The Tolerance Of Classical Liberalism

speech freePerhaps one of the greatest conundrums of classical liberal philosophy is the tolerance that classical liberalism exhibits towards those who choose to follow opposite ideologies, such as communism, socialism, communitarianism and, more recently, “greenism”. It is a conundrum for the simple fact that it appears counter-productive for the sake of survival ever to tolerate subversive elements. Of all political philosophies, classical liberalism tolerates, permits—and even encourages—people to make their own political choices and follow their political conscience. The same cannot be said of any left-leaning political philosophy or party, even the Australian Labor Party. Political philosophies of the Left do not tolerate diversity of political thought.

Milton Freedman most eloquently described this scenario of the tolerant liberal (and I use liberal here in the Australian sense, referring as it does to classical liberalism; while libertarian more comfortably and more usually now describes classical liberals for Americans). In his definitive text, Capitalism and Freedom, Freedman wrote:

One may believe, as I do, that communism would destroy all of our freedoms, one may be opposed to it as firmly and as strongly as possible, and yet, at the same time, also believe that in a free society it is intolerable for a man to be prevented from making voluntary arrangements with others that are mutually attractive because he believes in or is trying to promote communism. His freedom includes his freedom to promote communism. Freedom also, of course, includes the freedom of others not to deal with him under those circumstances.

But the question remains, why is this the case? Why do liberals tolerate political philosophies within their own society that would seek to destroy all the goods that a classical liberal way of life seeks to grant to human beings—goods such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of association?

Can the answer be as simple as the fact that classical liberal philosophy promotes choice, freedom of association and diversity of thought, therefore it logically follows that anti-liberal philosophies are tolerated regardless of their ultimate consequences and goals? Or could the answer to this conundrum go further? For example, are those who espouse right-wing classical liberalism more enlightened, more “educated” and more rational than left-leaners? After all, not for nothing does the word right imply “the correct” and “the just”. And does classical liberalism use this tolerance to continually test its own strength of argument?

A beginning point to this riddle is religion. Any classical liberal society will encourage religious tolerance, whereas its opposite, communism, purges the need for any spiritual religion when it replaces spiritual worship with state worship. When we actually delve into the meaning of the word religion as something which inspires faith, belief or worship in an individual, religion has the potential to become any belief to which one is devoted, thereby rendering people religious disciples not only of the spiritual but also of the secular.

Therefore religion is by no means restricted to faith in a superhuman being controlling and directing life, or belief in a spiritual ether; it also has manifestations in many forms of beliefs, including atheism, belief in climate change, and even devotion to science-fiction cults. It is not difficult to conceive of those who are members of the Australian Greens as climate-change disciples. They articulate their political values as one preaches a spiritual dogma, and through global treaties, conferences and talkfests the Greens’ religious theory has spawned and virtuous disciples have followed. The Australian experience of the Greens has demonstrated their religious zealotry, excessive fervour and devotion to their environmental canon.

Any political belief can manifest itself as a system of religious belief. As the Soviet experience taught us, communism regarded spiritual religion as one of the many yokes around the workers’ necks—only the working class needed to be “educated” about their religious oppression. “Religion,” wrote Lenin in The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion (1909), “is the opium of the people.” His book and communism itself screamed, “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” By replacing spiritual religion with atheism and socialism, Lenin was simply instating a new religious belief system.

This brings us back to classical liberal tolerance. The tolerance classical liberalism has towards illiberal political philosophies stems from its early religious toleration. The basis for this was laid by John Locke, whose Essay on Toleration (1667) powerfully presented the case for freedom of religious conscience. Locke’s Essay reminds us that it is better for dissenters to be open rather than “secret malcontents”, because it “is certain that [by] compelling men to your opinion any other way than by convincing them of the truth of it, makes them no more your friends, than forcing the poor [American] Indians by droves into the rivers to be baptised made them Christians”. Consequently, from the early values it learnt to uphold, classical liberal theory can tolerate Lenins and Greens.

