Would a real liberal please stand up?

Tom Holland chose an interesting pair of contrasting epigraphs by ancient authors who were contemporaries for his book on the fall of the Roman republic, Rubicon:

“Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty and a hatred for servitude.” Caesar, Gallic Wars

“Only a few prefer liberty — the majority seek nothing more than fair masters.” Sallust, Histories

The points of view contrast, but are not contradictory. It’s Sallust’s cynical reflection, however, that gets more play in a recent essay by John Gray reprinted in Harper’s (January 2015):

Most human beings, most of the time, care about other things than more than they care about being free. Many will vote readily for an illiberal government if it promises security against violence or hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached, and denies freedom to people they hate.

Today these ideas belong in the category of forbidden thoughts. When democracy proves to be oppressive, liberals insist it is because democracy is not working properly — if there were genuine popular participation, majorities would not oppress minorities. Arguing with this view is pointless, since it rests on an article of faith: the conviction that freedom is the natural human condition, which tyranny suppresses.

Liberalism can be its own worst enemy. I don’t mean that in the ancient formula of liberty breeds license, and license chaos, then chaos begs for an end to liberty. Just as prevalent as the liberal mindset Gray critiques is the neo-liberal world view also known as market fundamentalism. Free markets lead to free people, or so we’re told. Yet this isn’t what happened when the Chicago boys put Pinochet in power in Chile. And it’s the opposite of the so-called “Beijing consensus”: the surrender of political rights for economic growth and higher standards of living. Slavery is freedom.

Gray is concerned that the triumphalist idea of freedom as destiny, that history is on the side of liberal values worldwide, makes it harder to deal with the world as it is. “Coping with that world requires realistic thinking of a kind that the liberal mind, as it exists today, is incapable of.” But you have to wonder who believes this liberal myth. George W. Bush was one of its biggest cheerleaders during his presidency, seeing the spread of freedom and democracy not only as America’s mission but as divine providence. (Example: “The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable – and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power Who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.”) But this was freedom out of the barrel of a gun, and the only form of democracy being promoted was one that gave cover to governments friendly to American interests. Or take as another example today’s digital oligarchs and the mantra “information wants to be free.” Only if it’s other people’s freedom, says the fine print. Google isn’t giving anything away.

I know it’s become a slippery word, especially in American politics, but it still makes you wonder: Just what is a real liberal anyway?

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