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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


The Liberal Mind

By Kenneth R. Minogue
(1963)

The Liberal Mind, written by a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has achieved the status of a classic since its publication in 1963, sufficiently ahead of the solidification of political correctness to establish itself securely in reading lists for political philosophy and political science courses. Minogue is an accomplished stylist, an elegant writer possessing the ability to explicate complex and sophisticated ideas clearly. Even so his book requires close attention, better yet study. Philosophers have a trick of using ordinary words in ways that depart by a few degrees from the ordinary, causing the nonprofessional reader a certain perplexity produced by misled expectations. And Minogue does appear somewhat eliptical in his approach to his subject--before we remember that the author's specified concern is not liberal doctrine, or liberal politics, or even liberalism itself, but instead the mind capable of producing these phenomena. After that, it is easier to discern the glimmering hints at Minogue's intent and direction; until near the end of Chapter Two ("The Anatomy of Liberalism") the trap is sprung and the galvanized corpse of liberalism, tongue protruding and eyes bulging, dangles at the end of the hangman's rope. After that, there is left only the brain autopsy for Professor Minogue to perform with skill, humor, and a certain sympathy for the victim which (as he is only too well aware) will be up and about again in no time: an earnest zombie brimming with false optimism and a shallow metaphysics, stalking the world in search of "suffering situations" to alleviate and transform.

"The aim of this book," Minogue writes in his Preface, "is to analyze the long tradition of liberalism. It regards the current fluidity of political boundaries as due to the fact that an enlarged and somewhat refurbished liberalism has now succeeded the ideologies of the past. It maintains that this liberalism provides a moral and political consensus which unites virtually all of us, excepting only a few palpable eccentrics on the right and communists on the left." Contemporary liberalism combines classical liberalism's emphasis on individual liberty with modern liberalism's commitment to state paternalism.

Additionally, Minogue identifies two elements of liberalism as a whole: "libertarianism," which is disposed to subject all of life to critical inquiry and hence is dangerous to all authorities, traditional or modern; and "salvationist liberalism," which works from the assumption that, while the present is revolutionary and the near future likely at least to remain so, history must arrive nevertheless at a definite end in the perfection of human society. Liberalism at its core is a balanced and prudent doctrine. Libertarianism, however, when it elevated to a doctrine in its own right, succumbs to irrationalism and romantic fantasy, under the influence of which it tends toward violence and destruction. Both elements, Minogue argues, are integral to liberalism as it has existed over the past several centuries, resulting in the ideological incoherence that is a feature of every ideology. "For liberals are simultaneously to be found praising variety and indeed eccentricity of opinion and behavior; and gnawing industriously away at the many sources of variety in an attempt to provide every man, woman, child and dog with the conditions of the good life. They are to be found deploring the tyrannical excesses of totalitarian government, and yet also watching with birdlike fascination the pattern of order and harmony which those excesses are explicitly designed to promote." Instinctually recognizing the incoherence of liberal movements, traditional societies have rightly done all they could to ward off the liberal infection. "For once liberalism gains a hold, a sort of traditional innocence is lost." What is more, liberalism is a culturally-specific ideology. "The political consequences of liberal ideas may be the establishment of a liberal democratic society of the western European kind. But this outcome requires the co-operation of social and economic circumstances, or perhaps simply elements of good fortune, which are far from being universally distributed."

Liberalism since the seventeenth century, Minogue argues, has been disposed by its commitment to the concept of natural rights and of a social contract predating the formation of government to regard the individual as an autonomous political institution. "It created a policy of the individual and called it ethics." . "The liberal view of man must be regarded not as inadequate or as unfruitful but simply false, because of the superior logical status it accords to a grouping of interests or desires called the individual self." In identifying these interests and desires, liberal theory has created a hypothetical entity, or model, Minogue calls "generic man,"

who exhibits, always and everywhere, such desires and interests, while depending on the fulfillment of "needs." The problem here is the assumption that every individual may be explained psychologically, and that all social institutions are comprehensible in terms of the individuals who comprise them; while, in reality, "the starting point for [social and institutional] explanation must not be the rationalist essence of the individual, but the complex situation we are trying to explain."

