Front Page Titles (by Subject) VI.: TRADITION AND THE TWO LIBERALISMS - The Liberal Mind
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VI.: TRADITION AND THE TWO LIBERALISMS - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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TRADITION AND THE TWO LIBERALISMS
Liberalism has emerged quite self-consciously from communities dominated by traditional ways of doing things. In this context, its key idea has been that of improvement, or, in politics, reform. Such improvement requires that we should ask ourselves what it is exactly that we are trying to do, and then search for more efficient ways of doing it. We are thus presented with a contrast between reason and tradition, and the contrast operates clearly to the disadvantage of tradition.
Yet the term tradition is one which must be used with care, for it has two quite distinct and indeed almost directly opposed meanings. The meaning it has when under criticism depends primarily upon the idea of repetition. It is doing things in a time-hallowed manner. It is the refusal to countenance any kind of innovation. It is the admixture in clearly purposive behavior of ritual and usages which do not advance the task in hand, and quite often impede it.
That is the derogatory meaning of tradition. But people will be found also to assert that nothing is possible without the development of traditions of skill and enterprise which are transmitted from generation to generation. A tradition in this sense is a knowledge of how to go about tasks, one which can only be transmitted by imitation, and which cannot be written down and summarized. In this sense of tradition, it is development rather than repetition which is the central idea.17 And what leads such traditions into decadence is precisely the conscious operations of reason. For reason fragments a tradition into a set of policies, ends and means, and works in terms of principles, which are to traditions just what dogmas are to ideologies—distorting fixed points outside the range of criticism. We may talk, for example, of traditions of military skill, and, in this sense, the tradition is the capacity for innovation, and adaptation to new circumstances. The behavior of the French general staff in the 1930s in building a Maginot Line and in thinking of war in terms of trenches, artillery bombardments, and static masses of infantry may be regarded as traditional in the first sense; it was emphatically not traditional in the second sense.
The political tradition against which liberalism was primarily in revolt was one of authority and obedience. King, Pope, magistrate and patriarch were all figures of authority who claimed obedience from their subjects. The political structure in which all found a place was not, however, either tyrannical or despotic. There were two general kinds of limitation upon the power of authorities. One was the result of custom and usage, and the other was the consent of the subjects. Both these limitations were the subject of extensive discussion in medieval political thought, which, in spite of the many caricatures prevalent in liberal writings, was far from being either uncritical or unrealistic. It is in these writings that we find the principle vox populi vox dei; and it was from Aquinas, through many intermediaries, that Locke derived many of the principles which in his formulation became dogmas of liberalism. Besides, the sheer plurality and localism of medieval conditions, combined with the ceaseless conflict between institutions, made a situation in which appeal to popular support was, then as now, one of the most powerful political cards that could be played. Medieval use of popular support was a legacy of great importance; for example, extensive use of Lancastrian precedents was made by the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War; the Lancastrians, a dynasty with shaky claims to legitimacy, had relied heavily on popular support.
The development of modern conditions must therefore be seen as the continuation of a long history, and one in which very little was radically novel. It was at first developments in a few limited activities which provoked rejection of particular claims of certain authorities. Thus the Pope’s doctrinal hegemony came under violent attack centuries before the Reformation, and the commercial inconveniences of a multitude of petty authorities advanced the claims of the monarch long before the nation-state took on any recognizable shape. Similarly, intellectual endeavors led to friction with authorities. It was for a long time the sovereign who remained most untroubled by this anti-authoritarian feeling; and this immunity was the consequence of his remoteness.
The main exception to the popularity of kings is to be found in the field of religion, for it was here that hostile royal intervention could press most heavily. And among the first people to develop politically liberal ideas were the intellectual spokesmen for religious minorities. The arguments they used, being philosophical, were couched in highly general terms. And besides, the intellectual momentum produced by the criticism of some traditional authorities did not stop before it had engulfed all authority. The most popular formulation of anti-authoritarian criticism, then as now, contrasts the individual and the institution, particularly the State. But given that the conception of the individual is as incoherent as we have argued, it would seem more accurate to formulate the criticism in terms of activities: liberalism was the assertion that the conduct of authority should be determined by the activities which grew up or declined within the institution. In directly political terms, this was the demand for government by the consent of the governed.
