The Sin of Liberalism

timon-meets-alcibiades-and-prostitutes

"More counsel with more money, bounteous Timon."

TIMON: 
Now, Apemantus, if thou wert not sullen, I would be good to thee.

APEMANTUS: 
No, I’ll nothing. For if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster.

– Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, I.2

As someone who grew up in a liberal family and town, I sometimes wonder why I was so fortunate (and I do mean this) as to turn out conservative. People in my family, with whom I rarely discuss politics, seem to think it comes from my personality or my genetic makeup. Alternatively, they have suggested that it comes from the desire to rebel against the norms of the liberal community – something that is plausibly true for me and the handful of friends I have who also turned out non-liberal.

My journey to conservatism or traditionalism took a long detour through libertarianism. This certainly did not make me conservative, but it did set me against the welfare state and affirmative action by the time I began college, and I have never been in the least bit tempted to reconsider my opposition to those since then. However, beyond a belief in individual freedom and limited government, I would say that one of the core experiences I had that forever alienated me from the liberal mainstream was realizing the wrongness of giving benefits to those who do have not earned, or do not deserve, them.

I believe that among other things, modern liberals are people who have lost the ability to understand this truth and its implications for how we run our society. Sure, in their personal lives, liberals, like everyone else, select who they give help and money to based on their moral evaluation of people. But when it comes to social policies, they are never able to resist the general expansion of government entitlements or to the granting of benefits to ethnic and other grievance groups. At most, they will concede that social spending needs to be monitored and accounted for by objective tests and audits of some kind. But never, never, will they oppose in principle the bestowal, through government legislation and spending, of any benefit or privilege which could conceivably do somebody some good.

A libertarian like Ayn Rand might condemn the giving of unearned benefits in the form of, say, welfare entitlements by citing a principle of free exchange for mutual benefit, which makes a kind of intuitive sense:

We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect.

This makes sense as far as it goes. But modern individualistic thinkers were hardly the first to condemn social welfare entitlements. Throughout American history, a belief in equality of opportunity has been balanced with a general acceptance of existing social distinctions and a disapproval of governmental social welfare programs. The acceptance and disapproval came not from a libertarian worldview, but from a Christian one, and this accounted for the great hostility in America towards socialism and communism.

Why is the giving of unearned benefits wrong? Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is the story of a man of “right noble mind” and “illustrious virtue” who showers the lords of his city with extravagant gifts, bought with borrowed money, until he bankrupts himself. At this point, he asks his friends to lend him money and is turned down by every one. His disillusion turns him into a raging misanthrope, and he leaves the city to live in a cave, eventually killing himself.

The theme of this play cannot be reduced to a condemnation of ostentatious liberality, since Timon’s general goodness is repeatedly attested. The corrupt society of Athens, which views human relationships entirely in terms of balances and figures, is perhaps the main culprit. Still, as the quote by Apemantus above suggests, there certainly is sinfulness in Timon’s behavior. Timon, a prominent citizen of Athens who, it is implied, has in the past saved his city through his military skill, believes in a polis held together by bonds of loyalty and friendship, whether in the equal relationship between lords or the unequal one between master and servant. However, his giving, being indiscriminate, serves not to strengthen these bonds but rather to corrupt them. Even those whose intentions were good cannot resist goading Timon into giving them large gifts by giving him small ones:

If I want gold, steal but a beggar’s dog
And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold.
If I would sell my horse and buy twenty more
Better than he, why, give my horse to Timon,
Ask nothing, give it him, it foals me straight
And able horses. (II.1)

Once abandoned by his friends, Timon falls into complete hatred of mankind. In the scene famously quoted by Marx, he digs in the ground for roots to eat, and miraculously discovers gold, just the thing that would solve his present problems. But he no longer wants it, and instead gives it away to prostitutes and bandits, in hope that they will use it to wreak further havoc on society.

What is here?
Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, gods, I am no idle votarist;
Roots, you clear heavens! Thus much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong right,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’ accurs’d,
Make the hoar leprosy ador’d, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spittle-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’ April day again. Come, damn’d earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature. (IV.3)

Timon thus jumps from blind liberality and trust to its opposite, blind hatred of mankind. He is later compelled to admit that his servant Flavius is an exception, but this neither cures him of his misanthropy nor saves him from his fate.

This Catholic website defines liberality as “a spirit of generosity for a proper and worthy charity that may involve the donation of our time, our money, or other possessions.” It adds that “Liberality is completely different from the political philosophy of liberalism. Liberality is personal rather than social, and consistent with a well formed Catholic conscience.” I am not a Catholic, but this is a useful definition. Modern liberalism perverts the virtue of liberality into a sin. When one gives without accountability, one is not only wasting one’s resources, but actually fostering evil. In the receiver are cultivated dependency, a sense of entitlement, irresponsibility, and inaction. As if this were not enough, the receiver also develops a hatred and contempt for the giver. People hate being under the power of others, so they convince themselves that they are entitled to what they get and resent the giver for not giving even more. The character of the person giving improperly suffers as well. When charity is conducted through government intervention, the effects are an order of magnitude higher. Such is the dynamic that is destroying the American national character.

If you understand this you will not have any illusions that electing a black president, a supporter of increased entitlements, will improve racial relationships in this country. More broadly you will understand that our president-elect’s promise to fix American society through government redistribution of wealth and dialoguing with our enemies is not even a romantic dream, the sort which, though difficult, may have some chance of being realized. It is a lie through and through; it is a priori impossible. Will more Americans begin to see this in the next four years?

