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Liberalism: Collectivist and Conservative

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By:Edward Shils | March 25, 2019
From the July 1989 issue of Chronicles.

I never exchanged a word with Richard Weaver. I knew him because he was a figure at the University of Chicago. I heard that he was a teacher who expected his students to meet a high standard of intellectual probity and rigor; I think that he expected the same of his colleagues. I was told, with a mixture of admiration and resentment, that he was not a member of any of the ruling parties at the college in the years in which he taught there.

To me, when I occasionally passed him on the campus or on 57th Street, he looked the part. He looked quietly and concentratedly independent; not bellicose, but determined to follow the path that he thought right. The path he thought right was not one that was plucked out of the air; it was one that had been taken deliberately and adhered to with purposeful tenacity. It was not easy. At that time there was a certain enthusiastic mateyness among the teachers of the humanities in the college at the University of Chicago. They were ebulliently confident that they had the protection of Robert Hutchins and Richard McKeon. There was much optimism in the United States at that time and they shared in it. Although they knew nothing of economics and little of politics, I think that they were generally devotees of the New Deal. Those who did not agree with them were ostracized as "reactionaries." That was Richard Weaver's situation.

Among collectivist liberal intellectuals, the University of Chicago now has a reputation for being a nest of "right wingers." Of course, the imputation is untrue. The fact that it has that reputation may be traced to the appearance and rootedness there of a strong tradition of genuine liberalism—individualistic or constitutional or conservative—from the time of J. Lawrence Laughlin and especially of Frank Knight, and since then contained in the outlook shared by Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Allen Wallis. This kind of genuine liberalism at an American university is scarcely to be found outside the University of Chicago, and even at the University of Chicago is espoused only by a minority of the teaching staff, even among the social scientists who ought to know better. Most of the social scientists are collectivist liberals—the kinds of liberals who made off with the good name of liberalism and brought it into disrepute.

If, even now, when collectivist liberalism, social democracy, and communism are on the defensive, this kind of thoughtful distrust of the power of the state and of the omniscient wisdom of politicians and civil servants is to be found only in a minority of the senior members of the University of Chicago, they were a much smaller minority in the 1940's and 1950's when Richard Weaver taught there. Collectivist liberalism was then at the height of its pride and it required much firmness of character and deep seriousness to stand out in opposition to it. Richard Weaver had that seriousness of demeanor and outlook.

Seriousness is not gloominess. It is not dullness. It is not cheerlessness. To be serious is to take serious things in the way in which they ought to be taken. Foremost among the serious things are religion, the family, human life itself, the national society—i.e., the country and the traditions of the civilization we have inherited with its works of intellect, imagination, and morality. They include the discovery of truth and its protection. Serious things include the state of one's society and one's civilization. They also include the difficulties of human existence that reason alone and scientific knowledge cannot cure. All these things have to be given the weight that their central position in human existence entitles them to.

Seriousness is the mood and state of mind appropriate to the appreciation of serious things. Seriousness is not the only response to serious things: one other major response is frivolity or lightheartedness. Another is shoulder-shrugging or blind indifference. Still another is respect only in demeanor; it is not too far from philistinism, which is the appearance of seriousness without thought, without genuine appreciation.

Frivolity has in the 20th century become a plague of Western societies; and not least of contemporary American society. Of course, many of the greatest achievements of our Western societies and of the United States in particular have fostered this frivolity. The technological and economic progress that have made life easier, have obscured our grasp of the fundamental difficulties of human existence. The admirable progress of scientific knowledge and of medical science have made us think that there are no insoluble problems. Nothing is thought to be beyond the powers of the ratiocinative mind, provided with sufficient powers to realize its aspirations. The progress of science, it is thought, will release us from moral obligation and moral dilemmas. The reverence for human life has become fainter. Frivolity in the face of serious things: that is the charge that I make against collectivist liberalism.

It is perhaps frivolous to attempt to be serious on an occasion like this. I might end up by being no better than boring. But I am going to take the chance. I am going to try to clarify the idea of liberalism.

I will begin by saying that a liberal is one who appreciates liberty—or freedom. (I use the two words "liberty" and "freedom" interchangeably.) He is one who appreciates liberty not just for himself but for his fellow-countrymen and for human beings generally. He is a believer in the merit of a free society, a social order of free institutions and of free individuals. A liberal is one who supports the traditional liberal values of the rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of association, representation, and petition; the freedom of religious belief and the separation of church and state; freedom of intellectual expression; equality of opportunity and "the career open to talents" or rewards commensurate with achievement; and freedom of political expression. (The American Civil Liberties Union was once such a liberal organization which supported these public liberties before it went off the deep end by taking up the causes of antinomianism and collectivist liberalism.)

I think that by and large those who are called "liberals" nowadays in the press and in political discourse are in fact collectivist liberals. These collectivist liberals have preempted the term "liberalism" and given it a bad name. But there is another kind of liberalism: older, more distinguished in its intellectual ancestry, and more consistent. I would call it individualist constitutional or conservative liberalism.

This is the kind of liberalism that prevailed in Great Britain and in France in the first part of the 19th century. It had many great exponents, each somewhat different from the others, but all of them incontestably liberals—from Adam Smith through Bentham, James Mill, George Grote, and John Stuart Mill for a part of his career (later he veered off to become one of the fathers of collectivist liberalism). Tocqueville was its greatest figure in France, where its most recent voices have been Raymond Aron and on a slightly lower level Bertrand de Jouvenel. Of those now living its greatest representatives are Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper.

