The Rambler: A Vindication of Liberalism, Part III

The time has come to end this little discourse of mine, and I think it would help the Reader if I were to make some of these abstract ideas a bit more concrete. The world is full of the vain and opaque wanderings of book-learned fools, and we should always try to bring our lofty musings down to earth again. Mr Holmes’s theory, I think, can elucidate much of the rhetoric thrown about in global politics. Antiliberalism is not dead, nor is it merely the toy of a few secluded intellectuals. Many states today still make use of their arguments, particularly those which fear the growth of civil rights, free enterprise, and cultural pluralism. Of course they prefer to couch their objections in less sinister-sounding language, but that does not mute their basic similarity to what Mr Holmes has given in his book.

In the past decade we have seen the United States declare herself the champion of liberalism abroad. Thus to foreign shores she goes, first to Afghanistan and then Iraq, breaking despotisms and raising democracies (mostly corrupt and inefficient ones, unfortunately) in their wake. Liberal interventionists believe this method wholly necessary. Reforms that protect civil rights and economic freedom are needed to improve the people’s lot, even if such changes are wrought by the sword. If liberalism is the most reasonable form of government, and if the people will be the better for adopting it, then we must, in an eerie Roussean fashion, compel others to be rational. I cannot myself agree with this, but it would be senseless to say the condition of Iraq and Afghanistan is worse off than ten years ago. In the case of the interventionists we may condemn the means, but never can we argue with the results. While democracies, particularly young ones, sometimes fail in their duties, tyrannies invariably brutalize and bully their people. Short of Jehovah himself, there probably never was a good autocrat.[1] Life beneath the yoke of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein is living evidence of this fact; the expiration of such regimes is nothing to weep over.

But for those of us less thirsty for the blood of dictators, militarism seems too removed from a philosophy which loves deliberation and the rule of law. I think we might do better by aggressively campaigning for liberalism rather than violently campaigning for it. Let us proselytize the heathen rather than put him to the sword. In practice the international community does just that, even if they are not cognizant of the fact. The United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are all liberal documents insofar as they are built upon liberal ideas (representative government, freedom of trade, natural rights, etc.). Moreover, the great majority of states have chosen to participate within them. If the world has not decided liberalism is the best form of government, it has certainly chosen it as the standard for interstate relations. When any country deviates from these models and acts in a decidedly “unliberal” fashion (China) it earns the censure of the other states within the system. When it is caught in the act (China) it denies everything and asserts its commitment to liberal ideals. It seems a nation must worship at the church of liberalism if it wants to engage in the modern international system. If it does not stand at the pulpit, it must at least be the fellow sitting in the back, the one who acts piously in the pew but lives in sin outside it. Burma’s government, for instance, will maintain its innocence and its commitment to democracy until the end of days, but it will never come out and openly say it has slighted international law.

Even if states cannot prevent the general adoption of liberalism as the best policy, some have found ways to rail against aspects of liberalism that are unacceptable. This, I believe, is how antiliberalism has managed to survive in modern times. Take the Islamic theocracies. Saudi Arabia has gladly accepted cooperation with the Western nations, as well as economic freedom. But she has politely refused any further liberal prodding. Democracy is unheard of within her borders, and the monarchy need only gain the consent of the royal family when making decisions. Her constitution is the Koran, her law its commandments. The idea of religious freedom, much less cultural and political pluralism, is laughable to her officials.  Vulgarly dressed women are to be flogged, drunkards are to be locked up, and homosexuals are to be neither seen nor heard. All three are at the mercy of the country’s religious police if discovered. The case of Iran is more curious, for we have in her the first Islamic Republic, a system which attempts to marry divine guidance with an accountable political leadership. The political mechanisms of the country, in fact, work quite well; the recent controversy over Mr Ahmadinejad’s election does not mar thirty years of peaceful transitions. But problems again rise when the question of law is brought up. The Iranian constitution explicitly forbids anything which does not harmonize with the principles of Islam. This clause is so wide as to allow the prohibition of anything disagreeable to the government. Women can be punished for revealing anything other than the hands and face; the treatment of non-authorized religions (anything without Judeo-Christian origins) is deplorable.

