The Modern Liberal Dialectic

The Modern Liberal DialecticMainstream political philosophy, commentary, and policy debate exist on a predetermined arc of the liberal dialectic. Within this fixed categorization of liberalism exists a range of allowable opinion. For example, the modern concept of individual autonomy is accepted no matter the chosen political label. Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians all accept the principle of individual autonomy. Progressives champion individual autonomy in the area of sexual ethics and expression, and deny its legitimacy in the area of business and economics. Conservatives champion individual autonomy in the practice of entrepreneurship and economic self-improvement, and deny its legitimacy in the area of sexual ethics and expression. Libertarians accept the principle of individual autonomy in both areas previously mentioned with various ad hoc qualifications.

These surface level disagreements are capable of instigating fiery debate, but the discord has nothing to do with basic principles. The conflict has to do with the extent of application regarding the principle’s recognized legitimacy on a predetermined spectrum of political and cultural agreement. Even the competing theories of anarchy considered to be edgy alternatives to “mainstream” theory, whether anarcho-capitalism or anarcho-syndicalism, operate according to the ideals of liberal capitalism and progressive socialism.

What this dialectical framework amounts to is a modernistic spectrum of respectable political opinions; it presents those participating in the discussion with a set of predetermined options, none of which question the categorical framework itself. To question the entirety of the programmatic classification is to extricate oneself from what is reasonable regarding the legitimacy of worldviews informing our culture and governing institutions.

A contemporary example of competing options within the predetermined liberal framework is the debate between political liberalism and republicanism. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Philip Pettit’s Republicanism are two works examining concepts of freedom from a modern perspective. Despite being treated as competitors, the actual differences between them amounts to nothing more than the narcissism of little differences.               

According to Mill, there is a limit to the legitimate use of force in a civil society, and finding this limit is imperative for the flourishing of human affairs.[1] On Mill’s view, freedom in society is achieved when we are able to pursue liberty of thought, develop our own opinions and sentiment, and exercise the liberty of our conscience in all subjects whether practical, speculative, scientific, ethical, or theological.[2] Mill’s conception of freedom is best understood as non-interference, and the principle guiding this model of freedom is the “harm principle.” While in pursuit of the previous objectives the only appropriate use of force by a government against the will of its citizens is to protect others from harm.[3] Although government interference to protect others from harm is justified, any paternalistic notion of protecting an individual from himself is wholly insufficient grounds for restriction. If the government is limited to intervening action according to the harm principle this will protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority as well as the alleged despotism of custom.

The “harm principle” presented by Mill seems complete in its basic assertion – elucidation would almost be redundant.[4] Nonetheless, Mill is able to expound the principle by specifying reasons why it is profitable for a civil society to adopt it. Mill argues on behalf of the harm principle by emphasizing two main components; first, the protection of personal autonomy; second, the protection of individualism. Defense against mob rule is an important reason for protecting personal autonomy. According to Mill, citizens must be able to maintain their autonomy as they pursue their life goals without coercion from outside forces. Interference in illegitimate ways is a negative that will not only hurt the individual, but society as well. For example, if the governing authorities obstructed an individual’s pursuit of becoming a physicist, given this pursuit was not harming others, the detriment of this obstruction is not only to the person interfered with, but also to society for having possibly lost the benefits of potential scientific advancement. On this view, stifling the autonomy of the individual from pursuing vocations that benefit the person and society upon successful achievement can only stand to smother human flourishing and innovation.

Just as autonomy is important for Mill’s conception of liberty so is individualism. In maintaining autonomy a person is more likely to attain the proper notion of individualism with respect to his freedom of thought, discussion, and action. Mill’s utilitarianism is wedded to the individualism described above because he is optimistic the best results will obtain when open dialogue is permitted. Mill’s commitment to freedom of thought and discussion is affirmed in this statement,

“Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”[5]

The reason for such a strong observance to this idea of individualism in thought, discussion, and action is based on the pretense of man’s fallibility. A contemporary case that pertains to this issue is the “Intelligent Design” movement taking place in the biological sciences. Although this movement is an extreme minority in mainstream biology departments, those associated with and advocating this view are not dilettantes; they have advanced degrees from prestigious universities and are accomplished in their field. Even Thomas Nagel in is latest book, Mind and Cosmos, briefly states that their arguments should not be dismissed in such an off-putting manner.[6] In principle, Mill would welcome the debate because a monopoly on ideas can only hinder scientific progress. However, the open exchange of ideas in the scientific community is different than challenging the consensus of political power. Mill might deny the legitimacy of silencing a single individual who goes against the will of the majority, but this becomes problematic for his theory when it leaves the theoretical realm and enters into its practical application.

