Liberal Neutrality: A Dialogue Between Philonous and Oneiropolos - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Liberal Neutrality: A Dialogue Between Philonous and Oneiropolos

Philonous: So, Ony… you don’t mind if I call you “Ony,” do you?

Oneiropolos: That’s fine, so long as I can call you “Phil.”

Philonous: Consider it a deal! In any case, welcome back to the seaside, here at sandy Pylos! This bracing sea air makes our minds clearer when we discuss philosophical matters, wouldn’t you agree?

Oneiropolos: I don’t know about that, Phil. I often feel more confident in my views when I am presenting them in a cramped and stuffy academic conference room.

Philonous: Well, be that as it may, here we are, walking along the seawrack, near, I think, the omphalos. As I recall, the last time we took a stroll here, we were discussing liberal neutrality. Isn’t that correct?

Oneiropolos: Yes, Phil, that is my recollection as well.

Philonous: When I pointed out to you that the liberal state is not neutral about many things, you responded “Of course not! Who would want to be neutral about serial killing, or Nazis?” So if the liberal state is not neutral about all things, then what does liberal neutrality actually mean?

Oneiropolos: Well, the liberal state certainly is neutral about some things.

Philonous: OK, but aren’t all states neutral about some things? For instance, no state ever made the law work differently for people over 5’7″ than for those under that height. No state ever discriminated amongst its citizens based on how much body hair they had. So it would seem that every state is neutral about some things but not other things.

Oneiropolos: Of course, but the liberal state is more neutral than other states.

Philonous: So, you have counted the number of ways in which a liberal regime is neutral, and the number of ways in which all other regime are neutral, and the liberal regime clearly had more ways in which it was neutral?

Oneiropolos: Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t mean that at all! I mean a liberal regime is neutral in ways in which it is important to be neutral, while non-liberal regimes are not.

Philonous: Alright, now when I last took up this point, I recall that you accused me of using extreme cases to make my point. But isn’t it true that I told you I was only starting with extreme cases for pedagogical purposes, because that was where non-neutrality would be most obvious, and that I would… in fact, I did… proceed to far more common cases?

Oneiropolos: I suppose you did, Phil, and yet your conclusion was so illiberal that I felt I had to use whatever weapons I could muster against it…

Philonous: Between friends such as us, Ony, all is forgiven. But let us revisit my non-extreme examples. For instance, let us consider an Islamic regime. That regime will not be neutral between Muslims and non-Muslims. But it may very well be neutral about whether or not someone decides to bake a cake for a gay couples’ wedding. Whereas our current liberal regime makes the exact opposite choices.

Oneiropolos: Yes, that is correct.

Philonous: So on what grounds do you consider the liberal regime’s neutrality correct, and the Islamic regime’s neutrality mistaken?

Oneiropolos: Well, the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims is not an important one, not for legal purposes.

Philonous: But it certainly is important to a devout Muslim, is it not? And very much for legal purposes, given the idea of sharia law.

Oneiropolos: But that belief is not reasonable!

Philonous: However, it is a central part of being a devout Muslim. Are you saying it is not reasonable to be a devout Muslim?

Oneiropolos: No, no, I certainly do not mean that! But it’s not reasonable for a devout Muslim to favor their own religion over others.

Philonous: Why not?

Oneiropolos: Because it violates liberal neutrality between religious beliefs!

Philonous: So you are saying it is reasonable to be a devout Muslim, just so long as one is even more devoted to “liberal neutrality between religious beliefs” than to Islam?

Oneiropolos: Now wait a second… I must not mean that. You’re trying to confuse me!

Philonous: My apologies, Ony, I did not mean to make you upset! Since that topic disturbed you, let us turn our attention to an anarcho-communist regime. Such a regime would be neutral as to whether its citizens chose to respect someone’s claim to own 1000 acres of land or not, would it not?

Oneiropolos: Yes, I guess it would…

Philonous: So that regime would be neutral over a matter where liberal regimes are quite decidedly non-neutral, wouldn’t it?

Oneiropolos: Well, yes, but that is not a reasonable claim!

Philonous: Why not?

Oneiropolos: John Locke put forward arguments as to why claims to private property are just.

Philonous: So, you’re saying that, in order to be reasonable, one must accept John Locke‘s philosophy? I thought the advantage of liberalism was that it was neutral between such basic philosophical stances?

Oneiropolos: Of course, sure it is. But there are other arguments for private property as well.

Philonous: So the liberal regime considers philosophical positions reasonable, only if they endorse private property, and unreasonable, if they do not? That hardly seems neutral!

