How Classical Liberalism Can Heal the Bonds of American Affection

How Classical Liberalism Can Heal the Bonds of American Affection

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer
8 min read

As I write these words—on April 18, 2018—Starbucks has just announced it would temporarily close more than 8,000 cafés so that 175,000 employees may undergo sensitivity training for the “implicit racism” that, apparently, everyone in the company unconsciously harbors. This follows an incident in Philadelphia, in which a Starbucks store manager called the police on two African-American men who wanted to use the bathroom despite not being paying customers.

Setting aside the contentious issue of whether it is possible even to reliably detect and correct such a nebulous concept as unconscious bias (of which I, and others, have expressed skepticism), how is it that the hidden motives of an entire corporate collective can be inferred from the actions of a single employee? Traditional bigotry operates by mapping a stereotype of a collective onto an individual. Within Starbucks, the process has been inverted, with the vector of prejudice emanating from the one to the many.

Stories such as this now clutter our news feeds daily. The details change from one controversy to the next, but they all reflect the larger trend by which our society is self-factionalizing into groups tagged by skin color, gender, and sexual preference—a process that has, in turn, encouraged the creation of increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.

The process is at play on both sides of the political spectrum. The social-justice left now casually portrays whiteness (and sometimes maleness) itself as a sort of moral disease. The alt-right embraces nativism and vilifies immigrants. Both sides insist that we are in the midst of a Manichean culture war, and imagine that they are fighting against implacable extremists. Language matters, and good-faith debate and compromise become impossible once one side has painted the other as inveterate bigots or criminals. Who would want to reason with a racist, or dialogue with a demagogue?

Of course, politics has been polarizing since the earliest days of the American republic. (The fourth Presidential contest between incumbent John Adams of the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans was so bitter and contentious that it became known as the “Revolution of 1800.”) But through the layering of social media on top of cable news and talk radio, modern communication methods now allow each side to propagandize their base and vilify enemies at every waking moment of Americans’ lives.

Such polarization can be seen in surveys that show the political center shrinking over the past two decades, with the left and right growing ever further apart. A 2014 Pew poll of over 10,000 Americans, for example, found that the percentage of Republicans holding “mostly or consistently conservative positions” had grown from 31% to 53% over the previous two decades, while Democrats holding “mostly or consistently liberal positions” shifted from 30% to 56%.

Source: PEW Research Center, 2014 Political Polarization in the American Public

The share of Republicans who view Democrats unfavorably went up from 17% to 43% between 1994 and 2014, while the share of Democrats who feel similarly about Republicans went from 16% percent to 38%.

Numerous pundits, politicians, and social scientists have offered ideas for addressing America’s growing political polarization—from changes to campaign-spending laws to the regulation of social media. But my own view is that the answer always has been with us, in the form of precepts shrouded in the mists of the 18th century Rights Revolution. This is when the core principles of classical liberalism took shape through the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Paine, and Jeremy Bentham, among others—which in turn laid the groundwork for both conservatism and liberalism’s modern-day variant.

The term “classical liberalism” gets thrown around a lot, sometimes in a way that mangles the term’s true meaning (“liberalism” today represents something different from its 18th century meaning). So in my 2015 book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity to Truth, Justice, and Freedom, I tried to systematically enumerate what I believe are the core elements of a classically liberal society:

  • a democracy in which the franchise extends to all adults;
  • rule of law, including a constitution that is subject to change only under extraordinary political circumstances and well-defined judicial procedures; a legislature whose laws are applied equally to all citizens; and a system of courts that serves all litigants impartially;
  • protection of civil rights and civil liberties;
  • a potent police and military to ensure the safety of citizens;
  • property rights, and the freedom to trade with others at home and abroad;
  • a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system;
  • freedom of internal movement;
  • freedom of speech, the press, and association;
  • mass education, accessible to all, of a type that encourages critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and the dissemination of knowledge.

And to this, I would add one more element—which though alien to classical liberalism in its original form, has become an integral part of all modern democracies that engenders societal stability, trust, and inter-group solidarity:

  • adequate public spending to help the needy—including the homeless, mentally ill, physically handicapped, unemployed, aged, and very young—through the provision of such needs as shelter, child care, food, energy, education, job training, and medical care.

