Tuesday, 2 April 2019

On Totalitarian Liberalism

Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville rejected the utopian dreams of the eighteenth century French philosophers. They realized that a project for creating heaven on earth can lead to the creation of a hell. Here’s an excerpt from her Introduction to Essays on Freedom and Power by Lord Acton:

"Acton's political ideas have been compared with those of Burke and Tocqueville. All three were concerned with the practical conditions favoring liberty, and were suspicious of the rationalist frame of mind which desired to impose liberty, as a ready-made set of doctrines, upon a supposedly compliant and reasonable society. They feared men's power more than they trusted men's ideals. They anticipated no miracle of happiness on earth, no "heavenly city" such as the eighteenth century philosophers dreamt of. Instead they distrusted these dreams. For if the heavenly city was a utopian vision, a hell on earth was not, and in the excesses of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, they saw the inevitable judgment on the sin of pride. They appreciated the enormous complexity of society, feared the destructive and despotic temper of impatient reformers, and preferred instead the multiplicity of forces and ideas represented in the existing constitutions—the distinctions of class, the distribution of political power, personal loyalty divided among family, province and nation, the traditions and idiosyncrasies perpetuated by history."

In the next paragraph, Himmelfarb talks about the great problem of “totalitarian liberalism”:

"A phrase has gained currency in recent years, "totalitarian liberalism," to describe the habit liberals have fallen into of calling upon the state to undertake all the reforms they desire—to protect the rights of labor, enforce the rights of suffrage, extend the privilege of education, provide insurance and social relief, prohibit the dissemination of racist doctrines and bigoted opinions—to control, in short, the welfare of society. However urgent each of these reforms is, it is nevertheless true that the tendency to look upon the state as a vast social-work agency has its dangers, for it invests the state with a formidable power, and makes liberty dependent not upon the rights of autonomous groups and corporations but upon the generosity of an omnipotent government."

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