Another example Mill would approve of is the 2012 republican primary presidential campaign of Ron Paul. While other candidates toed the party line, Paul stood firm in his principles and awakened a new liberty movement among blossoming libertarians and conservatives. Mill would certainly have supported the message of Ron Paul amidst the sea of sound-bite politicians our country is routinely offered by strict party politics. And while Mill would most likely have approved of Ron Paul’s campaign, this too, has its problems because the Paul message was nothing more than a different articulation of the prevailing views existing on the predetermined arch of liberalism. Paul’s message wasn’t a direct challenge to the liberal program; it was a different opinion on what constitutes legitimacy regarding personal autonomy and individualism. Many believe Ron Paul to be a prophet who is challenging the system. To the contrary, he was merely expressing a version of liberalism that was more popular two hundred years ago. And these same principles from the Lockean yesteryear are what have bequeathed to us the matured liberalism of today’s careerist politicians operating in the halls of Congress.

A supposed alternative to freedom as non-interference espoused by Mill is republicanism. Philip Pettit’s articulation of republican freedom is best understood to be freedom as non-domination. For Pettit an individual is free when they are not dominated by governing agents or other individuals in society. On Pettit’s view, interference is allowed as long as it is not arbitrary. This supposedly differs from a Mill-styled freedom as non-interference because it recognizes that a person may not be interfered with, but remains dominated. Moreover, under the republican conception of freedom a person can be interfered with but not dominated.

Pettit is concerned with domination in society based on arbitrary whim. For example, we can imagine a benevolent slave-owner refraining from interfering with the daily choices of his slaves. Although the benevolent slave-owner does not interfere with the choices his slaves make, he could, on a whim, choose to interfere for any reason without explanation. Moreover, there is no penalty for arbitrarily interfering in a capricious manner. In this case the benevolent slave-owner is not interfering with his slaves, but he possesses the power to do so by way of arbitrary dominion. To be sure, Mill would most likely respond by saying that this comparison is fallacious to begin with because the very concept of slavery requires an illegitimate level of interference despite the claim that a slave-owner is refraining from meddling in his slave’s daily affairs. To even own a slave, Mill might retort, is to interfere – in principle – with a person’s autonomy and individuality. So this ends up being a distinction without a difference between freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination.

Similarly, Pettit argues that a person can be interfered with absent domination. For example, a person can be interfered with by having to pay a tax on his property for the purposes of national defense. This interference is not arbitrary since every citizen benefits from a national defense, and the individual is not dominated because he can live continuously without fear of arbitrary interference. Once again, Mill might find himself in agreement with this example on his own principle of non-interference, because taxation does not constitute by necessity a kind of majority force when every person in a civil society theoretically benefits from the existence of a military capable of defending a nation’s land and people.

On Pettit’s view, freedom as non-domination will obtain when the governing authorities generate laws forming a well-ordered republic.[7] He says, “freedom is seen in the republican tradition as a status that exists only under a suitable legal regime. As the laws create that authority that rulers enjoy, so the laws create the freedom that citizens share.”[8] Freedom as non-domination is threatened when the laws of the republic become the “instrument of any one individual’s, or any one group’s, arbitrary will.  When the laws become the instruments of will, according to the tradition, then we have a regime – say, the despotic regime of the absolute king – in which the citizens become slaves and are entirely deprived of their freedom.”[9] This stated position regarding the obtainment of freedom as non-domination is also something Mill might wholly endorse. What Pettit has expressed in this defining characteristic is what was referenced above from Mill, which is the safeguard against a tyrannical majority exercising its will arbitrarily against individuals dissenting from said majority.

Both of these views of freedom overlap quite a bit, and this is especially evident when examining constraints on government power both would agree on. The above paragraphs introduce these principled similarities, but there are more that can be identified. For example, there is not a single amendment in the Bill of Rights Mill or Pettit would not entirely defend. On Mill’s view, the Bill of Rights would be a legitimate constraint of governing power to interfere with the personal autonomy and individualism of the citizen. Moreover, as Mill might argue, the Bill of Rights constrains the government from stifling valuable dialogue resulting in the best effects for societal flourishing. On Pettit’s view, the Bill of Rights prevents the governing authorities from using the law as a device to dominate its citizens in an arbitrary manner. What seems to be obvious at this point is that these two theories are expressing almost identical concepts of freedom. The vocabulary emphasizes different components of freedom from a decidedly liberal perspective. And from this shared perspective, freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination turn out to be two sides of the same liberal coin.

