Why I Am a Liberal
I am proud to call myself a liberal. Despite the fact that the term has come to be associated with so many different positions on almost any political, social or religious issue, I cannot find a more appropriate word to describe myself.
One of my favorite school teachers was a man named Helmut Dan Schmidt. Back in pre-war Germany, he had been a student of the political scientist Richard Koebner, who had made a study of imperialism.
After the war and Koebner’s death, Schmidt collected the political scientist’s papers and edited them into a book that was published in 1964, entitled Imperialism: The Story and Significance of a Political Word, 1840-1960. (The authors are given as Richard Koebner and Helmut Dan Schmidt.)
The book tells how a term that was once regarded as positive (imperialism), came to be regarded as cruel, aggressive, and destructive practice. In some ways I feel that the same thing has happened to “liberalism.”
Growing up in the UK, there were three political parties. The Conservatives were associated with the aristocratic and upper-class, and more often than not were antisemitic and xenophobic. Upwardly mobile Anglo-Jews desperately wanted to be accepted by them.
The Labour Party was the socialist party of the downtrodden and the poor– and the one that most Jews felt comfortable with. Although it too had its share of antisemites, such as Ernest Bevin, the postwar foreign minister, it also had philosemites such as Aneurin Bevan, and a significant number of Jewish members of Parliament.
These two parties dominated the political scene.
There was a small Liberal Party that tried to hold the middle ground, but rarely had any impact. My family all voted Labour.
How things have changed.
I don’t think any self-respecting Jew could now vote for the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, riddled with antisemites and anti-Zionists. The Conservative Party has become by far the more sympathetic to Jews, and is relatively pro-Israel (though it still instructs the UK delegation to the UN to avoid supporting Israel in public and can fire a minister for being seen as too friendly towards Israel). But the Conservatives are divided, and it’s hard to tell what they want.
And the Liberals are still hanging in there, but no one takes them too seriously, and they too have their share of nasty antisemites.
In my youth, liberalism was the ideology of Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Adam Smith. It stood for individuality, meritocracy, free trade, wealth and personal responsibility. But it also had a very strong vein of utilitarianism that was predicated on finding a just, fair way of running society, which both protected and supported wealth, while at the same time seeking to protect the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged.
In terms of philosophical outlook, it was empirical, scientific and morally responsible. Its banner was freedom of action and choice, so long as others were protected. In other words, it was everything that my Jewish tradition stood for (in theory, if not practice). The trouble is that extremists, in religion and in politics, are always more passionate, more single-minded and more determined. The extremes attract dangerous, simplistic totalitarians.
My liberalism was and is open to good ideas coming from either side. I’m not a moral relativist, but I listen to other points of view, relish debate and avoid dogma. Socialism, on the other hand, has always been linked to dogmas that included command economies and nationalization, which simply did not stand the test of reality and have nowhere produced a society that is any more free of corruption than capitalism.
But unadulterated capitalism without welfare speaks only accumulation, greed and selfishness. The only place in between was and is liberalism, with its emphasis on individuality and freedoms — as well as moral responsibility and a just society.
But today — in the minds of many, liberalism has come to be associated with dogma, too.
In some corners, liberalism now means that you cannot agree with any kind of nationalism. But I think some nationalism can be good. Liberalism has come to mean you have to be pro-choice, which means you cannot also be pro-life. I am both. I think abortion may be legitimate under certain circumstances, but I also think the fetus should be regarded with sanctity and respect.
I hate capital punishment. But I despise prison systems. I think people should donate organs, but I object to imposing it universally. I hate the very idea of killing animals for food. But I would not dream of imposing my preferences, or indeed my religion, on others. I think the Second Amendment of the American Constitution might have had a purpose to fend off the British army 200 years ago, but now it is clearly detrimental to the lives of thousands of Americans each year.
Liberals have come to recognize the importance of welfare for society but strive to avoid dependency. They recognize that without creating wealth, welfare cannot be properly funded.
The liberal sees government as responsible for protecting its citizens and creating the conditions that afford the possibility of fulfilling as many dreams as possible.
The trouble with the left is that it often seeks to destroy customs, traditions and differences, either in the name of market efficiency or to pander to vested interests.
To give a current example — the perfectly laudable pursuit of autonomy and the recognition of different sexual, religious, racial, and cultural preferences has led to a situation where one group tries to impose its values on other groups.
Democrats fairly and reasonably wanted to remove sexual and religious restrictions. But in so doing, they ended up coercing religious and social sentiments that they deemed antipathetic — for example, by insisting that Catholic adoption agencies cannot discriminate in favor of those who uphold Catholic values. That’s what the Soviets and Maoists tried.
The liberal says protect, give rights — but do not impose one set of moral or religious values where another set of individuals’ rights are not being threatened.
People of color or various ethnic and religious groups can and must legitimately insist on being validated and demand equal rights and respect. But they are often insisting that anything they perceive as a slight must be eradicated. That cannot be acceptable.
One of the reasons that American society is so confounded by Trump is that he is neither Left nor Right. He can sound like both and neither — perhaps because he does not know himself, for certain.
The liberal solution is to try to work towards reconciliation and compromise. Engagement rather than conflict. Wherever we look, this seems hard to achieve, but this is what we must strive to do. It is this give-and-take that has enabled humanity to thrive so far, despite the awful setbacks. We fail precisely when one group tries to obliterate another. Perhaps this why the Torah refuses to give its approbation to any one model of governance. We have examples of aristocracy, meritocratic society, judges, kings and rabbis — and now democracy. None is perfect.
I hate politics. Except that we need someone to govern. It doesn’t happen automatically. But why do we humans make such terrible messes of it all?
My Haredi friends like to tell me that those who walk in the middle of the road will get knocked down. I reply that I don’t care, because I can see both sides of the street. That is why I so value liberalism, and why I am still proud to call myself a liberal … on my terms.