Few reactions against postmodernism and identity politics have been as noticeable as the surging interest in classical liberalism. Against a hyper-egalitarianism concerned with safe spaces and achieving equality of outcome for all, modern classical liberals emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and meritocracy. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend is Jordan Peterson. A self-described classical liberal, Peterson has offered scathing critiques of postmodern intersectionality and its concern with achieving equality of outcome for all people regardless of their inclinations and natural talents. He enjoys a lot of company these days. In a recent article for Quillette, Andrew Kelman condemns the influence of post-modern philosophy on the law via critical legal studies, and calls for a return to classical liberal principles in legal analysis. Recently fired Atlantic author Kevin Williamson has bemoaned the turn to radicalism on the Right and Left, lamenting that there is “no political home for classical liberalism at all” in contemporary society. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame has written a dour book entitled Why Liberalism Failed diagnosing why a seemingly healthy ideology, triumphant in the Cold War and ascendant across the globe, seems to be collapsing without warning. And so on.
These modern classical liberals have a diverse array of opinions on a wide array of issues. Summarizing them all would be impossible. Instead I will focus on the two most prominent concerns modern proponents of ‘classical liberalism’ point to as harbingers of what happens when we abandon individualistic and meritocratic fundamentals.
The first major concern highlighted by modern classical liberals is the rise of intolerance and virulent identity politics on university campuses. Many have noted the paradoxical tendency of highly insulated students to demand protection from politically incorrect material by aggressively chilling the speech of those who disagree with them, sometimes even through violence. The moral justification for this is frequently an appeal to group identity; appealing to postmodern philosophy, campus radicals argue that intersectionally marginalized groups should be protected from information that reminds them of dark histories of prejudice towards them. I largely agree with many of the criticisms levelled against these groups, so will not discuss them at length here.
The second major concern highlighted by classical liberals is the decline of meritocratic standards. Because this issue is more central to my overall point in this article, I will elaborate on it in considerably more detail. Modern classical liberals feel that postmodern identity politics has engendered a culture of victimization where far too many individuals feel they have been denied social positions and resources due to alleged discrimination in the past or present. Given this, postmodern activists want society to invest time in achieving greater equality of outcome for all, especially by giving individuals from historically marginalized groups a leg up through providing resources, greater access to opportunities, and so on.
Modern classical liberals usually point to two problems with this position. Firstly, as Peterson observes, classical liberals are concerned that the state will have to engage in massive intervention to achieve authentic equality of outcome across the board. This might even involve interfering in life choices individuals would otherwise make based on natural propensities; for instance, the tendency observed by Peterson for more women to enter the medical field. The second and more pressing problem with the decline in meritocratic standards is also more ambiguous. Modern classical liberals find the culture of victimization and group identity politics engendered by postmodern philosophies unappealing. They feel that, given equality of opportunity for all, individuals should then be largely responsible for their private “pursuit of happiness.” As it is sometimes articulated, identity politics is seen as making people far too concerned with demanding rights to equality of outcome, and far too blasé about taking responsibility for self-improvement and development. Indeed, the major orientation of Peterson’s latest bestseller 12 Rules For Life, with its injunctions to “stand up straight with your shoulders back” and to “set your house in perfect order before you try to change the world,” is that individuals should stop concerning themselves so much with removing perceived social barriers to their success. Instead, they should put some effort into actually trying to achieve success through hard work and merit.
The Classical Liberal Veneration of Labour and Meritocracy
Now we get to the positive dimension of the classical liberal argument. If classical liberal principles were adopted consistently, advocates admit this would lead to an unequal world where some individuals would climb further up the social hierarchy than others. But, so long as such inequality is a consequence of differences in natural talents and work ethic, it is morally justifiable because the inequities are based on merit. Indeed, many classical liberals believe that it is wrong to take resources from those who worked to become successful to pursue equality of outcome on behalf of self-described victims who have few actual talents or the drive to work hard. At the core of this claim is an emphasis on individual merit; people should be valued for what they contribute as individuals, rather than as arbitrary members of a given group which collectively demands compensation for wrongs long past.
