Some years ago, I was invited to give a university lecture on the importance of free speech. I gave a competent presentation but it lacked passion, not because I didn’t believe but because I didn’t quite see the threat or the pressing need even to address the topic. Free speech had always been in my adult life a non-negotiable principle of civilized life.
Same with the freedom of the press and religion. These are just things we believe. Only deranged psychopaths and dangerous ideological fanatics would dispute them.
What I had not understood was what had become a daily part of life in most major universities at the time: the punishment of dissent, the restriction on ideas, the muzzling of students, the intimidation of the faculty, and the gradual takeover of campus life by politically motivated administrators who were determined to blot out certain views so that others would ascend.
What the students and professors were experiencing was the triumph of Herbert Marcuse’s view that what people call “free speech” was the bourgeois mask of exploitative power relationships. His 1969 essay “Repressive Tolerance” went further to deride and denounce all settled postulates of liberalism as fraudulent. He argued that the only path to genuine emancipation was a “fight against an ideology of tolerance.”
And what he said of free speech he also said of every other postulate of liberal theory: commercial freedom, property rights, voluntary association, human rights, free trade, religious tolerance, and everything else. It was all one giant plot to generate a false consciousness of the underlying reality of bourgeois hegemony.
The claims were not particularly new. Carl Schmitt made the same argument in 1932 with his book The Concept of the Political. He too said that liberalism was illusory, a mere ideological front created by sneaky people to bamboozle the population into thinking that life was good when in fact life is tremendously terrible and in crying need of a despot to make things right.
The only real difference was the ideological flavor of the argument, Marcuse of the left and Schmitt of the right. Schmitt of course became a leading Nazi jurist, a champion of the social necessity of slaughtering enemies to recapture Germany on behalf of true patriots.
When I gave my lecture, I had no real awareness that the views of Marcuse and Schmitt were so much on the rise to the point that many in elite circles had truly stopped believing in liberalism altogether. The ideas had bled out of the academy and into media, corporate circles, and the administrative offices of the public lecture. I had no idea that the collapse was only a few years away.
To be sure, the ascendency of Trump worried me not only because of his anti-liberalism (beginning with his loathing of free trade but extending to many other areas) but also because his presidency would fire up fanaticism on the other side. Were we doomed to see liberty crushed in a battle between two flavors of poison, same as the interwar period in Europe? This was my concern. But back then, my worries were an abstraction, more about the health of intellectual culture than an expectation that the end of liberty would become so real.
On March 12, 2020, all my worries stopped being an abstraction. The president issued an executive order blocking travel from Europe in the name of virus control. He vaguely hinted of more to come. I sensed that evening that something tremendously dreadful had befallen civilization.
And more did come. Several days later, at a press conference that should surely go down in history, he called for the shutdown of American life for two weeks, since this was necessary to “defeat the virus.” The epidemiological math did not hold up to scrutiny but Trump had been misled by enemies within. That he was inclined to believe that he would be like Xi Jinping who also supposedly “defeated the virus” speaks to a major underlying problem: the overestimation of dictatorial prowess and the lack of trust in freedom to solve problems.
Of course the two weeks were extended to four, then six, then eight, then, in some areas, as much as two years. Even now, the remnants of control measures are all around us, from masks on planes to vaccine mandates for federal workers and students among others. The freedom we thought was so secure at its root turned out not to be at all. The courts only weighed in much later.
By the time Trump had caught on that he had been hoodwinked, his own enemies within and without took up the lockdown cause. It had proven to be enormously valuable in vastly increasing the size, scope, and power of governments at all levels – more so even than world wars in previous periods. The population had become so disoriented and confused by events all around that the default behavior was to acquiesce to control. The true colors of the mainstream left were revealed while Trump backers remained in a long period of confusion about what they were supposed to do and believe.
Stay-at-home orders, household capacity limits, and business closures morphed into domestic travel restrictions and new imposition on social media that turned into megaphones for government propaganda. At some point in the midst of this meltdown, Fauci and Biden both began to speak of freedom in a disparaging way, as if those who were asserting a foundational principle of civilization were crazy and selfish. The term “freedumb” began to trend. And censorship began the norm: in fact, to argue against it has become something of a thought crime.
The wreckage of these two years is all around us, and the victims are strewn through the population. They are kids who had two years of education stolen, the Covid fatalities that occurred for lack of early treatment and a complete failure to protect the old, the millions coerced into taking medicine they did not want or need, the devastation to the arts and small businesses, the heartbreak of families denied access to loved ones in the hospital, the nearly complete capturing of media and corporate power by government, and much more.
The fallout from this war on freedom just keeps on coming and taking different forms. Inflation, depression, tribalism, nihilism, nationalism and protectionism, and now war and the threat of nuclear war. It is all related. This is what happens when a regime casually decides to dispense with fundamentals and treats human rights as optional, easily trampled when the experts say it is not useful for serving their purposes at the moment.
