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Is this the Final Corruption of Liberalism?

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Is there anything liberal remaining in the word liberalism? It was bad enough when 90 years ago “liberalism” acquiesced to supporting the corporate statism of the New Deal. The year of 1933 once FDR took power and imposed unprecedented control over economic life. That decisive rejection of the free economy in favor of government planning was a big turning point. 

Not much has changed since then. But backing the egregious lockdowns of 2020 is something that no living liberal intellectual from 100 years ago would have imagined doing. The corruption seems to have taken place in marginal steps. The backing of censorship, identity politics, and a war on the working class in the name of disease mitigation is beyond outlandish. 

Every day I receive emails from people who once identified as liberal or general on the left but no longer do. It was the lockdowns and the media groupthink on them that changed everything. They thought of themselves as compassionate, socially minded, pro education, broadly tolerant of differences among people, and suspicious of the corporatist, nationlistic, and quasi-theocratic elements of the right. 

The shock came last year when big tech, big media, and big government all teamed up to centrally plan a virus response that shut schools for a year, unleashed the cops to break up house parties, locked people out of their houses of worship, padlocked and finally destroyed small business, censored information flows, and ignored all science that raised fundamental questions about the disease panic. 

Now you have the same people forcing unwanted and unneeded medical treatment on millions of students and consumers who don’t want it, while trying to impose a digital system of health surveillance on everyone. Much of this seems designed to keep the disease panic going, as if to say that it was all worth it. 

Under these conditions, how can anyone in this camp retain the word liberal? 

I’ve wondered if these were just my emails or whether something more fundamental is going on. How many liberals feel estranged from their own tribe or otherwise feel betrayed? However many it is, it is not enough. What happened should be enough fundamentally to shake allegiances to the left plus the belief that being left-wing has anything to do with supporting human rights and liberties. 

Each day I wish that they would give up the term permanently and give it back to those of us for whom it remains the correct description. Sadly, that is not likely to happen anytime soon. Pollsters, in particular, are stuck on asking people to describe themselves as liberal or conservative, simply to make the results cleaner and more news friendly. 

So consider the alarming new poll from North Dakota State University’s Institute for Global Innovation and Growth. It surveyed 400,000 students from more than 1,000 different colleges and universities in 50 states.The results are actually shocking. 

Consider this question. “If a professor says something that students find offensive, should that professor be reported to the university?”

Among the self-described liberals, 85% said yes. Among conservatives, the figure was still too high but much better: 41%. 

Another: “If a student says something that other students find offensive, should that student be reported to the university?”

Among self-described liberals: 76% said yes. Among conservatives, it was 31%. 

Words like tolerance or free speech are toast. What seems to be developing here is a generation ready to enlist in the Red Guard should the occasion arise. 

It gets worse when it comes to economic issues.

The Achilles heel of contemporary liberalism has always been its attitude toward free economies. This survey reinforces the point. Fully 55% of liberals embrace the following definition of capitalism: “An economic system in which corporations utilize grants, special tax breaks, political connections, and special rules that favor them over competitors to earn profits.”

In choosing that answer, they rejected the better answer: “An economic system in which property is privately owned, exchange is voluntary, and production and pricing of goods/services are determined by market forces.”

Indeed, 65% of college liberals say they have a “negative” view of capitalism. Only 16% of conservatives said they have a negative view of capitalism. The same split is revealed in a question about whether capitalism can solve poverty and climate change. Meanwhile, 48% of liberals say that their classes have contributed to their forming more negative views toward capitalism. 

Given all this, the following will not surprise you. Fully 69% of liberals embrace the following definition of socialism: “An economic system in which individuals/companies make decisions on the types, quantities produced, and prices charged for most goods and services, but government plays a very active role in assuring prices are fair and in ensuring an equitable distribution of resources between rich and poor.” And 47% say they have a positive view of socialism defined that way (that compares with only 7% of conservatives). 

There’s no question that anyone still identifying with the left needs to fix up their view on economics generally. We are probably a bit away from that. Economics is hard because it requires a few steps of logic and a more abstract way of thinking than people are used to. 

Still, even absent that change, there is surely a shift underway for anyone who retains anything like a liberal ideal of human rights and essential freedoms – the way the term used to be defined. Those values seem nearly dead on the left side of the political spectrum. 

I could be wrong but it strikes me that big tech, big media, and big government – under a one-party state in the U.S. today – are playing with fire. Today, ever since the inauguration of Biden, they are riding high, demonizing the opposite, more blatantly partisan than ever, celebrating censorship, pushing egregious hypocrisies, surveilling and silencing dissent, and cheering coercive impositions on the population. 

Surely there will be blowback. And it could be ferocious. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.


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