TGIF: Don’t Blame Wokeism on the Unfinished Liberal Revolution

by | Jan 27, 2023

TGIF: Don’t Blame Wokeism on the Unfinished Liberal Revolution

by | Jan 27, 2023

hazony

The National Conservatives are not only wrong about genuine liberalism — that is, libertarianism — they also apparently haven’t bothered to read up on what they think they’re attacking. Take Yoram Hazony, author of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, who recently appeared on the YouTube show Triggernometry. As Hazony makes clear, for him it’s straw men all the way down.

Throughout the interview he uses the word liberalism for the philosophy he blames for saddling the West with wokeism. That’s unfortunate because people use that term in many ways. What definition does he have in mind? I think we can infer that he means something like libertarianism (and not, say, Nancy Pelosi’s “liberalism”) since he faults the philosophy for its powerful commitment to free markets. Although he’s not thoroughly opposed to free enterprise, he favors a government strong enough to step in when the “national interest” (ascertained by whom?) requires it. National conservatism without a commitment to government power to override the free market would be like a square circle.

Like other right-wing critics of libertarianism, Hazony believes that Western societies are in the woke soup because Enlightenment liberalism is intrinsically prostrate before its leftist adversaries. Why would that be? In his eyes, it’s because liberalism’s only message is this: do your own thing. He told Frances Foster and Konstantin Kisin:

If you [liberals, presumably] raise children and you tell them, “Look, do whatever you want. Do whatever feels good. Use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions, and you don’t give them anything else, a great many people, maybe the majority, end up stuck and unable to make the decisions among, you know, what exactly is it I’m supposed to do and what is it I’m supposed to believe.

I have no idea why Hazony thinks that liberalism teaches people to do whatever feels good, or that, as he says elsewhere, that freedom is “all they need.” One of the first things liberal parents would teach their children is to respect other people’s rights: specifically, don’t hit other kids and don’t take their stuff without asking.

By the way, “do whatever feels good” is hardly the same as “use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions.” How does Hazony not see that?

Further, using your own reason does not mean: don’t read history, don’t learn from others’ experiences, don’t absorb the moral and political lessons of those who came before. Liberalism is not about the individual’s starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. Rather, it means that you shouldn’t blindly accept what others tell you. Use your head. We have much to learn from other people and other ages. So what’s Hazony’s real beef with liberalism?

As this makes clear, he clearly doesn’t know what liberalism is, but he’s certain he knows what it has wrought:

Liberalism is what brought woke neo-Marxism. Every single institution that the woke neo-Marxists are running now was a liberal institution 15 years ago. So if liberalism had the antibodies, if it was enough to say let’s just be free, if that was strong enough to be able to defeat woke neo-Marxism we wouldn’t be where we are today….

Liberalism brought Marxism.

Have you noticed how everything the woke left favors these days — to be sure, genuinely abhorrent stuff — is reflexively condemned by the right as “neo-Marxist” — even when the idea in question has nothing to do with the material forces of history and economic classes? You’d think Marxism was the only evil in the world. Actually, It’s not.

Sometimes, when Hazony thinks he’s scored points on liberalism, he sounds a bit like a liberal, such as when he reminds us that each individual is born into a culture, which ought not to be automatically rejected. The reason he doesn’t realize that liberals can agree with this is that he thinks — wrongly — that liberals are Jacobins, who aspire to wipe the social slate clean and start over. Some liberals have occasionally sounded like they’re saying something like that, but to suggest that Jacobinism or utopianism is intrinsic to liberalism is to do a disservice to an honorable and valuable — yes — heritage.

While Hazony concedes that it might be okay to reject some inherited traditions, he seems uncomfortable with that prospect. As he puts it, your forebears “hand[ed] down things [and] you have a responsibility to fight for those things.” Why? Because they were handed down?

I prefer Thomas Sowell’s take: another culture may well have features that are better than one’s own — superior at dealing with an aspect of life.

The entire history of the human race, the rise of man from the caves, has been marked by transfers of cultural advances from one group to another and from one civilization to another….

Cultures exist to serve the vital practical requirements of human life — to structure a society so as to perpetuate the species, to pass on the hard-earned knowledge and experience of generations past and centuries past to the young and inexperienced, in order to spare the next generation the costly and dangerous process of learning everything all over again from scratch through trial and error — including fatal errors.

Cultures exist so that people can know how to get food and put a roof over their head, how to cure the sick, how to cope with the death of loved ones, and how to get along with the living. Cultures are not bumper stickers. They are living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life. [Emphasis added.]

Every culture discards over time the things which no longer do the job or which don’t do the job as well as things borrowed from other cultures. Each individual does this, consciously or not, on a day-to-day basis. [Watch the video; read the text.]

Problems with change occur not when people are free to adopt “the stranger’s ways” (the supposedly scary phrase is from Fiddler on the Roof); they occur when those who favor change have access to state power — especially when government controls or strongly influences education, the media, and other commanding heights. Then some people, however well-meaning, can potentially impose their preferences on the rest.

Without access to power, people are free to adopt changes for themselves and try to persuade others, but then they would have to wait to see if the new ways catch on. Change, under those circumstances, tends to happen at the margin, although exceptions can’t be ruled out. (Social contagion is possible.) But even then, free people would have peaceful consensual ways to protect themselves and their children from unwanted change. This is where freedom of association kicks in.

In general it seems reasonable for individuals to provisionally defer to tried-and-true ways because they have apparently passed the cultural natural selection test. Yet one also ought to remain open to demonstrations of better alternatives. Liberalism delivers the best of both: stability without stagnation and dynamism without chaos. But individual rights must be respected.

As a national conservative, Hazony of course favors nationalism. If all he means is that a world of many nation-states is preferable to a global empire, then libertarians stand with him. If we can’t get rid of power, at least let’s disperse it among small competitive jurisdictions. But he means much more than that since he and his fellow National Conservatives favor trade restrictions and other forms of welfare-state industrial policy. And I presume he would oppose secession, at least from nation-states he approves of. (He is an Israeli.)

Hazony commits a major blunder when he says that liberalism is inherently imperialist and that nationalism is inherently anti-imperialist. How does he figure that? Since liberals believe they have identified universal principles, he says, it is committed to imposing those principles on everyone. If you fail to see his logic, I imagine you’re not alone.

Contrary to Hazony, liberalism doesn’t says it has the one true way for everyone to live. Rather, it says all people ought to be free to decide how to live. Liberalism, which seeks to limit state power, doesn’t entail imperialism because that would expand state aggression both domestically and abroad. Thus “liberal imperialism” is a contradiction in terms. Nationalist imperialism, however, is not.

While I wouldn’t expect Hazony to be persuaded by what I’m about to say, I will point out that the alarming and long-standing decline of liberalism can be plausibly explained by its initial incompleteness politically, economically, legally, and even morally. Twentieth-century liberal writers, scholarly and popular, pointed this out repeatedly and tried to do something about it. That’s why they wrote so much. These included Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and most fundamentally, Ayn Rand, who argued persuasively (to me at least) that as long as a secular or religious ethics of self-sacrifice predominated in a culture, the political-economic-legal system rooted in individualism and private property would never be whole-heartedly embraced because it would be tainted by the alleged sin of “selfishness.”

Even the doctrine of limited government kept liberalism from fully blossoming because, as we’ve learned so often the hard way, limited governments don’t stay limited. (See my article “Anthony de Jasay on Limiting Power.”)

Thus liberalism didn’t yield because it was inherently weak. It yielded because it was fatally compromised from the start. That’s my answer to Hazony’s question of why wokeism has succeeded. We don’t need illiberal national conservatism to win back our freedom.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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