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PREFACE TO THE LIBERTY FUND EDITION THE LIBERAL MIND, FOUR DECADES ON - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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PREFACE TO THE LIBERTY FUND EDITION
The French thinker Charles Péguy tells us that everything begins in mysticism and ends as politics. This was a way of describing the corruption of power, since by mystique he meant something idealistic which politics vulgarizes. Looking at the evolution of the liberal mind in the twentieth century, I am inclined to turn this idea on its head, but not to challenge its pessimism. Liberalism certainly began as a political doctrine seeking reform of entrenched traditions, but then commencing with T. H. Green and others in the late nineteenth century, a “new liberalism” began to advance its claim to moral superiority over other political doctrines. By the middle of the twentieth century, this liberal mind had become a network of thoughtful people beating their breasts over the purported iniquities of capitalism and Western imperialism. Their remorse was anything but personal, however. Rather, these liberals were thinking of themselves as the innocent part of a guilty whole. The prosperity of the West, they claimed to discover, rested upon the oppression of others.
As the liberal mind came to dominate Western culture, it turned out to be marvelously fertile in discovering more and more abstract classes of people constituted by their pain, people whom “we” had treated badly. These included not only the poor, but also indigenous peoples, women, victims of child abuse, gays, the disabled—indeed, potentially just about everybody except healthy heterosexual white males. The first point I should make, then, is that in criticizing the liberal mind, I am in no way implying that suffering is unreal, nor that it is not a problem. Understanding begins with considering the generation of the basic premise of the liberal mind: that suffering can be understood wholesale, as it were, as the fixed experience of abstract classes of people.
In 1963, when The Liberal Mind appeared, the young and the radical in the Western world were in a restive condition. The restiveness had two sides, one cynical, the other sentimental. The cynical side was irresistibly seductive. It was immediately conspicuous in the satire boom, in which hilarious parodists such as Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce mocked censorship, respectability, prudery, the rule of old men, and the burdens laid upon us by the past. In Britain, the success of Beyond the Fringe had made Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore famous figures, and the journal Private Eye was extending the range of political consciousness by turning gossip, preferably malicious, into an art form. A kind of Bohemian swagger was spreading as the rising numbers going on to universities conceived the notion that to think was to engage in an activity called “questioning” or “criticism.” A new mood was rising everywhere in the volatile Western world. In the United States John F. Kennedy was president and Betty Friedan had set herself up as the spokes-woman of bored suburban housewives with college degrees. Many liberations had previously happened—among the flappers of the 1920s, for example, and in the moral relaxations of wartime in the 1940s—but they had led less to a propensity to enjoy the freedoms acquired than to a lust for acquiring more. In 1963, you might say, the Sixties were about to begin.
Such is the background for a mea culpa: I loved all this, not wisely but too well. And in my defense, it can be said that mockery and derision have their place in political wisdom. What I did not immediately realize was that a political program which consisted simply of thumbing one’s nose at the pomposities of the Establishment would devastate what we may, as a shorthand, call culture and morality. This is a realization that seldom comes young, or indeed cheap. Bertrand Russell spent most of his life exploiting—and thereby destroying—the pleasures of debunking what was coming to be sneered at as “conventional wisdom.” It was only late in life that he remarked that human beings need piety and, he might have added, authority and reverence. All three attitudes are, to put the matter at its lowest, important elements in the repertoire of a fully human life. All can be destroyed when derision becomes formularized and, to compound matters, is further mechanized by the media and the entertainment industry.
Sentimentality was cynicism’s other side. Both attitudes dehumanize people by turning them into caricatures, but whereas the caricatures of the cynic generate hatred and contempt, the caricatures of the sentimentalist provoke tears. Both attributes are equally distant from the real world, and both are corruptly self-conscious. The cynic is proud of his acumen in not being taken in by the world, while the sentimentalist regards his tears as proof of a compassionate sensibility. Put the two attitudes together and you have melodrama: quite a distance from reality, indeed, but better perhaps than either attitude by itself. The politics of the liberal mind is a melodrama of oppressors and victims.
It is said that Buddhist monks must learn to meditate on a skull in order to absorb fully into their souls the illusory character of human hopes and fears. Liberals engage the right mood by contemplating the experiences of those they take to be oppressed, in what I have called “suffering situations.” You might think this an admirable altruism amid the selfish indifference of the mass of mankind, and there is no doubt that it has often been sincere and that it could at times mitigate some real evils. But the crucial word here is “abstract.” The emotions are elicited by an image, as in the craft of advertising. The people who cultivate these feelings are usually not those who actually devote their time and energies to helping the needy around them, but rather a class of person—liberal journalists, politicians, social workers, academics, charity bureaucrats, administrators, etc.—who focus on the global picture. For some, compassion is, one might say, “all talk,” while the feelings of those in the burgeoning army of so-called “non-governmental organizations” are closely related to a career path. As a cynic might say, there’s money in poverty.
The liberal mind turned the actual sufferings of the human race into the materials of cliché and stereotype, but that was the least of it. The “suffering situations” invoked by the literature played down the active character of the objects of their indignation and saw in them little but pain. Terms such as “aid” or “help” logically entail the idea that the helper is seconding some independent endeavor of the person being helped. Aid to the Third World was thus often a misnomer, since it commonly took no account of what its supposed beneficiaries were actually doing or wanting, and merely provided materials which might help in making these people more like us. This is the main reason why much of it has been not merely futile but actually self-defeating. Corrupt dictators in the early days of withdrawal from empire by Europeans demanded aid and loans “without strings” and they often got it—a process brilliantly analyzed by Peter Bauer in Dissent on Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976). Today, the successors of those generous souls who agitated for giving money to the Third World are agitating for the “forgiveness” of the resulting debts that now hang heavily around the necks of the peoples of those countries. This is a campaign which suggests one more possible definition of the liberal mind—as a boundless enthusiasm for spending other people’s money. But the logical point comes back to the basic unreality of the liberal mind: namely, a refusal to think in terms of real human beings. Instead, the generic man of liberal thought is like a window dresser’s dummy—merely a vehicle for provoking hatred or tears.
