Two Kinds of Liberals
Today we hear a lot about liberals and conservatives, but much of this talk is misleading. All Americans are liberal to some degree. The liberal philosophy is so broad that it would take in the majority of Americans. There simply is no fixed definition of liberalism. Liberalism only has some vague principles, which most Americans would endorse to some degree. They would be things like democracy, equality, individualism, the rule of law, and the free market. How these things are defined and to what degree a person takes them is where the great divide in liberalism takes place.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that in America we have two kinds of liberals–not liberals and conservatives–but two kinds of liberals, and for our discussion one can call these two groups French liberals and English liberals. Note that one can only take this allegory so far for it will break down because of the diversity of the liberal view.
Let’s look at these two kinds of liberals. First are the French liberals. These are the children of Voltaire and the French Revolution. They are characterized by a dislike of authority, a dislike of religion, and distain for the upper class. They tend to be populists and feel comfortable with socialism. They tend to put more emphasis on collectivism than on individualism. They believe that mankind can trust in reason alone, apart from a faith that informs reason. They also seem to put more stress on the concept of equality and define it differently than their English counterpart. Because of their negative view of faith and religion they seem to be informed more by their vices than their virtues. For this reason, I sometime refer to this group as profane liberals.
The extreme French liberals come closer to being classified as revolutionaries rather than liberals. They see man’s greatest need to be liberated from tradition, morality, and superstition (religion). Many of them would preferred to be call progressives rather than liberals. I often call these folks advanced liberals. Of course, many scholars today would call their form of liberalism something other than liberal. The champion of French liberalism is in fact not French but English. His name is John Stuart Mill, and he is most famous for his small book entitled On Liberty. However, to be fair to Mills’ he probably would be shocked by much of the thinking of modern advanced liberals. Mill himself did not believe in socialism.
On the other side we have the English liberals who in some degree reflect many of the French liberal characteristics, but to a lesser degree. However, there are some marked differences. One is that English liberals see religion as a positive force in culture and at worst a necessary evil. Their view of religion varies from true faith to seeing it from a pragmatic point of view. A great example of this is the American philosopher William James who was the father of the philosophy of pragmatism. English liberals also believe more strongly in the free market and the concept of limited government. They seem to have a respect for government, but at the same time a healthy distrust. Many of our founding fathers embraced this form of liberalism to some degree. It is this group of liberals who today are called conservatives by many people. Their champion in the time of Mill was James Fitzjames Stephen. He is famous for his rebuttal of Mill in his classic book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In his book he completely dismantles Mill’s form of liberalism. (Note: John Gray, Liberalism)
What causes people to be in either camp? Well, that is difficult to say, but I think we can say that no form of liberalism is based on reason alone. If it were, there would not be such diversity in liberalism. Liberalism, like all systems of thought, is diversified because people come to it with diverse presumptions. What are some these presumptions?
One of the obvious is a belief or lack of belief in a deity. Belief or lack of it tends to shape one’s attitudes on a host of subjects, but especially on the concept of authority. Authority seems to be a thing that all liberals struggle with, especially the French liberals. Religion tends to temper this rebellious spirit, so large numbers of religious people seem to lean toward the English side. However, by religious I do not necessarily mean Christian. Most knowledgeable Christians would have some problems with any form of liberalism. However, you will find vulgar Christians in both camps.
Still, another factor could be the geographies of where a person was brought up or lives. Rural people seem to lean more toward the English side than city dwellers. This can be contributed to by many factors like the fact that rural people tend to be self-sufficient and independent from the system and have less trust in any form of government, even a liberal form. Also rural people are closer to nature and often have more of a God consciousness which the city dweller may not have. An example of this is a study I saw on how the people in California voted in a recent election. All the counties that had large cities in them were blue and the rest of the counties were red.
Other factors that may contribute to the tribe of liberals you belong to could be: family ideology which greatly affect the values and beliefs of an individual, the educational institution attended, one’s chosen profession and one’s social economic level. All this is to say that the source of one’s liberalism has very little to do, for most people’s, with intellectual choice. In fact, for the most part, liberalism of all kinds has many intellectual inconsistencies. Therefore if you fancy yourself as a liberal intellectual, think again.
For those that would like to know more about Liberalism the following are interesting books on the subject, Liberalism and Its Discontents by Patrick Neal, The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb, Two faces of Liberalism by John Gray and The Betrayal of Liberalism by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball.