The Contradiction in Liberalism

At its core, liberalism upholds two contradictory rights. The first is the right of private property, most importantly exclusive control over the means of profit making. This is the essence of liberalism: an ideology justifying class society based on property rights with an emphasis on markets. If a person does not believe in private property and capitalism, then he is not a liberal in an important sense.

The second right liberalism upholds is free speech and free thought. Opposition to free speech and free thought makes the supporter of private property and capitalism something other than a liberal. A fascist advocates capitalist arrangements, but does not preserve the right to free speech. Thus we say that fascism is illiberal, an authoritarian form of capitalism. On the other hand, free speech and other civil liberties can be present without a right to private property. 

Modern conservatives share with liberals the core principle of private property and the justness of capitalism as a social system. However, conservatives and liberals disagree on the importance of the rights of speech and expression, including religious liberty. Thus capitalism slides along a continuum of liberal to authoritarian. At the extreme conservative end is fascism. But authoritarian capitalism does not necessarily present as fascism. Neoliberalism is authoritarian capitalism with a liberal façade.

While liberals and democrats share a commitment to the rights of speech and expression, democrats do not share with liberals their commitment to private property and capitalism. Democrats (and I do not mean here the Democratic Party) recognize and seek to resolve the contradiction between free speech and private control over the means of communication. The economic system democrats seek is socialism; only by guaranteeing public access to the means of communication can everybody be assured venues in which opinions and information are maximally freely expressed and received by the population.

Democratic socialism is therefore the realization of the free speech ideals of liberalism. Liberalism cannot make fully substantive the free speech right because of its commitment to capitalism, an exploitative system resting on exclusive control over economic activity, thus restricting access to the means of communication. Liberalism will always be compromised by its commitment to property and the perpetuation of social class. This is why I reject liberalism in its totality as an adequate political and moral philosophy.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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