How Liberalism is Destroying Freedom

The following essay by Alexander Grau discusses the strange metamorphosis of liberal political philosophy into its opposite. JLH, who translated the piece, includes this note:

This scholar seems to make a good point, but he is so caught up in the maze of academic terminology which tries to come to grips with lofty ideas like liberalism that he fails to see the actual handwriting on the wall — these are not “hyper-liberals” he is describing; they are the minions of the Left, including the ’68ers and their Antifa shock troops.

The translated essay from the monthly German magazine Cicero:

How Liberalism is Destroying Freedom

by Alexander Grau
April 21, 2018

Freedom, it seems, is increasingly the freedom of those who think alike. In the name of the most profound liberal values such as tolerance and freedom of expression, intolerance seems to be growing and increasingly constricting freedom of expression and artistic freedom. Briefly, three examples from recent times: a poem by Eugen Gomringer[1] that allegedly reproduces patriarchal structures and must therefore disappear; the monograph by Rolf Peter Sieferle[2] that first disappeared from the bestseller list and is now disappearing from bookstore shelves; Uwe Tellkamp[3], who has complained of a “corridor of opinion” and is now being punished in the magazines. The list could be longer.

Freedom is Endangered by its Proponents

It is absurd. Freedom today is under threat, not only by its enemies, but by its declared supporters. People preach tolerance but tolerate only their own opinion; declare themselves open, but punish anything that does not fit their world image. And anyone who argues against them is accused of taking on the role of victim. It is a hermetically sealed thought bubble. It almost seems that liberalism is being destroyed by its own success.

The main concern of classic liberalism is the protection of the individual. Thus freedom is defined as the absence of compulsion. In an equally famous and unfortunate formulation, Isaiah Berlin called this form of freedom “negative freedom.” There is nothing negative in this freedom. Only the person free of compulsion is free.

The Missionary Strain of Liberalism

Accordingly, traditional forms of liberalism concentrate on eliminating paternalism and external control. That is the unifying cord of economic and constitutional liberalism. At its core, liberalism is also an anti-ideology which protects the individual against attacks on his autonomy in the name of traditional ideals.

Besides that, since at least the bourgeois revolutions of the18th century, there have been aggressive, missionary-like tendencies in the liberal tradition. The reasons for that are to be found in the logic of liberalism itself. If freedom of the individual is the standard, isn’t it natural to protect the individual from more than just physical coercion? Aren’t there hidden coercions? Perhaps inscribed in social power relations, cultural traditions and social structures? And is it not a liberal tendency to liberate people from these things too?

Hypo-Liberalism With Fallacies

It was not mistaken thinking. Naturally, there are power structures, economic or social, that have a repressive character. And so there developed in the conditions of the modern welfare society what the British philosopher John N. Gray, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, recently called hyper-liberalism — an overblown, radical form of liberalism, an “illiberal liberalism,” which perverts the original liberal tendency into its opposite. Freedom is curtailed in the name freedom and democracy is restricted for the sake of democracy.

The fallacy of hyper-liberalism is similarly banal. Not all perceived repressions are real and not every sensitivity must be accepted by the community or indeed the constitutional state. Ultimately, people are not alike, and equity can only be achieved at the cost of a lack of freedom. For liberals, that is no option. Wanting to make everyone equal would lead to depriving the individual of his individuality in the name of individualism.

Moral Superiority Justifies Any Means

But hyper-liberals are not disconcerted by these arguments. For them, liberalism is not an anti-ideology, but a substantial philosophy whose alleged moral superiority justifies anti-liberal methods to achieve its goals: from book boycotts to personal vilification.

What has happened in recent months — not just in this country — is alarming. Sometimes you get the impression that you would have to rescue freedom from liberalism But liberalism, properly understood, is too worthwhile an idea to be left to paternalistic ideologues and zealous missionaries.


1.   The 1951 poem avenidas by Gomringer, who won the Alice Salomon Poetry Prize in 2011. In recognition of the award, this poem was painted on the wall of the Alice Salomon College. Translated from the Spanish, it says:

“Avenues / Avenues and flowers / Flowers / Flowers and women / Avenues / Avenues and women / Avenues and flowers and women and an admirer.”

2.   Finis Germania, translated earlier at GoV.
3.   Wrote The Tower, describing life in 1980s East Germany.

7 thoughts on “How Liberalism is Destroying Freedom

  1. The brilliant hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai wrote some profound and penetrating essays on this subject. I can recommend books like “Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays on Political Philosophy”. Kolnai really unmasks sosialism and the “cult of equality” at the deepest level.

  2. I noticed a long time ago that people who preach tolerance are the most intolerant sort of people.

  3. Was it Carl Popper – I could be wrong, I have been before – that said tolerance is self defeating in that it always falls to the intolerant?

  4. Great article. There is a saying in France that goes: ” Too much tolerance leads to the intolerable”.

  5. These people are not Liberals, they are leftists, Marxists. Don’t use their language.

  6. Liberal = of the people

    …directly from Latin liberalis “noble, gracious, munificent, generous,” literally “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” from liber “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.”

    This is conjectured to be from PIE *leudh-ero-, which probably originally meant “belonging to the people,” though the precise semantic development is obscure; but compare frank (adj.). This was a suffixed form of the base *leudh- (2) “people” (source also of Old Church Slavonic ljudu, Lithuanian liaudis, Old English leod, German Leute “nation, people;” Old High German liut “person, people”).

    Another example of how liberal crosses over to freedom

    Frank (adj.)
    c. 1300, “free, liberal, generous;” 1540s, “outspoken,” from Old French franc “free (not servile); without hindrance, exempt from; sincere, genuine, open, gracious, generous; worthy, noble, illustrious” (12c.), from Medieval Latin francus “free, at liberty, exempt from service,” as a noun, “a freeman, a Frank”

    A generalization of the tribal name; the connection is that Franks, as the conquering class, alone had the status of freemen in a world that knew only free, captive, or slave. For sense connection of “being one of the nation” and “free,” compare Latin liber “free,” from the same root as German Leute “nation, people”

    Freedom = of that which is dear or beloved

    Free (adj.)
    Old English freo “exempt from; not in bondage, acting of one’s own will,” also “noble; joyful,” from Proto-Germanic *frija- “beloved; not in bondage” (source also of Old Frisian fri, Old Saxon vri, Old High German vri, German frei, Dutch vrij, Gothic freis “free”), from PIE *priy-a- “dear, beloved,” from root *pri- “to love.”

    The sense evolution from “to love” to “free” is perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves; compare Latin liberi, meaning both “free persons” and “children of a family”). For the older sense in Germanic, compare Gothic frijon “to love;” Old English freod “affection, friendship, peace,” friga “love,” friðu “peace;” Old Norse friðr “peace, personal security; love, friendship,” German Friede “peace;” Old English freo “wife;” Old Norse Frigg, name of the wife of Odin, literally “beloved” or “loving;” Middle Low German vrien “to take to wife,” Dutch vrijen, German freien “to woo.”

    So you can see the root meanings are only superficially interchangeable, liberal being the “freedom” as of part of the ruling class (not enslaved) or hoi polloi at its apex representing a common rule , whereas freedom is of that which is loved or dear in a personal individual sense.

    The two are not necessarily at all compatible in real terms.

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