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The trouble with liberalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 30 March 2009

Readers must understand that I use the term “liberal” not in the usual sense that it is used in party politics in Australia. Although the Liberal part is more liberal than Labor, all political persuasions have more than a hint of liberalism.

Mounting an argument against liberalism is a big ask. It is like arguing against common sense or motherhood. The spirit of liberalism inhabits so many spheres of our life and is so entrenched in how we see ourselves that it takes a superhuman effort to move against it. The difficulty in defining and criticising liberalism is that it does not look like an ideology but the end of all ideologies. Liberalism is not so much an ideology but the vacuum left after the implosion of Christianity. It consists of the detritus left over from that implosion, more negative than positive, a fall-back position that defends the nihilism that exists in its centre.

It seems to be the natural outcome of the history of the West and has been linked to the end of history, the final development of civilisation. Liberalism stands for freedom, tolerance, fairness, self expression, choice and fulfilment. It stands against doctrine, discipline, self sacrifice and discipleship.


Liberalism is marked by humanistic optimism. It sees life as essentially unproblematic, a matter of making of it what you will. It is opposed to the idea that life is a narrow way set about with dangers. Rather, life is under our control and we will decide what to do with it. When we have decided, no matter how hollow the decision, how hedonistic, or narcissistic, those decisions may not be criticised. This is because the centre of the ethics of liberalism is individual choice. No value judgments are allowed with the only proviso that no one gets hurt. In liberalism the individual is king and his choices inviolate. We are all free to go to heaven or hell in our own way. The hymn of liberalism is Frank Sinatra singing “My way”. Liberalism is the politics of self assertion.

The optimism of liberalism produces a pragmatic ethics characterised by the negative “why not?” Coupled with a sense of entitlement, this produces an ethics in which desire is central. If you can afford to indulge yourself, then “why not?” Life is reduced to desire and gratification. It is no wonder that liberalism is closely aligned to the market.

Positive ethics, suggested from outside of ourselves, that are predicated on an idea of what we should be are easily dismissed as redundant. Why would we want to make it hard for ourselves? The ethics of liberalism is the line of least resistance. This is why harm reduction is the favoured excuse of governments who legalise abortion to reduce the deaths from backyard operators, prostitution to reduce disease, drugs to reduce the criminality of the drug culture. Harm reduction takes the place of morality and the evils that we seek to control quickly become industries that are to be respected.

Liberalism is optimistic about the human condition because it has learnt from John Locke that we are clean slates, we are free of the past. He argued that it was simply unfair to impute the sins of Adam onto a new born. While this appears rational and right it ignores our experience of deep seated evil in our own breasts and in the actions of others.

This simplistic view of the human leaves perpetrated evil a mystery. History becomes a puzzle because we have no insight into human motivation. Dwelling on past evil is liable to be viewed as a “black arm band view of history”. One does not dwell on human evil because there is no reason for its existence. This produces a naïve confidence in our ability to solve the problems of the world from obesity to armed conflict by means of our good intentions. Devoid of any religious or ethnic orientation ourselves we cannot understand why these may lead to conflict. For liberalism, good intentions are enough. We believe that world peace may simply be announced and we don’t understand why anyone would hate us. The recent celebration of “Harmony day” is a prime example. Liberalism quarantines serious discussion and suggests that the evils we witness in the world are easily solved by a resort to tolerance.

The same shallow understanding of human motivation that leaves history a mystery also produces de-culturation. Hamlet or Macbeth are simply deranged and their plight bears no relationship to ours. The passion of Christ is morbid and unnecessary. You can see how the “power of positive thinking” begins to make sense along with that other liberal shibboleth “self esteem”. The mystery of human suffering cannot be a subject of art because suffering finds no place in our view of things. Yes, we know that other people’s children die but we choose not to “go there”. We want our lives happily preserved in our little bubble of contentment. The reality of death is vanquished and our treatment of it has become formulaic. One cannot succumb to cancer unless it is after a “courageous battle”. This means that death becomes a kind of secret that may not be discussed because it is the final word to the self directed person.


Liberalism celebrates radical individual freedom and is threatened by a freedom that is defined in terms of discipleship. The two kinds of freedom are quite different, the former opening onto a vacuum and the latter on to a positive “freedom for” a personal history that sees the self transformed into the type of Christ. While liberal freedom leaves the person with a thousand choices it allows no direction. Children are not to be formed in a religious tradition but are trained in the disciplines of cynicism. Religious studies displace catechesis. The freedom of the Christian is won with blood; that of liberalism is simply announced. It is fragile because nature abhors a vacuum and the human heart, desperate to hang on to some solid thing, will choose the most obvious.

This kind of freedom easily becomes a form of slavery because it is based on nothing other than an idea of itself. Having no ground in reality it quickly implodes on itself and generates political correctness, the attempt at improvement through the policing of language.

Liberalism has been coupled with a political system, democracy. What could be wrong with liberal democracy? Is it not the essence of freedom, even the end of history? Surely this is the pinnacle of human endeavour in which every individual has as much freedom as he can stand or that the community can stand. Liberal democracy has triumphed over individual passion. It has reduced us all to voters who once in every few years exercise their most sacred duty to cast a vote for the candidate of our choice. This is our lot, our duty and our righteousness. We like it because it costs us nothing and may even stir something akin to tribal sympathy thus conferring an identity of sorts. No emphasis may be placed on maturity of political thought or virtue because these have been erased by the great egalitarian sweep of democracy and the reduction of public duty to voting.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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