16 June 2021

The curious illiberalism of the modern ‘liberal’

By Eamonn Butler

It’s Adam Smith’s birthday. Well, sort of. The birth of the great Scottish philosopher, economist and author of The Wealth of Nations was registered on 5 June 1723, so he was probably born on 3 June – we can’t be quite sure. Then in 1752 the Gregorian calendar replaced the less accurate Julian one, and a few days were added in to make up the difference. So, in today’s calendar, Smith’s birth would have been around 16 June 1723, which is the date everyone now accepts.

And by a strange coincidence (or more accurately, deliberate planning) it is also Liberalism Day, the day of the year when we celebrate the liberal values that Adam Smith stood for. Liberal in the European sense, which is much more faithful to the original definition and application of the word. Not in the American sense, which has drifted from that meaning – and continues to drift.

As the economist Milton Friedman described it in a 1955 essay, ‘Liberalism, Old Style’:

Liberalism, as it developed in the 17th and 18th centuries and flowered in the 19th, puts major emphasis on the freedom of individuals to control their own destinies. Individualism is its creed, collectivism and tyranny its enemy….In politics liberalism expressed itself as a reaction against authoritarian regimes. Liberals favored limiting the rights of hereditary rulers, establishing democratic parliamentary institutions, extending the franchise, and guaranteeing civil rights. They favoured such measures both for their own sake, as a direct expression of essential political freedoms, and as a means of facilitating the adoption of liberal economic measures.

Adam Smith was certainly a ‘Classical Liberal’ in this sense. The 19th-century ‘Manchester Liberals’ fit perfectly with Friedman’s definition. And today’s British ‘Neoliberals’ would accept all that and more. The odd thing about American ‘liberalism’ is that it started from a broadly similar approach – the assertion of the basic rights of individuals and a belief that they should be free to pursue their own purposes – but has morphed into something quite different, and sometimes opposite.

How this came about is interesting. Classical liberal freedom is essentially ‘negative’. It is about not being limited by the threats, coercion or interference of others – not just other individuals, but institutions such as the government too. But around the end of the 19th century, some thinkers came to advocate a ‘positive’ idea of freedom. To be truly free, they argued, you must have the power and resources to exercise your freedom. That argument proved attractive to many intellectuals in Europe and to policymakers in America. Twentieth-century American ‘liberals’ accepted individual rights such as freedom of speech, association and religion; but they also supported big New Deal and Great Society welfare spending, thinking that would enable the poorest to be free.

But not only did this mix up freedom and power – I have the freedom to enter the high jump, but sadly I don’t have the power to clear the high bar. It also forgot that the resources needed to provide those benefits had to be extracted from taxpayers – by coercion, under threat of fine or imprisonment – which seems a violation of those ‘negative’ rights. Nor, as in other places, did American liberals anticipate the extent to which their public spending would feed on itself – creating large lobbies, among both beneficiaries and public officials, to maintain, expand and extend the scale of government spending and provision. Before long, the American term ‘liberal’ came to mean someone who was definitely in favour of individual liberties, but who favoured large and coercive government interventions to (supposedly) guarantee and expand them.

In the last few years, the meaning of ‘liberal’ has drifted again, even from this problematic idea of liberalism. American ‘liberals’, for example, now question rights such a freedom of speech, and indeed of association. Traditionally, liberals have never had a problem with denying a right of free speech where a person’s remarks are intended to foment violence or (like shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre) likely to lead to physical injury. But many of today’s liberals expand this denial to remarks that may cause non-physical injury too. For example, calling someone by a racially derogatory term can cause mental distress that may not show, but is nevertheless an injury.

This idea has expanded beyond America to Europe and many other regions, and it has expanded in scope too. Thus, it is argued on ‘liberal’ grounds that people using racial slurs should not merely be rebuked by others (the traditional sanction) but should be brought to justice for ‘hate crime’. Not calling someone by their chosen pronoun is seen as offensive. Arguing that men who transition to women are still men becomes a reason to dismiss you from your job, as does complimenting a colleague on their looks. Casting white actors as Chinese characters gets your opera taken off.

As Alexander Pope said, the difference is too nice, where ends the virtue and begins the vice. Some sexual advances go beyond mere flirting, some language beyond mere insult. But where does one draw the line? For the 19th-century philosophy John Stuart Mill, it was simple: what limited free speech was the prospect of physical injury, because that is objective. It can be seen. True, the derision I felt when I lived in America and people would call me a ‘Limey’ is still with me. But I wouldn’t want to jail anyone for an insult, and in any case, how can I prove that I was hurt? I might just be making it up to get back at people. Let that be the standard of proof, and none of us would be safe from cancellation or worse.

What is really distressing to a British liberal (and yes, you will have to take my word about the hurt it causes me) is that ‘liberal’ is being used for those who advocate all this illiberalism. Even centre-right publications use ‘liberal’ to describe the zealots of the cancel culture.

It’s a funny old word.

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Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.