I plan to write several essays on how emergent order changes the context and character of liberal thought. These essays will not be scholarly in that they will not have footnotes and the like. Instead, here and in some posts to follow, I will explore informally how liberal traditions have failed to fully come to terms with the institutional results of their success.
If I had to define liberalism in a single sentence, it would be the view that the individual is the ultimate ethical and moral unit in society, who therefore is not legitimately subordinated to any collective group. While specific liberal philosophies, be they deontological, natural rights, utilitarian, or evolutionary, arrive at this fundamental insight by different means, they all agree with this general statement. Each of course argues that it is more consistent in grasping the implications of this claim, but that needn’t interest us at this point.
Thus I am not interested in the foundations of liberalism, because it has many. I am personally inclined to a combination of natural right and evolutionary perspectives. But the argument that follows depends only on the general principle these positions agree on. However, I do think that the abundance of foundational arguments in themselves comprises a powerful argument for the validity of their common conclusion. Even so, here I am interested in the institutional results arising from this conclusion arrived at by several routes.
This is a slightly edited copy of a reply I sent to an old friend, a very intelligent man, who somehow remains a loyal follower of George Bush’s attempts to expand military control of others in the name of democracy:
This reply may cause a break between us. If so, I will sincerely regret it, but if it is to be, so be it. You wrote:
“All of this accusation of Bush lying or violating our rights or breaking the law is bogus and I am no longer surprised you are falling for it. However, Bush can fairly be faulted for failure to back Ward Connerly, failure to control domestic spending, failure to build a large enough military, too paltry a defense budget, not putting us on a war footing, and failure to demand prosecution of those who leak classified info in ways that treaten our security. Also, one can legitimately fault many mistakes in Iraq — although historical hindsight might show the same or worse about other wars! We were winning in Vietnam (Tet was a huge vistory)when the opposition here succeeded in losing the war for us. They are trying it again. The left is a menace.”
I have been slow to respond because it was the end of the semester, and because I have been unsure how to. Not because I find your argument to be strong- but because I think they are unusually weak and I consider you a very smart guy, so there is a subtext here that I am missing, I think. But for what it is worth, here is my reply on each point you raise.