The Liberal in the Modern World
JUNE 01, 1956 by TOWNER PHELAN
Mr. Phelan is vice president of the St. Louis Union Trust Company. This article is from a 13-page essay.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between traditional liberals and twentieth century liberals is their attitude toward man. The traditional liberal thinks in terms of man as an individual. The twentieth century liberal thinks of man as a member of a group. The traditional liberal agrees with John Stuart Mill that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, to interfere with the liberty of action of any of their members is self protection.”
The twentieth century liberal thinks that society should interfere with the liberty of the individual whenever it serves the interests of the groups to which the individuals belong. Thus the closed shop and the union shop deny employment to the individual who is not a union member or who refuses to join a union. This infringement upon the liberty of the individual workman is justified upon the grounds that it makes the union strong—that it benefits the group to which the individual workman belongs or which he should be forced to join. The same reasoning is used to justify infringements upon the liberty of individual farmers. For example, in 1955 Joseph Blattner, a poultry raiser of Norristown, Pennsylvania, was fined because he raised more wheat than the government decreed. Blattner raises his own wheat to feed his six thousand chickens and raises no wheat to sell. His freedom to raise wheat on his own land to feed his own chickens was denied on the theory that crop controls are good for farmers generally.
The twentieth century liberal is always eager to limit the liberty of the individual for the real or fancied benefit of the groups to which he belongs. The emphasis upon the importance of the group is strikingly illustrated in the trend of modern education. Our twentieth century liberal educators take the view that the subject matter taught in our schools is of minor importance—that the real purpose of education is to teach children to cooperate. In other words, the purpose of education is not learning, but is to teach children to become cooperative members of groups. The traditional liberal thinks in terms of man as an individual. The twentieth century liberal thinks of man as a member of a group.
The new liberals faced a dilemma. How could they justify the infringements upon individual liberty which they advocated and still call themselves liberals? How could they still call themselves liberals if liberalism was identified with individual freedom? The answer was to redefine freedom and make it mean its opposite. They found the answer they sought in the philosophy of Hegel and Marx. Hegel taught that when man follows his own base desires, he is not free. He taught that man is subordinate to a higher force or purpose, and that he becomes free only as he serves this higher purpose and makes his desires conform to it. Hegel conceived this higher purpose as the State and taught that man is only free as he serves the State. Karl Marx based his philosophy very largely on that of Hegel. Marxian communism teaches that man is enslaved by capitalism and that man will become free only when private capitalism is abolished. It teaches that the “legal liberty” of Western democracies is merely “formal liberty” without substance.
When Hegel’s view that man is only free when he serves the State was applied to Hitler’s Germany, twentieth century liberals indignantly rejected Hegel’s definition of freedom. But, they implicitly accept his definition when it is applied to the benevolent Welfare State. Furthermore, they accept without reservation the Marxian theory that “liberty under the law” is a hoax and a deception, that it is merely “formal liberty,” and that it lacks real substance. For example, the late Professor John Dewey of Columbia University, who was the leading philosopher of twentieth century liberalism, adopted the Marxian definition of liberty. He said:
The majority who call themselves liberals today are committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual as distinct from merely legal liberty.
The key words of Dewey’s statement are “organized society must use its powers.” If it must use its powers, it must use them in the only way the State can act through compulsion. The State makes laws and enforces them. The penalties for disobedience are fines, imprisonment, and death. The soldier’s bayonet, the policeman’s club, the jailer’s keys, the hangman’s noose—these are the methods by which organized society uses its powers.
Dewey promulgates a charter for broad-scale government control of social and economic life backed by the full coercive powers of the State. That is diametrically opposed to the traditional liberalism of John Locke and John Stuart Mill.
In broad historic perspective, twentieth century liberalism is merely a part of what may properly be termed the Counter Revolution against liberalism. The Liberal Revolution covered about 300 years and represented the revolt of man against authority. The Counter Revolution of Reaction is a world-attempt to turn the clock back. Its purpose is to subordinate man to the State, to reassert authority, and to suppress liberty. Communism, fascism, British socialism, and our own social Welfare State are but different aspects of this Counter Revolution.
The principle of authority is as basic to the Welfare State as it is to the totalitarian regime of Soviet Russia and as it was to Hitler’s Germany. That is why the great threat to our liberties comes not from the communists, but from the liberals. The communists are few and have little influence the Welfare State liberals are many and dominate our society.
Nearly any “liberal” politician in the United States could run on this platform:
” . . . the development of rural electrification”; “financial and other support for agricultural cooperation and for all forms of collective production in the rural districts (cooperative societies, communes, etc.)”; “every encouragement to be given to consumers’ cooperatives”; “the centralization of banking; all nationalized big banks to be subordinated to the central State bank”; “reduction of the working day to seven hours”; “social insurance in all forms (sickness, old age, accident, unemployment, etc.) at State expense”; “comprehensive measures of hygiene; the organization of free medical service”; “the establishment of state organs on the management of industry with provision for the close participation of the trade unions in this work of management.”
The above quotation is not taken from either the Democratic or Republican platform. It was not published as the program of Americans for Democratic Action. It is taken from the Program of the Communist International adopted by the Sixth World Congress, September 1, 1928, at Moscow.