Classical Liberalism, Psychotherapy, and the Progressive Critique

Kadir Nelson Say Their Names (2020)

I’ve been involved in progressive social activism for the better part of 15 years. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the classic liberal corrective to what I see as the fallacies of ideology—be they on the Left or Right.

The classical liberal view I have come to learn—from podcasts, mainly—has been largely popularized by Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. There have been a lesser cast of characters (including a host of Noble Laureates) but they all espouse a few core tenets that I have come to deeply respect.

  1. Freedom to dissent and disagree. Consensus is a privilege and an ever-evolving process; not a right or a fixed state. Nor is consensus viewed as necessary. In fact, consensus is often cast as auspicious with respect to how well it is able to discern the good, true and beautiful. In this sense, the classical liberals pay homage to the classical philosophers (i.e., Plato, Socrates), who were deeply distrusting of populism and its force as a political lever. Most of the classical liberals—and to some degree, libertarians—that I know have a remarkable ability to respectfully listen to one another while candidly disagreeing with one another’s positions. In doing so, they display a commitment to maturity and integrity that I have very rarely seen in other ideological circles.  
  2. Optimism about the future. Most liberals view modernity as a great, unprecedented boon to quality of life and greater, human flourishing. The historical record largely seems to bear their claims out. However, in the face of unprecedented threats (e.g., global pandemics, climate change, cyberterrorism), many remain remarkably optimistic about the market’s ability to find solutions that will eventually become widely available to all. They even embrace the uncomfortable—sometimes devastating—process of transition (see Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction”) that will inevitably follow from abandoning old, obsolete ways of thinking and doing. Although this optimism in growth following change and displacement has become popularly reduced into ‘trickle-down economics’ theory; I don’t think the charge is fair. Trickle-down economics—as commonly understood—assumes a fundamental inequality of access to supply, labor, markets and other assets of competition. This inequality of access violates a core tenet of classical liberalism.
  3. Equality of access. Classical liberalism believes that equal access to social, political and economic capital is essential to creating a social order that will grow richer, resist corruption and prosper. This equality of access is something that progressives seem to agree upon in principle although there are deep disagreements about the methods in which to bring this about. Liberals believe in the power of democracy, law, limiting governmental fetters to competition. Progressives seem deeply suspicious of the history of democracy and law but also advocate for top-down policies to redistribute wealth. Liberals are very wary of top-down policies, and love to cite historical examples in which such policies were either ineffective or had contrarian results. Liberals tend to see top-down control—no matter how well-intended—as a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.
  4. The goodness of individuals. I think this stems back to classical liberalism’s roots in the Scottish Enlightenment. At a time when Western Europe was seeking to find the spiritual compass for nations that were departing from Catholic imperialism, philosophers and economists looked into the heart of humankind. Adam Smith, for example, seems to think that individuals were inherently motivated to behave with a sense of propriety because we were compelled to by an ‘invisible spectator’ who—metaphorically—computed the morality of our actions within the matrix of our society’s moral sensibilities. In this way, Smith predated Freud’s superego by over 100 years. They did not necessarily think that individuals were inherently beneficent—Smith and Freud were both distrustful of this notion—but rather that individuals were compelled to act in good ways, mainly though the edifice of the culture that had created open-markets, democracy and science.
  5. Gratitude. I especially enjoy this facet of liberal thinking, and it goes in line with their sense of optimism. Liberals tend to appreciate the quality of life that we generally enjoy in the West, and celebrate the increased standards of living in much of Africa and Asia. There tends to be a certain contempt or even misanthropy in progressive ideology about the nature of society and individuals. On a societal level, the progressive instinct is to ask: “What went wrong to produce such inequality and alienation?”; the liberal instinct asks: “What went right to produce such prosperity, innovation and ingenuity?” It appears, reductio ad absurdum, to be a case of hall-empty vs. half-full optics. On an individual level, if one secures wealth for themselves (e.g., house, car, good-paying job), their sense of materialism, environmental consciousness, social consciousness, and wokeness may all be questioned within progressive discourse. If not overtly by one’s peers, then certainly internally. Liberals not only withhold the self-attack but actually provide logical retort for the social merits of individual striving. Perhaps best articulated in Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, the wealth and desire that one gains in competitive markets actually tends to produce work, wealth and prosperity for others as well. Although this can and has been caricatured (i.e., “greed is good”), it is also equally obvious how our lives are notably enhanced by the strivings of certain individuals be they Steve Jobs, Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford.

There tend to be certain parallels between a liberal worldview and a conception of personhood that seems increasingly integral to modern psychotherapy. First, is the belief in individuals to transcend their social/historical situations. Although psychotherapy takes very seriously the individuals’ life circumstances, it is essential to the healing process that the individual does not feel reduced to their diagnosis, history or other such facticity’s of life. This is especially true when working with clients who self-identify within a minority identity-group. It is crucial to understand the individual in their background but not to reduce them to a system or caste. Second, there is an inherent optimism about the capacity of the individual to tolerate and bear the discomfort of change. The therapist does not (or should not) take on the task of protecting the patient from painful realities, even if it may mean upsetting their delicately ordered status quo. Helping the patient face reality is the task of the therapist, and not feebly attempting to cancel out things that are difficult to bear or hear. Thirdly, although it may be upsetting and challenging in the short-term, the insistence on personal accountability in therapy finds common ground with classical liberalism. Although the progressive hesitancy to avoid victim-blaming a group has considerable merit, it can be profoundly disempowering to regard individuals as fundamentally broken, scarred and without hope of healing in their own ways without heavy (often paternalistic) outside intervention. The invocation of the will to heal/change in psychotherapy is a call to personal accountability and responsibility—no matter who had caused the initial transgressions that resulted in the client being in therapy. Fourth, the classical liberal respects the fundamental unknowability of the individual and believes in their organismic striving as the primary instrument of value and propriety. Indeed many psychotherapists (including psychiatrists) are suspicious of a heavy-handed pharmacological approach that views suffering as meaningless and chemicals in terms of a simple ledger that can be formulaically balanced. A good therapist too knows to respect the dialogue and to learn from and with the patient—and not merely impose his system upon her. The individual is capable of healing—through their own efforts and strivings—in ways that a therapist can hardly dream of emulating should he impose his will upon the patient in terms of directives, policies and work. If the patient heals from these therapies, it is despite and not because of the therapist intervention. Fifth, and perhaps most powerfully, psychotherapy encourages individual striving and questions the self-condemnation of realizing one’s own wants, desire and potential. Psychotherapy participates in a liberal optimism whereby the individualistic strivings of one will contribute to the personal–and indeed social–good of the world. In a world where we are called to be accountable to so many systems and interactions between these systems, the therapy space becomes a sojourn where one can freely explore one’s desires, fears, prejudices without judgment, while at the same time growing one’s own self-compassion.

