What does history tell us?

The post “A liberal reply to Throne and Altar” has generated an interesting debate on whether we can learn anything about the relative merits of liberalism vs. traditionalism from the historical record.  Two difficulties came up:

  1. the lack of an ideologically neutral metric of success
  2. the fact that many nations have been, for the past few centuries, mixes of liberalism and traditionalism, and it is not clear how to objectively assign praise for successes or blame for failures to one or the other influence

22 Responses

  1. I think you’re right to identify those issues as central ones.

    The first one is perhaps the more serious. I tentatively suggested a few broadly acceptable metrics on the other thread (violence within a society, military force used against other societies, economic prosperity, judicial impartiality, official corruption, etc). Most of those things can’t easily be measured, however. How can you quantify, or even define, a society’s internal violence, or the integrity of its judicial system? The exceptions are economic metrics, in relation to which I would respectfully suggest that liberal capitalism really has been vindicated by experience against both socialism on the left and distributism, feudalism and similar ideologies on the reactionary right.

    I believe that the second problem is less serious. No society will be purely liberal, conservative or socialist. Fascist societies are a well-known problem here – were they broadly conservative because they were authoritarian, nationalistic and anti-leftist, or broadly socialist because they were statist, collectivist and opposed the free market? Nonetheless, I think that broadly accurate labels can be placed on most societies.

  2. The discussion in the other thread is just about our culture, and this story isn’t over yet, so it isn’t worth looking at for historical lessons. Instead, look at the rise and fall of other cultures in history. The Fate of Empires does a good job at this and the evidence there supports conservative values over liberal values.

  3. It is obviously difficult (if not impossible) to look at the failures of societies of the distant past and decide exactly where the blame lies. What is possible is to look to the philosophical foundations of the ideas that drove people, and judge those ideas. As I said in the previous post, liberalism in the current sense of the word never existed anywhere, although it was foreshadowed. What we can do is identify, criticize and oppose the mandate for insane, all-encompassing nonjudgmentalism that characterizes the contemporary left.

    Having said that, I do believe that we can draw limited conclusions about some historical periods, for example, the moral laxness and cultural decadence that characterized the late Roman Empire and contributed to its fall.

  4. It is impossible to prove cause and effect in history. All one can do is find correlations. One strong correlation was found by the anthropologist Unwin in his book “Sex and Culture”. Unwin studied all known isolated cultures of his time and he established a neutral metric of success consisting of 3 levels. The highest was a culture that built a meeting place. The middle was a culture that left some marking to remember the dead. And the lowest was a culture that left nothing at all and lived like animals. Then he looked for factors that correlated with these levels, and he found one that had a 100% correlation. This was the level of female premarital chastity. All the highest cultures required women to be virgins at marriage. The middle cultures had some social pressure for premarital chastity but virginity wasn’t enforced. The lowest had no restrictions on female premarital chastity. And these levels of restriction on female premarital chastity matched level of development 100% of the time. At the end of the book, Unwin looks at history and he finds that in all rising cultures, female virginity is required for marriage. And in all declining cultures in history, restrictions on women are loosened. This is an example showing that one can draw strong conclusions from history about correlation.

  5. Unwin’s work is interesting, but it needs to be placed in context. He was a man of his time (the 1930s, I think), and he was influenced by Freud’s theory that civilisation is possible because of the channelling of sexual energies. This idea seems to have been invented by Freud on the basis of no evidence, and it is doubted by modern psychologists. Anyway, the point is that Unwin had his own agenda and was not a neutral researcher. Anthropology itself was much less developed in the 30s than it is today, and I’d be interested to see what later generations of anthropologists have made of his conclusions.

    Even if one takes Unwin’s empirical results at face value, I suspect that restrictions on female sexuality are serving as a proxy for some broader and less measurable variable, such as social cohesion, social organisation or obedience to laws/customs. It doesn’t follow that we will bring about the decline of our society if we allow people to sleep with people other than their spouses (nor is it the case, incidentally, that feminists have generally advocated a sexual free-for-all – their views on this tend to be more nuanced, and “free love” was never meant to be just free sex).

