What's in a name?

I knew it was a mistake involving myself in political commentary*, but having taken the plunge, I guess I have to keep swimming, at least until the election.

One of the things that has mystified me for years is how the label "liberal" came to be associated with support for government regulation of business, e.g. environmental and worker protection measures, or even (heaven forbid) financial transactions. I know that my colleagues in political science would have an answer to this, and I suspect it goes back to sometime in the 1980s, when Berke Breathed did all those comics about the General [my bad: the Major; it's been a long time] and Milo hunting liberals in the meadows of Bloom County. But knowing the little that I do about the history of the concept of liberalism as it developed in the 19th century, I must confess myself rather confused.

This is the way John Stuart Mill (as Wikipedia puts it, "one of the first champions of modern 'liberalism'") saw the problem, in his On Liberty (1859). According to Mill, the great issue of his own day was "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." Note that here, Mill is talking about "society", not "government". The distinction is important. For Mill, the great danger to individual liberty was civil or social, not political, and the tyranny he was concerned with was that of the mass of people (i.e. "society") "collectively over the separate individuals who compose it." Back in the Middle Ages (I love this part!**), "and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time [i.e. the 19th century], the individual was a power in himself; and if he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of the masses."

For Mill, being lost in the crowd was hardly a good thing. In his view, the crowd, the mass, was inevitably "a collective mediocrity." And nothing good could come from such a mediocrity. "The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual." As Mill saw it, civilization was in a crisis and would necessarily die out if the freedom of the individual to pursue his own thoughts and activities were not preserved. Accordingly, Mill was adamantly opposed to anything approaching social regulation, except insofar as "any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others." At this point, "society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it becomes open to discussion." But up to that point, society has no business in prescribing how a person should behave.

Now, you will doubtless detect even in this somewhat clumsy summary, the seeds of our present-day arguments in favor of diversity (Mill's own word) and free social experimentation. Appropriately, you might say, Mill argued that society, acting through the State, has no business passing laws against (for example) drunkenness or fornication or gambling, except insofar as it offended against decency and so encroached onto the public realm. Likewise, he insisted, marriage, "having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both the parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it." In other words, there should be no legal or social barrier to divorce. In similar fashion, if to his own personal distaste, there should be no legal or social barriers to variants on marriage, as for example, that of polygamy as practiced by the Mormons, as long as the women involved consented to it voluntarily.

So far, so good, right? Here we have liberals in all their glory, arguing for multicultural curricula and gay marriage and lowered drinking ages and no seat belt laws and free trade and no mandatory public schools....wait, am I still talking about liberals? According to Mill, I am. "Trade," he argued, "is a social act.... [It] is now recognized, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equal freedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere." And on schools: "If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them." Sounds like charter schools and vouchers to me. Mill likewise anticipated the No Child Left Behind Act: "The instrument for enforcing the law [to obtain an education] could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children and beginning at an early age." Mill doesn't actually mention seat belts (there being no automobiles in his day), but it is fairly easy to extend his argument about drunkenness to include similar activities that endanger only oneself.

What's a Bloom County liberal to do? Yes, Mill insisted that "diversity [is] not an evil, but a good," but only "until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of a truth." Yes, Mill argued that government should be conducted on the basis of "free and equal discussion," but he did not think that this discussion should go on indefinitely: "As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase; and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested." In other words, eventually, given enough discussion, we will all agree, although it will be important at that point still to practice argument so that civilization does not stagnate. But that time is still incalculably far away. Accordingly, "as it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them."

Nevertheless, in the end, truth will out, but only if the State keeps its nose out of everybody's business: "The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes--will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish."

Could it be that those who today call themselves "conservatives" are actually, in Mill's terms, "liberals"? George Orwell would be proud.

*By which I mean, I really should be working on that list of liturgical uses of books of Hours, not writing about politics right now.
**It has more bite if you read it against Jakob Burckhardt's contention in Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, published in the very next year (1860; trans. S.G.C. Middlemore, 1929): "In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness--that which was turned within as that which was turned without--lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation--only through some general category." In other words, there were no individuals, pace Mill. So, which is it? Mass society then or now?


  1. The all-knowing Core at the University of Chicago taught me that, yes, Mill's liberalism is - though not synonymous with - in line with "traditional Republican values." However, it is also my understanding that the Republican party of today has little to do with these values. Mill's liberalism, as you summarized, believes that we will evolve to agree on more, even though (especially because?) we encourage different beliefs at the start. While traditional Republican values advocated the personal and intellectual freedom which Mill sought, recently, the GOP has steadily eroded these freedoms. So we are faced with a difficult situation where (if you are looking for Mill's liberalism) the party that advocates this position most has practically abandoned it, and the other party seeks to establish these freedoms by excessive legislation - an oxymoron if I have ever heard one. -JSR

  2. "my understanding that the Republican party of today has little to do with these values"

    On what do you base this understanding? And what specifics can you cite?

    "the GOP has steadily eroded these freedoms"
    This is a common statement by liberals that has no basis in fact.

