Steelmanning Liberalism (I)

I’ve loved the term “steelmanning” ever since I first read it, somewhere in Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander seems to have used the term many, many times and I don’t know exactly in which piece I first saw it, but credit where credit is due.

I was reminded of it again a few days ago when the estimable Geoffrey Miller pointed out that Conor Frieders… okay, I don’t want to get into that, or him. Let’s just leave it that the tweet inspired me to at last begin a post I’ve been contemplating for some time:

Steelmanning Liberalism

As to what liberalism is, what it is exactly that we’re steelmanning here, let’s refer to La Wik, for its universalism (heh):

Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality and international cooperation

I’m sure that my target demographic here experiences a certain distaste, perhaps even physical revulsion to “Liberalism” because for the discerning, the term conjures up images like this:


Or perhaps this:slt

These are the seeming fruits of liberalism, and by their fruits ye shall know them; all of us experiencing sanity feel a natural and healthy revulsion at such things. But let’s be honest. These are the strawmen of liberalism, or, perhaps one could say, merely the products of mental illness. What are the very best arguments for liberalism? What are the Steelmen?

I identify four, in descending order of importance:

  1. Liberalism prevents or makes very unlikely destructive war between nation-states
  2. Liberalism prevents or makes very unlikely civil war within nation-states
  3. Liberalism in general prohibits and discourages the killing of individual humans
  4. Liberalism provides the maximum opportunity for individual humans to develop their “human potential”

Today, we focus on (1). Obviously if this were true,  it would be a powerful argument that everyone, everywhere should adopt a liberal political system. War does not further good “reactionary” values like strong families with a committed father and mother in their complementary roles, like subsidiarity, like voluntarism and local control and craftsmanship. War produces single moms and orphans, national emergency governments running roughshod over all forms of local outlook and control, the involuntary military draft and mass production of material that is not for construction and admiration but for the express purpose of destruction and dealing death.

The notion that “Democracies don’t fight each other” was expressed by George W. Bush in 2004 and by his almost equally liberal predecessor Bill Clinton in 1994, but as helpfully pointed out by the BBC:

Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, [was] published in 1795. Kant’s theory is that democratic leaders are restrained by the resistance of their people to bearing the costs and deaths of war. And a democratic culture of negotiation and conciliation, plus the hurdles to taking swift action, favours peace.

For simplicity we here use “democracy” and “liberalism” interchangeably. In Current Year, all significant “liberal” regimes are democracies, whether parliamentary or American-style, and all actual “democratic” systems (those with voting and a regular, peaceful transfer of state power) are considered “liberal” under the definition above. The fact that a number ill-liberal nations hold sham elections is, in itself, significant. The fact that many “democracies” still have (powerless) monarchies is irrelevant. Luxembourg is as cute as a button; we will discuss it no further, unless it goes to war.

Now, it’s possible to dispute whether, in fact, liberal regimes or democracies have never, ever, gone to war with each other; the Guardian provides a helpful summary of possible exceptions. The best the good Professor could come up with was the (maybe, possibly) the War of 1812 and the Peloponnesian War.

Athens’s attack on Syracuse refutes the hypothesis, yet it is questionable whether the Athenians knew that Syracuse possessed a democratic polity or whether the rule of democratic peace applies to ancient warlike republics.

Color me unconvinced. One could argue that the US-Mexican War of 1846-8 qualifies, but the Mexican government in 1846 wasn’t liberal, or indeed outside of Mexico City much of anything but a mess. So I’m not buying. Some fools try to claim that Hitler was “elected” (he was appointed Chancellor). Germany was a democracy in 1933. Anyone want to make the case that it was still in 1939?

The American Civil War of 1861-5 belongs to Part II.

Liberalism has, arguably, been around as an important idea since Locke and other thinkers of the 17th century (see Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for a great fictional treatment of the era). Modern liberal political regimes have been around since 1776. They have steadily increased in numbers since then, and they’ve not gone to war with each other. If all nation-states were liberal in construction, war would be extinct, or very, very rare.

This is the most important fruit of liberalism.

Consider it Steelmanned, Part I.

18 thoughts on “Steelmanning Liberalism (I)

  1. Seems a promising series. It is always good to sharpen one’s arguments. We also took the STEEL term (by way or Alrenous, however).

    Firstly, there is a slip in your argument. You claim war between nation-states is unlikely but then discuss war between liberal nations.

    The reason why war between liberal nations do not occur, let’s assume, is because they are all part of the Anglo-American empire:

    That is the first move that a neoreactionary would make.

    Now for liberal states against all others.

    The evidence is quite clear, they are warlike:

    What is it, however, that gives them their warlike character?