Oneiropolos: But private property is a basis for civilization!

Philonous: So you say. But other people say belief in God is a basis for civilization, or the suppression of people’s inclination to follow their baser passions is the basis for civilization. Why does your belief about what is the basis for civilization trump their beliefs?

Oneiropolos: There are other great arguments for founding civilization in private property. Look at Ayn Rand, or Murray Rothbard, or Robert Nozick.

Philonous: Sure, let’s look at them… But looking at them I see in the backdrop anarcho-capitalism. Weren’t you friends with some of those folks at one time?

Oneiropolos: Sure, they are good people, they believe in liberty.

Philonous: But they don’t believe in taxation, do they? In fact, they think taxation is a form of theft, the state itself is inherently an unjust institution, and state agents are a gang of robbers. So, if one of them acts on those beliefs, and, for instance, shoots a state agent who has come to collect taxes, your liberal regime would be neutral about their act, since they’re acting on their own personally held reasonable beliefs?

Oneiropolos: Not at all! We would have to arrest them, and put them in prison. They’re free to believe those things, but not to act upon those beliefs!

Philonous: But if I believe government agents are robbers coming to violate my rights, isn’t a corollary of that belief that I have myself the right to defend myself against their aggression? It sounds like your position is pretty similar to the position of Hegel, the one that Marx blew up: Hegel, Marx said, had “resolved” the contradictions of bourgeois society, but only notionally. Hegel’s resolution had done absolutely nothing to rectify the actual, material conditions stemming from those contradictions. Hegel had flown off into an abstract realm, rather than fixing the problem in the real world. Isn’t that exactly what you ask of your anarcho-capitalist friends? That it is fine for them to believe that the state is a vast apparatus of criminals robbing them of their justly held possessions, but they absolutely must not put that belief into practice in the real world?

Oneiropolos: Now I think you are again trying to make me confused. Shooting state agents is certainly not a liberal action!

Philonous: And so it seems to me that you are saying that a just regime should be neutral between all reasonable beliefs… And that the only reasonable beliefs are liberal beliefs. But now I can’t see any distinction in terms of neutrality between a liberal regime, which is neutral between all liberal beliefs, and a communist regime, which is neutral between all communist beliefs, or an Islamic religion, which is neutral between all Islamic beliefs, or an anarcho-capitalist regime, which is neutral between all anarcho-capitalist beliefs.

Oneiropolos: But accepting those non-liberal beliefs would lead to conflict, and a lack of respect for persons!

Philonous: So our current liberal regime is free of conflicts? It doesn’t lack respect for those who think they should not be forced to bake a cake for a gay couples wedding, or who think that private property is theft, or who believe that the only truly just regime follows Sharia law?

Oneiropolos: Of course we respect their beliefs… We just ask that when they actually act, they act like good liberals!

Philonous: OK, and what about the currently popular “woke” beliefs: for instance, that criticism of BLM is actually hate speech, and hate speech is a form of violence, so such speech ought to be banned, as a rights violation. If you asked these folks, most of them would consider themselves liberal. So you’re OK with their program?

Oneiropolos: No! I am a classical liberal. We believe in absolute free speech rights.

Philonous: Just as an aside, Ony, weren’t you telling me, just the other day, that a famous liberal was ruling out classical liberalism itself as being unreasonable?

Oneiropolos: Yes, yes, very unfortunate…

Philonous: Well, tolerance is all well and good, but we can’t extend it to “wrongthink,” now can we?

Oneiropolos: I’m not sure what you mean…

Philonous: Don’t let it trouble you! In any case, you are quite committed to free speech, but these woke people are not. So you rule their view out as unreasonable?

Oneiropolos: No, they can believe whatever they want in my liberal regime. They just can’t put their beliefs into law.

Philonous: But their beliefs precisely are that this hate speech ought to be against the law. So you’re fine with them believing this, just so long as they don’t actually act upon their belief?

Oneiropolos: Sure, because this classical liberal framework entails respect for all people, and prevents conflict.

Philonous: And what percentage of the US population would you say currently is “classical liberal“?

Oneiropolos: I don’t know: 20%? 30%?

Philonous: So your position is that this distinct minority of the population can respect the rest of the population and prevent conflict by forcing its views of what a just regime is on all the rest of the population?

Oneiropolos: Now, now, if you put it that way, I know it sounds ridiculous, but…

Philonous: But?

Oneiropolos: But the liberal regime is neutral!

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America.

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