  6. Unwin was most definitely a liberal, and this makes his work all the more convincing because Unwin himself was very uncomfortable with his own results. His results contradicting his agenda, so he made up some nonsensical explanation based on Freud. Later anthropologists simply ignored Unwin’s work because it is so politically incorrect and so there is nothing academics can do other than ignore Unwin and hope his work is forgotten.

    Regarding “I suspect that restrictions on female sexuality are serving as a proxy for some broader and less measurable variable”, I already answered this by saying “It is impossible to prove cause and effect in history.” In fact I doubt that there is one root cause for most cultural conditions, rather I suspect that various factors are both cause and effect. For example, promiscuity harms social cohesion and loss of social cohesion encourages promiscuity. So both are both cause and effect. What can’t be denied is correlations found in history, and based on the correlations found by Unwin, there is no doubt that modern Western culture is doomed regardless of what the exact cause is.

  7. With respect, I think that your characterisation of “absolute liberalism” (to use the term from the other thread) is a little exaggerated. There is also a distinction to be made within the “contemporary left” between mainstream liberalism and the more radical tradition influenced by socialism.

    To take the example that you used of affirmative action, liberals are by no means united in believing that this particular tool can or should be used promiscuously to deal with racism. Personally, I have a suspicion of racial and sexual quotas, except in unusual cases where there is clear objective evidence that they are justified and will work.

    The decline of the Roman Empire is a complex and controversial issue, and I don’t think it can easily be attributed to a single cause.

  8. Thanks for the additional information on Unwin and the influence from Freud. I’d thought that he started out with a partiality for Freud’s ideas, but of course I’ll stand corrected if that wasn’t the case.

    I’d still want to see what later anthropologists have to say on all this. You seem to suggest that anthropologists are desperate to ignore and forget Unwin’s work (an idea which I’m afraid I don’t find persuasive), but there is a wealth of detailed and up-to-date anthropological work on the development of societies, and it would be interesting to see how they bear on this issue. I’m no expert, and others are better equipped than me to speak to this. It is well known, however, that other conclusions held by anthropologists in the 1930s have not stood the test of time well.

    I agree that there’s “no doubt that modern Western culture is doomed”, in the sense that every cultural and civilisation is transient. Sic transit gloria civitatis.

  9. I’ve just had a look at your website, fschmidt. Some interesting ideas there. I had to smile when I saw the claim that feminism benefits omega males. I’m pretty sure that I’m an omega male, so it looks like I’ve chosen the right side…

  10. Liberalism developed out of English Nonconformity, in the period following the Restoration of 1660.

    Now, Calvinism was the first popular movement to be disseminated by the printed word and its greatest appeal was in urban centres and amongst the literate commercial classes; hence its demand for freedom of conscience and religion, which entailed its further demands for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. Given their economic interest, it is no surprise that they should have been opposed to monopolies, trade regulations and protectionism. These economic demands could be connected with their foundational ones, under the umbrella of “Limited Government”; the state was to limit itself to keeping the peace and enforcing contracts.

    In his “Ancient Law,” Sir Herbert Maine claimed that the movement of progressive societies had been from status to contract; that is to say from traditional to liberal societies. Certainly such societies tend to be economically more successful and socially more fluid than the Hindu society he had experienced. Maine, who, after all, was an Englishman and a Victorian, was not an indiscriminate eulogist of progressive societies, recognising their danger of social and political instability.

    Classical liberalism should not be confused with Social Democracy, which is, in some ways, its antithesis. Usually, a compromise is attempted by marking off a “private sphere” of individual autonomy from a “public sphere” of state action.

  11. Regarding the second issue, I suppose it is true that we can often make comparative judgments: this society is more liberal than that one. What is much more difficult is to decide whether a society like Victorian England, which was a mixture with strong elements of both liberalism and traditionalism, was “successful” (putting to the side the first issue of measuring success) because of one or the other element. I suspect the particular dynamism of that nation had to do with the mixture itself, which was inherently unstable.