Since Locke, tolerant liberals have propelled religious toleration, freedom of conscience and association into the political realm, since only liberals truly realise that coercion has never made steady converts—religious or political. Reason, rationality and convincing argument have always won the day when it comes to persuading others of the merits of a particular belief.

Anti-liberal philosophies are therefore tolerated because it is clear that any means of forceful coercion to change points of view would only be self-destructive. As Locke wrote, “he that differs in an opinion is only so far at a distance from you, but if you use him ill for that which he believes to be the right he is then at perfect enmity, the one is barely a separation, the other a quarrel”.

While the religious facet to this conundrum explains why classical liberal philosophy is, on the whole, more tolerant than other philosophies, it does not answer for us why classical liberalism can actually pursue this course, or, in other words, how classical liberalism can so audaciously tolerate—even encourage—anti-liberal political ideologies.

In order to illustrate a potential answer to this question it is useful to draw upon some empirical examples. In Australia, for example, most classical liberals would feel satisfied that their philosophical conscience is best advocated by the Liberal Party, since it is the Australian bastion of individuality, free market capitalism, choice and opportunity. However, since the fiasco of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd administrations, the Liberal Party has inadvertently come to represent something else to the Australian people: a political party of reason. While this may have come about unintentionally, the incompetence of the Labor administrations between 2007 and 2013 lent an unusually refined aura to the Liberal Party, an aura many described during that tumultuous period as “adult”.

The intolerance and socialistic tendencies of the Labor administrations were evident. Not only did Rudd–Gillard–Rudd seek to instate media censorship, anti-discrimination laws and a mining tax, but the trump socialistic cause of their government—the carbon tax—was conceived and implemented as policy through deceit and complete disregard for governing according to the will of the people. The fiasco demonstrated how far the Labor Party would go for political expediency; it was no longer the workers’ party but had become the politicians’ party.

And this is where their political compass appears to be staying, because Labor shows no signs of learning from its failures, nor even of accepting the broad Australian people’s choice at the September 2013 election of opting not to have a socialistic economic redistribution in the form of a carbon tax. Since Labor still supports the carbon tax—or an equally offensive emissions trading scheme—it is either behaving in a head-stuck-in-the-sand manner or is basing its policy on spite. It is difficult to determine which, since of the two potential leaders that Labor had to choose from after the election, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, both were proud to uphold the Rudd and Gillard legacies. The current leader, Bill Shorten, went as far as to admit that post-Gillard Labor would stand up for what she had “achieved”, saying, “We will defend her legacy and indeed that is what the last election was about.” Similarly, Albanese maintained, “We have a very good record primarily on the economy under both Kevin and Julia.”

What is even more distressing than seeing that the post-Rudd–Gillard–Rudd Labor Party standing up for their failures is the fact that a large part of the Australian public will still vote for and support the party regardless of the clear signs that it is proud of the failures. The consolation must be that the federal Liberal-National Coalition is now focused on repairing the damage. Still, it is more than likely that this Coalition government too will one day be voted out of office only for yet another destructive Labor government to take its place. And so on and so forth, as the cycle has happened since Federation.

The current Labor Party can be easily equated to a socialist party because that is how its policies stood under Rudd and Gillard, and these are the policies and heritage that it continues to support. The ALP’s National Platform itself describes the party as “a democratic socialist party [with] the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange”. For its long-term vision, the Platform has a “commitment to and participation in the international democratic socialist movement as represented by the Socialist International”. The Socialist International, an organisation of affiliated global socialist and labour parties, advocates in its Declaration of Principles a “world family” as a “practical necessity”; sees the increase of the welfare state since the Second World War as a good thing; preaches solidarity in a communitarian sense; hopes to strengthen the United Nations; and considers the “establishment of a New International Economic and Political Order [as] an essential contribution to peace”. More recently, added to these principles and goals, the ALP has become a party of bureaucracy, interested only in achieving governmental power at any cost without a conscience.

