For Upstream this week, I spoke with Vivek Ramaswamy about his 2024 campaign platform.
For Moment of Zen this week, we talked to Katherine Boyle about seriousness, American dynamism, and founders.
This is the third piece in a series on liberalism
The Rousseau state of human nature held that everyone would have been equal pre-civilization and there would be no hierarchy. This assumption crumbles upon introspection. As Jordan Peterson rightly points out, hierarchy is older than trees. We can see in chimpanzees or literally any animal, there is hierarchy.
The biggest contradiction in liberalism is between its main two values: liberty and equality. Liberalism’s goal is to achieve a utopia where all people have complete equality combined with wholly unfettered liberty. Liberalism declares wars on traditional hierarchies and institutions in the name of those two ideals: freedom and equality.
Of course, we often can’t have both full liberty and equality. If liberty is unlimited, we will have inequality. Because of course you will: People are different. They have different upbringings, different genes, different dispositions, and thus, different outcomes.
The only way to bring about equality is to sacrifice liberty. Which is exactly what we’ve been doing, which is why liberalism leads to a big state.
Most people are fine with that to some degree. The question is how much: Should a child far less gifted than another be given intensive extra education such that they can better compete with the more intelligent child? Should children from families with one single parent be given intensive support to make up for that disadvantage relative to children with both parents? Should we focus on inequalities on the population level (race/gender), or the class level (wealth inequality) or the individual level?
Realistically, the most efficient means to enforce equal opportunity is to enforce mediocrity. It’s a lot easier to bring someone down than to bring someone up. It’s easier to restrict someone from achieving by dropping gifted programs than somehow magically raise the grades or IQ of non performing students. One you can do in a day, and is entirely in your control. The other might take years, if it’s even possible, and is outside of your control.
The Problem with Universalism
Related to this problem of equality is also this problem of universalism.
Liberalism assumes that the whole world is or can become liberal. It cannot understand people who don't even really have a concept of the self as an individual separate from his tribe. Liberalism doesn't recognize that you could have respectable groups of people who do not ascribe to the principles underlying liberalism. And so it can't help but homogenize because it's blind to those non homogenous characteristics.
Liberalism has this relentless push both economically and logistically for exactly the same thing—we need kind of every human to be a fungible widget, because otherwise the global economy doesn't run as smoothly.
Speaking of globalism, what liberalism wants is for us to love each person as if they were a neighbor. Liberalism states that all humans are equal, which implies that tribes and even nations are problematic. if I can't discriminate for my fellow Americans, why can I discriminate for my own family? After all, aren't we all the same? Of course this is absurd.
Should we discriminate within groups of people? Well, it depends on which axes and which people. Liberalism led to important advancements in civil rights which was an important view because people were discriminated against on the color of their skin. That same thinking was then helpful to end gender discrimination.
But that same thinking became a runway train, because “discriminate against” changed to “make any distinctions between” peoples. And not making distinctions on biological characteristics also meant that we shouldn't make distinctions between our own citizens and foreigners. And soon enough that meant then we’re not allowed to make distinctions on the basis of age, and then we’re not allowed to make distinctions on the basis of physical disability, and then at some point you’re not allowed to make any distinctions at all. The well-intentioned attempt to solve some actual oppression turned into a utopian attempt to eliminate any kinds of distinctions from society, which leads to incompetence and dysfunction.
So, we’ll need to choose where we want to be on the spectrum between equality and liberty. Optimizing for one often sacrifices the other. More on this in future posts.
> Liberalism assumes that the whole world is or can become liberal. It cannot understand people who don't even really have a concept of the self as an individual separate from his tribe. Liberalism doesn't recognize that you could have respectable groups of people who do not ascribe to the principles underlying liberalism. And so it can't help but homogenize because it's blind to those non homogenous characteristics.
This seems rather unfair and to conflate the sociological fact that most individual liberals are kind of wooly and fuzzy and terrified of being seen as racist to the point where they won't bite the bullet as if it's a refutation of liberalism. But is it really that big of a bullet to bite? Liberalism indeed presupposes a lot of very specific and contingent cultural developments to get to the point where "persons can and should freely choose their own ends" is even an intelligible proposition, threatening its claim to absolute universalism. But the thing is that liberalism, commercial capitalism, and all that (what Fukuyama calls "getting to Denmark"), once established, have overwhelming and obvious side benefits. If it didn't, conservatives wouldn't need to write screeds decrying that liberalism isn't really as liberal as it pretends to be, they could just point to the relative successes of traditional illiberal societies. Except that those don't exist.
Let me put it this way. Marx and Lenin were cranks and their theoretical works were basically useless, to a far greater degree than whatever problems exist in liberal theoretical works. However, here was a time peaking around 1960 where lots of intelligent and thoughtful people understood this, but nevertheless thought that something pretty close to Soviet-style socialism was a genuinely significantly superior way to run an economy. And they had completely reasonable theoretical explanations for how that might be that did not rely on Marxian illusions, but were grounded in sound concepts like economies of scale, equilibrium traps, path dependency, and so on. The empirics turned out to be wrong, even faked, so the whole thing was irrelevant – but what if it hadn't been? If the command economy turns out to work brilliantly, should we deny ourselves that prosperity and superior way of life to prove a point about the flaws of a theoretician who died 80 years ago?
The frustrating thing about this whole convo is that from my perspective it is all sort of an act. I'm a liberal, Vivek is a liberal, Jordan Peterson is a liberal, you're a liberal too. This is an intra-liberal argument in which one side is trying to obtain extra status for itself and its argument by affecting to be more radical than it really is. Please just knock it off and be serious, even if it does cut down on your blog audience.