In the great tradition of liberalism from Locke (and Hobbes) through Adam Smith, and to Frank Knight and his followers Milton Friedman and George Stigler, liberalism placed as high a value on the private ownership of property and on private business enterprise as it did on any other institutions of a free society.

This individualistic or constitutional or conservative liberalism has a far more illustrious intellectual history than has collectivist liberalism. Apart from John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes, I think that collectivist liberalism has few notable intellectual figures. Nevertheless, at present, in the intellectual world and in the universities in the United States and Europe, they far outnumber the genuine liberals. But they are now on the defensive.

They are on the defensive because of the failure of communism in every country in which it has been established, and of social democracy in most of the countries in which it has been gradually introduced, most notably in Great Britain and France.

These observations lead to a closer examination of collectivist liberalism. Collectivist liberalism parted from the great tradition of individualistic constitutional and conservative liberalism when some liberals decided that the private ownership of property, the freedom of private property, was dispensable. Collectivist liberals ceased to be liberals and became collectivists when they affirmed their belief in the omnicompetence, omniscience, omniprovidence of governmental and political authority. They have tended to believe that the state and its political leaders are capable of unfailingly wise, efficient, and just action in economic life and in education—and to' that extent they have ceased to be liberals. They tend to think that the public liberties that they espouse, such as the freedom of the press, of assembly, and of association, etc., should be used to urge government—politicians and bureaucrats and the judiciary as well—to extend their activities rather than to hold them in check. The critical function of public liberties is seen by collectivist liberals to be, not the limitation in the powers of government, but rather its extension, so as to enable it to "solve" all social problems, to realize and fulfill its obligation to cure every deficiency of human life. Collectivist liberals believe that this omnicompetence lies within the capacities of government. All that has to be done—by public pressure—is to overcome private, "vested" interests, traditional beliefs, and their reactionary resistance to progress. Then, by the use of rational thought and social science, definitive solutions will be found for all the problems of life and society.

Integral genuine liberalism is distrustful of the omnicompetence and omniscience of governments. More fundamental even than that is the recognition that a good society is one made up of numerous independent institutions, pursuing diverse objectives, or not pursuing any objective at all, but being their own justification for existence. I think here above all of the family, churches, universities, clubs, and voluntary associations. Each has its own rationale and own tasks which cannot be performed by government.

The tradition of liberalism, which is older than collectivist liberalism, acknowledges the centrality of the family, which in turn requires respect for authority within the family. It acknowledges the fundamental importance of the autonomy of ecclesiastical and educational institutions. It appreciates respect for law and for the authority that enacts and enforces law. It is in favor of "law and order"; it knows that society will disintegrate without it and it knows that individual and institutional freedom cannot exist without law and order. Collectivist liberalism denies religious authority, except when it puts religious faith aside and is active in progressive political causes. Genuine liberalism acknowledges the obligations to one's country; collectivist liberalism is contemptuous of patriotism. Conservative liberalism believes that tradition has a presumptive claim to respect. Collectivist liberals think that traditions of moral life and order are superstitions that should be replaced by "moral education" in which every person decides for himself what is right.

What is the proper name for this genuine liberalism? It is not conservatism of the old type that believes in the unity of church and state. It is not conservatism of the type that affirms the right of the great hereditary landowners to rule over society. It is not monarchist, except in countries that have been monarchical for a long time. Should it be called "individualist liberalism"? Perhaps, except that genuine liberalism thinks that individualism should be qualified in the face of familial obligations, religious authority, the need for social order, and the obligations of nationality and patriotism. Should it be called conservative liberalism? That would not be wrong. It would do justice to the individualism of classical liberalism and our devotion to public liberties and it would also do justice to its high evaluation of social order and law-abidingness, to its respect for religious traditions. It would also do justice to an interpretation of freedom that enables us to avoid the antinomianism—the hatred of law and self-restraint—-to which collectivist liberalism is so sympathetic.

Yet we must be circumspect about the use of the word "conservative" and above all with the repulsive neologism, coined "neoconservatism" or "neocons," by the collectivist liberals who wish to disparage the resurgence of good sense, genuine liberalism, and reasonable conservatism in the past several decades.

Conservatism has got a very bad name in the United States because of the long dominion in intellectual circles of a polemical collectivist liberalism. To adapt the observation of Mr. Dooley about the loyalty of the Democrats of the 22nd ward to the Democratic Party, that they would sooner die than be buried by a Republican undertaker, so American intellectuals in the main have been so loyal to the principle of collectivist liberalism that they would sooner die than be buried by a conservative undertaker.

The spectrum of political ideas is not a one-dimensional one, with "left" at one end and "right" at the other. It is a complex constellation of many dimensions. Attachment to existing institutions and practices as such is not conservatism, as we can see in the Soviet Union, and the desire to change them, as again we can see in the Soviet Union, is far from liberalism. Nor does a desire to destroy the existing institutions of a free society equal liberalism—although, as the inglorious events of the late 1960's show, many persons who called themselves and still call themselves liberals give their blessings and their resources to persons who wish to destroy the institutions of a free society.

To allow the collectivist liberals to monopolize the name of liberalism permits them to obscure but their own collectivism, and it also permits them to deny the attachment of their more conservative adversaries—ourselves—to public liberties. Collectivist liberalism is very far from the traditions of individualistic, conservative, or constitutional liberalism, which inherits the tradition of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, Frank Knight, Raymond Aron, and Professors Hayek and Popper.

I began these remarks by emphasizing that one could be serious like Richard Weaver without being boring. I fear that I have shown that seriousness can be boring and that it might also miscarry into frivolity as well. I thank you for your indulgence.


This is Edward Shils acceptance speech for his Ingersoll Prize 1988 Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.


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