Commentary Magazine


What is a Liberal- Who is a Conservative?

To the Editor:

Only Sidney Hook touches, very briefly, on a point about liberalism I would like to make in connection with your September symposium, “What Is a Liberal—Who Is a Conservative?” Liberalism used to be based on the view of human nature in accordance with which people can choose to exercise their crucial capacities. In societies, however, they might choose to thwart others’ choices, so it is right to make provisions for discouraging such thwarting conduct. This prescription of “negative” freedom for all really exists (or should) because of the positive freedom we are all (except for borderline cases) capable of exercising.

With Hegel, Marx, and others who rejected the essential freedom of human beings yet still wanted to make use of the concept “freedom,” the seed of modern liberalism began to grow. . . . Freedom now has come to mean enabling people to realize their essential humanity, something they have little but their environment has everything to do with. Thus, modern liberals “protect and preserve” liberty by trying to arrange the environment so that it facilitates the realization of essential humanity on the part of those thought not to have realized it sufficiently to date.

Since people can choose, and human nature must be fully actualized by people of their own free will (within their context of environmental circumstances, including friends and, sometimes, relatives), the modern liberal’s struggle is hopeless. He keeps his garb of compassion but reality keeps thwarting him over and over again. . . .

Tibor R. Machan
Department of Philosophy
SUNY-Fredonia
Fredonia, New York

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To the Editor:

Lionel Trilling once wrote that liberalism “sets great store by variousness and possibility.” Dictionaries define liberalism as openness and tolerance. But where dictionaries supply precise meaning, ideologies tend to surround ideas with confusion. This has happened to liberalism. And it has happened most recently in New York, where a traditionally liberal Democratic party chose its candidate for the Senate . . . from a field of contenders that included all varieties of Democratic liberalism. Such a selection, in itself, coincides with Trilling’s belief. Diversity, however, has led to factionalism, resulting in a debate that has been brewing for some time as to which faction represents the true spirit of traditional liberalism. . . .

Though only a few of the contributors to the symposium . . . mention it, the nebulous word neo-conservative is, I believe, of legitimate, if not prime, concern in this debate. The word, taken literally, has nothing to do with a change in conservative attitudes, but refers to a change of consciousness in a group of liberals. Neoconservatism is the label which has been applied to certain elements of the Democratic party by newer, though not always younger, members. But after close examination it becomes clear that this term is misapplied and is not an accurate description of a shift in ideologies. . . . Prior to World War II, for example, to be ultra-conservative was to support legislation designed to control the powers of the President for military intervention. When the very same issue was taken up by liberals only a decade ago, was it not the case that time, and its changes, had altered the perceptions of those who now sought to limit presidential powers? The reasons for the shift had to have been similarly altered. I like Max Lerner’s explanation:

Over a span of years the angles of political vision—for that is what liberal, conservative, Left, Right amount to—are bound to have a changing content. They are ways of perceiving the political and social reality, but if the reality does somersaults so will the perception of it.

With respect to ideologies, time changes the perceptions of issues, not the perceivers. It would be ludicrous to call pre-World War II conservatives neoliberals. . . .

One need not look too hard at Democratic and Republican platforms over the years to see that the early ideas of Federalism and anti-Federalism are still present today. What can be confusing, however, is the fact that the nature of a particular time renders certain issues the cause either of liberals or of conservatives. But words notwithstanding, . . . it is the idea that counts; this is the historical constant. For one to make a genuine change from liberalism to conservatism a change of consciousness would have to take place . . ., yet I know of no alleged neoconservative who has undergone such a change. Changes of mind, yes. This is where the problem lies. Note Nathan Glazer’s bewilderment, referred to several times in the symposium, when . . . in 1970 he called himself a mild conservative. But he was the same Nathan Glazer. . . .

I should add that liberalism finds no inconsistency in believing in traditionally liberal domestic causes, and supporting a Jackson Amendment. They are separate issues. Much less do I believe that such views are best described as neoconservative. If there is liberal and conservative convergence on an issue, might it not be possible that such a view, very simply, is correct? And if a liberal changes his mind on an issue, say busing, is it something other than liberal to admit it and explain why? Not according to Trilling’s definition.

