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Friday, January 12, 2018

Adrian Vermeule’s Deliberately Distorted Understanding of “Liberalism”: Why Liberalism and Secular Rationalism are, historically speaking, more antonyms than synonyms.

Adrian Vermeule is writing about liberalism again. (For some earlier forays, just follow his twitter feed or read his excellent polemic on strategic Catholicism). Or, I should say, “liberalism,” because, for Vermeule's “liberalism” is a term of art with an idiosyncratic meaning. Vermeulean liberalism is synonymous with the late 18th Century French (not Scottish) Enlightenment and the French Revolution. These movements, according to Vermeule, created a religious passion play in which Reason repeatedly defeats Superstition by liberating individuals from mental as well as political loyalties to rival institutions or beliefs — Christianity or other religions aside from Reason itself, family ties, national cultural traditions, etc. Instead, the individual must follow Reason alone, meaning something fairly abstract like some sort of inductive method, some system of deductive logic, and perhaps some sort of utilitarian ethics. The achievement of such Enlightenment requires that a clerisy of enlightened elites shame superstitious boors, from bakers to florists, into a ruthlessly enforced conformity with whatever is currently deemed to be required by Reason or forbidden as Superstition. Contrary to the libertarian rhetoric of liberalism, this religion of liberalism’s Reason, therefore, is brutally centralizing, intolerant of dissent, and, well, illiberal.

If I had to choose between Vermeule’s version of “liberalism” and whatever Vermeule takes to be its more palatable opposite, then sign me up for Vermueleanism, as-is and sight unseen (and Vermeuleanism is indeed a mystery -- some sort of integralist Catholic Monarchy? A de Maistre-style re-interpretation of our Constitution? Search me). But the choice is a false one -- a rigged agenda designed to produce a Vermeule-friendly outcome. Here, for my fellow conservatives, is a quick reminder of two rival accounts of the meaning of “liberalism” or “liberty” that have nothing to do with Reason’s reign over Superstition and that work just fine for us conservatives who are only occasional readers of First Things.

First, recall that Scot sociologists and philosophers like John Robertson and Adam Smith used the term “liberal” in a political sense a decade before the French Revolution. Far from using “liberal” to denote any universal reign of reason, the Scots generally regarded “reason” as such to be mere deductive logic, devoid of content. (Remember that scotsman David Hume’s aphorism about reason being the salve of the passions? Or his friend Adam Smith's famously derision for systematizing intellectuals?). “Liberal” institutions were not intended to enforce the rule of Reason over Superstition but instead preserve the natural liberties of individuals from both. We call these Scots “classical liberals” today.

Second, recall that, more than a century before that Festival of Reason that Vermeule takes to be the origin of “liberalism,” the noun “liberty” was common usage for 17th century English revolutionaries. (For an exceptional collection of their tracts, see Joyce Malcom's collection). For these polemicists, our “liberties” were both institutional (e.g., Parliamentary, judicial, municipal) and individual bulwarks against the centralizing force of the New Monarchs like Louis XIV and Charles I. Far from being champions of Reason, these “liberals” were avid advocates of tradition (Edward Coke's and John Selden’s “ancient constitution”), religion (Milton’s and Henry Vane’s godly republicanism), or local political charters (James Harrington’s parishes, hundreds, and "tribes"). Against these revolutionary advocates of "libertye" were arrayed advocates of the new science like Thomas Hobbes and Sir Francis Bacon who cheered on the reign of one all-powerful sovereign King and one sovereign scientific method, ridiculing the “idols” of superstition and atavistic loyalty to mediating institutions. (If one balks at the anachronism of referring to commonwealth “libertyes” as “liberal,” then one should really bridle at Vermeule's using the term to describe the “liberté” of Robespierre).

In short, Vermeule has the etymology of the word “liberal” exactly backwards. Our rationalistic elites today, annoying to both Vermeule and myself, descend from Hobbesian and Baconian rationalistic centralisers. Those who first coined the word “liberal” or made “liberty” their central organizing principle of politics resisted the religion of Reason for a humanely traditionalist and, yes, even superstitious pluralism. Vermeule would likely cheerfully acknowledge that he is deliberately hijacking the term “liberalism” in order to crash it. I merely suggest to everyone else that they refrain from purchasing a ticket on that particular flight of fancy. You can be a proud anti-Jacobin conservative with a conservative Christian theology and, like G.K. Chesterton and William Gladstone, among, many, many others) claim the term of "liberalism" as your own.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 12, 2018 at 11:51 AM | Permalink


Prof. Vermeule's piece is a book review suggesting a political left that needs to adhere to their principles religiously. It is a developing concern, particularly in a time when freedom of speech, due process, and common decency are now withdrawn if the person involved is prejudged as insufficiently progressive. Rights that were universal are now kept behind a seemingly religious gate that swings open only for those deemed compatible with the religion. It resembles Islamist rationalization for treating non-Muslim women as sex slaves - or 1790's rationalizations for France's sacramental guillotine. I endorse the study. As our culture looses its sense of being tied to millennia of Judeo-Christian notions of human dignity, we seem to have an adolescent "off with their heads" religious compulsion in its place.

