For liberalism, at least in its radical form, the desire to subject people to an ethical ideal - regarded as universal and thus universally binding - is the mother of all crimes, “the crime which contains all crimes,” for it amounts to the brutal imposition of one’s own view onto others, and is thus the root cause of civil disorder. This is why, liberals claim, if one wants to establish civil peace and tolerance, the first pre-condition is to get rid of any moral temptation: politics should be thoroughly purged of moral ideals and rendered “realistic,” taking people as they are, counting on their true nature, not on moral exhortations.
The paradigm here, in many ways, is the way that the market operates: human nature is egotistic and there is no way to change it, so what is needed is a mechanism that would make private vices work for common good. Hence a fully self-conscious liberal should intentionally limit his altruistic readiness to sacrifice his own good for the good of others, aware that the most efficient way to act for the common good is to follow his private egotism. Here we have the logical obverse of the motto “private vices, public benefits” - namely, “private goodness, public disaster.”
There is in liberalism, from its very beginning, a tension between individual freedom and the objective mechanisms which regulate the behaviour of a crowd, as was already observed by Benjamin Constant who clearly formulated this tension: everything is moral in individuals, but everything is physical in crowds; everybody is free as individual, but a cog in a machine in a crowd.
The inner tension of this project is discernible in two aspects of liberalism: market liberalism and political liberalism. As Jean-Claude Michea has brilliantly argued, these two aspects of liberalism are linked to two political meanings of “Right”: the political Right insists on market economy, the politically-correct Left insists on the defence of human rights - often its sole remaining raison d’etre.
Although the tension between these two aspects of liberalism is irreducible, they are nonetheless inextricably linked, like the two sides of the same coin. And so, today, the meaning of “liberalism” swings between the two poles of economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, and so on) and political liberalism or libertarianism (with the accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, and so on).
The point is that, while one cannot decide through some close analysis which is the “true” liberalism, one also cannot resolve the deadlock by way of trying to propose a kind of “higher” synthesis of the two, much less through some clear distinction between the two senses of the term. The tension between the two meanings is inherent to the very content that “liberalism” endeavours to designate: this ambiguity, far from signalling the limits of our understanding, points to the innermost “truth” of the notion of liberalism itself.
Traditionally, each “face” of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other face: liberal advocates of multiculturalist tolerance, as a rule, fight against economic liberalism and try to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of unencumbered market forces, while free-market liberals, as a rule, advocate conservative family values.
We thus get a kind of double paradox: the traditionalist Right supports the market economy while ferociously fighting the culture and mores it engenders; while its counterpoint, the multiculturalist Left, fights against the market (though less and less these days, as Michea notes) while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders. (Today, it should be said, we seem to be entering a new era in which both aspects can be combined: figures like Bill Gates pose as market radicals and as multiculturalist humanitarians.)
Here we encounter the basic paradox of liberalism. An anti-ideological and anti-utopian stance is inscribed into the very heart of the liberal vision: liberalism conceives itself as a “politics of lesser evil,” its ambition is to bring about the “least evil society possible,” thus preventing greater evil, since it considers any attempt directly to impose a positive Good as the ultimate source of all evil.
Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst of all political systems, with the exception of all the other, holds even better for liberalism. Such a view is sustained by a profound pessimism about human nature: man is egotistic and envious animal, if one builds a political system which appeals to his goodness and altruism, the result will be the worst kind terror (recall that both Jacobins and Stalinists presupposed human virtue).
The liberal critique of the “tyranny of the Good” comes at a price: the more its program permeates society, the more it turns into its opposite. The claim to want nothing but the lesser evil, once asserted as the principle of the new global order, gradually takes on the very features of the enemy it claims to oppose. In fact, the global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds: its modest rejection of utopias ends with imposing its own market-liberal utopia which will become reality when we subject ourselves to the mechanisms of the market and universal human rights.