The inherent conflict of liberalism

Liberalism, as a philosophy, arose during the European Enlightenment of the 17th century. It’s basic premise is that people should be free to choose how they live, have a government that is accountable to them, and be treated equally under the law. It was the founding principle of the American and French revolutions and the basic premise of western liberal democracies. However, liberalism is inherently conflicted because when I exercise my freedom to do something (e.g. not wear a mask), I infringe on your freedom from the consequence of that thing (e.g. not be infected) and there is no rational resolution to this conflict. This conflict led to the split of liberalism into left and right branches. In the United States, the term liberal is exclusively applied to the left branch, which mostly focuses on the ‘freedom from’ part of liberalism. Those in the right branch, who mostly emphasize the ‘freedom to’ part, refer to themselves as libertarian, classical liberal, or (sometimes and confusingly to me) conservative. (I put neo-liberalism, which is a fundamentalist belief in free markets, into the right camp although it has adherents on both the left and right.) Both of these viewpoints are offspring of the same liberal tradition and here I will use the term liberal in the general sense.

Liberalism has never operated in a vacuum. The conflicts between “freedom to” and “freedom from” have always been settled by prevailing social norms, which in the Western world was traditionally dominated by Christian values. However, neither liberalism nor social norms have ever been sufficient to prevent bad outcomes. Slavery existed and was promoted by liberal Christian states. Genocide of all types and scales have been perpetrated by liberal Christian states. The battle to overcome slavery and to give equal rights to all peoples was a long and hard fought battle over slowly changing social norms rather than laws per se. Thus, while liberalism is the underlying principle behind Western governments, it is only part of the fabric that holds society together. Even though we have just emerged from the Dark Years, Western Liberalism is on its shakiest footing since the Second World War. The end of the Cold War did not bring on a permanent era of liberal democracy but may have spelled it’s eventual demise. What will supplant liberalism is up to us.

It is often perceived that the American Democratic party is a disorganized mess of competing interests under a big tent while the Republicans are much more cohesive but in fact the opposite is true. While the Democrats are often in conflict they are in fact a fairly unified center-left liberal party that strives to advocate for the marginalized. Their conflicts are mostly to do with which groups should be considered marginalized and prioritized. The Republicans on the other hand are a coalition of libertarians and non-liberal conservatives united only by their desire to minimize the influence of the federal government. The libertarians long for unfettered individualism and unregulated capitalism while the conservatives, who do not subscribe to all the tenets of liberalism, wish to halt encroaching secularism and a government that no longer serves their interests.

The unlikely Republican coalition that has held together for four decades is now falling apart. It came together because the more natural association between religious conservatism and a large federal bureaucracy fractured after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960’s when the Democrats no longer prioritized the concerns of the (white) Christian Right. (I will discuss the racial aspects in a future post). The elite pro-business neo-liberal libertarians could coexist with the religious conservatives as long as their concerns did not directly conflict but this is no longer true. The conservative wing of the Republican party have discovered their new found power and that there is an untapped population of disaffected individuals who are inclined to be conservative and also want a larger and more intrusive government that favors them. Prominent conservatives like Adrian Vermeule of Harvard and Senator Josh Hawley are unabashedly anti-liberal.

This puts the neo-liberal elites in a real bind. The Democratic party since Bill Clinton had been moving right with a model of pro-market neo-liberalism but with a safety net. However they were punished time and time again by the neo-liberal right. Instead of partnering with Obama, who was highly favorable towards neoliberalism, they pursued a scorched earth policy against him. Hilary Clinton ran on a pretty moderate safety-net-neo-liberal platform and got vilified as an un-American socialist. Now, both the Republicans and Democrats are trending away from neo-liberalism. The neo-liberals made a strategic blunder. They could have hedged their bets but now have lost influence in both parties.

While the threat of authoritarianism looms large, this is also an opportunity to accept the limits of liberalism and begin to think about what will take its place – something that still respects the basic freedoms afforded by liberalism but acknowledges that it is not sufficient. Conservative intellectuals like Leo Strauss have valid points. There is indeed a danger of liberalism lapsing into total moral relativism or nihilism. Guardrails against such outcomes must be explicitly installed. There is value in preserving (some) traditions, especially ancient ones that are the result of generations of human engagement. There will be no simple solution. No single rule or algorithm. We will need to explicitly delineate what we will accept and what we will not on a case by case basis.

3 thoughts on “The inherent conflict of liberalism

  1. I sometimes coinceive of liberalism and conservatism as emerging from fluctuations of the vaccum–‘vaccum polarization’.

