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January 06, 2003

On liberalism-black, brown, yellow and white

A can of worms has been opened-and we are all dancing about on shades of degree. First, we need to define the object in question, liberalism.

The term is twisted and torn to shreds by every political faction there is. But, by liberalism, I mean the broad political tradition that has been ascendant in the West after World War II and had its genesis in the 18th century amongst mostly British philosophers and politicians (English and Scottish) [1].

For me, liberalism is most typified by the rule of law, wedded to equality before the law (it is this second part that is so difficult to maintain without eroding the other foundations I believe). The process took centuries, but today even kings and presidents are accountable to the judicial system in liberal nations (in theory-but practice must always begin with such principles). Two other essentials tend to be some level of representative democracy tempered by inviolable liberties (The Rights of Englishmen). The cocktail is mixed to various degrees in the panoply of nation-states that lay claim to the liberal mantle.

As a libertarian I have grave concerns about the social democratic tendencies in other parts of the Anglosphere, but I believe that Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are easily given places under the umbrella of liberalism. The nations of the European continent I will equivocate more-but compared to other regions of the world, such as Latin America or Africa, they are also havens of liberalism, though different strands (contrast Italian political quasi-anarchy with French dirigiste).

Then there are other nations where the liberal tradition is younger-budding and maturing before our eyes. Estonia, Taiwan and Senegal are a few examples I can think of. We do not yet know if they will be liberal nations, for I believe that cultures are shaped by generations, not 10-20 years of stability. Nations become liberal when their populace never remembers the memory of tyranny, never consider any alternative aside from broad liberties (legally enforced segregation was the norm 50 years ago in much of the nation, but today we would never think of turning the clock back). I suspect the Taiwanese will be ever vigilant for at least a few generations, even without the threat of "Red" China.

Now, to the more explosive question, are some races by nature more liberal? This is a difficult question to answer, and generalizations will tend to be easily refuted within the axis of human experience. For instance, as Jon Jay Ray has pointed out, northern Germany went from the relative chaos of the 30 Years War, to strict Prussian discipline by the 19th century that some would argue culminated in the regimentation of the Third Reich, only to be later forced into a liberal model by the conquering powers after World War II. In fact, in the United States, Americans of German ancestry are with the English the most numerous of the many ethnos that have formed its polity, and seem to have not brought any repressive "Hunnish" sensibility to its politics.

Certainly, the Soviet tyranny, and the soft-authoritarianism that dominated much of southern Europe until the 1970s, stands as a counter-point to assertions of natural white liberalism [2]. It might be better to generalize that Germanic, specifically Anglo-Saxon, nations are better suited to liberalism at this point in their development. Today's generalizations are yesterday's falsehoods (Today [pre-1998]: Confucianism is good for East Asian capitalism, Yesterday: Confucian values hold back individual initiative).

Nevertheless, let us look to East Asia, an economically prosperous region that some have asserted is naturally uncongenial to democracy. Lee Kwan Hew, Singapore's senior statesman, has asserted that the Chinese are not capable of accepting liberal democracy (and he is friendly to race realist ideas). He has created a clean efficient and bureaucratic city that is the jewel of Southeast Asia that stresses order not liberty. And yet, since 1987, Taiwan has engaged in raucous liberal democracy and seems to have accepted the peaceful transition of power between parties that is one of the hallmarks of liberalism. South Korea too has been successful in this experiment. Hong Kong lacks democracy, but it does have rule of law.

But ultimately, we have to look at Japan, with its 50 year rule by the Liberal Democratic Party for a more multi-generational example. The Japanese are a politically apathetic people from all encounters I have had had with them personally (as well as being religiously apathetic, indicating that there is little controversy at their parties!). They follow the forms of democracy, but seem less imbued with public spirit than Westerners would expect given that they are now stakeholders in their society through universal franchise. Japan is a relatively orderly society that does have rule of law. Though there have been laws on the books that mandate equal treatment of the sexes since the occupation period, they are regular ignored when they conflict with cultural sensibilities. It would seem then that Japanese political traditions rest lightly upon the substrate of the culture.

And yet no one must deny that there have been changes. The Japanese are no longer warlike, and the fact that a small population of Westerners have intermarried and settled down in Japan indicates that its quality of life is comparable to that of the West. One can look at the German state, with its confessional mixing (state support of established Churches, also present in England), restrictions on abortion, speech and political organization (when the latter are outside the bounds of "democratic" discourse), and wonder if the Germans have changed much either. Their corporate "social market economy" seems have to have taken dollops of liberalism, but tempered it with Germany's own sensibilities and traditions of communal negotiation and compromise that dates at least back to the era of Bismarck and his confrontations with the National Liberals.

German or Japanese political traditions are to me somewhat on the outer edges of liberalism. It seems that liberalism serves almost as a means toward expression of their own cultural particularisms, rather than being a neutral abstract framework for individual action and competition. Be as that may, it may be that these are the sort of compromises that liberalism will have to make if it is to "End History" and become a universal civilization.