This last point is one I would not have included in my more libertarian youth, but now embrace in my classically liberal maturity, having studied the empirical data collected during my lifetime. Although the left and right disagree about social spending (too little or too much), the fact is that today the strongest and fastest growing economies in the world allocate anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their GDP to social expenditures. A 2015 study on global human development between 1870 and 2007, conducted by the economist Leandro Prados de la Escosura, reported a positive correlation between the percentage of GDP that an OECD nation allocated to social spending and its score on a composite measure of prosperity, health, and education. Germany, for instance, has created the strongest economy in the EU on the basis of a social-welfare system that provides citizens with cradle-to-grave security. (My wife Jennifer is from Köln, Germany, and she is constantly amazed at what the United States fails to provide those in need—starting with universal health care.) This shows us that it is not only morally virtuous to help those who cannot help themselves, it pays economic dividends, as well.

We also have empirical evidence showing us that, for all the tribalized division between America’s left and right, both sides share a surprisingly large number of basic moral values. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, collected data from hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and distilled five foundations of morality common to all of us:

  1. Care, underlying such virtues as kindness, gentleness, and nurturance;
  2. Fairness, associated with such ideals as justice, rights and autonomy;
  3. Loyalty, including patriotism and a tendency toward self-sacrifice;
  4. Respect for authority; and
  5. Purity/sanctity, which manifests in the effort to live a more elevated or noble way.

According to received political wisdom, conservatives care primarily for #3, #4, and #5, while liberals are more concerned with #1 and #2. And the survey data does bear out this trend to some degree. But the statistical differences are more minor than we’ve been conditioned to expect. Both liberals and conservatives value all five moral foundations, even while varying in their degree of assigned priority.

The one hard kernel of dogma that tends to separate liberals and conservatives today, and which reflects a clear deviation from the ideals of classical liberalism, is the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual. Under the banner of identity politics, liberals tend to categorize individuals as members of an oppressed or oppressing group, using race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other crude categories as a moral proxy. Meanwhile, under the banner of faith and flag, many conservatives sort people into collectivities according to religion and national origin. The resulting Us vs. Them tribalism leads to such illiberal policies as speech censorship on the left and economic nationalism on the right. The racial politics of the Alt-Right is the moral mirror image of identity politics of the Alt-Left.

Classical liberalism provides an escape from this dyad, because it identifies individuals, not groups, as the locus of rights. It is individuals, not groups, who perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, suffer—and vote.

We are a social species, so we enjoy and even need the company of others, including in the form of groups defined by blood, friendship and faith. And we are a political species, so we revel in sorting ourselves into like-minded ideological tribes. But such instincts should not serve to negate the status of the individual as the primary moral agent, the inheritor of legal rights, the baseline actor in democracy, and the ultimate subject under our laws.

History shows that it is when individuals are treated primarily as units of a larger group that abuses of freedom are more likely to occur—sometimes in a way that leads to dictatorship or even bloodshed. It is when people are judged not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin—or by their gender chromosomal constitution, or by whom they prefer to share a bed with, or by what accent they speak with, or by their political or religious affiliation—that liberty fails, and mobs form.

Contemporary etching depicting the Hepp-Hepp Riot against Jews in Frankfurt. This was one of the many anti-Semitic riots that took place in Germany in 1819.

If the massive divide between America’s left and right is ever to be narrowed, it will be through something resembling an implicit grand bargain, according to which both sides rediscover the common roots of their respective creeds in classical liberalism. For progressives, this would mean putting aside the fixation on assigning moral value on the basis of political group identity—race, gender, or sexual orientation. For conservatives, this would mean coming to terms with the common humanity we share with those in other nations, along with an acceptance of the modern pluralistic welfare state.

Though America is not literally at war with itself, it is still worth revisiting some of the words Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural address, at a time when he was hoping (in vain) to hold his country together:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

By helping to bring out the better angels of each political faction, the rediscovered spirit of classical liberalism may allow constituencies on both left and right to enter a grand bargain that emphasizes the many values they do share in common. They will never agree on everything, of course. Left and right will continue to fight, as always. But at least the gulf between them might be narrowed sufficiently to repair the bonds of affection.

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Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, host of The Michael Shermer Show podcast, and a presidential fellow at Chapman University.