Liberalism has much to its credit. But as John Stuart Mill said about Christianity, “all truths need fundamental re-examination from time to time”; and if that was true of Christianity in the 18th century, I think that it is just as true of liberalism in the 21st. For today the great and the good, at any rate in the west, intone their belief in liberal pieties as mindlessly as their predecessors in the 18th century proclaimed their belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.
Take freedom of the press. The liberal argument for the importance of a free press was that it gave voters the necessary information on which they could vote intelligently. Of all the British newspapers today, only the Guardian even tries to do that. The rest concentrate on misinformation or even disinformation – sophisticated and clever disinformation in the case of the broadsheets, and untreated sewage in the case of the tabloids. So, far from helping to guide the reader into the real world – the world for which he or she is meant to take responsibility – they offer him or her a way out of that real world into one of fantasy, muddying rather than clarifying the democratic waters.
The same goes for that other liberal piety, the autonomy of the individual. Of course this was an important principle 200 years ago when the individual had far too few rights. But today it is very plain that man standing alone – as against man locked into society – is beginning to get too many rights. So what was once a noble principle has been degraded into a crass and selfish form of “me-firstism”: an attitude wholly incompatible with the team spirit required to make any institution – family, school, college, regiment, hospital, police force or even government department – work. Even the foreign service has been infected, with our former ambassador in Washington not hesitating to tell tales out of school about his colleagues.
The problem is that freedom is a negative: freedom from something, and if that something isn’t defined, it becomes freedom from everything, including reality itself.
Better to have a positive goal, like “create a society that betters ancient Rome.” That’s healthy. Liberalism… not so much.