Communism fears the free thinking that classical liberalism fosters, so it prohibits this type of thinking. Right-leaning political manifestations are more likely to encourage diversity of political thought and association. However, classical liberal disciples cannot be so conceited as to think they are without fault in practice, since one of the worst breaches of classical liberal faith in Australia was when Robert Menzies attempted to outlaw the Australian Communist Party in 1950–51, in violation of classical liberal philosophy. Practice does not always match theory, since theory is perfect and practice is problematic, moulded and influenced by circumstances.

While nobody is perfect—and Menzies certainly erred in 1950—the argument that classical liberal theory tolerates threatening political philosophies because it can reassure itself of the justness and ultimate rightness of its cause, thus being convinced that it is persuasive to the public, is a strong case. Rival political philosophies are permitted under the classical liberal political system, not from any altruistic sentiments inherent in classical liberalism, but from the idea of morality that underlies the broader classical liberal philosophy. Additionally, in more psychological terms, anti-liberal philosophies are self-conscious, while liberalism is self-assured. Anti-liberal philosophies cannot abide freedom of thought because they fear that their own philosophies will not stand the test of a battle of ideas. They are self-conscious and afraid that the merits their philosophies proposes are really not that robust.

Classical liberalism, on the other hand, knows that it stands on firmer philosophical and moral ground. It tolerates anti-liberal political philosophies because it trusts that its reasonings and philosophy will survive the battle of ideas and can prevail in the hearts and minds of the public—in other words, it is self-assured. Despite this reassurance, there can be no surety at any time that most members of the public will vote the “right” way. Just as governments are fickle, so too are voters prone to changing their minds. Although John Howard said that “the voters always get it right”, voters do have a habit of becoming complacent.

Evidence would seem to suggest that classical liberalism is able to tolerate opposing and threatening ideologies because it has faith in the choices that people make more broadly. The saying, of a disputed historical origin and coming in many variations, “If you’re not a socialist by the time you’re twenty you have no heart, but if you’re still a socialist by the time you’re fifty you have no brain,” comes to mind. Classical liberalism believes in trial and error, in experience and temptation.

As the Austrian classical liberal philosopher Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1927 work Liberalism:

[liberalism] demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.

This is the civilised approach that classical liberalism takes, and it is wonderful that as a philosophy it can feel self-assured and confident about its chances to gain public support, but we still face the swinging voter or the unpersuadable, left-leaning partisan. Von Mises rightly credited classical liberalism with battling “against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil”, with “weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression”, however unlikely it is that much more than the 51 per cent will at any time choose the “right” way.

Relativism in this case does not assist us. For instance, to say that the individual who chooses to follow a left-leaning philosophy and the individual who chooses to follow classical liberalism both contend that they have chosen the “right” political philosophy since they wholeheartedly believe in its relative positive principles and its relative idea of freedom—both such individuals are correct according to their own values. Relativism falls short of sensibly explaining why people are swayed by a particular belief, or doggedly remain committed to something which is indeed “stupid, nonsensical, erroneous and evil”. There is definitely an objective “right” and it falls towards the political philosophies that sit on the “right” of politics itself.

But while this may be the case, there are some people who will never admit or psychologically comprehend that left-leaning philosophies are inherently wrong. In Liberalism Von Mises described the psychological state of such people as a “neurasthenic condition that one might call a Fourier complex, after the French socialist of that name”, in which reason is utterly rejected and resentment and spite are embraced. The socialist, von Mises contended, knows full well that he will be worse off in a fully-fledged socialistic state, however, such is his envy and malevolence towards those better off that the socialist will neurotically cling to his “saving lie” and, as often happens, “when he must make the choice of renouncing either it or logic, he prefers to sacrifice logic”. The panacea for this neurosis, von Mises concluded, is that “the patient himself must overcome it. He must learn to understand why he does not want to face the truth and why he takes refuge in delusions.”