Of course, I would be remiss in failing to point out progressive concerns that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed within a classical liberal worldview. The main contention, I think, is that the classical liberal view holds an overly salubrious view of human nature and social order that is not altogether in line with historical facts. The progressive critique is strongest when it points out the liberal shortcomings in liberalism. For example, and chief among the concerns, is that liberalism does not adequately account for the problem of violence. If Smith and other thinkers of the Enlightenment had an overly optimistic view of human nature, Thomas Hobbes had balancing perspective. Hobbes maintained that humans must always reconcile with violence—within ourselves and with our neighbors. Any liberal philosophy that preaches about the virtues of free enterprise must also provide an account for how violence can (and should) be constrained within a social contract. The only feasible answer in open-market societies is a state-run institution (e.g., police, military), but then these branches of government must be reasonably separated from political and economic institutions to ensure maximum freedom amongst all citizens. In theory this is possible, but in practice rarely so. Although the West tends to enjoy a fairly universal standard of safety amongst all citizens, this was not always the case. In fact, many progressives would contend that the problem of unjust violence still persists today.

I don’t think we should be too distracted by the heavy ideologues (i.e., identity politics) on any side of the political spectrum. Ironically, their extremism is itself incentivized by market forces that grant tenure or secure financial positions to those who are willing to think and promote confirmatory ideologies to their respective institutions. Therefore, another critique of liberalism is that the very forces that breed specialization, productivity and profit also create markets for extremism, which will always attract a niche audience of specialists and followers. Classical liberals, therefore, tend to also be fairly suspicious of specialists and wish to view the data ‘with their own eyes’ as it were, again trusting in their individual capacities for reasoning and decision-making. Perhaps we have yet to appreciate the pros and cons of this approach in an increasingly info-centric age.

Thirdly, progressives (and conservatives) may accuse liberals of naivety with regards to the way in which cooperation actually occurs within larger social orders. Liberals tend to assume that most individuals are inherently rational and act in self-interested ways that tend to have social pay-offs provided their liberty is not obstructed by systemic violence, coercion or other forms of totalitarianism. While the cooperative mechanism of ‘the invisible hand’ might actually produce great material profit; what about the other non-material forms of wealth such as communal spirit as well as public spaces and goods? Furthermore, how to manage risks that cannot be individualized and must be borne by the public at large (i.e., climate catastrophes, pandemic costs, pollution etc.)? It seems that having some collective identity (e.g., nationalism) might be necessary for the development and maintenance of these non-material transactions. Compared to progressives, liberals tend of waffle on if, how and what forms of social/collective consciousness should come about. One problem of collectivism however, which both liberals and progressives agree upon, is the question of who will be included and who will be left out? While progressives may take an overly paternalistic and elitist approach to inclusivity, liberals tend to be somewhat impotent and Pollyannaish. Liberals may falsely assume that everyone can and should check their baser impulses in service of maximizing every one else’s freedoms. Progressives may rightly counter that this amounts to a wishful fantasy to see the nation as an organic epiphenomenon of the market and as one, naturalized, happy family. The reality is that nations were not built on openly competitive markets but rather on spoils and plunder; the ongoing effects of this history are why many people do not enjoy or partake in the great, national spirit that Smith and other liberals so desperately intend for us to conceive.

Finally, I think progressives are right to critique the liberal value of freedom as being somewhat hypocritical. Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative freedom is essential to understanding this critique. Negative freedom is the freedom from fetters and constraints, such as the freedom to transact according to one’s wishes and will in the market. Berlin noted that so-called liberal democracies (e.g., Thatcher, Reagan) often tout these freedoms while eroding the positive freedoms, which are the ability to access actions, choices, wishes and intentions without any undue restraint—either from external coercion or one’s own social-historical situation. To use a simple example, negative freedom is the ability to go into a grocery store and freely choose from a dozen different varieties of ketchup. However, this freedom feels meaningless and paltry if there isn’t the accompanying positive freedom to purchase groceries while also covering childcare, rent, utilities etc. The civil rights activists of the 60s and 70s, as well as the totalitarian strongmen of communist and socialist regimes, were all—in their own ways—advancing mechanisms to assure the positive freedoms that were somehow left out of the liberal and neoliberal regimes. Of course, we know that some of these mechanisms had disastrous effects. However, the cynicism towards totalitarianism should not deter the rational and compassionate citizen from grappling with this progressive critique—what should the society’s obligation to its citizens be with regards to providing them with the positive freedoms that constitute a flourishing life?

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