The Useful Fuzziness of Liberalism

I used to live near a building in Washington DC that had the First Amendment engraved on its huge stone facade. Walk by often enough and it sticks. “Congress shall make no law . . . restricting freedom of speech . . . or the people’s right to peaceful assembly.”

congress should do no Law. A bank, union, or sports team often restricts what its employees make public. (Perhaps via a code of conduct.) As long as these employees are able to quit their jobs and freely speak as citizens, we are less likely to consider it a violation of the change.

Gary Lineker deservedly won his showdown with the BBC. But was it strictly an issue of freedom of expression? The problem was a company’s overzealous internal regime. And the touch of political interference. It wasn’t that his broader right to speak (to the extent he has one in Britain’s less codified system) was in jeopardy. Say it like this. Had he tweeted something more dotty like “Invade Norway”, nobody would have objected if the BBC had scolded him. He could leave the Beeb and continue the invasion. However, as I cheered for him over the past week or so, some who cheered with me thought a fundamental right was at stake.

There are two high-profile threats to liberalism today. One is populism. The other is the cultural left. Here’s a less discussed third: a fuzziness among liberals themselves about what this creed consists of. It’s a disease of success. Liberalism has been the dominant idea in the West for so long that it tends not to be taught or discussed in depth. In fact, for most of us it’s less a creed than a set of memorized phrases, like parts of Shakespeare, that are easier to recite than fathom. “Freedom of Speech” is one of them.

Here’s another one. The rule of law”. I can’t be the only one who has now completely lost track of what that means. Interpretation is all about the process. A government policy violates the rule of law when it is arbitrary, applies retrospectively or targeting individuals. So a government can be mean – say, abolish welfare or raze parklands – and still abide by the rule of law. But there are “thicker” definitions. So the moral substance of a policy also matters. The Populists over the past decade have often been labeled a threat to the rule of law. Sometimes by me. Why? Specific procedural flaws? (If so, which?) Or some sort of general inconvenience?

Look, I’m not asking everyone to go and read their Locke and get ready to discuss it in a group circle next week. It’s just that our society and my lifestyle are built on a philosophy that even smart people seem to doubt. If it were ever subjected to a deliberate intellectual challenge, and not just the gossip of a Donald Trump or a Jair Bolsonaro, would it withstand? Would we know what “it” is? Daniel Defoe is reported to have said that the English would “fight the papacy” to the death, “not knowing whether the papacy was a man or a horse.” At times, liberalism is defended with the same stubborn vagueness.

“We take these truths for granted. . . “, begins another statement by the American founder. Are there self-evident truths? Couldn’t a religious fanatic start a treatise with the same words? You see, even the Enlightenment that a thousand newspaper columns have been fearing lately is causing confusion. Is it enlightened to empirically doubt all claims? Or to believe in “natural” rights that don’t need proof? When the forces of anti-liberalism come our way, do we quote Hume or Jefferson?

Some of my Linekerite colleagues would pick me up on something. There is a broader account of free speech. It would view a code-bound employee as having no “real” or “effective” freedom. I would not log into this account. Neither does the broad definition of the rule of law. Not even to natural rights. And so perhaps there is a tactical genius in all this confusion. Liberals nailing things would show, before our ever braver enemies, how little we agree.

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