But this principle of consent was not, as we have seen, a new one. It existed in the middle ages, where its range and implications were more limited. For this reason, the picture of liberalism emerging by the power of reason from out of a superstitious and static traditional society is a false one. And this means that the relationship between liberalism and tradition must be examined with some care. For in rejecting traditional authority, liberalism included two elements which, while they are generally found yoked together, must be clearly distinguished.
One element is a rejection of the whole structure of traditional societies. Seen in this way, liberalism is a liberating force which rejects a static and crippling security in favor of a dynamic and progressive social system, one in which all social institutions are free to develop as they wish, checked inevitably by the development of others. This is less a social program than a spirit abroad; it scrutinizes existing organization and repudiates whatever is rigid and constrictive, and it romantically embraces the unpredictable consequences of its rejection of tradition. This free spirit is, in particular, hostile to political expediency and to rationality; it is itself irrational and unpredictable. There is a good deal of this attitude in the early American rejection of European class structure; it is also invoked by democracies when at war with total-itarian States—turning then into an ideology which asserts the adaptability and self-reliance of free men in comparison with those who unquestioningly serve a leader or Führer. Yet the more this spirit is turned into an ideology, the more it becomes a dogma, a caricatured inversion of the spirit from which it derives. The area in which this element of liberalism is most at home is that of the intellect; it is here that we find the passion to follow an argument wherever it leads, trampling over dogmas and the convenient orthodoxies maintained by authority. Liberalism embraces this exploratory and experimental spirit in all fields. Yet it is irrational in both possible senses; it is uncalculating— unconcerned with security or the preservation of interests—and it is incalculable. Its consequences cannot be foreseen, and its very presence may be inimical to social and political harmony.
This disposition to subject everything to critical enquiry, and to take nothing on trust from authorities, is sometimes called rationalism, especially in the context of religious discussions. But rationalism has a number of meanings, some of them precisely antipathetic to this spirit. And to call it rationalism falsely suggests that free criticism is spun out of the presiding faculty of reason like honey from a bee. We may more suitably call it libertarianism.
The libertarian element in liberalism constitutes a direct threat to all authorities, traditional or not. But liberalism has not been consistently hostile to authority. For the other element of the doctrine is the search for a manner of social life which would dispense with the inefficiency, waste and misery which always seem to have characterized all human association. The search for harmony, the pursuit of happiness and the doctrine of progress—none of these is libertarian, and each may be directly hostile to the critical spirit. For the critical spirit disrupts harmonies, causes a good deal of direct unhappiness, and may or may not seem progressive. The only way in which libertarianism can be harmonized with these other elements of liberalism is by taking a dizzying jump into the future, and making an act of faith to the effect that in the long run the products of the critical spirit will increase the amount of happiness. But for many people, and especially in the short run, it is a dubious proposition.
We may call this the salvationist element in liberalism. It arises from a persistent belief that society is in the midst of a revolution which will no doubt last for several generations, but which will have a perfectly definite end—one in which science would have taught us all her lessons, and bequeathed us the comforts of technology and the harmonies of political agreement. History, like time, must have a stop. This feeling is stated in different terms by such disparate figures as Bacon, Bentham and Marx.
Salvationism is a heresy which periodically thins the liberal ranks. The major problem of politics, in terms of salvationism, is to know exactly when we have reached, or are about to reach, the moment of salvation; for the true liberal, it will never arrive. An early salvationist threat to liberalism was very powerful in Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and took the form of a demand for a Rule of the Saints. The Saints were dedicated men who believed that all the struggles against King, Bishop and Pope were to culminate in a reign of perfection, government by the Saints themselves (though in Christ’s name).