    Well, humans are a war-making animal.

    But is there something innate in liberalism that makes it aggressive?


    Man makes war; war makes the state and the state makes war; and it is war that makes liberalism and it is liberalism that makes democracy (and democracy then goes on to make war).

    Jouvenel and Tilly, along with Mesquita, Moldbug and Machiavelli help us understand the inner logic and psychology of what drives war in liberal democracies.

    However, let’s take Sailer’s invade the world, invite the world observation.

    You (liberalism) are conquering other states and you are feeding on them. Their human capital and their resources. You are keeping your army sharp and your enemies scared.

    The masterstroke is to invite the conquered people back to the homeland.

    Some will join the Elite (Sadiq Khan).
    Some will become Essential (Muslim voters, cops, lawyers etc).
    And some will be Expendable (terrorists and criminals).

    By “inviting” new people in, by violently liberating human capital resources, you can expand your pool of “Essentials” and this means that the Elite can easily demote, remove, replace and reject previous Essentials.

    As with the Iron Law of Wages, you create a surplus of potential Essentials and thus lower the bargaining power of Essentials.

    As for the Expendables, their antics allow you to build a police state at home and provide a permanent justification for permanent war abroad.

    A perfectly circular system.

    The new voters will be just that – voters and they will always vote for more government.

    And more government means more power -for the Elites.

    As for gay marriage, homosexual rights, female liberation and whatever, this is the Elites sponsoring the Expendables to degrade, diminish and destroy the power of Essentials.

    Elites in power are always a minority, especially in a democracy. Elites necessarily rely on others (Essentials and Expendables) to secure power and expand it. However, as Jouvenel shows, the Essentials do not like the Elite’s having too much power (the staple complaint is taxes and war-making). The Elites cannot kill the Essentials directly or replace them directly, thus they must undermine them indirectly. And this means they must use the Expendables to do it.

    The ideal position for any Elite is to have a very, very small set of Essentials who obey ALL commands without question or compliant and if there is any objection to the commands of the Elite, they can be replaced at once by any one from a VAST pool of potential Essentials.

    Until Elite power is secure, the games of High and Low against Middle will never end and when it comes to foreign policy and war-making, war will never end as well.

    This is all theoretical, but the historical record is clear (read Jouvenel, Tilly and even Niall Ferguson).

    Now, let’s look at the problem from the outside.

    All other nations see this, understand this and it terrifies them. Russia, China and, above all, Islamic non-state groups, want to resist this.


    Because liberalism is a predator.

    Promoting democracy is like smashing open a big, fat, juicy orange – one filled with sweet human capital.

    Once a piece of land has been captured, then liberalism begins to “digest” the capital.

    First, you divorce religion from the state.

    Second, you bind the people to the state via the act of voting and by creating political parties and a permanent bureaucracy.

    Third, you create dependency over security, markets, investments and credit.

    The vassal can only use military equipment that the master supplies and can only trade with a reserve currency that belongs to the master.

    Fourthly, you need to split man and woman and families up.

    In short, you want atoms, individual atoms. Weak atoms. Atoms that can be moved about, traded, upgraded or disposed off at will.

    Men like Bin Laden see this and react.

    Men like Putin see this and seek to secure themselves and their country.

    Countries like North Korea and China wish to wall themselves off from this predator.

    We could go on and on, but we want to make a few final points.

    If you follow international events closely, you will understand that the world in 2017 has never been more divided and filled with tensions – at least since the years just after WW2 or just before it.

    There are, in fact, many wars. USG is involved in 16? countries (Muslim countries) and may well go to war with North Korea shortly and maybe China later in the century.

    So no. Liberalism does not bring peace. Liberalism brings war. (Actually, it is the structure of the state – imperium in imperio – that leads to war.)

    Pinker is completely wrong BTW:


    Of course, we are not arguing against you personally! Just the target you set. .


    • First, I express my tremendous admiration for Imperial Energy. Since I’m playing Devil’s advocate here (and quite enjoying it) I’ll do my best to respond as a good Ivy League multi-culti rainbow person would…but briefly and partially. You posts, and indeed this comment, are simple tremendous (both length and erudition).

      Truly, most liberal democracies are part of the Anglosphere, and that’s a factor in itself that restrains them from going to war with each other. But aside from that, all the wars the US, for example, have been involved in since 1945 were with more or less, dictatorships–N. Korea/Red China, N. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. “military action short of war” like Grenada. And then there’s the bombing of Serbia, which was arguably a “democracy.”