    Are you referring to the security measures that have been put in place after the horrendous attack of 9-11?

    If so, review what happened after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought us into World War Two.

    We were deprived of more freedoms then than we have been deprived of today, and we didn't whine about it. We correctly blamed our enemies, the Japanese and Germans, for the inconvenience of war.

    Then, after our enemies had been defeated, we gained all our freedoms back.

    It is a contradiction to be Christian and be liberal.

    Few liberals are Christian, and those that I've met
    almost always are much more one than the other: Either they are much
    more liberal than they are Christian or much more Christian than they
    are liberal.

    People exist who are very much both, but these people are
    rare. A famous example of such a person would be Pennsylvania preacher
    and author Tony Campolo (whom I've heard speak).

    To become Christian is to become conservative. And to become
    conservative is to appreciate Christianity.

    The best Christian are continually striving to become more and more Christian.
    This will necessarily mean they will become more and more conservative as well.
    If they don't (become more and more conservative) they will at least
    come to appreciate conservatism more and more.
    If they don't even do this, it is their failing.

    Conservatives, by the same token, if they become more conservative, at
    the same time appreciate Christianity more and more.
    This is related to the "phenomenon" we experience as we age: Our
    parents (and other old folks) become smarter!
    Eventually, many conservatives become Christian.

    For one thing, it stipulates a heavenly Father. (Lakoff is correct in recognizing that the father figure is important to conservatives.)

    For another, it does not say (as liberalism does) that people are basically good.

    Thirdly, it emphasizes duty.

    Liberals place "follow your heart" over "do your duty" and
    conservatives are the opposite: They place "do your duty" over "follow
    your heart."

    Christianity teaches that first you must sacrifice and then you
    will have your heart's desire.

    Liberalism does not say this.

    What does Christianity mean when it promises you your heart's desire?

    It may mean exactly what you think:

    Let's say you've always wanted to be a pro tennis player (and let's
    say you're young enough to consider this).
    Then you become a devout Christian. To be a devout Christian you must
    necessarily put Christianity above everything else.

    And God gives you your first choice: pro tennis.

    You become one of the best tennis players and have no doubt
    that your faith in God was instrumental. You use your fame to promote Christianity.

    This, incidently, was what happened to Michael Chang (whom I've had the pleasure of meeting).

    But let's say you are not Michael Chang, but another young would-be
    pro tennis player.

    Let's say that you pray earnestly and get the clear message to give up
    your dream to be a pro tennis player.
    This is very hard but eventually you do it.

    This story could have any number of endings:

    1) You're guided to become a pro soccer player. You are extremely
    successful and come to love soccer as much as you ever loved tennis.
    You use your fame to spread Christianity. In other words, God knew
    that you'd be a better soccer player than tennis player, and your heart was changed from love for tennis to love for soccer.

    2) You play college tennis but (following God's wishes) put your
    effort into becoming a CPA instead of a pro athlete. You use both your
    college tennis career as well as your acounting career to spread
    Christianity. Soon your life (a combo of recreational tennis,
    accounting, and Christianity) is more fulfilling than tennis alone
    ever was to you.

    3) God guides you to not only give up on your dream of pro tennis, but
    tennis in general. After you give it up, tennis isn't a part of your
    life anymore. Occasionally, in moments of weakness, you regret giving
    it up. But other things come to interest you more.

    4) Same as #3 except that you never get over tennis.

    And in all scenarios, regardless of how hard it was for you to give up
    tennis, you go to heaven after you die.

    Back to the question, "how did Christianity give you your heart's desire?"
    In the Michael Chang scenario it's obvious: God let you have your cake
    and eat it, too.

    In scenario 1 thru 3 God changed your heart so that you came to love
    other things as much as the initial dream of pro tennis.

    In scenario 4, you are rewarded in the after-life.

    The Bible's theme is conservative.

  4. I think you missed the point of my post here.

    You are not going to convince me that I am less Christian than you are because I am voting for Obama. Obama is Christian, I am Christian, and I believe that the plan that he has for our country is a good one. I like your description of the way Christianity works in one's life, and I agree with you that we are most fulfilled when we follow God's plan for our lives. Time and again, I have wanted to do something other than what I am doing--being a scholar--but over and over again, it has become clear to me that this is the gift God has given me and that I am to work with. I was a conservative (in your terms) when I was younger (remember all that P.J. O'Rourke that I read), but I can no longer vote Republican because I do not trust the party at all. Let's make a short list: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the deregulation of the financial market, the national debt. I believe that influential Republicans are out to make as much money as they possibly can off of this country and will do anything, including spreading vicious lies about their opponents ("terrorist", "Muslim"--although being a Muslim as such is not a bad thing; my brother-in-law is a Muslim convert and very devout) to maintain their power. This, to me, is not conservative but immoral.