These episodes illustrate one of the curious characteristics of liberalism: that while it is itself a balanced and cautious doctrine, it is nonetheless a prolific generator of fanaticisms. These fanaticisms are partly the product of liberal salvationism, and they can introduce into political life an element of savage ferocity which is quite alien to the more or less traditional régimes which fall to them. The Reign of Terror, in pursuit of Jacobin salvation, broke over a France which had been mildly, if eccentrically, governed for over a century. Fanaticism arises because one particular part of the liberal program, or one particular enmity, has become obsessive and over-riding. In this century, Nationalism, Industrialism, or some form of Collectivism has conspicuously generated this kind of blind allegiance. Parties absorbed by such goals remember enough of their liberal derivation to persist in the use of liberal slogans; they continue to talk of liberty and equality and the dignity and rights of man. But their behavior is far from liberal.
Can these two elements in liberalism be separated? Do they ever make an independent appearance? The libertarian spirit is a characteristic likely to be found wherever liberal doctrines are asserted; but it has no necessary relation with liberals, and it is not the product of planned or willed activity. All that liberalism can do is provide it with suitable channels for its irruptions. When libertarianism becomes a doctrine, equipped with its own moral scale and set of beliefs about the world, it turns into a romantic fantasy; it becomes fully irrationalist in the way which frightens liberal intellectuals. It has appeared as anarchism, nihilism, and the theory of the acte gratuit; it usually asserts the legitimacy of destruction and violence, doing for these what Rousseau tried to do for all feelings. These are doctrines which attempt to intellectualize what is spontaneous and unplanned, and thereby produce only self-conscious caricatures fit for timid men to prove their courage, and slavish ones to prove their independence.
Liberal salvationism can, as we have said, lead a life of its own; and it is the most frequent cause of liberal heresies. For it arises from the passion for order, tidiness and harmony. Liberal utopias are marked primarily by an explicit concern with happiness; and in the name of all future joys, many present sorrows must be endured. It is one of the ironic signs of the pervasiveness of moral demands that even the liberal philosophy of desiring is vulnerable to ought-desires; that is, to desires which any decent and rational man must have. In liberal utopias there is little talk of order, discipline and obedience; authority demands not only to be obeyed but to be freely obeyed. But authority makes demands all the same, and is ready to punish and kill if our feelings will not play the harmony game.
Here we are concerned with a spectrum of orderly passions which is mildly found in the early Fabians and insanely present in the Russian purges. But in making this connection, we do not thereby cast a stain on liberalism; neither people nor doctrines can free themselves from shabby and disreputable relatives. What is clear about liberalism is that both elements, the libertarian and the salvationist, must be present to constitute the movement as it has identified itself over the last few centuries. And here is one of the marks of ideology, that of internal incoherence. For liberals are simultaneously to be found praising variety and indeed eccentricity of opinion and behavior; and gnawing industriously away at the many sources of variety in an attempt to provide every man, woman, child and dog with the conditions of a good life. They are to be found deploring the tyrannical excesses of totalitarian government, and yet also watching with bird-like fascination the pattern of order and harmony which those excesses are explicitly designed to promote. Liberalism is like all ideologies, a bickering family of thoughts and emotions; and sometimes parts of the family move out and set up on their own. But liberalism describes the family, and it would therefore be not futile but simply wrong to look closer at the various members of the family in order to discover which is most truly liberal.
Whatever the nature of liberalism, it is a clear instinct of self-preservation which leads traditional societies to fight against the entry of liberal ideas by such devices as censorship and repression. For once liberalism gains a foothold, a sort of traditional innocence is lost. The political consequences of liberal ideas may be the establishment of a liberal democratic society of the western European kind. But this outcome requires the co-operation of social and economic circumstances, or perhaps simply elements of good fortune, which are far from being universally distributed.
Ethics and Politics
[17. ]The best modern account of political tradition is to be found in Oakeshott, op. cit.