The modern articulation of the classical liberal conception draws on deep intellectual roots in Western culture. The most influential formulation of the meritocratic principle characteristic of classical liberalism comes from John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke develops an argument for the state based on the need to protect legitimately acquired rights to private property. Qua Hobbes, Locke argued that in the state of nature, before government and civil society, “all the world was America”-signifying that all objects in the world were held in common.
For Locke, property rights first emerged because individuals fundamentally own themselves. Because they own themselves, when they mixed their labour with objects in physical space and transformed them from raw matter into goods, they come to own those goods. Locke’s paradigmatic example was the right of individuals who till the soil to obtain property rights to the land and its bounty. To deny individuals full rights to goods produced by their hands by giving them to another would in effect make that individual a slave. This is morally wrong. But though they have moral property rights to the goods they have produced through their labour, individuals in a state of nature recognize that these rights are insecure. They therefore establish a representative government and political institutions to enforce their property rights. As Locke put it unambiguously, “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.”
What makes the Lockean argument appealing to many modern classical liberals is this strong association between labour, property, and freedom. For Locke, labour is what morally entitles individuals to property rights. If a person doesn’t work hard, and exists in a state of idleness, he is unlikely to merit a great deal of property. Idle people may well come to resent those who do work hard, and violently demand an unearned share of what the latter has earned through concerted effort. But, to invoke Kant (another classical liberal), this is deeply wrong because it treats the individual with property rights as a means to the immoral ends of another.
While Locke’s account might seem a bit primitive today (and it is worth noting that he himself had little respect for the property rights of Native Americans, and profited from the slave trade), it has had a prolonged influence. Many modern classical liberals, such as Peterson, Kelman, and others appeal to fundamentally Lockean arguments in their polemics against identity and group politics. They feel it is wrong to give certain groups advantages due to alleged historical mistreatment because. It will necessarily involve forcing individuals who have worked hard to acquire property and position to give some of that up to compensate those who have not labored to develop marketable talents or build up their resume. This takes from those individuals who merit having a great deal and gives it to those who do not merit it purely on the basis of group identity. As many have observed, the Declaration of Independence—deeply influenced by Locke’s ideas—highlights that all individuals have a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” not its achievement. Whether or not you merit achieving ‘happiness’ should depend on your character, effort, and drive. Many modern classical liberals dislike postmodern identity politics because they see it as fundamentally illiberal. Oriented around group identity and demands for equality of outcome based on past wrongs, it undermines the belief that any individual can make it in society if they try.
I have some sympathy with the arguments classical liberals make against postmodern philosophies, albeit for different reasons than those articulated here. But there is an odd gap in their analysis. Very few of them acknowledge that there has been a fundamental shift within liberalism itself that has nothing to do with the advent of postmodernism. Many modern liberals believe that liberalism, consistently understood, is not conducive to the meritocratic arguments discussed above. As I shall observe, the claims of these egalitarian liberals are far more problematic for proponents of meritocracy than those of the postmodernists. They argue that taking individualism and merit seriously means eliminating morally arbitrary inequities that enable many to get ahead due to advantages for which they can take no credit.
Rawls’s Egalitarian Liberalism
The original egalitarian liberal is John Rawls, widely acclaimed as the most famous political theorist of the twentieth century. In his seminal book A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, Rawls enacted a transformative shift in the way liberals understand individualism and individual merit. Prior to Rawls, the classical liberal argument for meritocracy was already being complicated by Utilitarians, who argued that society should focus on maximizing the welfare of each person. This might mean adopting robust redistributive policies, such as those found in an advanced welfare state. But the Utilitarian argument for redistribution was based on the idea of maximizing aggregate pleasure. It “did not take seriously the differences” between people as Rawls observed, and the classical liberals would agree. The latter would argue that redistributive policies were unjust because they effaced differences in effort and individual merit. Rawls took a different view. He argued from a liberal standpoint that individual merit was a deeply ambiguous and heavily mythologized principle which discriminated against disadvantaged individuals for “morally arbitrary reasons” which had little to do with merit. Therefore a ‘fair’ liberal society would adopt robust redistributive policies to compensate for the moral arbitrariness in the distribution of goods.
