In contemporary discourse, the concepts of liberalism and progressivism are routinely conflated, especially in American politics. But, as historically understood, they are distinct, and in many ways at odds with each other. As the philosopher Roger Scruton explains:
[The term liberal] is now used in America to denote those who would be described as ‘on the left’ in European terms—people who believe that the state must use its powers and its resources to equalize the fates of its citizens, and who accept a larger role for the state in the economy and in the regulation of ordinary life than would be naturally endorsed by conservatives. But this use of the term ‘liberal’ is virtually the opposite of its use during the nineteenth century, when liberal parties set out to propagate the message that political order exists to guarantee individual freedom.
To live in a liberal democracy is to enjoy equal and inalienable rights as a free and autonomous individual. As Scruton puts it, “A right … [is] a shield placed around the individual.” By historical standards, this idea is extraordinary: most of our ancestors had to survive without such a shield.
Traditionally, liberal rights are conceived of as protecting so-called negative liberty: freedom from interference by others. According to Scruton, this freedom (also called individual sovereignty) “exists only where the state guarantees rights” that protect “citizens from invasion and coercion from the state.” By contrast, when self-described progressives talk about rights, they tend to mean positive rights (also called entitlements), such as a right to receive a free college education. The two kinds of rights frequently conflict with one another, because granting positive rights to some people often requires the government to impose a considerable cost on others. For example, if individuals don’t pay for their own college education, then taxpayers must.
The progressive approach differs from the classical liberal approach in another way: while liberals recognize the necessity of striking a balance between personal autonomy and social responsibility, they accept that disparate outcomes can and do result from treatment that is fair; progressives assume, first, that all social disparities are caused by social injustice, and second, that, in order to achieve social justice, it is appropriate to infringe liberal rights.
Historically, progressives’ attempts to eliminate social disparities by authoritarian means have had dire consequences, reducing individual freedom and making society worse off overall. The horrors of communism are a case in point. Liberal democracy and free enterprise, by contrast, have led to unprecedented prosperity and vast improvements in human wellbeing, including increased freedom and equality for ordinary people. In the words of Milton Friedman, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”
Equality is a tricky concept. To quote Thomas Sowell, “Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days.” For the most part, the progressive response to this reality has been twofold. First, they tend to simply deny that human variation and sheer chance contribute to determining life outcomes (such as educational and professional attainment). Second, they try to make everyone seem equal by undermining efforts to evaluate people on their own merit (for instance, by holding members of lagging groups to lower standards). This discourages people from striving for excellence, making society as a whole poorer.
Liberalism champions political equality, which is perfectly compatible with meritocracy. As Steven Pinker puts it, political equality “does not require sameness but rather equal treatment as individuals with rights.” Pinker argues,
[We can] easily see the ways in which people differ: some individuals are richer, smarter, stronger, swifter, better-looking, and more like us than others. But when we embrace the proposition that all humans are created equal (“IF X is human, THEN X has rights”), we can sequester these impressions from our legal and moral decision making, and treat all people equally.
Treating people equally before the law requires, among other things, an independent, impartial and disinterested judiciary. As Friedrich Hayek explains, “The rule of law, the absence of legal privileges of particular people designated by authority, is what safeguards that equality before the law which is the opposite of arbitrary government.” (Law enforcement should of course not be confused with a police state—which is characterised, not by the rule of law, but by the ability of those in power to use violence to arbitrarily impose their personal will on the populace.)
In general, progressives have tended to deny the existence of human nature (such as innate drives and instincts), and instead have regarded humans as limitlessly malleable (although some progressives in the early twentieth century supported the practice of eugenics, believing, according to Thomas C. Leonard, that “human heredity must be socially controlled rather than left to individual choice”). Liberalism, by contrast, accepts both that human nature is real, and that it constrains and shapes our behaviour in ways that cannot be erased by social policy: we’re not blank slates. For that reason, liberalism supports the creation of checks and balances to minimise the expression of socially harmful aspects of our nature (such as the human propensity for tribalism), helping us to improve society and the human condition.
As Andrew Sullivan has put it, “The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia.” Sullivan describes this “unleashing” process as an “open-ended conversation” (as opposed to a predetermined programme) and lists “some core principles that liberal societies rely upon”:
Fallibilism, the belief that anyone, especially you, can always be wrong; objectivity, a rejection of any theory that cannot be proven or disproven by reality; accountability, the openness to conceding and correcting error; and pluralism, the maintenance of intellectual diversity so we maximize our chances of finding the truth.
Upholding these principles requires freedom of speech, a value that has recently come under increased attack by progressives. Many of them insist that remarks they deem offensive must be suppressed to protect the sensibilities of members of groups they identify as vulnerable and marginalized. However, making offensiveness a criterion for speech suppression imposes a steep cost on society, because, to quote Jordan Peterson, “In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.”
Those who believe themselves to be on the side of the angels tend to pursue politics with religious fervour. There is today a progressive orthodoxy, which no one is supposed to question even when it flies in the face of reason and evidence. For example, in 2019, when an interviewer pointed out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that she had just said something factually erroneous, she responded dismissively: “There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” As a result of this kind of thinking, our public discourse seems to have become focused on subjective perception and virtue signalling—at the expense of objective reasoning.
Liberalism is grounded in Enlightenment-era insights about the value of reason and empiricism. It cares about what’s true, not what’s politically approved. Its credo is that, while no person is beneath dignity, no idea is above scrutiny. It heeds Immanuel Kant’s maxim that we should always treat people as ends in themselves, never as a means to an end. As Ibn Warraq puts it in Why the West Is Best, “No individual may be sacrificed for some collective utopian goal.”
Liberal politics seeks ways to promote the peaceful coexistence of free rational agents who inevitably have diverging interests, whereas progressive ideology envisions a world in which all conflicts of interest have somehow been resolved under some collectivist regime. They seek a fundamental transformation of society and encourage the politicization of every aspect of human life—hence the slogan, The personal is political. However, as Mick Hume argues, “The drawing of a firm line between the private and public spheres of life … [was] one of the important gains of the Enlightenment”; he calls it a necessary precondition for the “newly independent autonomous individual.” And, as Scruton puts it,
The truly free and autonomous choice is the one that respects the sovereignty of the individual, by granting him the right to dispose of his will, his labour and his property as his own. It is the answer given by the Enlightenment, enshrined in the American Constitution, and embellished by the Austrian theory of the market, and the tradition of the Western democracy.
In short, the answer is liberalism; yet this answer has been rejected wholesale by progressives intent on remaking society in the image of their ideology. They are convinced not only that society’s wellbeing can be effectively engineered by top-down human control, but also, hubristically, that they are capable of exerting such control. Thus, they elevate their particular conception of the common good over the rights and liberties of individuals. If history is any indication, that is a recipe for disaster.