The Liberalism of Fear
3 June 2003, 10:57 AM
Your Humble Blogger recently came across a fascinating essay called "The Liberalism of Fear", by Judith Shklar in Liberalism and the Moral Life, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum, et al (Cambridge : Harvard University Press © 1989). It's evidently reprinted in a collection of her essays called Political Thought and Political Thinkers, edited by Stanley Hoffmann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press © 1998).
I'll present a couple of short quotes for your delectation, along with my comments for your correction. The point of the article, in short, is to contrast the liberalism of fear with the liberalism of hope and then, in a clever rhetorical twist I can't help ruining by pointing out, chooses the liberalism of fear. The fear she talks about is a fear of tyranny, a fear of the abuse of power. The liberalism of fear, then, is a negative-rights based way to avoid Bad Things, as opposed to a positive-rights liberalism of hope, which seeks Good Things. None of this will come as a surprise to anybody who is doing serious study of political philosophy (see, for instance, an entire issue of Social Research based on Shklar and Isaiah Berlin's ideas of positive and negative liberty), but to people like Your Humble Blogger, stumbling into this stuff with only the help of his friends and readers, every idea is like pepper spray to my preconceptions, leaving them weeping, disoriented, and er, there has to be third here, doesn't there? Anyway, on to Sklar.
"The important point for liberalism is not so much where the line is drawn [between the public and the private], as that it be drawn, and that it must under no circumstances be ignored or forgotten." p. 24
Boy, do I agree with this. This is so well-put, in fact, that I will be appropriating it as often as possible. The argument over where the line is drawn is important, but nowhere near as important as the existence of the line. Well done, Prof. Shklar.
"For this liberalism the basic units of political life are not discursive and reflecting persons, nor friends and enemies, nor patriotic soldier-citizens, nor energetic litigants, but the weak and the powerful" p. 27
This is one for david, not that I disagree with him. In fact, I have in myself a tendency to thing of people as discursive and reflecting by their nature (tho' I know many are not, and that discursiveness and reflection are not the only or even the best traits of humanity). Good to be reminded of the resource argument.
"[I]t should be remembered that the reasons we speak of property as private in many cases is that it is meant to be left to the discretion of individual owners as a matter of public policy and law, precisely because this is an indispensable and excellent way of limiting the long arm of government and of dividing social power, as well as of securing the independence of individuals. Nothing gives a person greater social resources than legally guaranteed proprietorship. It cannot be unlimited, because it is the creature of the law in the first place, and also because it serves a public purpose—the dispersion of power." p. 31
We were discussing private property not long ago in this Tohu Bohu ourselves, and I wasn't able to persuade myself of any significant point of view. This, on the other hand, I find compelling as a idea of what private property is, how it should be treated, and why.
I'm not yet saying I choose the Liberalism of Fear over that of Hope, but I am leaning toward it at this point. I'm open to being persuaded though (and, as usual, anybody who doesn't accept liberalism at all should please please make your best argument against it. Like my preconceived notions in the pepper spray of argument, that which does not destroy 'em (and they are destroyed every few years anyway) will make 'em stronger.