Rawls raises two arguments for this position. The first is an argument derived from what he termed the “Original Position.” Summarizing very briefly, Rawls asks us to imagine what hypothetical society an impartial individual would feel safe entering if they were unaware who they would be in that society and what kind of distributive principles would orient it. Such impartial individuals, behind what he termed a “veil of ignorance,” would not know if they would end up a Doctor catering to wealthy patients in Manhattan or a cashier working at Wal-Mart in Mississippi. Rawls argued that individuals would not feel safe entering into a society oriented by the meritocratic principle, because they were far more likely to wind up swiping groceries over a scanner for minimum wage and few benefits than discussing the latest issue of the American Journal of Medicine over martinis. Therefore, an impartial person who had to decide what kind of society he would feel safe entering would want a more egalitarian principle orienting the distribution of goods. This would guarantee that if he did wind up working as the Wal-Mart cashier he would still have enough to get by.
This first argument of Rawls’s is quite controversial, even to those—myself included—who are sympathetic to his overall position. Many have observed that he seems to assume impartial individuals would be deeply cautious and unwilling to gamble that they would wind up as a rich Doctor paying low taxes. But the first argument isn’t especially germane here. Rawls’s more powerful argument is a purely moral one: the argument from moral arbitrariness.
Rawls observes that when one looks closely at many of the reasons people get ahead, very few of them actually have to do with their individual moral merit. Most individuals get ahead for reasons that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” But, as Rawls observes, this is antithetical to liberal individualism. If many individuals get ahead for reasons that are arbitrary from a moral point of view, this means that those left behind are not there through any fault of their own. They were left behind for reasons that are similarly arbitrary. For Rawls this is deeply unfair from a liberal standpoint, since one of fundamental beliefs of liberalism is that arbitrary hierarchies that enable some to get ahead are unjustifiable.
This is where Rawls gets truly radical. Simplifying somewhat, Rawls observes that there are effectively two sets of morally arbitrary advantages which enable some individuals to get ahead for reasons that cannot be justified from a liberal standpoint. The first set are social advantages. The second set are natural advantages, such as genetic talents. We will discuss both in some detail.
Social advantages are those which individuals enjoy due to the persistence of arbitrary political, institutional, cultural, and economic hierarchies which benefit some over others. Social advantages can include everything from getting to go to elite private schools because one’s parents are rich, to being read to as a child where others are placed in front of a television set. In both of these cases, and many others, individuals are given social advantages which give them a head start in the race for position and resources. These have nothing to do with merit since no individual can claim credit for these social advantages. If one’s parents are wealthy enough to send their child to the Phillips’s Academy for $41,900 a year, the advantages the child accrues have nothing to do with their relative merit. The inverse is true for the disadvantaged. Is it the fault of a 10 year-old in Flint that their studying might impeded by a lack of safe drinking water at their underfunded school? Subsequently, is it entirely as a result of merit that the former child acquires an A+ average before his parents shell out $46,000 a year for Harvard University, while the latter child ends up a B student taking out significant loans to go to community college? These narratives are hardly unrepresentative. In a 2010 study, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s observed that only 14 percent of undergraduates at elite colleges come from families at the bottom half of the income hierarchy. There seems to be little way of justifying these inequities along meritocratic lines.
Some more centrist classical liberals respond to such claims by softening their position. They agree to redistributive policies necessary to ameliorate unearned advantages and provide opportunities to those who were socially unlucky. Peterson himself has made this point recently, calling rampant income inequality a problem. But modern classical liberals argue that these policies should only go so far. Once morally arbitrary social advantages are ameliorated, the inequalities which would then emerge as a result of individual’s natural advantages and talents shouldn’t be interfered with. But this is where Rawls brings up his arguments about the second set of reasons individuals get ahead for morally arbitrary reasons. This has to do with the morally arbitrary distribution of natural advantages.