John J. Cox
Flushing, New York

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To the Editor:

According to notions so laboriously synthesized by so many illustrious names in the September issue of COMMENTARY, I guess I have to consider myself a conservative, although it is news to me. Whenever I expound what T think and feel, in print or in conversation, a verdict follows: he’s a conservative. When I ask what that means, I’m synoptically informed that I’m against the blacks and a pawn of big business. Which obviously conflicts with the facts: I wrote an admiring book on blues poetry, which I consider one of the century’s magnificent achievements, and I have always supported myself by manual or cerebral toil, which fits the Marxist definition of a proletarian. I too consider myself a man of reason, in conformity with John Locke’s, Lord Acton’s, and William Ropke’s sense of the word—that is, one who believes that the most inherent content of freedom is neither sensual nor emotional but rational. This is why in Europe I was called a liberal, and often not without a contemptuous grin.

In the newly formed Rockford College Institute we try to bring some order into the interplay of denominations which seem marooned in the American ideological galaxy. This is why anyone who wishes to abuse our good intentions sees us as either too liberal or too conservative, but never sufficiently reasonable.

Leopold Tyrmand
Rockford College Institute
Rockford, Illinois

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To the Editor:

The symposium on the modern uses and misuses of the terms liberal and conservative was quite worthwhile. However, I was surprised to find an almost universal failure to distinguish between the classical form of continental liberalism, as created by Rousseau, Saint-Simon, and others, and the very different form of American liberalism created by the Federalists and their allies (although the essays by Robert Nisbet, Sidney Hook, and Robert L. Bartley made implicit use of the distinction. . .). Just as historians have generally recognized that America’s revolutionaries were very conservative revolutionaries, especially in comparison with the French Jacobins, so must we remember that America’s liberals, who represented a synthesis of British conservatives and liberals, were very conservative liberals.

Originally, all liberals, whether continental, British, or American, shared one basic idea. As Rousseau put it in Emile: “The greatest good is not authority, but liberty.” Their common goal was liberty, or freedom, hence the word “liberalism” But the continentals and the British . . . soon divided into two radically different streams of thought and action.

Rousseau and the continentals had great faith in the powers of reason or rationalism and . . . believed that all human beings were equal in liberty and in the basic goodness of human nature. But, most fatefully, they also believed that man was “infinitely malleable” by social institutions and that. therefore, man could be made free and his inherent equality realized only by social institutions. . . . The crucial demand was for “the total surrender of each individual with all his rights to the whole community” (Rousseau, Social Contract, Vol. 3). . . . In short. Rousseau and those who followed him believed that the inherent goodness of man, his powers of reason, and his malleability to socialization would lead to total freedom and equality if only each person would first surrender to the general will of man. This surrender would lead to a democratic state which would then guarantee and protect all individual rights.

The British liberals started and ended with an analysis of individual actors in the concrete social world. While they too believed in the powers of reason, they were profoundly empirical and practical (or pragmatic). . . . Beginning with Locke, they were distrustful of any grand social schemes to free, perfect, or otherwise improve individual human beings. Their primary commitment was to restricting the powers of any government because such powers restricted the rights of individuals. Rather than being the instrument of human freedom, government power was the enemy of freedom and the corrupter of man. British conservatives agreed with the liberals’ intense empiricism and practicality, but they had a far greater distrust of rationalism. Burke argued that man’s reason could not comprehend the vast complexity of society and that any social order must come about naturally, organically, from the ground up. Most importantly, he believed that all powers of government must be checked by other powers or individual freedoms would be destroyed. . . .

The intensely practical experience of the Americans, their pluralism, and their individualism made them natural allies of the British liberals and natural enemies of the continental, romantic liberals. In America, the mix of liberal and conservative ideas was complex. Like Burke himself. the Americans agreed completely with the British liberals about the need for almost total individual freedom in the economic sphere—property and individual initiative were basic rights in themselves and natural checks on the growth of government powers over individuals. But in matters of government the Americans agreed much more with the British liberals than with Burke—freedom was more important than authority. Still, they had no doubt about the necessity of a natural social order based on shared ideas of morality. . . . But their overwhelming approach to the central government was to keep it small and weak. . . .

Through a long and vastly complex history, modern American liberalism was transformed into Rousseauian romantic, continental liberalism. . . . Our original conservative liberalism was constructed specifically for a pluralistic, individualistic, and free society, and it worked for a long time. Rousseauian liberalism was constructed for a vastly different kind of society, France, but it never worked, even for that society; it became, instead, a major source of the Jacobin terror which “freed” so many Frenchmen of their lives and prepared the way for the “general will” expressed by Bonapartism. But, of course, none of this matters to modern “liberals.” After all, they are just as uninterested in empiricism and practicality as were their continental progenitors. . . .

