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On the Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism

I've seen a lot of talk that attempts to distinguish liberalism from leftism that I think somewhat misses the nature of liberalism. The implied model of politics is usually a one-dimensional continuum from right to left. Liberals are positioned as centrists (having views in between the left and right) and/or reformists (believing leftward change can and should happen incrementally). I would argue, in contrast, the liberalism-illiberalism is a separate axis from left-right. (Of course, substantive ideologies are not a one-dimensional field, but for simplicity's sake ...)

Left and right are substantive views. They consist of a set of values and preferences about the proper way to live. Centrism is likewise a substantive view, that holds that the ideal way for people to live is somewhere in between what the left and right call for. Liberalism is not a substantive position, but rather a meta-position on how conflicts between substantive positions should be handled. The essence of liberalism is the belief that we should create a substance-neutral set of rules that apply equally to all substantive views and their adherents. Illiberalism, by contrast, holds that society should overtly favor one substantive view. For example, a liberal defends free speech on the same terms for themselves and their opponents, while an illiberal seeks to suppress speech that advocates wrong ideas while defending their own right to speak the truth.

Liberalism may work by either privatizing or democratizing conflict. A privatized conflict is one in which each person is free to pursue their substantive values in their own life, at the cost of allowing others that same freedom. The classic example is religion -- the European wars between Protestants and Catholics were resolved through the liberal means of allowing each person to practice their own religion, even if their neighbors are sure they are going to hell for it. Democratization occurs when a society as a whole must choose between substantive positions, but that choice is made through a fair and neutral process such as an election.

The danger of an extreme illiberal view is usually said to be dogmatism. In a wholly illiberal society, all dissent from the correct substantive view is suppressed and ruled out-of-bounds. But I think dogmatism is scary only from a liberal point of view. A liberal values dissent and conflict among substantive views for their own sake. But a truly committed illiberal, who is absolutely convinced that their substantive view is correct, has nothing to fear from dogmatism. Indeed, why should people be allowed to spread demonstrably false views that can do nothing but harm society?

The danger of extreme illiberalism that should worry an illiberal is tyranny. Tyranny occurs when one person or group is able to set itself up as the interpreter of the substantive view that prevails. Though some illiberals may wish to deny it, there is always a need for some interpreter or arbiter to make the final decision as to which things are consistent with the substantive truth. The truth is never simply self-evident. This interpreter is able to use illiberalism to pursue their own ends by branding any dissent as a dangerous attack on the truth. Illiberalism can thus become twisted against itself. Some measure of liberalism is necessary to allow dissent against particular interpreters of substantive doctrine, and thus accountability of human interpreters to the very values they purport to be pursuing. We need to be able to say "I think the Party is saying things that aren't actually consistent with Marxist-Leninist thought" or "I think the Bishop is misinterpreting the Bible."

On the other extreme, liberalism is often charged with allowing evil ideologies to arise. A liberal may hope that, say, Nazi views do not prevail in the "marketplace of ideas" or at the ballot box, but there is nothing inherent in the liberal system that would guarantee this. An extreme liberal can't rule any substantive ideology out-of-bounds -- even one that is itself illiberal in content. But just as an extreme illiberal is unconcerned with dogmatism, an extreme liberal is unconcerned with giving the bad guys freedom. From an extreme liberal point of view, if "bad" views prevail within a truly free and fair system, then those bad views are thereby validated as good! Only an illiberal would see a victory by the bad guys as a flaw in a liberal system.

What would concern a true liberal about an extreme liberal system is emptiness, which results from liberalism's inability to recognize power relations. An analysis of power is a core component of a substantive ideology -- who has power, and who should have power. But liberalism is, by its commitment to neutrality between substantive views, unable to recognize any such power relations. That means a liberal system always presumes a level playing field, which substantive views deny exists. Liberal promises of equality are empty when power inequalities allow some people to take advantage of the liberal system more readily than others. For example, free speech is more easily used by those who have more resources and more social respect, while those who lack those things find their theoretical right to free speech useless.

Now, to say that perfect liberalism and perfect illiberalism are both flawed doesn't tell us much about exactly where in between those extremes we should land. But hopefully conceptualizing liberalism as a separate axis from that which distinguishes substantive ideologies at least helps frame the question.


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