In an era when anyone not prostrating to the gods of progressivism translates into being tagged as “literally a nazi”, people like Jordan B. Peterson have brought a welcome sanity to the public discourse. They have done so, in part, by clinging with teeth and nails to a rapidly evaporating “center”. As admirable as such a pyrrhic battle may be, the tag of “classic liberal” that many of his generation have ferociously defended for themselves is, when analyzed against the backdrop of the desperate times we are living in, a convenient cop out.
Pastor Martin Niemöller is best remembered for his quote: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me –and there was no one left to speak for me.” Those were convulsing times, and Niemöller throws in there, perhaps for dramatic effect, people like the socialists, who not only ended up having a worst headcount than the genocide we (justly) lament these days, but also obviates the fact that the socialists he refers to were targeted by fellow socialists. This is easily observed by reading the German interwar press. But I digress. The power of Niemöller’s celebrated quote is that, when faced with a barrage from anti-intellectual, fanatic elements (as is the case of progressives these days) the moral thing to do is to take sides. And that is, precisely, my beef with the otherwise admirable embrace of classic liberalism.
Before any conservative gets all warm and fuzzy about his perceived classic liberal “allies”, it is necessary to look at history. Classic liberalism has a prestigious pedigree, not the least John Locke, but its parentage is tied to classical economics and, with it, to Adam Smith. His were times of excitement towards science and industrialization, which in turn shaped the era’s rebellious ideas in opposition to institutions like the church and the monarchy. Henceforth classic liberals’ emphasis on natural law, utilitarianism, and progress. For them, the latter were innovative ways of suggesting that the hereditary system of god-like rulers they had was perhaps not the best for the progress of humankind and, after all, not in line with natural law, i.e. that all persons are born equal under the law.
Here's the gist, though, being born in the same womb as classical economics means throwing into the bag Say, Malthus, and Ricardo as well, among others. Much of the mess we’re in is precisely influenced by glorified accountants who saw themselves as philosophers by means of the one trick pony of economics. These are thinkers who brushed aside the bottomless complexity of human nature and decided that, yup, it’s all about economics. That brought Marx later but, in the meantime, created a worship around utilitarianism which, as a moral system, predates to this day. Utilitarianism is not only immoral but, worst of all, simplistic. When one asserts that the outcome of an action determines if it’s right and wrong, one’s toes start to approach boiling water. But when the next step is taken and “happiness” of the greatest number of people is equated with the greatest good, then there’s no walking away from severing the link between actions and their outcomes according to circumstances, ergo no moral principle is absolute. This is, yes, you guessed it, politics. First of all, what the hell is happiness anyway? Second, closing the door to moral absolutes is a logical faux pas. The opposite of “there are moral absolutes” (Premise A) is “there are always exceptions” (Premise B), but when Premise B is applied to itself… it logically crumbles, i.e. there are always exceptions to the assertion that there are always exceptions, ergo there are moral absolutes.
Classic liberals are, understandably, optimists. But in their optimism they hide an paradox nested in amorality, at best. Their ethical battle is pragmatic and, henceforth, tactical, betraying the essence of a universal human nature always directed towards progress. What progress? Progress towards what end? Sure, eliminating poverty and giving clean water access to everyone is one hell of a step forward for humanity, though it also comes with new dating apps, telemarketed blankets, and 42 D breast implants. Advocating for a utilitarian view of the world wrapped up in classic liberalism is a dangerous game of unforeseen consequences, as the search for moral progress scales quite low in the agenda of a classic liberal. They are, for a lack of a better word, scientists: they will vigorously embark in the pursuit of a new bacteria or missile or iris color changing without asking first what are the moral consequences of doing so or if it even helps humanity to live a less tormented life.
We are reaching the time in human history where we have it all, materially speaking, and such abundance is reaching corners of the world where there was nothing but disease and hunger before. Bravo. However, it is also the time of the ennui, opioids, depression, and suicide plagues. The time of extreme hatred being the only common factor between polarized swats of society. The age of the absurd. The era of emotional meaninglessness. In times like these, classic liberals are saying and acting little, in Niemöller’s words, when there’s censoring, vilification, beating, and cornering of those mature enough to recognize that good things are hard to create and maintain but very easy to destroy.