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‘Getting the cream to rise’: George F. Will on what liberalism gets right

Commentary

On Friday, November 3rd, The Munk Debates held its 29th main stage debate, presenting the following motion: “Be it Resolved, liberalism gets the big questions right.”

Free trade, capitalism, and individual rights have remained foundational to liberalism, but more recent criticisms blame liberalism for problems such as growing inequality and political polarization. Has liberalism become a roadblock in the path of progress? Is a new guiding ideology needed to replace it?

George F. Will, foreign and domestic affairs columnist for The Washington Post, argued for the Pro side of the motion. Here is his opening statement from the debates.

Liberalism gets the big questions right to keep the peace. That’s the fundamental problem in politics—social peace.

Liberalism gets the big question right by leaving many big questions out of politics. Is there a God? How should we worship? What is virtue? How should we promote it? Should we have false consciousness purged and true consciousness inculcated? Liberalism doesn’t do that. Liberalism recognizes that the great problem of politics is that human beings are opinionated and egotistical. They like their opinions, and they have different opinions, yet they have to live together in peace.

Liberalism is often faulted as pedestrian and boring. I prefer to say it has heroic modesty. It does not presume to tell people how to find meaning of their lives in politics. Genuflecting at the altar of politics is illiberal and produces illiberalism. My debate partner, Jacob, is a devout Catholic. I describe myself as an amiable, low-voltage atheist. It doesn’t matter. We could live together in a liberal society because the government is neutral about such things.

Some people in politics say, “Let’s envision the best and pursue it.” Prudent classic liberals say, “Let’s define the worst and avoid it.” And Lord knows we’ve had enough of those. Classic liberalism, let’s define it with economy. It believes there is a settled human nature, and that natural rights are derived from that. Natural rights are rights that history teaches us are essential to the flourishing of people with our nature.

All illiberal politics in the last two centuries have begun by saying that there is no fixed human nature, that human beings are merely products of the culture they find themselves raised in, that malleability is the most important feature of human beings, and therefore, firm, hard-driving, coercive politics is justified to produce the proper consciousness in people. False consciousness must be gone, people must be conditioned. Speech must be limited because it does harm by giving people the wrong consciousness. The vocabulary of liberalism cannot cope with that. And when you go down that path, you wind up either with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—or on a typical American campus today.

Another way that liberalism keeps the peace—and remember, peace is always the fundamental problem—is by having markets allocate most opportunity and wealth. The alternative is political power will allocate opportunity and wealth, and that way lies bitterness. That way lies an unhealthy high stakes of politics. Let impersonal market forces do these things, and you will not have the bitterness that comes from the ever-increasing high stakes of politics that determine who prospers and who does not.

Now, it is said that liberalism produces inequality. Indeed it does. If you say you are for liberty, you are for inequality, because people have different attitudes and aptitudes. Some people want to teach kindergarten, some people want to run hedge funds. Bless them all. But the rewards are going to be different, monetary and otherwise.

A classic liberal society says we want, above all, meritocracy. Careers open to talents. Obviously, any society is going to be governed by elites. The question in any mature society is not whether elites shall rule, but which elites shall rule. And the challenge of democracy is to get consent to be governed by worthy elites.

When I was young and the world was young, in the late ’60s, I taught at the University of Toronto, where a particular luminary at the time was C.B. Macpherson, a very fine political philosopher, whose subject of main interest was possessive individualism, which he did not much care for. I think possessive individualism is excellent. It is the direct descendant of Locke’s teaching from which most of our liberalism descends.

Possession is important because possessions give us a zone of sovereignty that is not dependent on state power. Possessive individualism matters, because when you step away from individualism, when you step away from the individual as the fundamental social unit, you find yourself where we are today with tribalism, with people defining their identities by their group memberships and a zero-sum scramble for preferences as one group throws elbows against another.

The fact is that liberalism produces, as no other political philosophy can, an open society, a churning society. Yes, it’s disorderly. That’s part of the fun. But as the great American poet Robert Frost said, “I do not want to live in a homogenized society. I want the cream to rise.” Classic liberalism is a recipe for getting the cream to rise.

‘Tyranny of the most selfish’: Sohrab Ahmari on what liberalism gets wrong

Commentary

On Friday, November 3rd, The Munk Debates held its 29th main stage debate, presenting the following motion: “Be it Resolved, liberalism gets the big questions right.”

Free trade, capitalism, and individual rights have remained foundational to liberalism, but more recent criticisms blame liberalism for problems such as growing inequality and political polarization. Has liberalism become a roadblock in the path of progress? Is a new guiding ideology needed to replace it?

Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact and a contributing writer for The New Statesman, argued for the Con side. Here is his opening statement from the Munk Debates.

Thank you for having me. This is my first time in Toronto, or as we Iranians in the Diaspora call it, “Tehronto.”

“Resolved: liberalism gets the big questions right.” Before you make up your minds, you have to untangle what the big questions are. When you hear liberalism, you might think of tolerance, due process, impartial administration, self-government. But wait a second. The pre-liberal ancients were aware of what a fair trial should look like. Just look at the Bible. Self-government is as old as Greece. Impartial administration is as old as Rome and China. There, I just got in my mention of the Roman Empire for the day.

So if these values weren’t invented by a handful of Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries, then we have to ask: “What made liberal ideology new?” It was the answers that liberalism gave to the questions, “What are human beings? And what makes them come together to form political community?” And those answers were terribly wrong. They’ve yielded societies defined by eye-watering inequality, profound alienation, and the tyranny of the most selfish among us.

What are human beings? What makes us form political communities? Let’s turn to a living philosopher, I’ll tell you his name in a minute, to help us summarize the two starkly different sets of answers to these questions, the ancient answer and the relatively recent liberal one.

For a very long time, the core consensus of the Western tradition, as our thinker put it, was that human beings are naturally social. Political community comes naturally to the human animal, who yearns for the common good—which is also his or her own good as an individual who is part of the whole.

In this older telling, our philosopher said:

Freedom is not only the absence of external restraints. It’s about freeing ourselves from selfish passions, with politics and law helping guide us and helping us to fulfill our social natures, and thus to become more fully human. Liberal ideology trashed this core consensus. Human beings, for liberalism, are little more than self-interested brutes thrown into a brutish world and naturally at war with their fellows. We form political community because we fear each other. So the best we can achieve is to let everyone maximize his self-interest and hope the public good emerges spontaneously out of the ceaseless clash of human atoms.

Our thinker, the one we’ve summoned to present these two rival views, wasn’t very fond of the liberal answer. He doubted that people motivated solely by anxiety about their physical safety and the security of their property could build humane, decent societies. “The common good,” he worried, “disappears in societies founded upon individual self-interestedness.”

So who was he? I won’t keep you guessing any longer. It was none other than George Will, writing four decades ago. Today, he’s frequently a proponent of liberalism in its most extreme form: U.S.-style libertarianism. I don’t mention this to give George a hard time about his intellectual evolution. People are allowed to change their minds. I only turn to his earlier, wiser self because he did such a wonderful job framing our debate. “What are human beings? And why do we form community? Are we naturally social animals capable of discerning and building the common good? Or are we self-interested brutes who form a social contract out of bare necessity to protect ourselves from our rapacious neighbours?”

You’re welcome to choose that first set of answers, my friends. But before you do, keep three things in mind. First, as we said, liberalism is not a harmonious outgrowth of the Western tradition. It came as a shock to the value system the West had cherished for millennia. It was a rupture. The George Will of 1983 got the intellectual history right.

Second, remember that liberalism is not natural. The brutal state of nature is a philosopher’s myth, as is the atomized liberal individual. It took coercion on a monumental scale to bring about this liberal subject, to make reality out of the myth. We see this especially in economic history. To goad workers to compete individually in modern labour markets, the first liberal society, England, had to enclose and destroy the common grounds that had been used by peasants for grazing, blocking peasants from shared lands that permitted generations to sustain themselves in communities of leisure and mutual help.

The insecurity you feel in today’s labour market, that’s not natural either. Hedge funds and private equity firms destroying the real economy, privatizing the gains while socializing the costs. None of that is natural or fundamental to who we are. The minute that working people have the chance to resist any of this, they do something unliberal. They mount collective action. They form labour unions. They demand social solidarity and welfare. They defend society.

Third and finally, remember that liberalism has not overcome coercion in human affairs. Liberal societies are shot through with coercion, only it’s often meted out by private actors, which makes it harder in some ways to combat. Consider censorship—does it make any meaningful difference that today’s censorship is meted out by large privately owned corporations? Do a Silicon Valley dweebs’ Birkenstocks taste any better than a commandant’s boots? Here, liberalism’s faith in private self-interest has betrayed even its own aspirations toward open debate.

In 1983, George Will lamented that “A trait that used to be considered a defect, self-interestedness, had become the pillar of Western society.” He was right. Liberalism gets the big questions wrong, and so I urge you to oppose tonight’s motion. Thank you very much.