Four false criticisms of liberalism from the right
Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit www.martinvanstaden.com.

As the national-conservative movement grows around the world, the right is increasingly abandoning the alliance of convenience it had with liberalism during the latter half of the previous century. Here are some false criticisms our erstwhile allies often level against the philosophy of liberty. 

The name ‘Carl Benjamin’ or ‘Sargon of Akkad’ might not mean a lot to most readers of the Daily Friend, but this individual used to be quite a notable figure in the online classical liberal space. Primarily a YouTube critic of the insanity of contemporary woke leftism, Benjamin went on to be a controversial candidate for EU Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP).  

I am not sure what he primarily busies himself with today, but he remains active on social media. 

Benjamin used to describe himself as a ‘liberalist,’ which was more or less congruent with classical liberalism, but has since become a critic of liberalism from the right.  

I recently came across a June 2022 article by Benjamin, ‘Five False Assumptions of Liberalism’. Primarily, he claims that liberalism is based on five false assumptions which have effectively allowed the ‘pure’ ideology to be undermined and used against Western civilisation. He questionably argues, for instance, that it is precisely due to liberalism’s false assumptions that Critical Race Theory has been so successful in the West.  

His article provides an apt opportunity to correct some mistaken knowledge the right thinks it possesses about the philosophy of liberty.  

1. State of nature and social contract 

The ‘state of nature’ argument used in the discourse of social contract theory essentially claims that there was a ‘point’ at which organised political community became legitimised by the ‘consent’ of those in the ‘pre-social’ state of warring chaos. This, then, the thought experiment goes, led to a civilisational state of order. 

Benjamin criticises the state of nature hypothesis by writing that ‘there was never a point in time in which man was a solitary animal. Instead, early man seems to have always lived in small tribal bands, as the Earth was dangerous and difficult to survive on by oneself.’  

Nobody, least of all liberals, would disagree with this statement.  

The state of nature hypothesis is, self-consciously, a legal fiction. It is necessarily ‘incorrect’ if one seeks to scrutinise it as a historian or factfinder. Of course, there was no ‘state of nature’ in any general sense, and the state of nature never ‘started’ and never ‘ended’. Some people find themselves in the state of nature today. Some people found themselves in civilised society in 10 000 BC. 

‘The state’ exists everywhere in human civilisation. Even uncontacted tribes have ‘the state’ in the form of their chief, who has the equivalent of binding legal authority to make decisions for people without their ad hoc consent. Many forms of state exist, but where you find humans, you will find the state.  

How is it possible that human beings had this degree of consensus on political organisation before East and West and North and South knew that the other existed? This is the question that social contract theory wrestles with, and it comes to a satisfactorily accurate, if legal-fictional, answer: the measured centralisation of lawful violence appears to be the best antidote to the total, unregulated chaos of so-called ‘nature.’ 

But this hypothesis is not only, as Benjamin suggests, the ‘starting point from which liberal philosophy developed,’ but one of a few important ideas that led to the development of the very idea (as opposed to the reality) of the state. The ‘state of nature’ thus does not belong to liberalism and resides at least implicitly in all thinking around organised political community. 

Liberalism, in particular, also does not require the state of nature theory to arrive at its conclusions.  

Pure liberalism, called ‘anarcho-capitalism’ in some quarters, rejects the notion of the social contract entirely. It makes no use of the state of nature hypothesis. Other liberals, for example, like FA von Hayek, argue for liberal order not on the basis of liberal government being the only right answer to the state of unordered chaos, but that liberal government is most consistent with the realities and limits of human knowledge. 

2. Egalitarianism 

Equality and inequality are the words of the century. Like freedom and democracy, these terms mean different things to different people at different times and in different places. To the left, equality is a totalitarian imperative that only bigots would resist. Increasingly, to the right, appealing to any kind of equality is nothing less than neo-Marxist wokeness.  

Benjamin has two items on equality, which I collapsed into one. 

It is unclear why Benjamin seeks to lay the desire for ‘social equality’ at the feet of liberalism. Early in his piece, he even writes that his classical liberalism was a distinctively English one. But then surely Benjamin must be aware of how people like John Stuart Mill and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse opposed the ‘old liberals’ and (tried to) import the explicitly socialistic preoccupation with socio-economic equality into liberal thinking.  

This attempt spawned what is known as progressivism. It is not liberals, but progressives, who believe that ‘everyone is equal.’ 

Liberals have always and will always be concerned only with one kind of equality: legal equality, or what Hayek called isonomia. This is not so-called ‘equality of opportunity,’ where government still needs to try to give people a ‘fair start.’ As Benjamin correctly notes – and liberalism realises – ‘[a]ny amount of free action would create unequal starting positions.’ 

Instead, legal equality is exclusively focused on treatment by the state: unless one has engaged in some voluntary action that necessitates unequal treatment, the default is that the state – as the wielder of binding and coercive decision-making power – must treat everyone alike. 

Liberalism has also insisted upon another kind of legal equality often considered alongside the Rule of Law: that any rules created by the state must apply to the political class just as they do to ordinary legal subjects. The state must therefore not merely treat its subjects alike, but it must treat its subjects the way state officials themselves are treated. 

Liberalism rejects any attempt to politically or legally engineer social or economic equality with contempt, as history has shown repeatedly that this must necessarily result in tyranny, where the choices (and more importantly, responsibility) of individuals and of communities are ignored or set aside in pursuance of an always-unattainable academic ideal. 