  12. We must also bear in mind that Conservative/Liberal dichotomy is not so simple. Edmund Burke (father of conservatism) was motivated by (classical) liberal ideas when he criticized French revolution, enlightenment thinkers, and when he articulated conservatism.

    His defense of tradition, church and heritage was against totalitarian and messianic ambitions of French revolution, against intolerance and radicalism of enlightenment towards everything labeled as “superstition”. He basically criticized intolerance of enlightenment towards “other”, and messianic, abstract and universal ambitions of enlightenment that could only end in violence, manipulation, imposing and cultural dictatorship.

    On other hand, most of modern liberalism is based on 1960-es movement, it’s leftist radicalism, and let’s not forget also it’s neo-Marxist-Trotskyst origin.

  13. I don’t use the terms “alpha”, “beta”, and “omega” like the PUA/Game people do. See my post about misuse of terms.

  14. Yes Unwin did start out with a partiality for Freud’s ideas, so he thought the sexual repression was bad thing and he expected more sexually free societies to be more productive. But when the facts contradicted this, he made up a Freudian explanation for the opposite. See my Amazon review for more.

    Yes every culture is doomed, but Unwin is more specific than that. He claims that a culture remains productive about 3 generations after chastity is lost. (In Rome’s case, chastity was lost early in Rome itself, but remained strong on the outskirts of the empire, which is where most of the later emperors came from.) Assuming chastity was lost in our culture in 1960 and assuming a generation is about 25 years, that gives us until about 2035. Since we have no obvious enemies who can conquer us, I assume we will look something like the Byzantine Empire, which remained a political entity but was totally corrupt and unproductive.

  15. On the contrary, the distinction between the two types of liberalism is valid, and of vital importance to understand.

    Consider, for example, General George Casey’s famous reaction to the Fort Hood massacre, in which a Moslem soldier who had made his hatred of America clear to anyone who cared to look at the evidence—and who was clearly incompetent to do his job as a psychiatrist—murdered 13 other soldiers in the name of Allah.

    Here were Casey’s exact words: “Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”
    (http://blogs.reuters.com/frontrow/2009/11/08/general-casey-diversity-shouldnt-be-casualty-of-fort-hood/)

    Casey is here articulating contemporary liberalism’s highest principle, and clarifying that it is higher even than the mandate to keep ourselves and our society alive: Diversity and Nonjudgmentalism Uber Alles.

    Was Casey reprimanded for this hideous remark? No. How could he have been, when he was expressing our society’s deepest officially-held moral principle?

    Ask yourself: Would any public figure prior to the 1960’s have uttered such words in response to his people being massacred by an obviously hostile alien? Obviously not. There has been a sea change in Western society. The imperatives of nonjudgmentalism and openness are not just irritating features of the left, they are its essence. It is for this reason that I identify today’s liberalism as different in kind to previous manifestations.

    Obviously judgmental closedness does occur from time to time. But these are “unprincipled exceptions” (in the words of Lawrence Auster) to liberalism, that is, they do not have any official status and are permitted by the leaders of society for the practical reason that they make the rule of liberalism somewhat more tolerable, and not because our leaders recognize any limits on the imperatives of nonjudgmentalism and openness.

  16. Hello Alan,

    Thank you for reminding us of your important identification of nonjudgmentalism as the essence of modern liberalism. I suppose if we say that freedom-over-all defines the genus liberalism, and nonjudgmentalism-over-all defines its modern species, it seems possible for the two classes to be non-identical, with nonjudgmentalism only one possible way of maximizing freedom. (If one were to argue that freedom and nonjudgmentalism actually clash, then modern liberalism would not be liberal at all.) Strong arguments support the idea that the two actually are the same, though. The idea is that autonomy as sole overriding value (as Mark Richardson would put it) or equal freedom bureaucratically administered (as Jim Kalb would put it) logically require nonjudgmentalism. Classical liberalism is just immature modern liberalism.