      Aside from the edge case, no wars of liberals vs. liberals. The actions the liberal states take in the (non-liberal) countries that you cite are real, and many of them seem dubious at best, but they don’t count in the limited context of this post–that liberalism doesn’t go to war with itself. So if we would all just become good liberals, war between nation-states would cease, or almost cease.


  2. Important to differentiate between societies that have achieved liberalism vs. societies (gen. facism, communism etc) that were enabled by liberalism or represent an end state of liberalism. Librealism does prevent war with other nations that have achieved the same, but the process often produces an endstate that liberalism attacks in a thoroughly bloody fashion


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  4. (Thank you. We will respond in the spirit of the enterprise.)

    Now that the opening moves are well under way, let’s look at the some of the pieces and the overall position of the board so far.

    You claim that we would have world peace if all nations (or at least the elites within those nations) were liberals. That is, that a true global, liberal elite existed.

    Why assume that liberalism is justified as a political system, to even begin with? Assuming a truly liberal world order that was at permanent peace, would that world order be desirable or morally good?

    Keeping only to the terms of the discussion (on war), is there not a paradox to your argument here?

    You assume that it is desirable – because it would be peaceful – but let’s consider the following argument.

    1: A liberal world order would be peaceful.
    2: A liberal world order is a morally desirable world, one that (we) ought to bring about.
    3: If you desire the end, then you must will the means.
    4: The only way to a peaceful, liberal world order is via world war.
    5: Thus, to create a peaceful, liberal world order, we must, as a moral necessity, go to war with the rest of the world.

    The corollary then, if you accept this argument, is that liberalism not only causes war but must cause war – as a moral necessity.

    Naturally, you could argue that this world could, and therefore should, be brought about via peaceful methods (persuasion).

    Very well. Let’s examine that ASSUMPTION because that itself is not free from problems. Before looking at those problems, however, let’s look at another liberal paradox or contradiction.

    The Necessity of Liberal Militarism.

    If you are committed to waging war for liberalism, then you must HAVE the means by which you can, in fact, wage war.

    This means, logically, that you must not only maintain but develop, expand and make use of the vast military-industrial system that (already) exists.

    Not only that, you must maintain and develop (over successive generations presumably) the psychological traits that allow Elites, Essentials and Expendables to go to war (as a “liberal” nation).

    This, of course, already means you are committed to some form of nationalism – liberal nationalism – but if liberalism just means (as most Americans assume) “socialism”, then you are, necessarily, committed to something called National Socialism!

    A nation of peace loving pacifists will not have the WILL to go to war and will thus, presumably, not be able to bring about a peaceful, liberal world via violent means. So that cannot work.

    The last time we had a nation that called itself a National Socialist nation it was not very peaceful, was it?

    The Incoherence of the (Liberal) Philosophers.

    Let’s look at some more problems for pursuing liberalism peacefully.

    Firstly, if you think that you can achieve liberalism peacefully (by persuasion or “conversion”) and that you need not use war, then why the need to convert the world to liberalism in the first place?
    The world should already be peaceful, on this assumption, because no one else would wage war.
    And yet the world is NOT peaceful. Why? Either it is because non-liberal nations are not and never can be peaceful or the world is not peaceful because liberalism causes wars or both.

    If the reason that peaceful liberalism cannot work is because other, non-liberal, nations will go to war to defend or expand their national system, then you must either give up peaceful liberalism or just give up liberalism (assuming that you will not wage war for liberalism).

    But if you want a peaceful, liberal world and peaceful methods will not work and you will not give up liberalism, then you MUST wage war – for liberalism.

    The conclusion of this line of reasoning suggests that you must either give up liberalism or give up peace.

    The Grid of Fear and Death.

    Let’s turn now to problems with peacefully prompting liberalism among non-liberal nations or peoples.

    Let’s consider Islam as one such non-liberal nation or group of people.

    At root, we can say that the clash between liberalism and Islam is a war of ideas.

    On the one hand, we have liberty and equality, and on the other, Allah and the Sharia.
    What must a Muslim believe in order to be a Muslim, however?

    Simply put, a Muslim must believe that Allah desires all humans to live in accordance with the way of life that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

    More than that, a Muslim must believe that there is life after death. A Muslim must believe that there is a heaven (good) and a hell (bad). Allah wants all humans (except for the Jews – but that is ok, they’re not human!) to go to heaven (but only by becoming Muslims).

    Allah does not want humans to suffer (Allah is the most merciful).

    If a human does not become a Muslim, then they will end up in hell. And hell, as described in the Koran, is not pleasant and nor is it a metaphor.

    If anyone really believes in the basic doctrines of Islam, then no one who is sane and self-interested would ever want to go to hell and not to heaven.