    [l,C] = i h_bar the ‘dialectic’ between mind and money.

    creation/annihilation operatros.

    or as ‘snoop dawg’ (‘rapper’) put it ‘mind on my money, money on my mind (gin and juice).

    Neo-liberalism adds new degrees of un/freedom.

    (The original enlightnement didnt have Walmart;

    S Pinker left this out of his book Enlightenment Now.

    in that book he says noone cares about inequality.

    all they care about is their right to free speech from their harvard pulpit–no ‘cancel culture’


    last person i talked who worked at walmart said he wished he had a job in IT and didnt have to take 2 buses to his job and leave his child in day care or with friends—why not something closer?
    you dont get paid for riiding on the bus for 1-2 hours each way..

    he said his own neigborhood was ok but it was harzardous in some areas he had to go through.-
    since i know the bus he takes that can also be hazardous.

    .some bus drivers refuse to drive their routes on the small streets at the end of the line.

    just tell people ‘you have to get off now and walk the last 2 blocks. ‘


    Pinker’s book i call ‘entitlement now’–everyone has a universal guaranteed Harvard tenured position.

    There are no Blank Slates—just bank accounts.


    There is a ‘leftist’ radio show called Democracy Now –another harvard product—which i call ‘democracy whenever we get around to it’.

    It uses the Trump ML algorithm. ‘pure and unadulteratd outrage’. ‘donate now’.


    Its interesting that some ‘libertarian economists’ (eg at GMU) –who are actually mostly ‘far right’ —now collaborate with some semi-‘leftist’ complexity theorists to write papers .

    You could see this trend going back Hayek–my parents had some of his books —

    ‘road to serfdom’ (anti-communist diatribe whi8ch equated ‘socialism’ with ‘national socialism’) ,

    his debates with Lange and Lerner on ‘market socialism’ (later reinvented as ‘coupon capitalism’ by John Roemer of Yale)

    and later stuff on cultural evolution

    (it took Hayek 100s –maybe 800—of pages to say what people with some training in evolution/biology/genetics could say in sometimes 2 pages— Science mag recent issue has the 2 page version.)

    .i hear it may go down to 20F this weekend. i usually like this but being prepared is something i dislike. too complex.


  2. In the specific case of wearing a mask, I would have thought those wishing to protect themselves could choose to wear one and let others make their own choice.

    The situation is often presented in a very extreme from, where the act of not wearing a mask is seen as directly equivalent to wilful manslaughter. However, it is by no means so simple. We are talking here about a measure which can at best only have a very partial impact on others’ wellbeing, and that impact is no means conclusively proven or quantified. In fact, until early 2020 the advice on masks from the WHO was that they should not be used, based on 20 years’ worth of science which was hastily reversed by relatively superficial studies, as I understand.

    The same applies to lockdown measures. People whishing to protect themselves bad cause they consider the risks of Covid unacceptable can choose to shield. and hopefully society would support them in this. What we have now though is the bizarre situation where because it is considered unfair to ask a vulnerable minority to give up their freedom in order to protect themselves, we impose measures which force everyone to give up their freedom, and in doing so have dealt a devastating blow to the physical, mental and economic health of a mostly un-vulnerable majority (exact figures are hard to find, but among the children and working-age adults Covid does not appear to be significantly more dangerous than flu, even if many people consider such comparisons to be heretical) . This seems completely insane to me.

    Two things which I think are at play here, are: that fear makes people abandon reason, and the incessant sensationalist coverage of Covid (including the statistically meaningless metric of positive PCR tests without reference to sample size) has made inappropriate levels of fear ubiquitous. Then there is an apportioning of responsibility that places undue responsibility for individual health on the shoulders of other people. I’m not saying collective responsibility doesn’t exist, but many people seem to have a 100:0 ratio for collective responsibly vs personal responsibility for protecting one’s own health, whereas I would argue something like 20:80 is more rational.


  3. @Robin The entire point of masks is to protect others from you and not you from the virus. The mask blocks you from spewing virus laden droplets into the air around you. This is well known. While it does have some protective effect from viruses entering (Ad Bax at NIH has a theory for why), that is a smaller effect. The early 2020 WHO recommendation was short sighted and idiotic and only applied to N95 respirators, which were indeed in short supply, and a necessity for health care workers. Wearing a mask is such a small inconvenience and if we had wide adoption early we could very well be completely open now as it is in many Asian countries. While the lockdowns have been botched, the idea that you can shelter the vulnerable while allowing everyone else to go about their business has not worked well in places that tried. That is not to say we could not have done much better. It is clear that we could have kept most businesses and schools open and then we could have just provided economic support to super spreaders like bars, restaurants, concerts, etc.


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