So will liberalism be destroyed by multiculturalism and race-mixing? The Germans and Japanese that live in the United States (far more of the former of course) seem well adapted to liberal traditions. But one must always be cautious. Hawaii for instance, for decades dominated by Asian-American Democrats, has become a "machine politics" state that was rife with cronyism (on reason for a recent Republican victory in the governor’s race by a white woman). On the other hand, one could say the same until recently (or even now) of Irish dominated Massachusetts.

I would simply ask for caution tempering our intellectual courage (yes, me included). We can not truly say whether East Asians would or would not become "liberals." Certainly the Koreans, Taiwanese and to a lesser extent Japanese have become "more like us," but immigrants from the mainland seem far less influenced by abstract ideas and more driven by economic considerations (similar to immigrants from Mexico).

More later.

[1] Yes, the United States of America was its first great unabashed experiment, while Frenchmen like Montesquieu had some influence. But humor me when I say it was a Brit-thang.

[2] Spain, Portugal and Greece were all autocracies until the past generation. Italy was a democracy, but one with a thriving Communist party as well as a post-Fascist party. One suspects that Italy's democracy owed much to the fact that it had sided with the Axis powers and so authoritarianism could no longer be allowed to remain dominant.

Posted by razib at 03:33 PM

I would agree that the historical correlation between whiteness and specifically anglo-celtic culture (remember that Adam Smith and many others were actually Scots - "my people" if I may say so, were more important 200 years ago than they are now)is very high but I'm not sure we can really draw a straight line between race and disposition toward classical liberal institutions - which is what you're saying.
The Mises-Rothbard types claim that in the very long run (like 500 years?!) liberty will win out worldwide because it carries with it superior productivity and scientific development. Let's hope so but I'm personally more given to pessimism than either thinker.
As an aside I'd like to point out that Wilhelminian Germany was fairly liberal by European and world standards - it's only against the backdrop of Britain and America that it seems authoritarian in retrospect. Certainly it was very liberal in comparison to Poland, Rumania and Russia, which is why there were so many Jews in Germany. The Nazis were a perversion of German culture, not it's fulfillment as they claimed.

Posted by: John Purdy at January 6, 2003 04:18 PM

Different kinds of governments attract different personality types from within the broad diversity of personalities found in any group. Lee Kwan Yew recruited the kind of authoritarian but honest personalities that the Marine Corps stocks its officer ranks with. Japan before WWII was increasingly ruled by whomever wouldn't be assasinated by fanatical young Army officers. After WWII, we saw that it was ruled by genial, slightly crooked but mild types.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at January 7, 2003 11:11 PM

Disagree with Purdy. Pre WWII Germany was Statist, not liberal -- but it did have the world's most generous welfare system so was in a way the first "modern" State.

I think it is traditions more than race that underpin democracy. Look at India -- racialy very different from the Anglos but, with Anglo traditions and customs grafted on, it has become a remakably stable democracy -- despite Indira.

Posted by: John Ray at January 8, 2003 04:34 AM

Razib, I like your clarity of your ideas concerning liberalism. Coming up with clear, objective definitions and descriptions is the bulk of the battle. I’d like to toss out a few related ideas.

If liberalism is a “broad political tradition…typified by the rule of law, wedded to equality before the law,” subject to a system of checks and balances with an independent judicial system and “some level of representative democracy tempered by inviolable liberties,” then liberalism certainly seems general enough to be adopted by a variety of cultures.

But since liberalism was developed in a particular place under specific historical circumstances by particular people (largely the Dutch and English), it is tempting to say that liberalism is possible under only a narrow range of conditions, including race. This would probably be the paleoconservative perspective. I, on the other hand, think there is an inherent logic to liberalism that makes its adoption by other cultures not necessarily inevitable, but, well…logical. The crux of the issue being what biocultural preconditions need to be in place for liberalism to take flight.

That Japan and Germany may be on the “outer edges of liberalism” demonstrates to me the liberalism’s versatility. One definition of liberalisms is that of a personality characteristic – “liberal minded” and what is seen with Japan and Germany is mechanistic liberalism grafted upon cultures whose personalities (if it makes any sense to say a culture has a personality) have historically been less liberal. There are of course dangers in being too liberal minded as in the old quip about a liberal being to open minded to take his own side in an argument. Like everything balances need to be struck.

Posted by: Steve at January 8, 2003 09:50 AM

In response to John Ray

liberalism is a “broad political tradition…typified by the rule of law, wedded to equality before the law,” subject to a system of checks and balances with an independent judicial system and “some level of representative democracy tempered by inviolable liberties,”

By this standard then Wilhelminian Germany was quite liberal even in comparison with France and Italy let alone the eastern countries. Relative to the Anglo-Americans, yes a statist country. Relative to the rest of the world, by Razib's definition, relatively liberal.

Posted by: John Purdy at January 8, 2003 03:16 PM