    I've been thinking about the regulation question. Certainly, in my own profession (education), we would prefer to have the opportunity and freedom to develop our ideas without being subject to governmental approval, much as, I suspect, industry would like to be free to make the products that it wants to sell. On the other hand, there are certain regulations to which we, too, must submit: regulations about sexual harassment and equal opportunity employment; in the experimental sciences, regulations about the use of human subjects; regulations (or laws) about libel; and so forth. As you say, people are not born good, so it is unrealistic of us to expect them to act fairly all of the time without some threat of punishment, whether it be for seducing their students or polluting the environment. I assume that you believe law enforcement is good, otherwise (in your comment on "Family Matters") you would not have mentioned the conservative officers serving in our police forces with approbation. I assume, therefore, too, that you believe in the necessity of civil law, despite the fact that such things as murder and theft are also prohibited by God's law. Even in such cases as these, being Christian, we do not leave the punishment of offenders to God alone. The financial markets did not regulate themselves and now we are all paying for it.

  5. Am I the only one who misses the posts on medievalisms, churches in Belguim, and the awe of Canterbury? Those were great posts to read. Political and religious rants -- not so much.

  6. "your description of the way Christianity works"
    Thanks. :)

    "You are not going to convince me that I am less Christian than you"
    That isn't my intention.

    "Obama is Christian"
    By his speeches and deeds, he seems to be a secular humanist.

    "was a conservative (in your terms) when I was younger"

    A good and natural life course is to, when young, rebel against one's parents' conservatism; and then, when older and more mature, to realize conservatism is actually the way to go, and embrace it.
    Sometimes one is deprived of this course if one's parents aren't conservative.
    Or if one remains a liberal rebel throughout one's life, as is often the case among academics (who remain in school forever and never full enter the real world AKA the adult world).

    "remember all that P.J. O'Rourke that I read"
    I like his stuff.
    But there are others who are perhaps more persuasive.
    Have you started on the editorials in the Wall Street Journal?

    I have started Augustine.

    "both liberals and conservatives care deeply about their country, are equally patriotic and want only the best for our nation. Agreed?"

    How can you say that and also say the following?

    "I believe that influential Republicans are out to make as much money as they possibly can off of this country and will do anything, including spreading vicious lies about their opponents ("terrorist", "Muslim"--although being a Muslim as such is not a bad thing; my brother-in-law is a Muslim convert and very devout) to maintain their power"

  7. "Am I the only one who misses the posts on medievalisms, churches in Belguim, and the awe of Canterbury? Those were great posts to read. Political and religious rants -- not so much."

    What can I say? This election is important enough that it's drawn even me into the political current. But don't worry, I'm still working on the books of prayer. Those are what are really important to me. I'm glad you enjoyed my posts this summer!

  8. Sean,

    But when I was young, I was more conservative than I am now. My trajectory is exactly the reverse of what you predict, as was my parents'.

    "Have you started on the editorials in the Wall Street Journal?"

    To be honest, no. I've been a) sick, and b) too busy trying to answer your comments. I think we know where each other stands now.

    "How can you say that and also say the following?"

    Notice I specifically said "influential Republicans". I know that not everyone who votes Republican is acting in the same way. But you can't tell me there isn't a smear campaign going on against Obama. I'm really not that naive, even if I'm not usually politically very active.


  9. Okay, so this article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122497140074869661.html), published in the Wall Street Journal gives just facts. This is pretty much what I understood our candidates to have said about their financial plans. I think it's interesting that Obama's plan will call for an average increase of $19,000 for the top 1% of wage earners. I find at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org/3-27-08tax2.htm) that this top 1% earns $348,000 or more a year. I also find that the average income of these households was up $60,000 in 2006. According to the CBPP analysis, this represents an inflation adjusted increase of 42%. In contrast, for those of us in the lower 90% of the income bracket, our incomes have increased about 4.7%.

    I understand from the Wikipedia entry on "Median household income" that the MHI for the US in 2006 was $48,000. At this level, the same percentage increase in taxes as Obama proposes for the top 1% would mean $2,400 more per year. The question is, does $19,000 more per year when you're making $348,000 (at a 42% annual increase) hurt more or less than $2,400 per year when you're making $48,000 (at 4.7%)?

    By the by, I agree with my sister (WWFP) that it is silly to say this level of taxation is going to take away the incentive to get rich. My worry is that it will simply stimulate the rich to discover other ways to get richer and that, well, nothing will change. But then, I'm an historian; I'm used to taking the long view on things. Everything changes in time. Except, interestingly enough, the fact that the poor have been and apparently always will be with us. Having Christians around doesn't seem to have changed this fact significantly in, well, almost 2000 years.

    I am particularly struck by Figure 2: "Uneven Distribution of Gains Since Late 1970s Different From Earlier Era, When Growth Was Widely Shared" in the CBPP report. I agree with you (I can't remember which comment thread this is in), we should go back to the 1950s when the top 1% of households was experiencing a growth of 20% and the bottom 90% of households was experiencing a growth of 83%. That would be rather better than the last thirty years, when the top 1% have experienced a cumulative percentage growth of 232% while the bottom 90% of households have experienced...10%.


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