Natural advantages are those which individuals enjoy at birth due to fortunate genetic heritage and other scientifically determined circumstances. They can include advantages like being born with a higher IQ than average, being born with an exceptionally healthy immune system, or a capacity to achieve at a high level of academic ability. In none of these cases can individuals claim that they merited being born intrinsically smarter, healthier, or stronger, than others. The inverse is true for those who may have been born with a low IQ, with a significant physical disability, or a tendency to be small and frail. This is a problem for the meritocratic conception. Since natural advantages are distributed in a way that is morally arbitrary, the achievements and goods of those who enjoy them are not entirely merited. A naturally handsome, healthy, highly intelligent man enjoys a significant and unearned edge over a less attractive, sickly man with a lower than average intelligence.
Now critics may claim that natural advantages don’t mean much in themselves. They may remain undeveloped if a person doesn’t commit the effort needed to refine them. But as Rawls observes, even a tendency to commit effort depends in part on fortunate natural (and social) factors. Healthy individuals brought up in a family which values work and achievement are more likely to commit effort to developing their natural advantages relative to individuals suffering from inherited and acute depression who are growing up in dysfunctional families. Finally, having natural advantages and talents worth developing depends a great deal on what society chooses to value. A ‘talent’ is only such because others decide to ascribe it significance. An individual with an acute talent at chess can only profit from it when they are born in a social setting where such an ability is valued. The same is true of an individual with a genetic propensity to develop the talents needed to achieve greatness in American football. These talents would not be as meaningful in societies that didn’t care about chess or football. So individuals who posses such talents are fortunate again to be born in the right place at the right time. They cannot take credit for such fortune. A just society would therefore attempt to ameliorate the consequences which arise from the distribution in natural talents, and not cop out by claiming that nature is simply unconcerned with fairness. If we can act to rectify unfairness, it is the liberal thinking to do. As Rawls puts it in Chapter II of Theory of Justice:
We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action.
Conclusion: Postmodernism Isn’t Meritocracy’s Main Adversary
Rawls’s point is not that any one of these morally arbitrary advantages is determinative. There are individuals from wealthy families who go bust. Individuals with a very high IQ may suffer from a range of mood and anxiety disorders that can hold them back. But the aggregated impact of such morally arbitrary social and natural advantages is that many individuals get ahead due to factors for which they can claim no credit. From a Rawlsian standpoint, this is deeply illiberal since it allows for a distribution of goods, social honors, and opportunities which has little to do with moral merit and a great deal to do with arbitrary advantage. A just liberal society would therefore be concerned with establishing a more fair distribution of resources to compensate the least well off for the disadvantages they endure through no fault of their own. To Rawls’s mind, this does not mean striving for strict equality of outcome. But it does mean that any inequalities which do emerge in a liberal society must work to the advantage of those who are poorly off for morally arbitrary reasons.
This argument has been massively influential in analytical political philosophy, especially amongst liberals. Indeed, one of the odd characteristics of modern self-described ‘classical liberals’ is an at times myopic focus on postmodern philosophy and identity politics to the exclusion of other intellectual trends. If they looked more carefully at modern liberal philosophy, they might not like what they see. Contemporary liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, and others are firmly committed to liberalism while also arguing that our current society is unjustifiably riddled with unmerited advantage. They draw our attention to the fact that, far from becoming a society where merit is not valued, there are still an immense number of morally arbitrary factors allowing some individuals to get ahead while other undeservedly fall behind.
In fact Rawls’s argument has been so successful that even sophisticated critics largely cede his point about moral arbitrariness. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia the great libertarian thinker Robert Nozick conceded many of the Rawls’s points. Nozick argued that Rawls is right to claim that moral arbitrariness plays a large—maybe even primary—role in the distribution of advantages which allows some to unfairly get ahead. But, rejuvenating Lockean arguments, Nozick argued that we should not establish a state powerful enough to rectify all such moral arbitrariness. A state that powerful would inevitably clamp down on human freedom and become deeply unjust.
Perhaps there is something to this argument, perhaps not. My goal in this essay hasn’t been to challenge all tenets of classical liberalism. It is merely to observe that the claim that liberal meritocratic arguments are primarily challenged by postmodern identity politics is misleading. While that may be true in the public sphere, the deeper problem for classical liberals are issues within liberalism itself. If Rawls and his descendants are right that liberal principles orient us to reject most meritocratic claims, it is far less clear what intellectual legs it stands on.
Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.