The Myth of Liberal Neutrality

Liberals preach that liberalism is good because it is neutral. But no political philosophy is ever neutral. Liberalism is built on a lie.

Liberal neutrality relies on a false distinction between the public and the private spheres of life. Many beliefs, especially religious teachings, are supposed to stay in the private sphere. Then, in the public sphere, beliefs must be justified by appealing to “law and order” or “logic and facts.” Liberalism ignores appeals to religion and tradition, because these are just private preferences. It also begins with the assumption that people are independent individuals, so appeals to the common good are always less important than “individual rights.”

This is supposed to be good, because it creates a society where everybody can hold their own private convictions and communicate in what Rawls, a liberal philosopher, calls “the language of public reason.”

Adrian Vermeule offers an insightful description of this supposedly neutral language: “Instead of pursuing substantive excellence and justice, we have circuitous conversations about statistical properties like ‘diversity’; instead of deciding what ought to be permitted, what condemned, we debate ‘civility’; instead of discerning truth, we quarrel over ‘religious liberty’; instead of protecting the most vulnerable, we conceal our vices and crimes under the rubric of ‘choice,’ in both market and non-market spheres (although to be fair there are almost no non-market spheres left any more). When we ask about Truth, liberalism answers: What is ‘Truth’? Your truth is not someone else’s truth, and it is no more legitimate to make your truth into public policy than it would be to force your taste in ice cream upon everyone else. All this is solely of private concern.” (“According to Truth”)

Looking deeper, we find that liberalism is hiding something. The “neutrality” of liberalism demands their own definitions of words (like “freedom”) and assumptions about human nature which never existed before modernity. People who believe in virtue and the common good can never win, because the legal principles and procedures are built to protect negative freedom and individualism.

Those who seek political change are forced to speak the language of liberal neutrality. Liberalism is not a polite or charitable tolerance of diversity; it is civic nihilism, civilly enforced.

Liberalism also has an indirect effect on religion and culture. The law is a teacher: people tend to assume that things which are legal are good. Liberalism undermines Truth by reducing faith to personal opinion within a private sphere. In culture, it promotes individualism, isolating people from their communities.

Most importantly, liberalism provides a cover for the endless growth of capitalism. Preventing any vision of the Good in politics allows Capital to seek only its own profit. The liberal form of private property is the only acceptable legal tradition, which forces out premodern, communitarian, and integralist ideals.

But as Vermeule point out, this is the reason that liberal politics is incredibly dissatisfying to many. “The Achilles’ heel of liberalism is the hunger to come to grips with the substance of the common good.”