Government built upon faith is almost always a messy affair. Religion consists of speculations on certain invariable truths, which endure not for an age but for all of time. If we assume that its tenants descend from the mouth of God, we are not in a position to suggest anything contrary. Politics, however, is an institution which demands revision and evolution. Injecting religion into it makes for stagnancy, when what it needs are change and improvisation. Law, which is but the child of politics, is far better off without it. A friend once related to me the sad story of her cousin, a Saudi Arabian wife who was the victim of a long episode of violent domestic abuse. Under the law she is allowed to file for divorce, but must in turn forfeit her property and her eight children. Fighting the case is virtually impossible; should she go to court, she must stand before the word of God as interpreted by its judges. We cannot call this contest fair. How can a single woman stand alone before the Author of the cosmos?

Thus we can see that public policy, if it is to succeed, must be a worldly construction. The finger of Providence is welcome in regulating our private conduct, but not our public behavior. While the rule of law must receive a sort of divine reverence and respect from citizens, jurisprudence must open itself to human error. Without it, there exists no possibility of revision.

But Iran and others will hear nothing of it, and when the charges are brought against them, they resort to the secularist argument of the antiliberals: the removal of religion from the state will make our people impotent and immoral. They prefer to depict Western culture, rather than liberalism, as the enemy. But it should be understood that what Iran and others fear is not Western culture. Pagan as it may be, American culture has saturated Turkey, Indonesia, and India, but their people are no less pious, and God has yet to vex them for their iniquity. What Iran truly fears, then, is the loss of its ideological monopoly. Why invite competition in the marketplace of ideas when you know your product stands to lose? If the Iranian state made a secular law, if its people had choice of lifestyle, it could no longer justify the capricious persecution of its enemies.

Plenty of states, however, need not resort to religious justifications. Another peculiar instance of antiliberalism wrapped in another guise are the “Asian values,” first posited by Lee Kuan Kew in the 1990s. These values, of course, are a chimaera. To assert that all Asians truly believe such nonsense is as silly as the Occidental’s claim that he invented “individualism” and “toleration.” The term itself has fallen out of vogue since then, but the values themselves have not, particularly among the political right in the People’s Republic of China. In order to justify the stranglehold of the communist party on the political system, its officials have merely reworded Mr Kew’s principles. They emphasize the importance of single-party rule over pluralism, economic growth over civil rights, and social harmony over deliberation and debate. Hu Jintao is fond of repeating the “social harmony” and “some much get rich first” mantras over and over. One official used the quaint analogy of a single chef versus many. If one were to dine at a restaurant with a multitude of chefs (read: political parties), there would be no one to complain to when the food is bad. With a single chef, however, accountability is a given. The simile would be fitting if it acknowledged that, in China’s case, the chef can lock you in a prison cell for a bad review.

The Asian values resemble, by and large, the antiliberal arguments against autonomy. The individual, when he is atomized and isolated from society, will naturally prove destructive to its greater good. It does not occur to China or her apologists that most liberal states have accomplished China’s aims – social harmony and prosperity – with far fewer aches and pains. Furthermore, Liberalism, as mentioned previously, does not condone selfish individualism. It believes that the protection of the individual benefits society as a whole; his objection may be the right one, but no one will hear it if the government can silence him. I for one think China’s leaders hold no real loyalty to such beliefs. The Communist Party will support whatever is good for the Communist Party, whether it is liberal, antiliberal, or otherwise.

It is no secret that I am a biased judge in this matter. I am enormously skeptical of anyone who would support the obscurantism and Dionysian impulse of the antiliberal. In my opinion, its ideas attract only two species of minds. One conceives of Man as an insignificant germ bound to an unimportant rock ball, orbiting a lonely star and hurtling toward nothingness. The other has more sinister totalitarian motives, and sees the rallying cry of antiliberalism as useful to achieving such objectives. It seems to me that if one has faith in the human race (or at least faith in its corruptibility) he will settle on liberalism as the right choice. Let us be content, then, to scorn the antiliberal cause, not because liberalism provides the best form of government, but because it allows for a work in progress. It has faith in the individual and his capacity for just government, but it is open to the possibility of error. Liberalism protects those rights and reason we have been granted by virtue of being human beings. We should not sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Sources:

Anatomy of Antiliberalism

CIA Factbook

What Does China Think?


[1] The idea of the Supreme Being as an autocrat is itself questionable. I have argued extensively, along with Mr Watts, in former essays against the conception of God as monarch. The idea of the Deity as some tyrant of the universe has never seemed to me logically valid.

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