One of the more disturbing aspects of our times is the growing distrust, even dislike, and, therefore, disregard for liberty in a seemingly growing number of corners of life. There is plenty of talk about “equality,” “racial justice,” “democracy,” “socialism,” “privilege,” “oppression” and “racism.” But, of liberty, that is, the liberty of the individual to live his own life peacefully and honestly in voluntary association with others, both inside and outside of the marketplace? Nary a word or a passing reference.
Leaving people alone to go about their own business as they find it most desirable, convenient and profitable to better their own lives as they think best, including on mutually agreeable terms in associative consort with others, is either ignored as unworthy of any significance and value, or is viewed with suspicion that any who want to do so act or who as advocates of such liberty must have some nefarious motives in mind.
Indeed, the implicit assumption always lingering in the air is that anyone who lives and acts in such a free manner will, intentionally or unintentionally, bring harm to others. They will cheat workers in the labor market, deceive and take advantage of customers in the product or service market, or will hurt and oppress minority or other groups classified as “disadvantaged” and vulnerable to abuse because such “individualists” lack a proper “social conscience” and sense of “social responsibility.”
The Individual Is Missing from Nationalist and Populist Conservatism
This runs across the usual political spectrum. Some conservatives talk about a new nationalism because they have decided that the classical liberal ideal of individual liberty and free markets are empty of offering a needed sense of shared belonging with a common, guiding purpose through which people will have a collective meaning and allegiance. The individual needs to be educated, directed, and made subservient for a higher “national” good. (See my articles, “Great National Purposes Mean Less Freedom” and “Conservative Nationalism is Not About Liberty” and “Hazony’s Tradition-Based Society is a Form of Social Engineering”.)
Other “populist” conservatives who identify with Donald Trump’s “huge” and “beautiful” agenda for “Making America Great Again” give lip service to private enterprise, a supposed “pro-business” orientation, and an opposition to a leftist elite pushing a “politically correct” set of impositions and policies. Yet, Trumpism is merely a hodgepodge of neo-mercantilist interventions, restrictions, prohibitions, and subsidies to direct production and employment to where the president of the United States thinks it is best for the country.
Trump decides with whom American enterprises should do business in foreign lands, and from what foreign suppliers’ American consumers will be allowed to purchase the goods they desire and at what tariff-impacted prices. “The Donald” knows best who should be allowed to come into the country for what types of work or asylum. And, now, Trump makes clear that he and not Congress will determine the dispersing of government funds when the legislative branch of the government fails to reach such decisions that he considers necessary – particularly in an election year in which his winning of a second term is very far from certain. The words “liberty” or “limited government” never seem to be heard from Donald Trump’s lips. (See my articles, “The Economic Nationalism of Donald Trump” and “The Zero-Sum World of Donald Trump” and “Presidential Hubris: ‘Let Me Run the Country’” and “The U.S. Revives the Personal State”.)
Radical Progressives Now See Math as a Racist Tool
“Progressives” and the leadership of the Democrat Party seem to have never come across a government program they did not like or thought should be made bigger and more intrusive as the paternalistic road for tethering more groups of people to their political fiscal dependency. What? An individual or a private household making their own decisions, on their own responsibility, for health care, retirement, work or wages and income, or social interactions with others? Surely, only a heartless and uncaring “individualist” can hold such reactionary and irrational ideas. What greedy business interest does he speak for?
Of course, the increasingly more radical “progressives,” and “democratic” socialists, and identity politics warriors no longer simply refer to greedy capitalist “one-percenters.” No, their anti-individualism has been transformed into the tribalism of race and gender as the defining and fate-determining characteristics of any and all human beings, with white male oppressors on one side and all other “people of color” and women of all skin shades everywhere, on the other.
Not only is the new race and gender tribalism dedicated to eradicating the individual’s own sense of self-identification, or the erasing of all aspects of the historical past that is condemned as racist, sexist, or capitalist exploitive. The new tribalists now demand the overthrow of logic, including in its most fundamental arithmetical forms. One New York City educator, for instance, has insisted that such presumably objective truths as 2+2 = 4, in fact, “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy.”
Is this farfetched? Not according to a proposed “Math Ethnic Studies Framework” for students K-12 in the Seattle, Washington school district. A declared purpose is to show that:
“Power and oppression, as defined by ethnic studies, are the ways in which individuals and groups define mathematical knowledge so as to see ‘Western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence. This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color. This erases the historical contributions of people and communities of color . . .
“[To] explain how math and technology and/or science are connected and how technology and/or science have been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color . . .Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation? . . . [And] how can we change mathematics from individualistic to collectivist thinking?”
