occur over the term of, well, guess what, liberty, because that’s what liberalism is all about. So from the very get go with the definition, we already have some confusions going on. So let’s look at the types of liberty. Well, number one is political and legal. That’s what we probably think of, first off is the political idea of liberty in terms of liberal governments. But there are also ideas of liberality around economic freedoms and social freedoms. As you see, those, of course, mesh into not only international relations, but then into governments in various nations themselves.

So what are the grounds of liberty, if famously – and we talked about this a couple of weeks ago when we were looking at the idea of being endowed by the creator with these inalienable rights with deism – that natural law, the idea of some kind of providence or creator was in the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea behind who was guaranteeing liberty. First off, the natural law, but also the natural or the self-evident, as they’re called in US history, rights based in the human amoral imagination. Because the idea says, you remember, if you’ve been watching, had the idea that the creator created us as rational beings and moral beings with the moral imagination and then simply stepped away. So now we are on our own to figure it out. So the moral imagination then of the human is the arbiter of what these rights of liberties should be. One other one is utility, and we will be coming back to that one in a bit. So there are classic liberalisms with their basic principles, which is life, liberty, and property, things that a government ought to, as endowed by their creator, to guarantee the citizens. So, wait a minute. In the US, in our Declaration of Independence, it’s a life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How come that is what it says in US political history when life, liberty, and property was very clearly the idea from British common law? Well, the British historian Peter Garnsey in his book Thinking About Property, has this to say about that:

“This was an important and awkward issue because nobody claimed that the American Indians, though primitive, had no natural rights. The admission of a natural right to property would have put under suspicion virtually all land held by descendants of European settlers in America. Also contentious was the matter of a natural right to property in relation to the legitimacy of slavery.” So, Thomas Jefferson, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And as I mentioned last week, happiness is really a very old mistranslation of the idea of eudaimonia, how to live well. And by golly, it goes all the way back because Thomas Jefferson was smart enough to see that saying property in this context would get the American colonists in a bit of trouble. Well, where is this coming from? William Blackstone, the great jurist in England. In Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England”, one of the great perpetrators of this idea of what liberalism actually meant says this: “The rights of the people of England may be reduced to three principal or primary articles, the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property, because the preservation of these inviolate may just be said to include the preservation of our civil immunities in their largest and most extensive sense.” So you get the idea here that classic liberalism coming right out of the Enlightenment is very much about life, liberty, and property here.

Blackstone famously said, “Better that 10 guilty persons escape then that one innocent one suffer.” He sets this up as the kind of goal or ideal of what jurisprudence should be doing. So we need to set up a system that might let 10 guilty persons go, but that would definitely not have an innocent person suffer. This is classic liberalism. Well, this opens up a very good question then. Is Liberty about the right to property or is liberty about egalitarianism? Well, I know that you’re probably saying, well, both/and, but this is not so obvious to many people as they theorize about the idea of liberty and liberalism. The good question is, is liberty and liberalism about the baker or about the pie? Is it about those who are making the society work through economic means or is it about the products? And then, classic example, dividing the pie up among those others within the system? Well, Frederick Hayek, one of the great early to mid 20th century economists, has this to say: “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal.” Now you see how this is working and you can see that this is kind of classically libertarian, as we call it nowadays. That term wasn’t used in the time of Hayek, but “libertarian” often is is a way of talking about this older idea of liberalism that comes in very early out of Blackstone’s:

“There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal.” He goes on to say, “There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control; no freedom of assembly, if the needed rooms are so controlled; no freedom of movement, if the means of transport are a government monopoly.” You see where he’s going to be going with this. And he is reacting against the Soviet revolution and communism in this way. He also said, “Liberty is not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice, it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” This is classic what we now call libertarianism, but an older form of liberalism that is very much a part of the history of the idea. Now, later on, Isaiah Berlin came up with this idea that there are actually two forms of liberty and therefore liberalism. There is negative liberty that is “freedom from” and positive liberty, which is “freedom to”. And you get the idea; negative liberty is freedom from various kinds of regulations and rules, but the positive liberty then is the freedom to do something — flourish, for example — that idea of eudaimonia that we talked about last week, Isaiah Berlin, lived in England. He escaped from Central Europe during the Nazi invasion, and was of Jewish extraction. He had this to say,

as a political and economic theorist: “It is this, the positive conception of liberty, not freedom from but freedom to which the adherents of the negative notion represent as being at times no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny. Well, we can hear Hayek talking there. Where is Isaiah Berlin going to come down on this idea of “freedom from” or “freedom to”? Probably his most famous phrase is he said, “It is freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.” You’ll see this formulation two or three different ways because lots and lots of people have picked up on it as a further articulation of what liberalism should become. Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. An interesting metaphor and an interesting way of looking at “freedom from” and “freedom to”. He also said — just because it’s fun, I’ll add it in — “There is no there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will necessarily prove interesting.” This was one of his theses that I find very interesting that, you know, yeah, truth – it may not be all that much fun to discover after all. Well, how is liberty then supposed to work within this larger and older framework? Well, we’re supposed to have all these cool things that we do: one, we’re going to voluntarily cooperate because we all know we can make more money and be better off if we voluntarily cooperate.

Also, the idea is that we will be tolerant because tolerance just builds up a bigger market. So why wouldn’t we want to be tolerant of everybody and have a free and tolerant society? Because it just helps out with economics and safety, doesn’t it? Free movement of people, goods, and ideas. Guess what? That’s one of the main things the US Constitution was all about is the free movement of people, goods, and ideas. Individual flourishing; again, where are the bounds of that becomes the question. Peaceful coexistence with others, arbitration of disputes, which means the rule of law that we hear a lot of in liberalism, and then spontaneous groupings and systems that would just happen when everyone is free. We will meet up with and figure out ways to make money, goods, services, et cetera, flow more easily by developing systems. But those systems are not set up by government then in this idea, but rather by people who are looking at how to make more money and do better. Well, that’s the kind of idea of classic liberalism that I want to set off these ideas with. That sounds all very good, except it’s going to hit a few walls along the way that we need to look at this week. The first wall, it’s going to run into is the difference between consequentialism and deontology. Virtue ethics we talked about last week; this is a much older Aristotelian idea of how to be good in the world.

But consequentialism and deontology are the two main ways that people think about ethics in the United States today. And liberals tend to be consequentialists. They focus on the consequences of actions, whereas conservatives tend to be deontologists; they focus on duties. We’re going to look a little bit about that tomorrow and how that begins to open up some very serious fissures within liberalism and how we see it in the United States. And that has far reaching implications even to this day. Well, thanks for listening. That’s what we’re going to be talking about this week. Wanted to set up the idea of classic liberalism so that we can look more closely at what it means in politics and theology. And then with within the smaller US idea of what a liberal might be. Wednesday night, seven o’clock Central Time, Bibles and Beer I’ll be talking about “Moses Won’t Ask for Directions”. How come the children of Israel walked around in the desert for 40 years? It’s a good question and something we do need to think about a little bit by looking at the text and talking about it. The theme for the month of April is Becoming. It’s also National Poetry Month in April. So “Becoming” and the idea of what an individual is, what we are in community, and what our human creativity is all about. Thanks for listening. And we’ll be back tomorrow to talk more about “The Holes in the Liberal Idea”. Thanks.

Leave a Reply