Who Is a Liberal, and Why Does It Matter?

Lawrence Auster has composed an interesting analysis of modern political labels for his View from the Right blog. Auster considers David Horowitz as an individual who has commonly been known as a conservative (since his conversion from leftism) but who does not show many of the characteristics normally associated with conservatism. In fact, Auster notes, Horowitz does not consider himself to be a conservative:

“I have on occasion said to David Horowitz that in my view he is a liberal, a comment with which he disagreed. Yet Horowitz seems to have had second thoughts on the subject. In a postscript to his exchange today with Jacob Heilbrunn, he writes:

“‘I’m uncomfortable with labels myself. I am a liberal–free market, individualist, politically tolerant, even ecumenical, and progressive. But my reactionary political enemies who dominate the cultural institutions that are the arbiters of public language–the universities and the media–label me a right-wing conservative (and worse). There’s not much I can do to redefine the political landscape, but I have given it a try by creating DiscoverTheNetworks.org.'”

Here both Auster and Horowitz reflect the arguments regularly made by this author on this site in regard to the flaws in today’s political labels. Auster then goes on to provide a conservative’s critique of classical liberalism:

“My point here is that Horowitz’s typical mainstream mixture of liberal and conservative views, whether we call the mixture ‘conservative liberalism’ or ‘liberal conservatism’ or simply ‘unlabeled,’ is at bottom a form of liberalism rather than of conservatism, and as such will show the characteristic weakness of liberalism in relation to leftism. As long as a person’s highest political values are the procedural liberal values of individual rights, equality, tolerance, and free inquiry, then, even though he is not a leftist, he nevertheless shares a fundamental orientation with the left: the lack of allegiance, or at least of primary allegiance, to a substantive civilizational or spiritual order. Such a person will be more concerned about defending and expanding individual freedoms than defending the social and familial order that makes such freedoms possible; he will care more about tolerance for other cultures and peoples than the preservation of his own culture and people. In the long run, liberals’ inner commonality with leftists makes them incapable of standing firmly against the left’s ongoing reconstruction of human society.”

I do not agree with Auster’s claim that the highest values of a liberal are procedural. I believe that there are very powerful basic thoughts behind these values, as I have alluded to on this site before. However, I believe that he is asking the right questions; specifically, what are the real bases for the values we hold? As a consequence of this seriousness, Auster’s piece is quite useful and shows the increasing interest in rethinking political labels today.


2 thoughts on “Who Is a Liberal, and Why Does It Matter?

  1. Interesting. I’ve always considered myself a liberal, though admittedly in a very subject, intuitive way. To me it has to do with the progressive realization of the ideal of liberty and justice for all, both politically and economically, and, I suppose, socially. But at the same time I very much identify as an American patriot, in love with my country, and I am deeply aware of the religious traditions and beliefs which brought this country into being. I am also terribly concerned about, and committed to, the preservation of the family as a place to raise children with love and security; the importance of neighborhoods, local communities, Christmas, the Bible, literature… And I certainly honor and respect conservatives, who put their main emphasis on saving the good stuffs we have already achieved more than extending the ideal I started with. I appreciate Adam Smith, but worry about pornography. What am I?

  2. I would not presume to brand you politically, but I can observe that the position you are mapping out sounds a good deal like classical English Whig liberalism. The following posts will provide an outline of that particular political philosophy along with a sense of my own and some others’ thinking on the topic:


    I hope that you will find them interesting and useful as you think through your own position.—STK

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