As the liberal mind has diffused itself through modern society, our understanding of real people engaged in real politics has weakened. Whole classes of people have been lost to an image of martyrdom. Yet the reality is that no societies in the history of the world have been as generous and compassionate, both to their own poor and to the unfortunate abroad, as those of the modern West. In order to sustain liberal sentiments, the poor had to be understood as merely fortune’s playthings. Misfortune does indeed play a part in the complex thing we call “poverty.” So, too, do the acts and omissions of the people themselves. In order to lock this partial account into place, poverty has had to undergo a variety of redefinitions. For one thing, it has been transmogrified into “relative deprivation,” which assumes that happiness and well-being depend on having most of the things other people have. For another, it has been defined as living on half the average national income. This might be regarded as an a priori guarantee of the Christian contention that the poor are always with us, yet the object of liberal endeavor is to do something called “abolish” poverty, which on this definition would require something indeed miraculous: namely a complete equalization of incomes. This remarkable definition has the perverse effect of showing poverty on the increase in times of prosperity and on the decrease in times of depression when the average goes down. The sentiment of compassion for the poor has become an undercover device for equalizing social conditions, and millions have been taught that self-pity is a way of extracting wealth from other people.
Sentimentality and cynicism are not only logically similar distortions of reality, but they also feed off each other. The sentimental response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1998 found its cynical counterpart in the denigration of the rest of the Windsor family. Again, it has been one of the virtues of liberalism to defend what we might call its ideological clients against prejudice and denigration. Unfortunately, this virtue has not been a concern with good manners which deplore causing hurt to others as individuals. It has, rather, been an ideological program for saving some from prejudice by setting up a new class of abstract hate objects, such as racists, sexists, homophobes, and the like. It is strange that liberals who deplore the punishment of criminals coming from the “victim classes” will advocate specially enhanced punishment for those who commit “hate crimes,” forgetting that a crime is an act, not a thought. One problem is thus that every advance by the liberal mind tends to leave us back where we started.
Part of the explanation of this phenomenon is, no doubt, that the liberalism that has crystallized into the liberal mind exhibited a massive misunderstanding of the conditions of human happiness. It assumed that happiness depends on distributing benefits. The overprivileged have too many, the underprivileged too few. In the twentieth century, benefits have multiplied vastly for all, and no doubt removing them would cause great misery, but it is also true that this rise in prosperity has failed to deliver a proportional increase in happiness. Perhaps abundance resembles addiction: increase is needed just to sustain the level of pleasure.
The idea that happiness depends on benefits is among the more influential illusions of the liberal mind. It can generate the further illusion that a better life is in the gift of the civil power. In the late twentieth century, a vocabulary of rights facilitated a ceaseless raid by democracy on the economy. Political philosophers have always recognized that human beings are creatures of desire, and that life was the pursuit of happiness. The desires they theorized led to choices, but the choices carried responsibility along with them; they were not mere “choices.” Philosophers took for granted a conception of the point of human life which the liberal mind may well be destroying. The pursuit of happiness is not, on this view, the search for a shower of benefits. Rather, it involves the recognition that life itself is a mixed blessing, that its point is not the satisfaction of desire so much as an adventure in testing wherein what we most fear is sinking below our best, that truth comes by blows, and that failure and disappointment are as necessary to us as exhilaration and success.
In the modern world, we know better how to control than how to endure. Technology increasingly takes the place of fortitude, and the liberal mind distances us from those from whom we have inherited our tamed pushbutton world. Worse yet, liberalism replaces history itself by a saga of oppression, a saga that makes its own sentimentalities even more mysterious than they are already. How could such a sensibility as the liberal mind have come out of such brutishness? Countries sometimes become disoriented and mistake their own real identity—as Italy did in the 1920s and 1930s when persuaded by Mussolini that it was a conquering imperialist power. National disorientation can be a fatal affliction, but with the liberal mind, we encounter something even more portentous: namely, a civilization busy cutting its links with the past and falling into a sentimental daydream.
To revisit The Liberal Mind turns out to be something that provokes me to pessimism. In those optimistic days of yore I had confidence in the broad commonsense of my world. I wrote that the ideas of the liberal mind could never really dominate the thinking of any society, because “such institutions as armed services, universities, churches and cultural academies . . . have nonetheless a powerful impulse to generate non-liberal ways of thought” (pp. 43–44). So far as the armed services are concerned, it has been said, not entirely facetiously, that we shall soon need wheelchair access to tanks. In universities, the fact that the academic life requires active ability in students has been strongly qualified by a concern for irrelevancies such as sex or race. It is no longer just a matter of being intelligent. And the churches have largely given up any decent dogma in favor of finding a new role counseling and communalizing their diminishing flocks. What future then for saints, soldiers, and scholars? They have all been boiled down into the soup of “generic man.”
Fortunately, there is an awful lot of ruin in a nation, and the West is nothing if not a resilient civilization. So far we have been lucky, and our declinists wrong. I hope we shall be lucky again.
Indianapolis, October 1999