  17. Alan,

    The “nonjudgmentalism and openness” of modern liberalism is a facade and a lie. Modern liberalism has its own values and is very intolerant of anyone who contradicts them. For example, liberalism is very intolerant of sexism and racism. A liberal may argue that this is because sexism and racism are themselves intolerant, but this isn’t necessarily the case. One can believe that the sexes differ (as I do) or that the races differ (which I don’t) without having this belief result in intolerance. But the mere expression of a sexist or racist belief will provoke extreme intolerance from liberals.

    I am an atheist with reactionary beliefs. I regularly get verbally abused and get threats of physical violence from liberals for expressing my beliefs. I find religious people to be the most tolerant, and so I prefer to associate with them.

  18. Fschmidt,

    In one sense you are correct when you say, “The ‘nonjudgmentalism and openness’ of modern liberalism is a facade and a lie.” It is impossible to be fully open and nonjudgmental unless one is dead, and leftists are intolerant of those who oppose their way.

    The point is: given that they have redefined these terms somewhat, the left really means it when they say that openness and nonjudgmentalism are the highest goods. Their goal is the destruction of the traditional ways of life in the West, and the weakening of white people, and most of the West’s authorities (legislators, teachers, bureaucrats, et al) go along with the program. That is, they only make “unprincipled” exceptions to the rule Thou Shalt Not Discriminate, meaning that they never identify and oppose the principle itself.

    So even though it is not absolute nonjudgmentalism, it is to be applied absolutely, i.e., there is no greater good to which nondiscrimination must sometimes give way (at least no officially-recognized good.)

  19. Alan,

    “Their goal is the destruction of the traditional ways of life in the West…” Yes, this is exactly what liberalism is about, not about “nonjudgmentalism and openness”. I support tolerance and openness and I believe that it is the traditions of the West that allowed for tolerance and openness, but now liberalism is destroying exactly the traditions that tolerance and openness require. The most obvious example is feminism which is intolerant to the extreme. As an example, here are comments on my review of a feminist book.

  20. Liberalism is indeed about destruction, but the common man will not support destruction. Therefore it must be repackaged and given a label that he will find appealing (if he doesn’t think too hard.) I hypothesize that the tolerance imperative began as leftist propaganda which began to take on a life of its own, and is has ended up as an independent force.

    To repeat myself: the tolerance fetish is not just an annoying feature of modern life, and not just a cover for the left’s agenda of destruction. It is those things, but it’s more. It’s the principal reason why the man in the street goes along with liberalism despite its absurdities and outrages: “You should be tolerant” sounds, to those who don’t think deeply, like the dawning of a new Golden Age, when mankind shall at long last repudiate all the meanness of the past, and link arms to move forward forever.

  21. And another thing: Serious leftists want to rule, not just destroy. (Some of them, to be sure, just want to destroy) And destruction cannot be a ruling principle.

    In order to legitimate their enterprise, and to have something in the name of which to rule, they must offer some principle. That principle is tolerance, or openness, or nonjudgmentalism, or whatever it may be called. Destruction is the vehicle through which they will attain power, but tolerance is the god in whose name they will “benevolently” rule.

  22. Classical liberalism was opposed to privilege in all its manifestations, political and economic. Accordingly, it embraced the notion of civic equality: equal taxation, universal (male) conscription and universal (originally male) suffrage.

    Even during the French Revolution, the énragés and sansculottes were claiming that economic inequality was the fruit of past privilege and were demanding a redistribution of property.

    Liberals were ambivalent about property rights, especially in countries influenced by Roman Law. Needless to say, for the Romans, property was a matter of pure positive law; to argue that everyone is entitled to the produce of his labour would have challenged the very foundations of a state founded on rapine and slavery.

    Take Mirabeau (a moderate), “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens.” Likewise Robespierre (not a moderate), “In defining liberty, the first of man’s needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”

    You see where this is going? If property rights are the creation of the law and nothing else, well, then, the law can be changed, by the will of the majority. Governments can, with electoral support, engage in any degree of social experiment they choose, socialism, syndicalism, social democracy, or whatever and no one can claim his rights have been infringed, by the confiscation of his property (however acquired) through taxation or requisition. The law gave and the law has taken away…

    Thus, in true Hegelian fashion, Liberalism produces its antithesis, Socialism.

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