"Generic man," the conceptual basis of liberal thought, of course is an abstraction. He is, however, an abstraction highy useful to liberalism, and to liberals. The notion of "generic man" gives the liberal concept of "progress" plausibility, while answering liberalism's need to identify a single point of view which will serve to harmonize all human relations and provide liberal doctrine with a system. (".'Sophistry," Hilaire Belloc wrote in The Free Press, ".consists in making up 'systems' to explain the world.') Also, it reflects the fact that liberalism does not take reality for its starting point, for the very good reason that it has, finally, no interest in or concern for present reality, but only the realization of a new reality and the transformation of human existence. Liberals do not devise their melioristic and reformist policies in accordance with their concept of society; instead, they form those concepts in accordance with the policies they wish to devise and apply. For liberals and liberalism, solutions typically precede problems, because solving the "problem" is not in any particular instance an end in itself but a means to realizing a replacement society to which the immediate "problem" necessarily bears no relation.

".[T]he idea of a social problem," Minogue goes on to say, "appears to come from no particular location in society. It is a social incoherence arising out of an ideal; and this ideal can be most persuasively put in moral terms..The 'real question,' in liberal terms, is 'whether the social order actually serves our needs.'. Here we have illustrated the use of 'needs' as something mysteriously outside the social order and acting as a moral criterion of the 'social order.' But what is the 'social order'? If 'society' is simply the 'complex of social relationships' then it is not a single manipulative order. In so far as there is a single order, then it is that imposed by the State and expressed in laws. Similarly, when we read that 'the true nature of society' is that it is a 'human organization for common needs,' we can only observe that a complex of relationships is not an 'organization' at all-only the State and the institutions it sanctions are 'organizations' in that sense. But it is precisely the aim of liberalism to make society into a single complex organization."

"Where there's no solution," James Burnham once observed, "there's no problem." In a similar vein, Minogue notes that any particular situation presents a problem only to someone of a certain character-in the liberal instance, one who believes that a "solution" is not only possible but desirable, on a scale vastly exceeding the level at which the problem exists. Apathetic persons, he quips, are simply people who aren't concerned with the things that concern liberals; totalitarianism, by his definition, is "the attempt to find an absolute solution to a bogus problem." Once again, we find ourselves confronted by the question of incoherency in an ideology that has, however indirectly, been the cause of brutal inhumanity and degrading misery (surpassing anything previously known to history) in its quest for a utopia of freedom, tolerance, and love-in brief, for universal happiness.

At this point, rather than pursue the incoherence of liberalism, we should examine the contradiction that is both related to the incoherence and integral to the ideology itself: a contradiction that can be simply stated by saying that freedom, which is both part of the liberal's conception of universal happiness and a synonym for it, lies beyond the end-means context by which liberals expect to achieve it.

Liberals are preoccupied with the conditions of freedom, and the means to create or enhance these. But their preoccupation betrays a na´vetÚ amounting, really, to ignorance. "For if we are seeking the conditions of freedom," Minogue explains, "we must look not to those circumstances which happen to accompany it, but to the manner it which it has been attained. And we will find that it has always been attained because of a spontaneous growth of interest in truth, science, or inventiveness; a spontaneous growth of moral principles appropriate to freedom; a spontaneous construction of the political arrangements which permit of free constitutional government. Spontaneity indicates that free behavior has arisen directly out of the character of the people concerned, and that it is neither a mechanical process, nor a 'natural reaction' to an environment, nor a means to the attainment of some end. Free behaviour, in other words, is its own end."

As its own end, freedom provides or creates the materials necessary to its continuance into the future. From this reasoning, we can devise four theorems. One: "[A] political policy which aims at attaining any of the supposed conditions of freedom is likely to destroy free behaviour." Two: "[T]he political pursuit of freedom is always the pursuit of something else." Three: "[Freedom] is a question, not of what is done, but of how it is done and who does it." And, four: "A populace which hands its moral intiative over to a government, no matter how impeccable its reasons, becomes dependent and slavish."

Liberalism, as Burnham concedes in Suicide of the West, has made definite contributions to Western institutions, chiefly by attacking and removing certain of their less attractive and reformable features. Minogue, for his part, allows that policy based on faulty or false assumptions and principles need not necessarily produce bad effects. The presumption, however, must be that they will-if not in this instance, then in the next, or the next after that, since no human society grounded on a philosophy of unreality--in particular, one that is by its nature essentially destructive--can survive indefinitely. Conservatism, from its acute awareness of the perverse frailty of man and the fragility of human institutions, is always disposed to the tragic sense. What was built up over two thousand years can be destroyed in two hundred (or less), without hope of resurrection or recreation. How, after all, does one create spontaneity? It is as easy, Minogue suggests, to create a nation of mystics. Or of "happiness." On the other hand, we all have a fair idea how to go about building a People's Republic of gulags, gas ovens, and terror.

 

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, by Fitzjames Stephen >>

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