Via Roderick Long I see an interesting short piece by Albert Jay Nock exploring the difference between the terms “liberal” and “radical” has been posted online. Though written in 1920, it is apparent from reading the essay that Nock’s observations ring especially true today, as countless Good Liberals continue to delude themselves into believing that it’s not the system or the U.S.’s political institutions that are faulty; rather, it’s just the people running them.
In other words, the problem to many liberals isn’t the fact that a U.S. president can order a person, American citizen or otherwise, to be extradited and tortured on his or her word alone, or that an invasion of another country can be ordered by just a de facto dictator who is elected every four years — no, the problem is we don’t have the right people making those decisions. Though George W. Bush is dastardly and evil, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can be trusted to exercise absolute power responsibly. To accept that, one probably also has to believe that Hillary or the Progressive Messiah will actually bring all the troops home from Iraq, or fundamentally change the direction of U.S. foreign policy to make war less likely in the future. Of course if that’s what you believe, then there’s a bridge to Brooklyn I’d like to offer you…
As Nock writes:
In the philosophy of public affairs, the liberal gets at his working theory of the State by the “high priori road”; that is to say, by pure conjecture. Confronted with the phenomenon of the State, and required to say where it came from and why it is here, the liberal constructs his answer by the a priori method; thus Carey, for example, derived the State from the action of a gang of marauders, Rousseau from a social contract, Sir Robert Filmer from the will of God, and so on. All these solutions of the problem are ingenious and interesting speculations, but nothing more than speculations. The radical gets at his theory of the State by the historical method; by tracing back and examining every appearance of the State, to the most remote examples that history can furnish; segregating the sole invariable factor which he finds to be common throughout, and testing it both positively and negatively as a determining cause.
The result carries the radical to the extreme point of difference from the liberal in his practical attitude towards the State. The liberal believes that the State is essentially social and is all for improving it by political methods so that it may function accordingly to what he believes to be its original intention. Hence, he is interested in politics, takes them seriously, goes at them hopefully, and believes in them as an instrument of social welfare and progress. He is politically minded, with an incurable interest in reform, putting good men in office, independent administrations, and quite frequently in third-party movements. The liberal forces of the country, for instance, rallied quite conspicuously to Mr. Roosevelt in the good old days of the Progressive party. The liberal believes in the reality and power of political leadership; thus, again, he eagerly took Mr. Wilson on his hands at the last two elections.
The radical, on the other hand, believes that the State is fundamentally antisocial and is all for improving it off the face of the earth; not by blowing up officeholders, as Mr. Palmer appears to suppose, but by the historical process of strengthening, consolidating and enlightening economic organization. The radical has no substantial interest in politics, and regards all projects of political reform as visionary. He sees, or thinks he sees, quite clearly that the routine of partisan politics is only a more or less elaborate and expensive byplay indulged in for the sake of diverting notice from the primary object of all politics and political government, namely, the economic exploitation of one class by another; and hence all candidates look about alike to him, and their function looks to him only like that of Dupin’s pretended lunatic in “The Purloined Letter.”