Five False Assumptions of Liberalism

I have long described myself as a classical liberal in the English mould, and it seems that there is no denying that the ill-founded assumptions of liberalism have allowed subversive elements to warp liberal doctrines beyond sense or use. I think it is worth outlining these false assumptions in order to understand better why liberalism as an ideology is colliding with progressive icebergs.  

Without addressing the legitimate issues with these assumptions, it seems to me that liberalism as a philosophy will forever be vulnerable to having these false assumptions and contradictions exploited in ways not intended by liberal theorists. This is how Critical Race Theory has managed to expand so widely across Western society. 

In this article, I will not be presenting any solutions to these problems. This is just to have an understanding of the landscape in which liberalism developed and the blind spots it has inherited from its intellectual past. 

I. Pre-Social Man in the State of Nature

Liberal theory is predicated on the concept of man in a “state of nature.” Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and doubtless others considered this state of nature to be a possible theoretical state in which mankind was dispersed in the wilderness, living off the land and fighting with wild animals, and only occasionally encountering other humans. The disposition of the thinker informed the way that they interpreted how this would play out. 

Pre-liberal philosophers Grotius and Hobbes took a myopic (and more realistic) view of what a man’s life would be like in the state of nature; they would be “brutes” as described by Grotius, and their lives would be, as famously formulated by Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Each man was engaged in an animalistic war of all against all, until he “divests himself of liberty” by entering into a society and thereby creating the “state of peace” that the social contract provides. 

Locke took a more enlightened view, reasoning that there would be some brutes, but also others that would live by the “law of reason,” by which men would not harm one another or their possessions. The purpose of man entering into society is to prevent the brutes from harming the possessions or lives of those savages living by the law of reason. 

Montesquieu rebukes the assumption that man might have property or possessions in the state of nature, and pointed out that Hobbes made the mistake of assuming that modern man had been transported back in time, and had things like property concerns. He noted that pre-social man would probably be a cringing and fearful beast, who would flee at the first rustle of leaves. 

Rousseau adopted Montesquieu’s observation of the anachronistic man and brought this thought experiment to its fullest and most idealistic extent. Rousseau believed that, in the state of nature, the weak and sick would die swiftly, leaving mankind to be uniformly strong, healthy and active. He would wander the woods, fighting animals and sleeping in the open, gathering his food from the wilderness as he pleased. Because nature provided for all his wants, he would not trouble his fellow man if he happened to cross paths in his travels, and men and women would meet occasionally to mate. The women would carry the children with them until the children would be old enough to go off on their own, which they would, with no familial sense of obligation. Man would therefore be generally aloof and disinterested in his fellow man, if they chanced to meet, needing nothing from him and having no particular concern about him; he had nothing to take, no reason to fight, and no interest in intercourse of any kind. 

Most of these philosophers admit that the state of nature is purely a thought experiment, and did not really exist in reality, but this does not prevent them from taking it as the starting point from which liberal philosophy developed. Needless to say, modern archaeology and common sense suggests that there was never a point in time in which man was a solitary animal. Instead, early man seems to have always lived in small tribal bands, as the Earth was dangerous and difficult to survive on by oneself. We even see, in the contemporary great apes, that they tend to live together in small tribal bands for safety, food, and companionship.  

This first and most fundamental liberal assumption about the nature of man and his history is wrong, and leads us to further wrong assumptions the further we extrapolate from it. 

II. Everyone is Equal

The liberal view of equality is derived from the assumption that there was a pre-social man. Prior to the advent of liberalism, European life was deeply hierarchical in that there were formal social ranks which one was born into, and on occasion, to which one could ascend. These ranks were underpinned by a deeply religious order that assumed that the world had been organised the way it was by God himself, and therefore it was just and right that it should be as it was. The liberal concept of inequality, therefore, was concerned not with material or physical inequality, but instead social inequality

It was observed by these thinkers that inequality of rank was a consequence of society itself, and therefore pre-social man would have suffered from no kind of unequal treatment by his fellow man. Without the ranks of king, nobleman, or commoner, there was no justification to treat one man differently to another. There is no inherited wealth, no royal bloodline, and no divine favour; in a very literal way, everyone is actually equally isolated and has access only to the resources nature provides. Furthermore, with no society to confer rank upon one man over another, there is no possibility of social inequality. 

Physical inequality is something that is accepted by early liberal thinkers (as in, some are stronger, some are faster, et cetera), but this is considered to be a very minor issue. No man is so physically superior to another that he can take an unfair share of the bounty of nature and use this superiority to deprive his fellow man, so the issue of material inequality does not arise in the state of nature, either. 

However, this assumption is also incorrect. As we established in point one, there was no pre-social existence in the state of nature: man has always been a social being. As such, there have always been hierarchies in human society, even if the differences between the upper and lower strata is as minuscule as the tribal patriarch being given deference by the younger men. Again, we see the same social stratification played out in chimpanzee tribes. With any kind of social organisation, someone has to be in charge. There has never been a time in which man was socially equal, as the liberal thinkers asserted. 

III. The Universal Man

Early liberal thinkers recognised that much of what differentiates, say, an Englishman from an Amazonian tribesman, originated from their social customs and institutions. Without the educational institutions, scientific development, and accumulation of traditions, among many other factors, the Englishman would be difficult to differentiate from any other savage.  

When shorn of the attributes provided to him by civilisation, he appears to be very much the same as any other man put into the same circumstance. By subtracting the cultural artefacts of each society, one can extract a kind of universal Platonic form of a human being: he has a head, four limbs, a body, and certain universal needs. He requires food, water and safety; he desires to reproduce and can think rationally about his environment. Therefore, all men in the state of nature, it is reasoned, must have been essentially the same and equal in all ways: they must have all been this theoretical universal man, who belonged to no culture, existed in no time, and could be located in no place. 