Posted by: Mark30339 | Oct 13, 2018 7:25:41 AM

That article you linked to is a bunch of nonsense. What the hell is this blogs fascination with reactionary garbage Catholic philosophy? We have enough problems with Protestant Evangelicals, we don't need this pseudo-intellectual trash.

Posted by: Jen | Jan 16, 2018 1:30:01 PM

That T.J. White piece sounds exactly the themes that I wanted to emphasize in my initial post (very unsuccessfully, apparently, given the responses it received!) I especially appreciate Fr. White’s idea that there is a need for a “Catholic metaphysics of democracy.” Put another way, I appreciate that White is not asking for a revival of Action Française or some similar revival of some mythical pre-modern mystical harmonious (“integralist”) state. That is, to my mind, either childish or dangerous.

I would urge a Catholic Metaphysics of Liberalism. The Catholic Tradition can deal with conflict, divided authority, and competing jurisdictions. In particular, if one buys Harold Berman’s story in “Law and Revolution,” the Gregorian Revolution of 1050-1150, separating legal systems of Church and State, involves the creation of an arguably uniquely “western” idea of co-existing and conflicting authorities, one that perhaps did not exist in Imperial China or the Arabic Caliphates. Conflict and competition are hard-wired into the western tradition of government long before the Refomation, before Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, the Enlightenment or any of the other bête noire of modernity against which integralists rail. By my lights, that post-Gregorian world is “liberal” in its tolerance for conflict and co-existence.

In any case, any theory of government that emphasize societal harmony over such conflict gives me the willies: It reminds me too much of Communist China, where I spent half my time nowadays, and is likely to be just as unsuccessful. .

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 15, 2018 2:55:56 PM

Rick (Hills) - this piece, by a Dominican friend of mine, might be of interest, as a follow-up to your engagement with Adrian's piece:

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 15, 2018 10:26:22 AM

Just correcting my comments above :

Instead of " attributed " , should be : subordinated .....

Thanks and apologizing…….

Posted by: El roam | Jan 14, 2018 11:38:10 AM

If liberalism stems from religion, perhaps you could explain why it seems to be a product solely of protestant christianity and doesn't appear in pre-Lutheran Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions or Native American religions until after they come in contact with protestant christians.

The most basic ideas of liberalism--like separation of church and state, the right to keep and bear arms, the exclusionary rule, reproductive freedom (abortion), and homosexual marriage--are mysteriously absent from nearly all non-protestant countries until after protestants arrive.

If liberalism was the product of religious belief and not rationalist english/french enlightenment, why don't any other religious cultures have strong liberal traditions--even to this day! Even today liberalism appears to be a purely western european and english-speaking phenomenon.

Latin Americans flee to the U.S. to have an abortion, Middle-easterners flee to Israel to criticize Islam, Chinese flee to the U.S. to get the right to vote and set up a private enterprise, etc.

Posted by: Chinese Democracy | Jan 13, 2018 8:11:36 PM

Could using the preponderance-of-evidence standard rather than the BARD standard in defamation and hate-speech cases be considered "chilling" (Laird v. Tatum) and therefore unconstitutionally censorial--and therefore irrational---even though perfectly moral under the Judeo-Christian tradition?
And if so, if you wouldn't want to use the POE standard in cases where only a person's feelings are hurt, why would you want to use it in a[n assault] case where someone's body was hurt?

Posted by: NY Times Tables | Jan 12, 2018 5:56:02 PM

When an innocent black man is found guilty by preponderance of the evidence rather than BARD, it doesn't just hurt him, it also
(1) proves institutional racism, and
(2) adds to the number of crimes committed by black people in the FBI statistics
--which white people then [falsely] use [that statistic] to claim blacks commit crimes at higher rates than whites.

Since whites and blacks are psychologically the same, they presumably commit crimes at the same rates as whites. But if they are found guilty more often because we don't use proof BARD, then people will look at the statistic that blacks are found guilty more often than whites and deduce that blacks commit crimes at higher rates than whites--which isn't true, but does lead to racism.

Only by only sending people who are guilty BARD to jail, can we get real statistics about crimes and end racism.

Posted by: Don L. | Jan 12, 2018 5:16:38 PM

Rationalism is the process of taking the scientific method into the court room to determine guilt or innocence. The scientific method doesn't say that--so long as it is more likely than not, you can believe it. No. The scientific method requires that you withhold judgment until you reach certainty--and if that certainty disappears, you return to rejecting it.

It is religion that says that we can believe without certainty; it is religion that says you can believe it if it is more likely than not.

Posted by: Legal Logic | Jan 12, 2018 2:34:02 PM

The law encourages people to obey it by only punishing those who disobey it. If people think the law is punishing anyone who's accused and not just those who [almost] everyone agrees are definitely guilty, then there is no incentive to obey the law in hopes that you'll avoid punishment.

