For liberalism, at least in its radical form, the desire to subject people to an ethical ideal – which is 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. In his famous essay on ”Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant provided a precise formulation of this key mechanism:
Many say a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form. But precisely with these inclinations nature comes to the aid of the general will established on reason, which is revered even though impotent in practice. Thus it is only a question of a good organization of the state (which does lie in man’s power), whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other. The consequence for reason is the same as if none of them existed, and man is forced to be a good citizen even if not a morally good person.
The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is: ‘Given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of whom is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.’
A problem like this must be capable of solution; it does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men, organizing the conflict of the hostile intentions present in a people in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws. Thus a state of peace is established in which laws have force.
One should follow Kant’s line of thought to its conclusion: 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.
[Extract. Appeared in ABC on November 22nd 2011.]