The Syndrome Of Liberalism
DECEMBER 01, 1959 by FRANK CHODOROV
Mr. Chodorov is well known as a preacher and practitioner of individualism. The Rise and Fall of Society (Devin-Adair) is his latest book-length treatment of the subject.
The socialist, or his blood brother the communist, is forthright and honest. He makes no bones about his purpose, which is all written out in his credo in unmistakable language; even though the "party line" he follows is devious and at times self-contradictory, you know that behind its twists and turns is a clearly defined direction. You can do business with him, just as you can with a horse trader, because you know what he is up to.
But, what is a "liberal"? He has no Karl Marx to direct his thinking or behavior, no articles of faith to which he unfailingly adheres and by which you can identify him. In politics, he may be a Republican or Democrat, though differing with others who share his label. He may or may not be a follower of John Dewey, and for his intellectual godfathers he sometimes lays claim to both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, in a book written by a recognized mentor of "liberalism" practically every prominent New Dealer is included in a list of American "conservatives." Intellectually speaking, he is a slippery pole.
Under the circumstances, the best one can do by way of identification is to extract from statements and deeds of those who call themselves "liberals" something that will do for a definition; that is, to dig down to their basic premises and prejudices. This, William F. Buckley, Jr., has done in his new book, Up from Liberalism (
And yet, as one reads his lively diagnosis, one can readily identify the disease of "liberalism"; it is simply socialism without Marx. For, despite the tergiversations of "liberalistic" thought and the persiflage with which "liberals" obscure their purpose, the goal to which the clan is constantly driving is the increase of political power at the expense of social power. In economics, no good "liberal"—Republican or Democrat—puts faith in the ability of free enterprise to effect the "general good"; that can be achieved only by an admixture of intervention and free choice—although there is no agreement among these cooks as to the proper recipe. They are generally concerned with the distribution, not the production, of wealth. Social behavior with them is not a matter of personal morals, but of conformity to an amoral pattern laid down by law. They never question the competence of political power, particularly when "liberals" are in charge, to improve the common welfare in all directions. The more government (properly manned), the more freedom. What else is this but freewheeling socialism?
Bankruptcy of "The Left"
Mr. Buckley comes to the conclusion that "liberals" are intellectually bankrupt. What else did he expect? They start without any capital investment, philosophically, and have no means of accumulating any because of their basic assumptions. The denial of principles makes a consistent philosophy impossible. Having no guide for their groping minds, the best the "liberals" can come up with is a congeries of make-shift phrases, more or less related, expressing a general attitude; that is, a syndrome. What Mr. Buckley means by the insolvency of "liberalism" is that experience has made a mockery of their claims, and that whenever the facts disprove their premises, "liberals" shift their position to suit. That is, "liberalism" cannot stand the test of either logic or experience.
Nevertheless, as Mr. Buckley points out, our lives are enmeshed in the works of the "liberals." In the political field, to which they are attracted by their worship of power, they have enacted a flock of interventionary and repressive laws from which there seems to be no escape. They dominate the educational establishment to such an extent that any inclination of the young toward logical and consistent thought, any search for values, is submerged by their amorphous phraseology; "liberalism" is indeed the conformity of the campus. Through control of the press and the air waves they manage to promulgate their bias, to the exclusion of any contrary points of view, while the foundations they have captured give them the wherewithal to pursue their purposes. Despite its lack of intellectual integrity—or perhaps because of it—"liberalism" is riding high, wide, and handsome.
Mr. Buckley believes, however, that a discredited doctrine cannot endure, and he sees signs that bode ill for the future of "liberalism." There are grounds for his hopefulness. Without listing all the evidence of an increasing public disillusionment, one need only cite his own book; fifteen years ago it could not have found a publisher. But, he submits, you cannot dislodge "liberalism" from its high estate merely by pointing out its inadequacies and its failures, nor even by presenting the intellectual superiority of conservatism, its opposite. Conservatives have not yet learned how to present their case cogently.
Ambiguity on "The Right"
Conservatism has a time-honored and definitive literature—from John Locke to the Declaration of Independence to present-day schools of free market economists—but, nevertheless, there are ambiguities in the conservative argument as generally presented. For instance, while conservatives are strong for the free economy and limited government, many of them are advocates of protectionism, which is a denial of the free economy, and very few would maintain that all government interventionism is bad. How many would support a movement to abolish the government monopoly of the postal business, or even to abolish the Sixteenth Amendment? And how many would do away with subsidies from which they derive a profit?
Conservatives are in dire need of a method of presentation that carries conviction in the here and now. It is fatuous merely to point with alarm to what might befall us as a long-run consequence of "liberalism." The "long-run consequences" are upon us, being but another name for the mess we are in. "The revolution was," to use Garet Garrett’s words.
Moral Conviction Needed
Does conservatism have a clearly defined next step, and a step after that? If so, what is it? Mr. Buckley stops short of such an approach. He shies away from a program, and leaves us instead with a prophetic admonition: we must return to principles. In the spirit of Patrick Henry’s famous dictum, he says:
"I will not cede more power to the state… I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will use my power as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free."
That is to say, conservatism is essentially a moral philosophy, and if conservatives will abide by it at all times, they can leave the politics and economics to work themselves out.
What the book will do for conservatism is difficult to say; perhaps nothing more than an inspiring speech does for a college graduate. But, one can predict with some assurance that it will irritate the "liberals" no end. For the author takes them apart with a sharp and shiny lancet, and puts their intellectual "innards" on public view.
Note: Mr. Albert Porter, Associate Professor of Business at