Reason wants universal agreement (on who's guilty)--the kind of agreement that can only come from proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

If there's only proof more likely than not, then I (stranger of the accused) will find him guilty, and you (neighbor and friend of the accused) will find him innocent. No universal agreement.

Posted by: No witch hunts | Jan 12, 2018 2:04:29 PM

Rationalism is the idea that you should only believe when you have at least near-certainty, i.e., proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You don't believe simply because it's more likely than not--because rationalism's highest goal is to avoid false belief, and only after that, to accept correct belief.
Rationalist's believe that the wrong beliefs of religion have done more harm than the correct beliefs of science, and so the highest priority is to avoid any more false beliefs that will do great harm.

Posted by: There is no spork | Jan 12, 2018 1:44:28 PM

Just clarification to my comment above :

More complex , since , changes must be considered and reconsidered constantly , that is rendering it centralized , yet , only on the face of it centralized , because :

If as stated , the human being is the purpose , the ultimate goal , and not a mean , such system , can't be , by definition , regarded as centralizing , but on the contrary , decentralizing :

It is granting the individual priority , not to archaic concepts or perceptions , the system , works in fact , for the individual , so only on the face of it , centralizing .


Posted by: El roam | Jan 12, 2018 1:42:59 PM

“Sixth Amendment Atheism” states that “exclusionary rules” of various sorts and the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standards in criminal cases are “rationalist.” But I am not sure what’s so rational about either idea: Both seem to me to be the product of traditional Anglo-American ideals, pleasing to us because we Americans have been inculcated from an early age to value them, not because of any universal, scientific, rational principles. Jeremy Bentham, the father of the “Rationalist” jurisprudence thought that exclusionary rules were irrational. (See volume 6 of his collected works here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/bentham-the-works-of-jeremy-bentham-vol-6 ). As for the BARD standard, that principle is rooted in a non-rational notion that it is better for some number of guilty people to escape just punishment than to condemn an innocent person — that is, that false negatives in criminal cases are less costly than false positives. Why? And what’s the right ratio of unjustly acquitted to unjustly condemned? Again, rational and scientific principles of law do not supply any answer. (I dimly recall that Bentham condemned the BARD standard on the ground that the mistaken conviction of innocent people was not too high a price to pay for the more complete conviction of the guilty. If my memory serves — and it’s probably does not — he compared the unjustly convicted person to a soldier who dies on the battlefield for the sake of the greater good of the army and nation).

In any case, the rules and doctrines that you mention are rooted in tradition and quasi-religious moral intuitions very difficult to defend in terms of any sort of universal rationalist theory. And so much the worse for so-called rationalist jurisprudence: Their sufficient defense — at least, for a tradition-bound liberal Tory like myself — is their deep roots in our particular society.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 12, 2018 1:24:30 PM

Thanks for that interesting post , but tracing back the meaning of liberalism , by mere etiology , is really useless . More important , is of course the effective current meaning of it , and the necessity of it , for judging or exercising the just and right discretion :

As such , liberalism , simply suggests , that one human being , is the purpose , not the mean ( typically , generally speaking ) . As such , things shall become more complex , and on the face of it , centralized , yet , not really !!But the contrary , decentralized :

Let us take , abortion or homosexuality . A society , banning them , would be considered typically as more conservative , less liberalist . Why ?? because , it does rather attribute , the autonomous needs of humans , to greater " cloudy " vague archaic values ( like religious beliefs ) . By that , one human being , is rendered a mean , over purpose , mean , for broader , " cloudy " , vague values , because , as an individual , he has nothing to do with them not once .

That is rendering things , more complex , and as such , prima facie ( on the face of it ) more centralized to social or state authorities . Why more complex ?? because , things change , because one needs constantly ,to update attitudes , and check for balance between : individual autonomous needs , and :
Societal fixed perceptions .

Just to illustrate it :

Recently , the supreme court in India , has decided to reconsider law criminalizing homosexuality . And here I quote :

" social morality also changes from age to age … "

So , when you argue , liberalism you argue , reason , reasoning , that is to say , constantly , in accordance with changes , to reconsider perceptions and conventions . It is not fixed !! it is not so , merely because had been written so in the bible or the new testament , but :

Attributed to : constant reasoning and reason . It is the human being which counts , not the rigid concept !! Rigid concept , doesn't need reason or reasoning typically .
One may read here ( India supreme court ) :



Posted by: El roam | Jan 12, 2018 1:06:48 PM

Liberals are rationalists in the sense that in a court of law, they believe that people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (in accordance with the exclusionary rule, brady doctrine, and Crawford principle) to a jury of their peers.

That is, when a person's freedom from imprisonment is on the line, they believe that there are facts that make up history, and only those facts should determine whether or not someone has broken a democratically-passed law.

They reject superstition (hearsay), and believe that accusations alone are not proof--they are reason to start a trial, not reason to wrap up the trial and move onto sentencing.

Posted by: Sixth Amendment Atheism | Jan 12, 2018 12:52:59 PM

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