A bold assumption can be concluded from this argument and it is that those who have decided to follow the “right” side of political philosophy and cleave towards classical liberalism are indeed smarter and more enlightened than those who do otherwise, no matter what their station in life or their degree of formal education. Classical liberals have been fortunate enough to overcome the tempting neurosis of socialism and have rationally concluded that classical liberal forms of government are, more often than not, the lesser of the two governing evils of Right and Left. Moreover, this also means that those who still blindly follow the precepts of the ALP, vote for the party and are persuaded by its seductive arguments, really are suffering from delusion if they can uphold its unwholesome principles. It also means that it is inevitable that governments—even in Australia after the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd legacy—will be prone to the socialistic sledge again sometime in the future since some people, somewhere, will always fall victim to the paralysis of the socialist neurosis. This raises the question of whether a state or nation can ever reach the pinnacle of freedom in which the state and citizens are totally classically liberal. Is there even such a pinnacle?

The American economist and liberal thinker Floyd Arthur Harper raised a similar issue in 1957. In his speech to the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland he compared the sociopathology of liberty with medical pathology. Harper examined as a comparative example some scientific experiments in which artificially created, germ-free environments were proven to make natural life within them disastrously vulnerable and face extermination altogether. Harper therefore extrapolated the comparison by considering that “perhaps a ‘germfree’ (pure and unadulterated liberty) society, if we could attain it, might lack some sort of mysterious catalyst requisite to the survival of liberty”. For us, when this consideration is positioned next to our conundrum of tolerant classical liberalism, it suggests that this tolerance is altogether a good thing for classical liberals because it forces us to continually fight for what we believe in and to be ever-creative as we try to win the battle for the hearts and minds of our opponents and fellow beings. If there were no Australian Labor Party, no subversive socialism within universities, no people at fifty years of age still struggling with their socialistic political neurosis, the classical liberal philosophy would have no way of testing its strength. Although classical liberalism does believe in itself and is reassured that it sits in the “right”—both on the political spectrum and because it is more usually “correct”—the presence of adversity makes the political struggle worthwhile.

What then can classical liberals do in their tolerant frame of mind to persuade staunch supporters of bad Labor governments here in Australia—or affiliates of the Socialist International more globally? Happily, for the moment, support for classical liberalism and the Liberal Party in Australia appears to be on the rise. But as a movement, we need to become more adept at persuading the unpersuadable. One of the best ways to do it is by attempting to comprehend exactly what it is that is so persuadable to some, rather than averting our minds to philosophies of the Left and putting great barriers up against them without even peeping at their core. In the introduction to his edited volume The Morality of Capitalism, Tom G. Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, suggests we do the same, by exhorting us to “read the best criticisms of free-market capitalism. Read Marx. Read Sombart. Read Rawls. Read Sandel. Understand them. Be open to being convinced by them. Think about them.” Only after this can classical liberals make their case stronger and more competently overcome political philosophies of the Left.

In accordance with classical liberal philosophy, it is in the individual that hope must be placed. Hope that the individual will be better persuaded by the principles, values and stronger morals of classical liberalism and hope that the “right” choice can ultimately be made. Classical liberals must not allow fear of opposing ideologies to undermine the tolerance their political philosophy has the privilege of enshrining within its principles. Fear of anti-liberal political philosophies can only jeopardise the paramount end goal classical liberals have in mind, that being John Stuart Mill’s maxim of each man living according to what seems good to himself.

Classical liberals must take stock in optimism and rationality while seizing the freedom that tolerance provides. We must realise that a “pure and unadulterated liberty society” is not conducive to tolerance, therefore left-leaning and socialistic divergences must be allowed, no matter how absurd they seem and how ignorant their followers are. The hope that classical liberalism believes in here is best described by von Mises. The socialist supporter, suffering from the pathological ignorance of the socialist neurosis, must treat and diagnose himself, and “through self-knowledge he must learn to endure his lot in life without looking for a scapegoat on which he can lay all the blame, and he must endeavour to grasp the fundamental laws of social co-operation”. Faith in fellow beings may not always be easy to come by, but it is ultimately more compelling than violent force or the suppression of an idea altogether.

Ona Grossnickle recently completed a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne.


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