    (Consider the fact, for example, that one of the U.S Embassy bombers in Africa during the 1990’s had a crisis of theological conscience as he parked his bomb-laden truck: should he stay with the bomb and die, but risk eternal damnation because he had committed suicide (which is a sin) or should he walk away?)

    But humans are not just selfish, they are often selfless and compassionate; they love their children, friends and, indeed, are often capable of wishing for strangers to be happy, as well.

    Now, if, let’s say, a Muslim father were to entertain the idea that his son or daughter may encounter an idea or a set of ideas that could lead their son or daughter to not only renounce Islam but try to persuade others to renounce Islam as well.

    How would this father feel? What would this father do?

    We are, after all, talking about the eternal damnation of his child’s soul.

    Now, let’s suppose his next-door neighbour or his daughter’s teacher or even, alas, his nation’s leader is a liberal.

    The question is: what will this Muslim father think, feel and, most importantly, do?
    If you, dear reader, have children, then imagine your child being tortured with a blow-torch, if only for just an hour (or even for only a minute); what would you do?

    Blow the bastard’s brains out right?

    But now consider the crisis of our Muslim father; his daughter or son will not be tortured for a second, a minute or even an hour – but forever, with all the fires of hell itself.

    Of course, we need not grant any truth or likelihood of truth to Islam. All we need to point out is the logical connection between beliefs and their practical implications – if anyone believes them.
    And are they, in fact, believed? Do Muslims believe in Islam, in other words?

    Well, let’s ask a different question: does the behaviour of Muslims suggest that they really do believe that they must kill the people who threaten their children’s immortal soul?
    We have one more point to make before closing the trap.

    Even if the vast majority of Muslims do NOT believe any of this and would not, ordinarily, kill anyone, they may very well do so because if they do not, then they risk being killed or punished themselves: by Muslims who fear that IF they do not kill, they themselves will be killed (or at least punished).

    This is what is called the problem of second order punishing: you punish because if you do not punish, you will be punished and perhaps punished harder than the punishment you are obliged to provide in the first place.

    The sheer horror of the situation is now before us. Even if every single Muslim in the world was NOT really a Muslim, they will behave AS IF they were (real) Muslims simply out of fear of what other “Muslims” will DO.

    We cannot remember who came up with the following idea, but it captures the sheer horrific absurdity of the trap we find ourselves in almost perfectly.

    Imagine an electrified grid in which millions of humans are connected to. All humans connected to the grid exist in a permanent, low-level, state of pain. Any human can leave the grid at any time, but if they try to do so, they will be electrified to death – by other humans beside them – unless they break free fast enough. That is, if any human tries to leave the grid, another human will try to kill them and IF this person does not shock to death an escapee, they will, themselves, be shocked to death and if someone does escapee, then all the humans who were beside him will be killed. (And if they do not, then they will be killed and so it goes….)

    In short, pain and fear alone will keep everyone locked together in an endless, miserable existence.

    To make this dark fantasy closer to the problem with Islam, imagine that it is family and friends who are all grouped together and locked into the grid.

    Now, what has this all got to do with liberalism?

    A basic commitment of liberalism is that a person (man, woman or child) has the liberty to believe, value and do whatever they want – unless it harms (or violates the right of) another human being.
    Under liberalism, you “can” be a Muslim and you can also be an ex-Muslim; you can be a Muslim who became a Christian or even an atheist under liberalism – anything goes.

    Liberalism, if only from the basic commitments (as stated on the “back of the tin” as it where), need not commit anyone to any substantive belief or value whatsoever.

    That, however, itself is already a mortal threat to our Muslim father’s child, his family, his community and, of course, himself.

    Therefore, to a Muslim, and to the Muslim community more generally, the VERY existence of liberalism – as a set of ideas, as a way of life and as an actual empire (Anglo-American Empire) – is an existential threat of such magnitude that one would be justified in using any violence whatsoever short of the complete destruction of the human race in order to purge the world of such dangerous ideas.

    The trap is now closed and we are now all on the grid….

    Of course, Muslims have other reasons, less fundamental reasons, to kill liberals; but even here these reasons must be understood in reference to the argument set out above.

    If someone insults the Prophet, if only with cartoons, then killing him and anyone connected with him is a small price to pay, lest such insults become common which only serve to weaken the strength of the community and the power of Allah’s saving grace over them. So kill the cartoonists lest ye be killed.

    Needless to say, the punishment for leaving Islam is death.

    What is the punishment for leaving liberalism, however?

    Well, it is not death – at least not yet and if it was why call it liberalism?

    Thus, either Islam exterminates liberalism or liberalism (National Socialism) exterminates Islam.
    This all sounds familiar right?

    Somewhat similar things, though of a far lesser intensity, can be said about Chinese nationalism/Communism and Russian nationalism.

    The argument is simple. Liberalism threatens what it means to be Russian or Chinese; it threatens their history, their language, their values and most of all, it threatens their government and thus it threatens Elite power.

    Rulers Only Become Tyrants When They Do Not Have Enough Power.

    The Zombie Argument.

    1: We want a peaceful world where we do not kill other people.
    2: Liberals do not kill other liberals.
    3: Everyone, therefore, should become a liberal.
    We CAN say that liberals do not kill other liberals.

    But it is like saying zombies don’t kill other zombies and therefore we (zombies) should make everyone a zombie.

    If you are a zombie – a liberal zombie – then you will want (need) to feed on humans. That is what zombies do.

    The trouble for zombies is that the humans have guns and have no intention of becoming zombies….

    The Central Dilemma

    Liberalism wants peace, but all it offers, as of 2017, is war.

    A Troubling Analogy.

    If everyone was an X, then we would have world peace.
    If everyone was a Muslim or a Christian or a Communist or a Liberal, then we would have world peace.

    Liberalism is Not the Catholic Church!

    The Catholic Church is by no means a pacifist faith, but it has been around for a lot longer than liberalism. For hundreds of years, the Church had complete ideological domination. Was this period (the middle ages) a time of unparalleled peace?


    Now, we need not blame the doctrines of the Catholic Church. We need only point out that under any faith you can think of, there have always been war, civil war, revolutions and civil disturbances.
    Why assume it would be any different for liberalism?

    Liberalism is a young idea. It is only a few hundred years old and (post) modern liberalism is very young indeed; we have no data – no facts – upon which we can base a conclusion that a liberal world order would be a permanently peaceful one.

    Empires are often peaceful, but they are also very violent at times. They are also liable to collapse into civil war. The histories of both the Roman and Chinese empires testify to this fact. Again, why assume that liberalism will be any different?

    Communist, Progressive or Liberal?

    Even if we did have a liberal world order, would this mean that liberals have no threats from those who live in the liberal order?

    While we can discuss this in part 2, it suffices to say that, under liberalism, there will be people who, while socially liberal, are not going to be economically liberal (British sense) but economically socialist (American sense of liberal) and therefore you risk having violence once more between the haves, the have-a-littles and the have nothings.


    In summary then, our arguments attempt to show, not only the paradoxes and contradictions within liberalism but that liberalism must be, necessarily, a violent belief system and a system that causes other, non-liberal systems to become (more) violent as well. The best example of this is Islam.
    We will give the last word to Martin Amis, who said that liberalism would never arise today because no one would be willing to “fight for it.”

    That is, not one would be willing to KILL for it.

    Says it all does it not?


    Imperial Energy.


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  7. i guess the very best argument for liberalism is that it allows for capitalism to flourish. an exploration of the economic arguments for liberalism should follow the arguments focused on political matters.


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  11. Revolutionary France was certanly liberal. Was England at that time not? It was governed by Parliament – George III is generally remembered as being the last king who had any real say in government, and even so he was less important than Parliament. The American colonial revolt justified itself by pointing to Parliamentary actions they argued were unacceptable.

    The USA of course went to war with England as well, in 1812.

    France’s Second Empire was perhaps not liberal in form of governance but certainly in societal trends. That was when the great modernization and industrialization was taking place, including getting rid of the last vestiges of serfdom, and the beginnings of opening up migration of population from Africa. Germany’s Second Reich was a parliamentary system and also fairly socially liberal. The war( on the French side at least) was triggered by the liberal wing of the French Parliament as a way of discrediting Napoleon III and opening the way to a democracy.

    Germany in 1910 was societally very liberal and advanced. Russia at that time was far more open than people realize – education for women was becoming very widespread, there were more Russian students in European universities than from any other country. This is why the Bolsheviks had the success they did – revolutions don’t happen when things go badly, they happen when things suddenly stop improving. (Exact same pattern as happened in the original French revolution in 1789.) Austria-Hungary also was the ideal multicultural liberal empire. And France of course was a liberal state absolutely dedicated to revenge against Germany for the humiliations of 1870.

    Greece and Turkey fought a war. Turkey’s whole ideology in the 20th century was to get away from the Ottomans and be more liberal and European.

    These are examples I can think of off the top of my head. The recurrence of crisis points is fairly typical with historical patterns in general; that there are not more can plausibly be explained by the fact that liberal governments have simply not been in power long enough to have a track record.

    I think you have not properly examined your evidence.


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