Liberals might not like reading John Carroll’s books. He takes what he calls “radical liberalism” to task and blames those well-meaning folks who crave greater human freedom for many of the ills of contemporary culture. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is precisely those who demand greater human freedom that have placed the chains of fear and uncertainty on modern men and women. He does not deny that liberalism has been a good thing. As he says,
“Our civilization has benefitted prodigiously from the liberal impulse, but always in cases in which it has operated in a circumscribed manner, within a securely ordered institutional environment.”
Indeed. True freedom demands restraint. The absence of restraint is not freedom, it is chaos and misery. It is the French Revolution. A case in point is capitalism which is one of the many fruits of liberal thinking — as set forth in the writings of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century at the height of the Enlightenment when liberal thinking was all the rage. Smith was convinced that the “invisible hand” would guide the capitalist and that in the end there would be greater prosperity for all. Smith was a part of the Scottish Moral Sense School. This was group of thinkers who were convinced that there is a core of human sympathy in all people and that would tend toward generosity and compassion. The urges of the capitalist for more and more profit would be restrained by their natural sympathy for others. We know how that turned out.
Carroll is convinced that it is liberalism’s excesses and naivety (as evidenced in the case of Adam Smith) that are at the heart of the problem:
“Liberalism’s psychological assumption about humans — leave them alone and they will flourish — is naive. It is blind to inclinations to greed, violence, and evil, inclinations that are an inherent part of human egoism. It assumes a capacity for self-restraint that our entire history contradicts. In practice, the upper middle class, without the constraints of culture, has been left with one value– freedom — which has become intoxicating. Liberalism has proven the perfect rationalization for selfishness.”
The classic example is that of the liberal parents who refuse to reprimand their child for throwing a rock through a window because he was just “expressing himself.” We wouldn’t want to thwart his creative growth! And those same parents send their spoiled child off to school where underpaid teachers are not allowed to discipline the children but are somehow supposed to remedy the mistakes the parents have made.
Radical liberal thinking led to the concept of the “free school” initiated by A.S. Neill in England (following Rousseau) which rebelled against the excessive Victorian restraints that needed to be loosened — but not tossed aside. Restraint is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, as Carroll and many other thinkers have insisted, restraint is what has led to civilization and to what we like to call “progress.” It’s also the key to sound character. The problem with liberalism, for all its good intentions (and they are very real, as human beings struggled against authority and unrestrained power for centuries and demanded their freedom with good reason) is that
“its adherents never know when to stop. Once unleashed, liberalism keeps going until no authority is left; it has no principle of restraint. The threat, since 1960 [ the time of the counter-culture], has been of excessive liberalization rendering schools ineffective in the struggle to keep discipline.”
This has certainly been the case in the schools where the free school ideal — which led to “progressive education” and the self-esteem movement in the lower grades — has left the lower middle classes, especially, illiterate and therefore unable to take advantage of opportunities for economic advancement, thus breeding resentment in a great many who feel left out. The result of all this, as Carroll sees it, is what he calls “rancour.”
“Nietzsche saw rancour as the prototypical modern disease. It manifests itself in resentment against another person, another group or party, or another body of ideas”
Rancour infects not only the intellectual and cultural elite who in their blind determination to increase human freedom have become nihilistic and turned against their own history and against Western Civilization generally; it is especially prevalent in the lower middle class where millions of people in the West feel trapped and ignored by those who have the power and make the decisions that directly affect their lives.
The gap between the “upper middle-class,” the intellectual elite and those with money and power, on the one hand, and the cultural “lower middle classes” (those who watch the soaps, read the Enquirer, and admire Clint Eastwood), on the other, has grown wider of late. We may find ourselves with an explanation here for the fact that a man who is all ego has become president of the most powerful nation on earth: those who have felt left out experience this rancour and, blind to the man’s faults, see only Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. These folks also hate restraint and want quick solutions to problems that are far too large for them to wrap their heads around — especially as they cannot read, write or figure and have been provided with toys to entertain them and keep them distracted.
Thus, as John Carroll would have it, the “radical liberals” are hoist by their own petard. Those whose only value is unlimited human freedom now find themselves imprisoned in a world of unrestrained greed and self-interest surrounded by unrestrained ignorance, resentment, and even violence. How ironic.
Some good thoughts here, my friend. As you know, I consider myself to be mostly a liberal thinker, but … only in some areas, I suppose. Unfettered capitalism is, in my opinion, a failed experiment that has led to the income disparity we see in the Western world today. No, human nature isn’t necessarily kind and compassionate, especially when the shiny objects are dangled in front of them. My liberalism tends to be more in the areas of social justice … I do not see why certain groups of people should be treated differently simply because of the colour of their skin, their religion, or their sexual orientation. I do not find fairness in big corporations paying no taxes, while poor people are living in the streets and going to bed hungry at night. And I do not see why higher education has to be so costly that only that upper 1% can possibly afford it. It would be lovely if we could count on everyone to be fair, compassionate, and honest, but human nature being what it is, we cannot, so we liberals keep fighting for laws to attempt to enforce some degree of equality.
It is interesting that only the wealthy will soon be able to afford an education. If I were a cynic (!) I might suggest that this is a conspiracy. But we all know better, do we not?
Well … I used to not be a cynic, nor prone to conspiracy theories. But, I have to admit that more than a few times in the past year or two I have felt strongly that there is a reason education costs have risen and that the powers-that-be fight so hard against free higher level education. Don’t want the riff raff running the country or our businesses some day and giving things away to people in need, now do we? Sigh. Yes, I have become a cynic. My bright optimism has faded to grey.
I never thought that Money was a good measure of whether I could “afford” an education worthy of its name. The System said I needed to ‘borrow’ it (being poor myself) in order to obtain it. I found that to be untrue. But when I DID ‘buy’ into higher education, it wasn’t to earn a Diploma in order to perpetuate the System, nor to ‘make’ a living. It was to see more closely exactly what this System was made of. Know what I found? A shady form of presumption, power politics and the manipulation of the powerful over the weak that had exactly NOTHING to do with my interests in the Humanities.
What was I to conclude but that Education had become (whatever it may formerly had been) a means of channeling the talents of humanity into the narrow ideological framework of an Imperialism unworthy of Humanity itself. What recourse must a man have then, when all the world collides with his own best ambition and humanity toward man?
I tell you the truth, it’s enough to turn an Angel into a Demon; though not a necessary end in the last.
Humanism died some time ago and the Humanities in our colleges and universities have been on life-support for some time. Ours is not a culture that prizes the impractical. Rather we call such things “elitist” and turn away with a bad taste on our tongues.