I was reading a little this week about the arguments that John Calhoun and others made in defense of slavery in the antebellum South. What makes these arguments so repulsive is how the Southerners justified the abhorrent practice of slavery using the language of Lockean liberalism. They talk of Northerners trying to deny them their liberty and how the defense of their property (read, slaves) was such a noble cause. Of course that type of language goes back to before the Revolution, as African-Americans were denied freedom in a revolution based on the idea of liberty and self-evident truths.
This great perversion of liberal thought was snuffed out by the Civil War at a terrible price, though it took another century for blacks to obtain full civil rights (and women were often treated by law and custom as barely more than property in the 19th century). Of course, no one today would refer to advocates of slavery as liberals.
Yet I’m struck by how much the perversion of liberalism by the likes of Calhoun foreshadowed the perversion of liberalism in the 20th century. Just as Calhoun could use liberal rhetoric to dehumanize a whole race, allowing them to be held as property by others, John Rawls turned liberalism on its head to strip human beings of self-ownership, leaving us all owned by the collective, with the government as the benevolent overseer. Just as a slaveholding society argued that black slaves were not capable of civilization and, indeed, were happier and better off having their savage natures subdued by the system of slavery, Rawls argues that, were we all given the opportunity, we would freely choose to live in a world where our talents, efforts, skills, and other natural endowments—and any economic fruits that might come from them—would not belong to us, but would be used to improve the material standard of living of the worst off (regardless of their work and effort). In Rawls’ conception we are so dehumanized that the civil rights we have are of little use to us. We are merely slaves to the collective.
Between Calhoun and Rawls, we could point to other perversions of liberalism, primarily the erosion and eventually elimination of freedom of contract, once enshrined in the Constitution, but effectively shredded by a Supreme Court that was afraid of FDR and then, decades later, became dominated by jurists who came to see virtually no limit on the constraints that the federal government could make on the freedom of individuals to contract with each other over their property, the most important part of which was ownership of their own labor. Again, isn’t this the essence of slavery, to not own one’s own labor, to not be able to sell it to another for a voluntarily agreed upon price?
With the 13-15th amendments and with the enfranchisement of women a half century later, we stood on the cusp of, potentially, the dawning of true liberalism as the governing philosophy of our nation. Instead, we now live in an authoritarian welfare state where modest efforts to reign in the leviathan and its cruel powers are chided by the media elite as “extremist.”
I have a policy never to refer to the political left as “liberals.” They don’t deserve it. They have perverted and corrupted that fine word and have used it only to enslave. Shame on them.