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8 Responses to The Sin of Liberalism

  1. Terry Morris says:

    Nice post, Stephen.

    Hussein Obama’s fixin’ to get a good education on how ill-prepared he really is to lead this country. Internally, and with the aid of a liberal Congress and a virtually filibuster proof upper House (given the presence of certain RINOs who retain their seats there, including McCain) he’ll probably accomplish, and be credited with accomplishing a great deal on the leftist agenda — reinstatement of the “assault weapons ban”, so-called “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” abortion funding for third-world countries, and so forth. But when it comes to dealing with other nations, particularly our sworn enemies, Hussein Obama change dialogue ain’t gonna cut it. Some hard lessons are in store for this novice.

  2. Will more Americans begin to see this in the next four years?

    I wish that I knew. We shall see.

  3. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you, Terry. I wonder, though – the Bush administration has already made appeasement the official policy. I predict Obama carries out a small-scale “humanitarian” military mission a la Grenada to prove he’s not a wimp.

    Howard – I only hope some “conservatives” will be driven to the right by this.

  4. Terry Morris says:

    Stephen, yes, about the same time he gets his knickers into a twist I should imagine.

  5. Rick Darby says:

    Stephen,

    You’ve touched on why “classical” conservatives will always be at a disadvantage versus liberals in a democracy. Liberals can promise to widen the pipeline of programs that supposedly help the less fortunate (it’s easy when you’re spending money taxed from the greedy capitalists/the privileged/plutocrats/malefactors of great wealth, or you’re spending borrowed money).

    Most of the poor will always be convinced they are victims, never had an equal chance, etc. — and there is some truth in that; life isn’t perfectly fair — and will sell their vote in exchange for aid, even if it means dependency. I can’t blame them much: when you’re always short of money, it’s hard to think of principles of self-sufficiency and good government in preference to your own perceived immediate need.

    For liberals, it’s a valid transaction, enhancing their power over an ever-growing clientele while congratulating themselves on their own virtue.

    A large and confident middle class used to act as a brake on the welfare state. No wonder the Left has been so keen to destroy the middle class, undercutting its security and independence through global outsourcing and immigration.

  6. stephenhopewell says:

    Rick,

    Interesting and persuasive comments. You know how liberalism has its inexorable logic that keeps taking it to new extremes? Maybe the same is true of traditionalism. I am certainly much less of a fan of democracy than I once was. Although, the “will of the majority” still can be validly evoked in our society in some cases, e.g. on the gay marriage issue.

    I was trying to get at the difference between liberal redistribution (immoral, materialistic) and charity (moral, spiritual). I was also thinking of the need for a moral order which accepts material inequality – not oppression or gross squalor, but natural differences in prestige, wealth, and power. The poor are not served by making it their life aim to get rich; neither are the wealthy served by mindlessly sacrificing to the poor. (Of course, in the U.S. “the poor” is a code word for nonwhites, who are distinguished in many ways other than being “poor.”) I was going to include the usually-deleted verse from the hymn:

    The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    He made them, high or lowly,
    And ordered their estate.

    The “poor,” like the well-off, need to learn morality and virtue, and it’s up to the leaders of society to set the tone and agenda. None of this is inherently “democratic.”

    Thanks for the comments.

    SH

  7. Rick Darby says:

    Stephen,

    I was actually taking the word “poor” in its plain, literal meaning. There are poor people of all races, although anyone who got their information from the mass media might imagine that only racial and ethnic minorities qualify. Regardless, the ethical questions are the same either way.

    E.M. Forster’s Howards End partly concerned the dilemma of the upper-middle-class woman about how to best help her working class admirer. Was she doing him a favor by introducing him to Beethoven’s symphonies, or was she just inducting him into a world of tastes he would not be able to take advantage of because of his poverty, leaving him worse off? (In those days, you could only hear a symphony by going to a concert, not through recordings.)

    The novel included some very sophisticated musings about what the “more fortunate” can, and cannot, do for those less well off. (For me, this was the most interesting part of an otherwise not very compelling book.) Of course, the movie version and most discussion about it that I recall reduced the theme of social class differences to a banal level.

  8. stephenhopewell says:

    Rick,

    Yes, I understand you weren’t using “poor” as a code word; I was referring to the way liberals and the media use the word. The problem is that in a multi-ethnic society it becomes impossible to merely talk about the poor since a significant number of them are ethnic minorities whose grievances are more than economic. I have been reading Mallock’s The New Republic (1877), which also asks the question of what the upper classes can and should do for the lower. But in Mallock’s, and E.M. Forster’s, world, the poor were English poor, and the element of racial struggle was absent. A poor person in that context can perhaps accept his lower economic status if he believes in and feels part of the civilization to which he belongs.

    Clearly in any social order there will be poor people, since capacities for gaining wealth will always vary, though different societies might benefit different types of people. The poor must either accept the social order, or try to create one where they will be able to get more. In some cases this could be justified, obviously.

    I am trying to better understand the conservative principle “there must be inequality of wealth, or there will be no wealth at all,” a statement made by Mallock as well as Fenimore Cooper. That seems to me profoundly true but difficult to fully grasp.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s necessary to develop a balanced notion of what should and should not be done to help the poor.

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