Jack D. Douglas
Department of Sociology
University of California
San Diego, California

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To the Editor:

Few contributors to the liberal/conservative symposium have anything flattering to say about either term, with the word liberal attracting the most scorn. I would not contest the fact that liberal has become a hackneyed symbol, but it has become so only because it has been one of the most serviceable drafthorses in the history of ideas. . . . Yet “liberal” cannot be dissected away from the intellectual and emotive freight which, were the word to be struck from the language, another symbol would have to bear. It is futile to castigate a symbol because of the perplexing repercussions it arouses within us. The ambiguities are not semantic, they are real. (Does charity cause dependency? When are quotas fair?) The riddles inhere in the human spirit and are inescapable in any social organization. We need the . . . power of labels like “liberal” to find or impose order on the blooming, buzzing confusion of the raw material of social phenomena.

Restless reformers can be expected, sooner or later, to challenge the most conservative of human institutions, language itself. They would expunge not only venerable terms like liberal and conservative, but the dichotomy between them as well. Indeed, liberals are not alarmed at what seems to be the erosion of a number of other eristic dichotomies such as once were assumed between man and woman, youth and age, rich and poor, clever and dull. In questioning the distinction between man and woman, they salute the infertility cult, now almost pandemic; . . . they welcome modern technology which makes irrelevant the sexual differences in muscular strength; and they incite both erstwhile genders to hanker after masculine prerogatives and shun feminine ones. Directing their attention to youth and age, many liberals reject the wisdom of the old and confer the vote and unemployment compensation on adolescents. They are pleased . . . that the civil war between whites and blacks is coming to an end. When liberals turn their thoughts to the rich and poor, they are complacent that our affluence has relegated the poor to a dwindling and consistently outvoted minority. When they weigh the clever against the dull, they find the dull merely disadvantaged. . . .

Liberals understand that only the unchanging changes. They cherish the basic form of society and wish only to re-form it. . . . Yet how is any change possible? Government is by definition power incarnate and institutions are vested interests. Mutations do not take place in the body politic. The meek cannot inherit the earth. How can we make the poor rich without endangering our most precious shared values? . . . A trickle-up program dispenses too much money to too many people, is inflationary, and demoralizes the poor; but trickling-down is immoral because it enriches the wealthy. Living so close to these paradoxes, liberals cannot function epistemologically or logically. They must be impassioned by envy of the rich or pity for the poor. Or by shame. Or by ressentiment.

Liberals are also unfair to politicians, extorting extravagant promises which they know cannot be fulfilled. After the victim is elected and in office they feel entitled to take revenge upon him in the media and in private carping. Furthermore, they give elected officials conflicting instructions: to provide more benefits and lower taxes. The inevitable failures are loaded on the heads of our representatives, who are used as concrete symbols of our nondescript sins. Our leaders may or may not be good, but it is certain that we are poor followers. . . .

Bob Greenbaum
Norristown, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

The “group of American intellectuals” chosen to define, or confuse, the meanings of liberal and conservative appears to represent almost exclusively the Eastern establishment. Two states account for about half of them, and one city, a fourth. Am I to assume this is a scientific, “harrised,” “galluping,” “quotafied” sample, and thus that the Eastern establishment really has cornered the brain market? If so, the news therefrom would indicate that the crucial shortage in this country is not intelligence but integrity. . . .

T.L. Patrick
New Orleans, Louisiana

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To the Editor:

Eugene D. Genovese writes: “The challenge to American capitalism [i.e., to liberalism] will have to come from a socialist Left. . . . At issue is the restoration of America’s place as a leader of the forces in the world that stand for the reconciliation of freedom and social justice. A capitalist America may be able to impose upon the world a nuclear war ostensibly in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, but suicide and mass murder are poor instruments of reform.” But has America, with its two-decade record of steady retreat, shown either a willingness or an ability to lead the forces of the free world against totalitarian advance? Witness Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Angola. . . .

Dewitt S. Snell
Schenectady, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . The progressive social programs of the 60′s have spawned a virtual cottage-industry of conservative criticism, yet most liberals are as willing as their conservative colleagues to concede the failures of the Great Society or the New Frontier. But . . . genuine liberalism should manifest itself, I think, in a rededication to basic goals.

