Classic Liberalism — Were They on to Something?

During our first week in class, we studied the ideology of Classic Liberalism.  We read and discussed two perspectives involving Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Other Essays.  Initially, both writings struck me as selfish, egotistically driven, and self-centered pieces.  However, they both made me truly stop and think about the differences between classic liberalism and its antithesis, Civic Republicanism.

I do know exactly what it is about growing up that change our minds or even when we come to conclusions that effect what and how we gain insight into our deepest opinions and views.  I do know, however, that many of the views that I once held as nearest and dearest, have somehow changed.  Maybe it is because as we grow and develop, we learn the intricacies of certain situations or understand the nuances of particular realities behind the scenes.  While I am not sure of those specificities, I found while driving down the street on the way home from class, that perhaps Rand and Emerson were on to something.

I can honestly describe myself as a lifelong, Chicago Democrat.  I am a self-described liberal and I am proud of these particular beliefs.  I firmly hold on to the teachings of my parents who never failed to let me know that we are here to help one another.   These beliefs remain very dear to me and anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that these ideals are deeply ingrained into my character as well.

Nevertheless, during the courtroom speech in The Fountainhead, the character of Howard Roark delivered testimony in his defense involving his case (I will not reveal the intricacies to those of us who have not yet read the book).  One of his statements is:

“The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state—was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men.  Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive.  Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism?  Does the fault lie in men’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle?”

Each statement Roark submits is quite valid.  Just in the past 100 years we have men such as Hitler and Stalin who solidify these points.  Let us get even more recent and throw in the Patriot Act and the right to spy on our citizens legally.

Additionally, Emerson discusses his views on charity and giving to those less fortunate.  He states “I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. Again, I found myself in complete agreement.

While I do hold dear to the beliefs that we are to help one another, I hold within myself, the right to give to whomever I choose, whenever I choose.  Contrary to what others may believe giving is my privilege and to whom I decide, is my right.  We currently live in a society which holds to “giving till it hurts”—something I do not and will not adhere to.  In a previous life, I had the privilege of working at several non-profit entities and during that time, I remember how financially wasteful each organization proved to be, yet they existed to serve the less fortunate, but always at a cost which was at many times, unnecessary.

After reading both works, and if I had to choose a point of view, I would have to take a “middle of the road” stance.  I do not believe I am quite as harsh as both Rand and Emerson, but I have to respect what I deem to be extremely adequate and valid points of view.

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3 Responses to Classic Liberalism — Were They on to Something?

  1. haleyschryver says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Over the years I have felt my beliefs shifting a bit as well, and reading Rand and Emerson have helped solidify those beliefs. I liked how they focus on the individual, not necessarily because of selfishness, but because better individuals make a better society as a whole. I agree with you that their writing came off as harsh at times, Rand more so than Emerson, but overall I think a classic liberal mindset can be a positive thing.

  2. Wunderkynd says:

    This is a great post and it reflects a lot of what I initially thought after reading both Emerson and Rand. Because I, like you, deeply care about helping others, the self-absorbed – oh, I mean, interested – language of these two actually made me quite upset. Glorifying self-reliance and resilience and strength of will, these two classic liberals act as if dependence is a dirty word, even calling it parasitic.

    But, I ask, what of child’s dependence on his or her mother? Where would we, as a community, be without that trusted reliance on the previous generation?
    Or, if that is going back too early, I would like to challenge that not even adults have been truly self-reliant.
    Have a job? Better hope they decide to fund your check.
    Go to school? Better hope the government continues to fund loans, grants, scholarships, subsidies, and budget costs.
    Drive today? Better hope there is a road.
    Did you eat? Unless you have your own farm…

    I think you get my point. There is a level of inter-connectedness in (any) society that classic liberals fail to take into account.

    *I really did like Emerson – I think ‘trust thyself’ is a great way to live and that agency plays a huge role in a person’s success. But there is an extremism there that I find difficult to digest.

  3. I think the lesson to take away from the Roarke quote is that people invoke the “common good” in order to justify trampling on the rights of others. I’m not sure if trampling on the rights of others for selfish motives is much better.

    I’m also not sure why when evil is done in the name of self-interest the fault lies in the fallibility of man and not the philosophy, but evil done in the name of the collective good reveals the problem of doing things in the collective good. It sounds a lot like the No True Scotsman fallacy.

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