Liberalism reevaluated

The problem from the point of view of a coherent examination of the nature of the technological society is that liberalism is so deeply implicated in the technological imperative it is necessary to examine and evaluate just what liberalism is, as considered separately from the unquestioning admiration we bring to its tenets in the wake of J. S. Mill et al.  One entry point I have found useful lately is that provided by a book by Ursula M. von Eckhardt, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Democratic Creed (1959).  Naturally Jefferson and his concept of the Pursuit of Happiness is the overarching theme.  Some pertinent passages include references to the nature of Right.  One keeps in mind at the outset the Hobbsian dictum that power, not truth, makes the law.

Perhaps the most important tenet of liberalism is the commitment to equality.  But certain distinctions must be made to avoid encouraging the levelling effect made inevitable by an undifferentiated commitment to the concept of equality.  And so von Eckhardt:  “In general, the doctrine of the natural equality of men can mean either of two things:  1) that all inequalities among men are artificial, having their origin in social and  economic accidents; or 2) that although certain natural inequalities of strength and wisdom may exist among men, these entitle no one to any political powers or privileges above another.  Equality in the former sense demands conformity, in the latter, uniform evaluation and a balance of differences in relation to law…for him [Jefferson], equality was a matter of rank and rights; it never implied an equal distribution of the gifts of nature.”  And so a core concept of the Jeffersonian concept of justice was that of what he called a “natural aristocracy’.  Jefferson, then, believed that to establish the best possible social arrangement it was necessary to allow this natural arstocracy the ability to rise to the top.  In this connection, Jefferson says: “May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?” Representative democracy then was that thing.  And going back to von Eckhardt, summarizing Jefferson’s views:  “When human reason institutes a new government among men, the old arbitrary inequalities must be wiped out.  General education, free elections, and legislation can accomplish this.  A minimum of free, public education for all and special state scholarships for the higher training of the best can raise ‘the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government’ [Jefferson].  The citizens are qualified to elect the true aristoi for the trusts of government to the exclusion of the pseudo-aristoi [primogeniture].  Free elections achieve this best, since in general the citizens will elect the truly good and wise.”  And so the whole legitimacy of representative democracy rides on whether or not this phrase which I have italicized is true.  Madison assumed the same thing, that citizens can be trusted, in the system devised by the Founding Fathers, to elect the truly good and wise, in his key contribution to this argument contained in The Federalist papers, no. 10.  But the cracks in this theory are already apparent in Jefferson’s inability to reconcile the basic rights of equality with those of a theory of the legitimacy of the prerogatives of the natural aristoi.  von Eckhardt again:  “One might argue against Jefferson’s views either that if an inequality of virtue and talent is admitted it is unjust to maintain an equality of rights, or that the equality of rights is arbitrary unless there is also an equality of recognized virtue and talent.”  And yes, it’s the latter which conforms best to Jefferson’s true view, that equality of rights is arbitrary in the face of the legitimacy of recognized virtue and talent.  In other words, that Jefferson rightly made recourse, but only inconsistently, to Aristotle’s dictum that Justice is the equality of equals but not the equality of unequals.   But the principle of one man, one vote necessarily gives more weight to the rights of the many than to this “natural aristoi“.  And so we return to the inescapability, under the principle of one man, one vote, of Hobbes’ dictum:  “Power, not truth, makes the Law.”

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