In addition to these theoretical similarities, areas of public policy agreement might help to further expose the reality that divergent theories of freedom operating on the liberal political spectrum are differences of degree and not kind. Consider the “war on drugs;” Mill’s view explicitly rejects paternalistic laws implemented to protect a man from himself. On Pettit’s view, an argument could be made on behalf of the legitimacy of the “war on drugs.” Although mostly paternalistic, it is difficult to see why preventing the consumption of mind altering and sometimes debilitating substances would be a form of domination. For example, making the consumption of crack cocaine, heroine, or methamphetamine illegal does not seem like a viable candidate for domination by arbitrary whim. However, an alternative argument could be made in accordance to freedom as non-domination that is an agreement to Mill’s anti-paternalistic stance. An advocate of freedom as non-domination could also argue that paternalistic laws protecting individuals from themselves would be the embodiment of domination. Therefore, the so-called “war on drugs” would be disqualified based on violations of freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination.

Another scenario providing insight on this matter is government-funded healthcare. At first glance this seems like an easy case for Mill, but it is conceivable that Mill, or an adherent of Mill’s conception of freedom, would be in favor of such a program based on this statement (emphasis added),

There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenseless against ill – usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing.”[10]

Given this passage it is plausible to think an adherent of Mill’s freedom as non – interference could make a case for government funded health care, if even only at the local level.

Considering what we previously said about the “war on drugs” the case for the republican perspective is not obvious. It might seem like this is a clear case where the republican would be in favor of government-funded health care because it is another example of interference without domination. Or, to the contrary, it is conceivable that Pettit, or an adherent of Pettit’s conception of freedom, would argue against such a policy. In order to provide “free” health care the economics of such a policy must be considered. If the services of health care are free there will be a consequent increase in demand for said services. The increase in demand will occur while at the same time the supply of doctors either remains constant or increases at a rate significantly lower than demand of their services. An increase in demand with little to no increase in supply results in an increase in cost. In order to pay for the increase in cost the government will either have to raise taxes, borrow, or try to cut costs. Raising taxes and borrowing is never politically expedient so politicians will argue they can keep costs down. One way to keep costs down is to restrict services offered to certain age groups, namely, life saving procedures for the elderly or infant. Given these considerations the adherent of republican freedom as non-domination could argue the elderly or infant would be dominated by bureaucratic agents of the state with regard to their health care decisions and therefore reject the policy.

However, there are counter-arguments from both perspectives of freedom as non-interference and non-domination that might bring them back into accord. For the adherent of non-interference, it could be argued that a person’s health care falls within the categories of personal autonomy and individualism. How an individual might take care of their own health falls squarely within the realm of personal responsibility. To enact a health care system funded by the government is paternalistic, and directly threatens personal autonomy and individualism. This argument would be in line with the potential position for freedom as non-domination.

It is also possible to argue that not providing government funded-health care would result in the domination of individual persons by large, corporate insurance providers. On this consideration, the government would have a responsibility to guard its citizens from corporate domination and guarantee healthcare to all persons in society.

Both of these theories of freedom can be used to argue in favor of, or against government-funded healthcare.

As I previously indicated, the modern conceptions of freedom exist on two sides of the same liberal coin. They differ only in point of emphasis. It makes no difference whether non-interference or non-domination is selected as a stronger version of freedom. They operate within the same liberal framework, require the same conceptual actualization of governing institutions in order to be obtained, require ad hoc qualifications to be consistently realized, and both can be utilized to formulate arguments resulting in identical policy proposals in the name of advancing freedom.

Moreover, freedom as non-interference and non-domination are progressive-revolutionary from a traditionalist point of view. These versions of freedom operate in a way that widens the scope of the moral anti-perfectionism while further solidifying the incoherent myth of moral neutrality. They attempt to articulate an understanding of freedom as non-comprehensive in scope, which is to say, thoroughly secular. This anti-perfectionist, non-comprehensive view backfires because it becomes comprehensive and perfectionist according to the regime of liberalism. Every relevant social and cultural institution must embody these doctrines otherwise the authority of the regime might be challenged. The value neutral, anti-perfectionist individualism eventually morphs into a tyrannical collectivism held together by the technocratic state. Freedom is eroded in the name of liberty, and communities are destroyed in the name of autonomy.

The liberal dialectic is a trap from the very beginning. It begs all of the most important philosophical questions from the outset of the discourse. This is most evident when it is realized that the basic principles of liberalism are always presumed to be valid no matter the fierce disagreements arising from the perpetually outraged pseudo-rivals in progressive, conservative, and libertarian camps. The fact that the modernist unity of the liberal spectrum remains unseen is a testament to how embedded its presuppositions are in the culture.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] On Liberty and Other Essays, Mill, Pg. 9 

[2] Ibid, Pg. 16

[3] Ibid, Pg. 14

[4] Why Read Mill Today?, Skorupski, Pg. 43

[5] On Liberty and Other Essays, Mill, Pg. 21

[6] “Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously.  They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.  It is manifestly unfair.” Mind and Cosmos, Nagel, Pg. 10

[7] Republicanism, Pettit, Pg. 31

[8] Ibid, Pg. 36

[9] Ibid, Pg. 36

[10] On Liberty and Other Essays, Mill, Pg. 15

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