All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1959

The Syndrome Of Liberalism

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 (New York: McDowell, Ob­lensky. 206 pp. $3.50). Taking a parcel of the better known “lib­erals”—alive and kicking—he at­tempts to find some pattern of thought by which that breed can be identified. To be sure, a cut-and-dried definition is impossible because the assumptions of “lib­erals”—that there are no abso­lutes, no immutable values, that all things are relative and truth is what works—defy all the rules of definitive thinking. What he hasdone is to come up with what he calls a syndrome—which, in medi­cine, is “a group of concurrent symptoms characterizing a dis­ease.”

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 San Jose State College in California, was one of the 64 participants last summer in the College-Business Exchange Program coordinated by the Foundation for Economic Education. His voluntary testimony to the efficacy of the program, being a typical reaction, is here offered for teachers, businessmen, and other students of liberty who may be interested.

  • Frank Chodorov was an advocate of the free market, individualism, and peace. He began as a supporter of Henry George and edited the Georgist paper the Freeman before founding his own journal, which became the influential Human Events. He later founded another version of the Freeman for the Foundation for Economic Education and lectured at the Freedom School in Colorado.