Reality, in other words, and any logic that attempts to explain it, is an artificial and arbitrary construction of a racial group and their mindset at an historical moment in time, the purpose of which is to oppress others through imposing on them a false sense of objectivity based on “data-driven” facts. So when mathematical estimates were made that those terrified people who jumped from the upper floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11 traveled (depending upon the person’s weight and other factors) for between 10 and 12 seconds, reaching a speed of 115-120 miles per hour by the time they crashed into the ground – well, that’s just the white man’s logic and mathematical calculations to oppress others, and which might have a different answer and therefore a different truth for another race and culture somewhere else in the world.
Are we really back to variations on the Nazi race theme, under which it was insisted that German logic was different from Jewish logic, that German mathematics was different that Jewish mathematics? Such as in the Nazi journal German Mathematics in 1936 that said, “In the future, we will have German mathematics” that deals with “real objects” and that is “free of Jewish-liberal confusion, born from the brains of rootless artists who by juggling with objectless definitions mislead themselves and their thoughtless public.” (p. 1138)
Watchwords that Confuse and Deceive People’s Thinking
There is no need for or reason to respond to rebuttals and counterarguments made by defenders of “traditional” notions of math, logic, or the meaning of reality. It is enough to accuse and pin on them the labels “racist” or “sexist” or “fascist.” To banish such individuals from the public arena under pronouncement of such phrases as “white privilege” or “oppressor of people of color” is presumed to be sufficient.
Political catchphrases or ideological short hands substitute for reasoned argument or logical replies. This is nothing new. Over a century ago, the British economist James Bonar (1852-1941) discussed facets of this under the term “watchwords,” in his book, Disturbing Elements in the Study and Teaching of Political Economy (1911):
“A watchword is a detached phrase that has taken the place of an argument. It is even, with sluggish minds, the substitute for an argument, a catchword . . . They are hardly an aid to the serious student of political philosophy, still less of political economy. They are almost indispensable to the agitator; but the agitator is seldom looking for truth; he thinks he has already arrived at it . . .
“The watchword is often a walking prejudice; its familiarity keeps alive conclusions inconsistent with the [independent] man’s own reasoning. It . . . comes from the street into his room, like the notes of a passing band of music, awakening old memories and associations.” (pp. 3-5)
James Bonar was not a proponent of laissez-faire or narrowly limited government, very much to the contrary. But he was certain that such watchwords replacing reasoning and argumentation confused people’s understanding and hid from view the full consequences that might result from policies implemented or institutions changed on their basis.
Changing Meanings of “Liberty” and “Equality”
In Bonar’s mind, such confusions and ambiguities were present in the often-undefined meaning of “equality.” For instance, he said that it was clear that in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s “notion of economic liberty is the removal of all restraints that prevent the commercial ambition of individuals from realizing itself according to the lights of the individuals. Such a removal of restraints he calls a ‘simple system of natural liberty’”. (p. 6) With such removal of restrictions, all people would, then, have an equality before the law and its enforcement to pursue their respective interests as they chose.
But in more modern times, Bonar went on, “liberty” and “equality” before the law was becoming changed into broader and more “positive” conceptions than merely the negative meaning of absence of restraint beyond securing equal respect and protection of each person’s life, liberty and honestly acquired property. “Our present notion of liberty, that has been gradually forming in the last 25 years [since the mid-1880s],” Bonar explained, “is of the command of opportunity for development rather than the confronting of a cleared course where all [political] obstacles are removed. It is positive, not simply negative. In the same way our notion of equality is of equal opportunity.” (p. 17)
But, he went on, once the meanings of liberty and equality are extended in these ways, governments must have wider authority and power to assure such greater equalities of opportunity than just equal rights to life, liberty and property before the law. And as some then argued, Bonar went on, “The test of the goodness of its [government’s] policy in a given case is not to be any abstract principle of liberty but a proved advantage or disadvantage of the course pursued and the probability or improbability of successfully pursuing.” (pp. 20-21)
Freedom as Absence of Restraint vs. Opportunities Redistributed
Personal liberty to choose how to live; to work at what one wishes to attempt; to keep the fruits of one’s honest efforts, including in the peaceful and voluntary exchanges of the marketplace; all these and related others, which would be possible under a practiced “abstract principle of liberty,” are all open to restriction and restraint and redistribution to bestow certain “opportunities” on one group of people at the compulsory expense of some other.
But, then, if political attempts are to be made to assure or impose equalities of opportunities and their outcomes, then, by necessity, individuals must be treated unequally by those implementing such government policies to prevent or minimize inequalities of outcome when each person is left at liberty to peacefully and honestly follow their own courses of action with accompanying material and social results being far from the same for all in society.
The words “liberty” and “equality,” therefore, are turned on their heads. Liberty is no longer freedom from the arbitrary and tyrannical physical restraint and control of others but becomes freedom from not having the material and other means to do things that a person might otherwise not be able to pursue.