However, as we have seen, this is a false assumption that cannot be applied to any human who has ever lived. Whilst all humans do have physical needs imposed upon them by nature, one of those needs is other human beings. That they are physical beings ensures that none of them can be a universal man. Every human who has ever lived has been the product of a time, place, culture, and heritage, and carries the cultural baggage of his inheritance. They have never existed in this state of nature and are not spontaneously produced in the Form of Man. Instead, they are shaped differently by their environment and societies to hold different values, have different attributes, and want different things. 

IV. The Blank Slate

Another false liberal assumption that follows from the previous point is that the human being is essentially a blank slate, upon whom society imposes its culture and without which, he would have no pre-programming at all. Therefore, our proclivities and habits are all a consequence of social constructs, instead of having any roots in our biological nature. 

In book one chapter one of his Essay on Human Understanding, Locke expressly describes his view on this:

“It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain INNATE PRINCIPLES; some primary notions, KOIVAI EVVOIAI, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition, if I should only show (as I hope I shall in the following parts of this Discourse) how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions; and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principles.”

Modern science shows this assertion not to be true. It seemed to Locke that all our knowledge is founded on experience, and therefore our ideas can only spring from our experience and our reflection. In the commonly held view of his day, the senses convey information about external objects into our minds, upon which we are given to reflect, and this is the source of the ideas we have. Any further ideas we accrue are a consequence of our sensory input and logical deduction, the “operations of our minds” as Locke puts it. Locke uses “operations” to mean a broad term including the mind’s own ideas but also the passions arising from them, such as uneasiness or satisfaction.

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker shows in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, that there is indeed a pre-transcribed set of social expectations that are inscribed on the hearts of men from even before they are born. More than this, there seems to be an intrinsic understanding of the physical world within our minds. 

Studies have shown that babies come pre-wired with a knowledge of “intuitive physics”; they seem to have the ability to recognise, and be fascinated by, human faces, and appear to have an innate grasp of ingroup-outgroup moral dichotomies. Babies are social creatures, even though they might appear to be blank slates to adults who take their personal agency for granted. As the American Psychological Association put it, they are “not-so blank slates.”  The blank slate doctrine is simply factually inaccurate. 

The concept of the blank slate also contradicts the liberal doctrine of the innate goodness of man. If a man is removed from his place in time, space, and community, he cannot, as Rousseau observed, be considered to be good or evil because he will have no concept of morality. Morality is the concern for how we treat our fellow man, if men existed in a pre-social environment, there would be no demand for morality to develop. The liberal theorist would then have to explain why a non-moral species decided to construct morality, when it was not necessary for its existence in the first place. This is a decidedly anti-evolutionary opinion that appears not to be true at all. 

V. Equality of Opportunity

In the state of nature, everyone has the same opportunity to accomplish nothing. In a society, nobody has the same opportunity because we all start at different levels of wealth, capacity, et cetera. The moral demand for equality of opportunity bleeds into a demand for equality of outcome, as for everyone to truly have equal chances of achieving the vast variety of possible outcomes, each person must start at an identical position. Any amount of free action would create unequal starting positions; if parents worked hard and managed to earn enough to give their children a first-rate education, that is an inequality of opportunity and would require intervention by the ostensibly-liberal state in order to correct this imbalance. As philosopher Robert Nozick put it in Anarchy, State and Utopia, “the socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

Equality of opportunity is an argument for communism and the abolition of the individual’s private ability to accumulate wealth, not a liberal argument for freedom. Depriving people of the ability to possess the fruits of their labours will be a severe demotivating force and retard accomplishment in any realm it is practised. Moreover, when each person is put in such a position, they will find that the intrinsic differences in ability are magnified and become the subject of excessive focus. We could conceivably expect some kind of Harrison Bergeron scenario where a Handicapper General is tasked with ensuring that no person’s natural talents allow them to gain an opportunity that is absent in others. 

Worse still is the way this conceives of the human being and their life. What is the reason that we are here? Who is in possession of our lives? Equality of opportunity, and its corollary in equality of outcome, appear to have conscripted us into a universal and abstract system that demands we give up things we justly earned, or the family we rightfully inherited, and our agency as free human beings, only to satisfy an abstract principle upon which we may not agree. I do not believe we are put on the Earth merely to serve the perspective of a universal ideal; if my life is inconvenient because I worked hard and so created an inequality to which a liberal theorist objects, then so be it. This is not justification enough to deprive me of that which is rightfully mine, nor that which is rightly for anyone else. 

The liberal theorist will object that this is not what is meant by equality of opportunity, instead they mean that they want an equality of process. When a person is subject to a particular procedure of some kind, they would like the procedure to be essentially blind to characteristics that are not appropriate or necessary considerations for the procedure itself. This is a fair and decent thing to desire, and should be formulated as such, instead of using the term “equality of opportunity.” However, even this will be attacked by the communist for being insufficient; for example, an equality of process in hiring still hinges on inequalities between individual candidates, et cetera. The communist will argue that all forms of inequality are a form of unfairness, and it is difficult for the liberal to disagree as, in many ways, he is already committed to the presupposition; it is unfair if people aren’t equal, the only question is which way they are unequal. The liberal prescribes some forms of equality as outside of consideration, while the communist includes all forms of equality for consideration, and so is more consistent with the presuppositions from which they are both operating.