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Liberalism: True and False

July 7, 1999

With Hillary Clinton's decision to explore a possible run for the
Senate seat vacated in New York State by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the
political landscape appears to be gaining a clarity it hasn't had since
the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House.

Bill Clinton has been the kind of politician folks refer to as a
centrist, meaning by this that no one can really tell where he stands
-- he follows the polls, period, and this gives him no core, only a
style of flexibility. Bill Clinton can sound populist one day, liberal
the next, and even libertarian now and then (as when he champions free
market reforms everywhere around the globe, though, ironically, not in
the US).

Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has never made any secret of her strong
affinity toward the central theme of modern American liberalism,
namely, the collectivization, nationalization of problem solving in all
realms of human community life. She championed the politics of meaning--a seemingly vague
notion signifying that government must assume the
responsibility of fulfilling our lives. In her book, It takes a
Village, Mrs. Clinton laid out what amounts to a no holds barred
program for socialism. Though seemingly confined to local communities, as a vision it is quite possibly global, not unlike the
international socialism of Karl Marx.

One should recall, by the way, that behind Mrs. Clinton's politics of
meaning stood her friend Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the
Leftist Jewish magazine, Tikkun, whose entire intellectual history was
steeped in various versions of Marxism. In his analysis of the recent
American violence, Rabbi Lerner wrote that "this society needs a new
bottom line, in which people's capacity to be caring, loving, and
ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive are what counts. And
it needs a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends individual
selfishness. If admission to college, job promotions, and other public
rewards were based in part on the degree to which people had learned to
take care of each other, there would be far less likelihood of future

While not the clear-cut call for collectivism that we find in Marx's
writings, Lerner's polemic is far more specific than what we will be
hearing from Mrs. Clinton in the coming months. This is mainly because
practically no politician today has the courage to lay out explicitly
what he or she believes about how a community ought to be organized.
Thus we need to look to the books they like, the thinkers they admire,
so as to learn where they really stand. And Mrs. Clinton stands pretty
much where Rabbi Lerner does.

What Americans might wonder at this point is how something so clearly
alien to their country's ideal of individual liberty has come to be
embraced and christened "liberalism," a term that used to signify
adherence to the principles of a free society. (In Europe, for
example, a liberal is one who champions a free society, a social
democrat one who champions collective power administered by means of

There is a fairly clear answer to this: what liberalism used to be involved a basic assumption about
human nature that is no longer widely accepted by the intellectual community. It is the assumption
that human beings can make basic choices, that they can take the initiative
in their lives no matter where they are on the economic continuum
between poor and rich. The liberty that classical liberals wanted had
to do with being free from the intrusions of others, including,
especially, governments.

In our time most intellectuals believe that human nature does not
contain this element of personal initiative. People do what their
biological, social and economic background makes them do. What they
need to be free from is bad breaks, obstacles such as poverty,
ignorance, misfortune, and the like, and the only force capable of
attaining this kind of freedom is government which can arrange things
favorably through its massive force.

From physics, sociology and evolutionary biology to genetics and
economics, the scholars tend to favor the belief that we are all doing
what we were made to do by our situations, that the slogan is not
"carpe diem" but "que sera, sera." To seize the day, one must possess
the capacity to take the initiative. If, however, what will be will
be, initiative is a myth.

Thus liberalism--the struggle to achieve freedom--has changed
from insisting that others not exercise power over us to insisting that
power be used to engineer our lives.

No, you will not hear this issue discussed but you can detect its
implications everywhere. Just consider that everyone who is poor is a
victim-- none of us is responsible for our poverty, it is our
circumstances that did it. Nor is anyone succeeding at anything anymore--some people are just
luckier than others.

Now if that is the prevalent thinking, why should anyone be permitted
to enjoy the fruits of success? There is no success, only luck, and
then decency would require one to share it. And if people will not do
the sharing of their own choice, they must be made to share everything,
which is what the substance of modern liberalism comes to, especially
of the more radical sort the Marxist-inspired Hillary Clinton embraces.

There is a basic flaw in modern liberalism, though, that is quite
glaring. If everything happens as it must, there is nothing anyone can
do, not the government, not you, not I, nobody, to fix things. The
rich and the poor and the rest are all in the same inevitable
historical stream and it is a myth to try to change anything.
But, of course, modern liberals like Mrs. Clinton do not accept this
logical implication of their doctrine. They excuse everyone except
those who disagree with them -- those folks are guilty as sin for
failing to think and do the right thing in not supporting a socialist

To realize this is to realize a basic flaw that plagues modern
liberalism. Sadly, its champions do not. Thus they are promoting a
kind of political order that is flawed from the ground up. And we are
all paying the price for this in many areas of our lives.

Tibor R. Machan is an adjunct scholar
with the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Read What is Classical Liberalism by Lew
Rockwell, or purchase Mises’s definitive href="http://mises.org/product.asp?sku=B108">Liberalism.

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