However, this means that to have such “positive” freedom for attempting or attaining “opportunities,” others must be obligated to provide the necessary means to make it possible. There are two possible notions of “obligation.” One implies the use of moral suasion – reasoning and persuading someone that they should feel an ethical responsibility to assist or support some others, who, it is argued, are deserving of such support and for which the person being reasoned with should feel an ethical or related obligatory responsibility to give such support or assistance out of their own resources (money, material goods, their free time) on a voluntary basis.
The other notion of obligation implies political compulsion through a forced restricting of some forms of an individual’s own actions (for example, you may not compete against your market rivals by lowering your sale price below a “fair” level, or you may not hire someone or accept employment at a wage less than a legally established minimum).
Or that honestly earned income will be taxed away for purposes other than the securing and protecting of each individual’s life, liberty and honestly acquired property, to, instead, increase the material or other opportunities of others in society (for example, transferring spending ability from those with higher to those with lower incomes, or through government funded education, or health care, retirement funds, or to subsidize the business revenues and incomes of selected sectors and groups in society).
The classical liberal ideal has never denied or opposed the idea of voluntary senses of obligation, whether it meant being responsible for oneself and one’s family’s needs and necessities, or that of charitable and related giving and support for others who were deemed needy and deserving. In fact, a great hallmark of the 19th century, when the classical liberal ideal was most in practice in many parts of life, especially in the United States and Great Britain, there was a particular blossoming of the voluntary and community institutions of civil society precisely to handle “social problems” without the compulsory heavy-hand of government. (See my article, “The Secret History of the Monopolization of Welfare by the State”.)
But now, “social responsibility” or “shared community” have been transformed into one and only one primary meaning and context: the use of political means to solve “social problems.” To be “anti-social” in one’s attitudes or actions is taken to mean that that person cares nothing for or has no interest in the shared and common concerns of those living in the same community and society because they disagree with or challenge the presumption that all such matters should be the concern of the government and can only find their solutions through the use of political means of regulation and redistribution.
The Twisted and Dangerous Watchwords of Identity Politics
In our world today, Bonar’s “watchwords” have replaced any understanding or appreciation or reasoned debate about what such ideas as “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” or “social justice” have meant or should mean, and what the different meanings imply. Instead, the rhetoric is filled with empty references and accusations about “oppression,” and “systemic racism” and “white privilege.”
But what do these mean and how do we know of their existence or impacts? In fact, the interpretive context of the most frequent uses of these terms are merely resurrected categories of Marxist thought.
Class warfare is now race and gender conflict. Capitalist exploitation of workers is now white privileged oppression of “people of color.” The idea that all the institutions of society are simply the capitalist ruling classes’ “superstructure” — the property relationships, the legal order, the religious beliefs and social values – used to control people and their minds to maintain its domination of society is now the systemic racism of white oppression – words, concepts, values, behavioral attitudes and actions, scientific methods and procedures – to sustain the power structure of “the white males” over all others in society. (See my articles, “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality” and “An ‘Identity Politics’ Victory Would Mean the End to Liberty” and “The New Totalitarians”.)
Just as Marxists insisted that capitalists cannot help being exploitative in cheating their workers of the full value of their labor, their race and gender warrior descendants argue that male white people cannot help being racist oppressors of all others possessing a different skin pigmentation or another gender. The presumed interconnection is that capitalism equals racism. With the added assumption that only an end to “capitalism” can bring about an end to societally embedded racism.
Lost and forgotten in the current identity politics of watchwords is any and all historical understanding that it was the emerging classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries that set in motion and fueled the antislavery movement that brought about the end to legal human bondage; that heralded the ideal and growing practice of equality and impartial justice under the rule of law; that fought for and extended civil liberties for all in society, and abolished the systems of economic protections and restrictions that had hampered the freedom of occupation, enterprise and competition; and which worked for ending wars between nations through freedom of trade and peaceful settlement of international disputes and disagreements. (See my articles, “The Beautiful Philosophy of Liberalism” and “The Rise of Capitalism and the Dignity of Labor” and “The Miracle of the Free Market” and “Business Ethics and the Morality of the Marketplace”.)
That is why every instance in the use of such watchwords needs to be challenged and questioned. A rhetorical and psychological sleight-of-hand must not be allowed to pass, through which ideas are implied and taken for granted that if forced to be explained and justified can be shown to be empty or ambiguous of meaning. And that can be shown, if they were brought fully into political practice, to undermine the social institutions and practices of human interaction without which liberty and equality, rightly understood, cannot be maintained, along with the material prosperity that comes with them when sufficiently unhampered by government.
This does not mean that oppressions, injustices, and “privileges” have not existed and, when present, should not be repealed. But it is necessary to comprehend that, at the end of the day, it is political power, through its legitimized threat and use of force, that has been and is behind virtually all such immoral practices. And that the ideas and ideals of classical liberalism have been and remain the only lasting answers to ending the real social and cultural ills that continue to plague parts of humanity around the world.
Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.
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