No one doubts that the minimum-wage law, while well-intentioned, has in many instances actually increased unemployment among minority young. Nor was the “Green Revolution” a godsend. By relying less on labor-intensive farming than on mass mechanization, it actually put many of India’s poor out of work while it increased the price of grain so much that these newly unemployed could no longer afford to buy what they had previously produced themselves. Then, too, these new strains required extensive use of fertilizers, and no one had anticipated the oil crisis or OPEC. . . .

A litany of similarly flawed liberal initiatives is potentially endless. . . . Of course . . . to fault the performance is not to invalidate the effort, and we still desperately need efforts aimed at society’s disadvantaged and dispossessed. If specific programs have proved unsuccessful, the answer is not to abandon the search for solutions, but rather to find more effective means of meeting the same ends.

True, liberals are traditionally all too eager to embark upon crusades. Realism and restraint must guide and temper their actions. . . . [But] the problems are immense, both at home and abroad. Today’s world presents us with a vast panorama of privation and despair; millions know untold misery and suffering. The complacency of conservatism has no place in such critical times, nor can we afford to be anything less than skeptical about the ministers of the “new minimalism” (e.g., Jerry Brown). Instead, we must take afresh to the field, recognizing that we shall always fall somewhat short of the goal. . . .

Steve Osterman
Yale College
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

. . . It was their acceptance of ideology that caused problems for the liberals. To many Americans ideology is seen . . . as a sort of disease. As someone I know put it: “If they shoot a guy in Chile, the liberals tell me that I should get upset; if they shoot a guy in Cuba, I should ignore it. What sort of . . . morality is that?” . . .

The kind of common sense that was so much a part of George Orwell’s writings has been noticeably absent from liberal ideology over the last decade. . . . A liberal today is someone whose social concerns rise in proportion to his income and who, as a result, is guaranteed protection from the results of his own policies. . . .

Mike Lavelle
Chicago Tribune
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

The trouble with the intellectuals in your symposium is that they eschew the facts and espouse words. Actually, it is the easiest thing in the world to distinguish between the liberal and the conservative and to define the place each holds in our society.

A liberal is one who has the interests of all the people at heart.

A conservative is one who not only conserves but seeks to enlarge the wealth of the wealthy and particularly of big business, and does so even though recurrent periods of inflation and high unemployment bring acute suffering to multitudes.

It is not my purpose to attempt to denigrate big business. Far from it; the nation owes a debt of infinite gratitude to the outpouring of consumer goods that has given us the highest standard of living in the world. Those who perform that miracle of production are genuinely brilliant; indeed, they have more than a touch of genius in their operations. . . .

Why then do they now and then pursue the suicidal course adopted through the ages by kings, czars, and emperors who have fallen by the wayside? I was puzzled about this until I heard a statement by an eminent psychiatrist. He said it was possible for a person to be brilliant in all areas but one, and in that area to be so mentally deficient as to approach a state of lunacy.

That cleared things up for me. It brought to mind the lunacy of that arch-conservative, Herbert Hoover, who was telling the country that prosperity was just around the corner when at that very time ruined millionaires were selling apples on the streets or jumping out of windows.

It required a liberal sprung from a wealthy, aristocratic family to save us then from a threatening revolution, for the farmers in the previously ultra-conservative Middle West were arming themselves. But instead of expressing thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the financial wizards refused even to mention his name. . . .

Now again we have inflation, for when a labor union obtains a wage increase of, let us say, 5 per cent, prices are raised perhaps 8 per cent. It is proper to raise prices when costs rise, but a grave menace to the nation to exceed a fair increase.

Perhaps Jimmy Carter can lead us out of the morass. He will need to muster the combined resources of all our liberals in order to overcome the massive strength of the conservatives. It will not be an easy task, but it is a most urgently needed one.

Charles Roland
New York City

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To the Editor:

Chet Huntley once said on the air that a conservative is one who uses the clichés of the 20′s as principles, and a liberal is one who uses the principles of the 30′s as clichés.

He said it in the 50′s.

Reuven Frank
NBC News
New York City

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To the Editor:

It was not Eugene Debs who was the candidate of the Socialist party in the presidential election of 1916, as I wrote in my symposium contribution, but Allan L. Benson. I once knew that, but over the years the association of Eugene Debs with American socialism before World War I pushed to the side this small bit of factual information.

Edward Shils
Committee on Social Thought
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

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