This week Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, resigned because he found his Christian faith incompatible with leading his party. Apparently, the problem was that while he agreed with the Liberal Democratic position that homosexual relations and same-sex marriage should be legal, he also believed, like many Christians, that homosexual relations were wrong. Many party colleagues found the combination of these two positions intolerable.
But this kind of combination traditionally defined the essence of liberalism, supposedly the guiding light of Farron’s party. Liberalism was exactly the view that government had no business regulating actions or beliefs unless they could be demonstrated to cause concrete harms to a third party. As a result, liberals have supported legalizing all sorts of matters that they may have believed immoral or imprudent. In my view, the best test for a liberal is the willingness to tolerate behavior of which he morally disapproves.
The threat to free inquiry and free speech at our universities today flows from the ideology of left-liberalism. As measured by campaign donations and other indicators, the faculty and administrators are almost entirely on the left wing of the Democratic party. It is hard even to imagine that anyone but a left-liberal today could be appointed the head of any one of our top twenty universities.
Leftism and liberalism are in tension, because the former prioritizes equality while the latter prioritizes liberty. Leftists focus on equality of result as opposed to equality before the law. They are also enthusiastic about many forms of social engineering to reach a vision of substantive equality that is every changing. Unlike those on the wholly collectivist left, left-liberals have traditionally been committed to preserving many of the tenets of liberalism– freedom of speech, belief, and the rule of law. But these liberal commitments often stand in the way of achieving their equality goals. Freedom of speech and belief empowers individuals to resist programs of greater substantive equality. The rule of law protects what leftists may regard as entrenched concentrations of power.
These tensions are playing out in the new wave of political correctness that is threatening our universities.
There are a couple of questions that I have often been asked but to which I still have found no satisfactory answer. The first relates to history: What use is it?
Michael Greve’s April 2012 post “Constitutionalism, Hegel, and Us” had several significant points in his short essay masquerading as a blog post. Greve notes that liberal constitutionalism per Hegel’s argument in Philosophy of Right has a problem, a big one.
[P]olitical liberalism (Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and, with some qualifications, Rousseau) confuses civil society with the State. Again, that makes us nervous; but the distinction has a very large kernel of good sense. The principle of liberal constitutionalism, Hegel says, is “endless subjectivity,” or what we call “individualism.” A liberal constitution is a contract among individuals, who consent to limits on their autonomy insofar, and only insofar, as they are consistent with individualist principles. (Think Locke’s Second Treatise.) To state Hegel’s central objection at phenomenological level: you can’t run a free country on that basis.
So we need more than individuals. We need a society of persons constituted by familial, local, religious, and political attachments, recognizing that personhood contains aspirations and purposes that place it beyond the scope of state power. Society “possesses primacy over the state.” The state must serve the ends of the human person. On this basis we can relativize the state’s value.