Reacting to a charge of ideological imbalance at North Carolina’s Duke University Robert Brandon the chair of that University’s philosophy department was recently quoted as follows: If as John Stuart Mill said stupid people are generally conservative then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.
Mill’s analysis may go a long way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is good reason for this too.
If anyone was wondering what the current presidential election cycle is all about I respectfully suggest that this line of thinking goes a long way toward explaining it. An entire group of people in this country today identifies itself with the idea of liberalism a philosophy that goes back to John Stuart Mill and other English thinkers of his day and before. But what is it at the heart of liberalism that is driving the current debate?
In Mill’s time liberalism had two important strands: 1) a concern for social justice; and 2) opposition to statist interference in the lives of individual citizens. The connection between these two strands was natural enough. The institutions of aristocratic England which were controlled and operated by a moneyed elite callously oppressed England’s working class. Liberal opposition to such institutions via a doctrine that demanded smaller less intrusive government served to help the broader population which suffered from the abuse and indifference of such institutional elitism.
In our own time though a divergence developed between these two strands of classical liberalism. The idea of individual liberty (non-intrusive government) has fallen by the wayside among modern liberals in favor of a belief that the state has a duty to do good. While not abandoning notions of individual liberty modern liberals think the first order of any government’s business is to protect us even from ourselves. And so they support increased spending on bigger and more numerous programs more intrusive laws and increased taxes to enable all this.
However a breakaway group of old-fashioned liberals who place the emphasis on individual liberty have redefined themselves as libertarians. This group tends to gravitate toward conservatism because individual liberty was one of the founding principles of this nation. While modern liberalism and libertarianism are not always in disagreement (most proponents of individual liberty care about others as deeply as any statist while most proponents of larger and more involved government also cherish individual liberty) they really do represent a clear divide in today’s American politics.
Americans of the modern liberal bent viewed with horror the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency. Bush achieved the presidency by bringing together social conservatives (who favor a restoration of old-fashioned American moralism in national life) with libertarian conservatives who loathe and fear big intrusive government. Of course there is an inherent tension in this alliance since libertarians are suspicious of any effort to impose morality while social conservatives tend to favor this. But with the cooptation of mainstream liberalism by a modern elitist culture that visibly disdains old-fashioned mores and values this conservative alliance became possible. Libertarians who spurned big government found it easy to make common cause with their social conservative peers who feared the liberal-dominated big government’s efforts to demolish old and cherished social values. George W. Bush relied on this connection to squeak his way into the White House in a closely contested race.
But the forces of elitism which dominate the liberal agenda today have never been able to get over this perceived disaster. Expecting to extend the Clinton years via the election of his anointed successor Al Gore they were visibly shaken by Gore’s narrow defeat. To this day they haven’t been able to throw off the feeling of having been cheated by fate – or by the imagined ill-doings of a Republican cabal of conservative dullards people who clearly in their view didn’t deserve to win the White House and so could only have done so by skullduggery.