The idea that “liberals” (or “Progressives,” as they now call themselves) are in any way “liberal” has been making me laugh for nearly half a century. Aside from their personal libertinism in matters of sexuality — as Nora Ephron wrote of her former husband, Carl Bernstein, in her roman-a-clef, Heartburn, “he was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” — which is entirely a product of their own sense of self-involvement, there is nothing “liberal” about them at all. Even as a college student, I could see that their passion for various causes, many of them either illusory or imaginary, always had to end with the blunt fist of the government in your face. And this from people who, back in the day, were protesting against a government run by a president (Johnson) of their own party!
What we’ve seen since, with the ascendancy of the Baby Boomers, is precisely that form of totalitarian “liberalism” in action. More laws, more rules, more regulations, more punishment, more, more, more. Nothing, it seems, can be left to the judgment of ordinary citizens. Everything must be either prescribed or proscribed. As Philip K. Howard wrote the other day at the Daily Beast:
Law is essential to freedom because it safeguards citizens against misconduct and abuse. By drawing boundaries against wrongful conduct, law provides a protective zone of freedom within those boundaries. Companies can’t pollute; businesses can’t cheat; people must honor contracts. On this open field of freedom, people can act spontaneously without undue defensiveness.
Modern law goes a giant step backwards—it often bars people from doing what’s right. Law’s proper role is now seen as instructing people how to make daily choices. Instead of providing the framework for freedom, law has replaced it, creating a legal minefield rather than an open field for free choice.
Howard’s subject is the trammeling of former norms of human behavior — specifically, Good Samaritanism — by a million petty regulations whose purpose ostensibly is to protect, but whose effect instead is to harm:
Every year the rulebooks get thicker. After all, writing regulations is what many regulators do. Did something go wrong? Write a rule. Did someone find a loophole? Clarify it with another rule. Is there an ambiguity? Write a regulation. Lawmaking by legislatures is also a one-way ratchet—Legislators get credit for passing laws, not pruning them. Should unlicensed people be able to give manicures? Pass a law.
Law is good, we assume, so more law is better. The theory is that humans make mistakes and disagree, and therefore it’s good to have rules. Our dream society lies just over the horizon, once lawmakers and regulators figure out how to make the intricate pieces fit together.
In our headlong quest for a legally perfect society, we don’t take the time to take stock of what‘s been created so far. But pause for a second, and look back at what these generations of regulators and lawmakers have created. What you see is a massive, well-intentioned, legal junk pile.
Let’s stop right there: who says all this law has been “well-intentioned”? I would argue the precise opposite. None of this law has been well-intentioned, except by useful idiots, once you get past the surface of the law in question (“the Kiddie Protection Act of blah blah blah”) and look at the intent, which is always to curtail individual freedom and increase the power of the state. And the power of the state always can and must end with a man with a gun arriving on your doorstep and forcing you to his will.
Over at National Review Online, my friend Kevin Williamson notes that so-called “Progressives” (actually, Regressives who take their inspiration from dead white males /mass murderers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), are now backing away from the notion that “liberalism” was ever “liberal” at all, when in fact it has always been a blunt instrument of will-imposition:
There is something more at work here than exercises in political brand-building. For the Left, “liberalism” means a social and political program that evolved to address the perceived shortcomings and excesses of capitalism as practiced in the 19th and 20th centuries; for the Right, what we today call “liberalism” is in reality a reaction against liberalism, with such factors as laissez-faire economic policies, constitutional government, individual rights, property, etc., forming a unitary whole. [Katrina] Forrester writes of F. A. Hayek’s “willingness to belittle politics,” which is a very strange claim to make about a man who wrote a massive book on the organization of politics, covering every subject from constitutionalism to the role of labor unions to planning-and-zoning laws. Hayek, like the liberals who came before and after him, believed that the liberal economic order and the liberal political order are intrinsically linked. (Modern experiences ranging from Northern European welfare states to Singapore suggest that these linkages, while real, are less robust and operate in a less straightforward manner than Hayek assumed in The Road to Serfdom and elsewhere.)
This is important to understand because the Left’s fundamental intellectual defect — at least in the critique of those liberals who are now obliged to call ourselves “conservatives” — is that it seeks to establish something very much like the arbitrary princely powers that Smith and Hayek warned against, and that Washington fought against. The Left believes that this power can be made benevolent not by the strengthening of democracy — that is not precisely right — but rather by making ever-greater portions of society subject to arbitrary princely powers when those powers enjoy the endorsement of a plebiscite, as though handing over Augustus’s powers to the tribune of the plebs would constrain the imperial tendency.
“Made benevolent” — that is the key. But benevolent for whom? The Totalitarian Left would have you believe that its nostrums are meant for your benefit, when in fact they are meant for its benefit. Meddling busybodies to a man, today’s “Progressives” can hardly leave anything well enough alone; to them, every human problem is a nail in search of a hammer, which they not only will happily provide but throw in a sickle, too. Or a swastika, as the case may be. Power has always been the objective of the Left, a malevolent quest inevitably disguised, satanically, as benevolence.
Did someone mention Satan?
In June, my PJ Media friend and colleague Roger Kimball will be publishing via his Encounter Books my new book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, a look at the baleful influence of the so-called Frankfurt School of social and cultural German Marxists through the prism of art, literature and music; and, most of all, through our deeply human ur-Narrative, found in every culture, that prizes individualism and heroism over the soulless, ant-farm collectivism of the state. The title derives from an obscure Schubert opera, but to me it perfectly symbolizes the very special kind of Hell the Left so fervently desires as the end-state of its political program; like Satan in John Milton’s seminal poem, Paradise Lost, they would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven — a Hell they are perfectly willing to serve up to others.
Going forward, it must be the goal of all cultural conservatives, including the politicians, to acknowledge this crucial point. Politics is about principles, not programs. Today’s milquetoast GOP — philosophically, the lesser wing of the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party — is content to be administrators of the kind of fascist republic first envisioned by Otto von Bismarck in Prussia, where the children are fodder for the System, and the System in turn takes care of the elderly who have served their purpose, should they live so long. But that system, although it masquerades as “compassionate” and “tolerant,” is in reality relentless, heartless, cruel, and deeply inhuman. In short, evil.
In Boito’s opera, Faust so tempted by the Pleasure Palace, finally triumphs over Mephistopheles.
And so it must be with us. For, absent the Left’s congenital deception, who would freely choose it?