The Power of Public Opinion
We are nowhere near coming to terms with it all. The biggest victim of all is the traditional idea of freedom itself. It can no longer be presumed to be an accepted right. It is always and everywhere conditional on what the elites decide is right for us. Yes, for now, the worst of the tyrannies have been dialed back, if only to give us all a break for a bit to let off some steam. But the regime itself – a term that refers not just to government but to an entire machinery of compulsion and control – has no interest in penance or contrition. Indeed, the apologies have been very few, and the admissions of error unbearably rare. We are all expected to move on with our lives with the presumption that all of this is entirely normal.
Is liberalism a lost cause? Many say so. Many today dream that it would stay gone, forever doomed to be regarded as a failed experiment in a world longing for authoritarian control whether by the right, the left, the technocratic elite, or something else. Demoralized and depressed by so much “shock and awe,” and living in times of ubiquitous surveillance and unrelenting diktat, many others are inclined to give up the dream of freedom completely.
This strikes me as going too far. Think of all the impositions that have been inconveniently dialed back due to public pressure, the vaccine mandates and passports among them. They were supposed to be permanent. Otherwise, what could be the point of a mandate that appears and disappears in a matter of months? This only teaches people what to do the next time: to not comply and wait it out until the regime gives up.
These mandates had to be repealed in response to public and commercial pressure. That is a real source of hope. It’s far from victory but it is a good start, and evidence that public opinion can change and make a difference. But it takes work, courage, independent thinking, and a willingness to stand up for what’s true in a world that is screaming lies everywhere we turn.
The Dangerous Presumption of Inevitably
I freely admit my previous naivete. I had no idea just how weak the philosophical infrastructure of civilization had become. In many ways, I look back to my pre-2020 attitudes and see certain parallels with the Whiggish Victorian-era liberals of the late 19th century. Just as I had tacitly adopted an end-of-history outlook, and with it a wild optimism about technology and markets, the liberals of 130 years earlier were also certain that humankind had it all figured out.
To people like Lord Acton, Mark Twain, Auberon Herbert, Herbert Spencer, John Henry Newman, William Graham Sumner, William Gladstone, and so many more, there were remaining problems that needed to be addressed on the path toward universal emancipation and freedom but the only obstacles were prejudice and institutional resistance that would surely decay in time. We would not ever go back.
What happened, and what none among them could ever have anticipated, was the Great War that unleashed all the old evils and added some new ones. Reflecting on this disaster, Murray Rothbard wrote that the intellectuals of the generation prior had become too confident, too convinced of the inevitably of the victory for human freedom and rights. As a result, they were unprepared for the horrors that swept through the world in the second decade of the 20th century.
Were those of us who, after the end of the Cold War, the rise of the Internet, and the turn of the 20th century, celebrated the inevitably of progress and freedom similarly wallowing in a negligent naivete about the evils that were waiting for the right moment to unleash themselves on the world? I feel certain of it. I count myself among those who never imagined it to be possible.
The question is what to do about the problem of anti-liberalism right now. The answer seems obvious even if the strategy for victory is elusive. We must regain what we lost. We must recapture the liberal spirit, not just for ourselves or for one class but for all people. We must again believe and trust in freedom as the foundation of the good life. That means resisting the myriad hegemonic forces all around us who are determined to use the chaos of the last two years to lock in their gains and forever keep the rest of us under their boot.
Even if we make progress toward this end, let us learn too from our mistakes: we previously believed that we were safe and probably that the eventual triumph of freedom was inevitable. That presumption caused us to let down our guard and look away from the rising threats all around us. We now know that nothing is inevitable. No technology, no set of laws, no particular set of rulers, no best-selling book can guarantee a permanent victory for freedom.
From Under the Rubble
“It may be that as a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction,” wrote F.A. Hayek in 1946, “that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and that the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.”
Still, Hayek found hope in the opinions of many young people who had lived through the worst horrors of tyranny and war. “Does this mean that freedom is valued only when it is lost, that the world must everywhere go through a dark phase of socialist totalitarianism before the forces of freedom can gather strength anew? It may be so, but I hope it need not be.”
Hayek wrote those words three-quarters of a century ago, and he was right: freedom did have a good run for a time. And yet it once again collapsed precisely for the reasons that Hayek said: it was taken for granted and ceased to be valued.
The trauma of our times is surely going to have a major impact on the thinking of millions and billions of people all over the world, causing multitudes to consider more deeply issues of freedom and control. May these new thoughts give rise to a rebirth of hope and inspire the work necessary to restore freedom, thus enabling humankind to emerge from the rubble and rebuild civilized life.
Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.