3. Universality 

Liberalism is a universal approach to politics, which Benjamin correctly identifies. But Benjamin argues that liberalism is engaged in a conceit by subjecting all individuals to a universal standard – like the false, pre-social man envisioned by the state of nature hypothesis – because all individuals exist in a context which creates significant ‘cultural baggage.’  

Benjamin mischaracterises the universalism at the core of liberalism. 

It is precisely liberalism’s unique recognition (and no other political ideology comes close) of the infinite differences that exist between individuals and groups across time and space, that it necessarily demands that a universal set of political imperatives be adhered to. These standards seek to ensure that different people must be allowed to be different, provided they do not step over the line and undermine the different choices of others.  

Liberalism is doing exactly what Benjamin implicitly criticises it for not doing: tolerating difference. Liberalism is so tolerant of difference that it seeks to use force against imposition. An attempt by a Western cosmopolitan to impose sexual libertinism on a conservative Muslim commune would be resisted coercively in a liberal order. Similarly, if the Muslim commune sought to impose its own values on those who dissent from strict Sharia, a liberal order would similarly respond with violence.  

It is the non-liberal ideologies of the world who refuse to recognise difference and seek to impose whatever cultural, ethnic, or ideological proclivities they have upon those who disagree. The recognition and tolerance of difference is liberalism’s primary business. 

4. Innate goodness of man 

Benjamin writes that there is a ‘liberal doctrine of the innate goodness of man.’  

This could not be further from the truth and is likely the result of the common misconstruction of liberalism that it believes man is so good that he can be ‘trusted’ with wide liberty. The liberal insistence on freedom has nothing to do with trust, but with mistrust.  

Liberalism is in general an optimistic political perspective, but it is also a realistic one. It recognises the marvellous achievements of humanity that reason, capitalism, and innovation have brought about, but at the same time understands (and accepts as natural) humanity’s uglier side.  

It is for this reason that liberalism is always concerned with the realisation of a political dispensation in which the worst amongst us can do the least harm, while at the same time allowing the best amongst us to propel society forward. This is why, in a free market economy, the sky is the limit for those with ambition and a socially useful product to sell, and why, in a proper liberal constitutional system, the hands of the political class are so tied up that it cannot get anything done without jumping through various, seemingly ‘unnecessary,’ hoops. 

So, what is liberalism actually based on?  

If not Benjamin’s five ‘false’ assumptions, what are some of the foundational premises of liberalism in fact? 

Self-ownership. The individual is the individual – in other words, the undividable, the indivisible. There is no smaller unit of society, meaning the individual is the closest contact between any social construct and reality. The individual is the only place where consciousness resides, and as a result, the only place where the ability to decide and the ability to account and the ability to be responsible, can reside. Being so close to where society meets reality, the individual must be presumed to know what is best for themselves, because even if they do not, it is still safer to assume that they do, rather than to assume that someone other arbitrarily identified person or institution does. 

Personal and communal responsibility. Having problems to deal and struggle with are part of being alive. We have to go through some kind of discomfort to grow and learn, and so proof ourselves against a recurrence of the same or similar problems in the future. While people can and should cooperate and assist one another in solving serious problems, those affected by the problem must ultimately bear the primary responsibility for solving it and for paying (whether in time, money, or effort) for it to be solved.

Outsourcing responsibility is not only dangerous – as it often does not simply mean the abstract responsibility to solve problems is revoked, but even the concrete ability to solve those problems – but it also takes away an important aspect of being a constructive part of society: it makes individuals and communities (as Russell Lamberti put it) passive consumers of politics, rather than active contributors. 

Scepticism of power. Power is an unavoidable reality of society. There are various kinds of power, some of which liberalism is more okay with than others. But liberalism harbours a healthy scepticism of power because it realises that it is within the nature of being human to desire to rent-seek. In other words, if people are able, they will have others carry the costs of their preferences and decisions.

When granted power, those in power are often given a blank cheque to rent-seek against those they now have power over. This undermines the aforementioned self-ownership and personal and communal responsibility. Of course, liberalism is quite comfortable with the power that a property owner has over those on their property, as this power is necessarily subject to a strong limiting principle. 

Political humility. Among all the ideologies available to us, liberalism is the humblest. Indeed it is characterised by an admission that it does not know what is best under all circumstances, and that those who find themselves in those circumstances must enjoy the greatest reasonable deference to decide the solution for themselves. No person or group of people truly possess the knowledge or capacity to adequately organise society according to their own particular plan, for society is an infinitely complex system with constantly changing factors and circumstances.

Centralisation of any kind is risky, as it places all these necessarily different contexts at the whim of a single point of failure. Liberalism sits uncomfortably with the idea that if there is to be failure, everyone must fail together. Specialisation and the division of labour, key phenomena of capitalism, are not nice-to-haves, but imperatives, because they allow those who know best to offer solutions to those who are voluntarily willing to accept those solutions. 

The potential of human freedom. Liberalism appreciates the often-untapped potential of human freedom. When left free, people default to trying to create a better life for themselves and their families and communities and leave a better life for their descendants. As everyone is different, whether individuals or groups, everyone will go about trying to solve their problems in different ways (even if only slightly differently), meaning a free society is a huge laboratory of what works and what does not. 

Several months ago, Isonomia Quarterly published what I consider to be my most in-depth and comprehensive treatment of (classical) liberalism for the modern day. If this article interested you, I can recommend that you read it: ‘Liberalism: A Universalist Restatement.’