The main staple of liberalism is the idea that liberalism has moral superiority above everything else and thus considering its mostly hypocritical and abstract values as universal and superior, i.e. not only the right and legitimacy to decide what is ‘true’, but anything that does not fit the limited bourgeois political and ideological framework is automatically subjected to some sort of vile and hypocritical smear campaigns to discredit anybody who does not toe the line. The self awarded and envisioned moral superiority of liberals allows them to specify the levels of tolerance, even up to the point to decide that liberal intolerance of dissent is some form of tolerance. It is the perverted logic of opportunism and superiority. Opportunism and hypocrisy are the centers of gravity of bourgeois liberalism, while liberalism reserves the authority based on assumed moral superiority to shape society. It’s closest bedfellow is fascism. Marx also presciently described these capitalist accommodationists when he diagnosed the essence of petty-bourgeois sophistry in his critique of anarchism, which merges with liberal ideology on essential points…..’the petty bourgeois is made up of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand. This is so in his economic interests and therefore in his politics, religious, scientific and artistic views. And likewise in his morals, in everything. He is a living contradiction…’ That perfectly applies to the western liberal upper middle class - the epitome of opportunism. Always acting like on the one hand and on the other hand but always on the side of power. It is a permanent autocratic wagging the finger to repressively guide others within the self prescribed sphere of liberalism. Western Liberalism historically has produced violent imperialism, since liberalism is based on the cynical and false belief that hypocritical western values are superior and universal and thus need to be spread across the globe and imposed on non western peoples - politically, culturally, economically and militarily - by any means necessary utilizing oppressive and violent approaches. Liberalism is the worst disease ever proliferating among human societies - it has been causing endless wars, exploitation, colonialism and inhumanity in its smug entitlement of superiority and domination. Liberalism is deeply fascist in its essence and close to the Nazi ideology of the theory of the master race - it did not need to adopt it - it has the same agenda since the belief in white supremacy is part of its core without explicitly stating it. There was a reason why bourgeois liberalism gave rise to Hitler. Liberalism is an elitist bourgeois ideology of a privileged strata of people and there is vast historical evidence of relentlessly and endlessly asserting its so called values on a global scale by all kinds of violent measures. While capitalism is incompatible with democracy liberalism is not - it is the perfect political fit for predatory neoliberalism. The measuring stick of western liberal societies is unfettered individualism, i. e. individual freedom - what’s good for me is good, what’s good for society does not count. That principle is perversly equated with civil liberties, democracy and freedom.

The message in liberal democracy is to keep the status quo and don't talk seriously about the ideals of the french revolution, which were liberty, justice and equality. The only thing that came to pass in some limited form is the political freedom of speech and the perverted joke of what they call personal freedom. What good is freedom of speech if no one is going to listen because the ordinary citizen does not have a platform and their so called elected repesentatives are totally disconnected. Freedom of speech is a travesty at best. It is like talking in a soundproof cell.

On top of that, social and economical justice and equality are something we only can dream about in western liberal societies. We are no further with real democracy than more than two centuries ago. Other than the Paris Commune in 1871 and the Bolsheviks under Lenin in the early days of October 1917 no one ever politically, socially and economically tried to realize the goals of the french revolution. Political liberalism based on the enlightenment is a bourgeois elitist trap to lure people into the illusion of freedom and democracy.

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Your definition of "liberalism" seems to differ from mine. I think Mill's "On Liberty," which defends intellectual pluralism and the right to be wrong, is the classic statement of liberalism. Although I agree that many who call themselves liberals today seemto have lost trust in democracy.

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I recently read a book (published last year) which quoted extensively from On Liberty to basically argue why the government shouldn't regulate tech companies at all because second-order harms are too hard to calculate so we just have to assume the stated benefits of tech are what will happen.

This was a law professor at Duke who spoke with the same framing as neoliberals to present it as common sense that cooperative action can't achieve the common good when starting from liberal principles. Only by maximizing individual freedom will the world improve (which always implies market incentives are somehow freer than others).

Of course, there can be other interpretations of liberalism, but this is a very common thread I notice in the US in which collective action that increases freedom (strikes, unionization, etc) is seen as antithetical to the true liberal freedom which is "the market".

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«a very common thread I notice in the US in which collective action that increases freedom (strikes, unionization, etc) is seen as antithetical to the true liberal freedom which is "the market".»

Most people with power or money are not very interested in discussions of principle, but their questions are "what gives me more power" and "what makes me more money". An ancient lawyer principle is:


“If you’re weak on the facts and strong on the law, pound the law. If you’re weak on the law and strong on the facts, pound the facts. If you’re weak on both, pound the table.”

The people who "sponsor" the propagandists of "the markets" I reckon love "the markets" because they are more powerful in the markets, or make more money from "the markets", than in other types of contexts. Unsurprisingly the most generous "sponsors" of propagandists of "the markets" are powerful oligarchs or rich oligopolies, rather than average or poor individuals which have very little power and make very little money in "the markets".

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If you pay attention to what Mill has to say about "barbarians" and societies outside the liberal sphere having "no history", you have to ask yourself how Mill would have viewed the benighted "deplorables" who disagree most vehemently with the articles of the liberal catechism of today.

Like the woke liberals who see themselves as fighting to liberate their fellows from the shackles of bigoted tradition, Mill was all in favor of "despotism" when it came to dealing with the unenlightened. Mill's "liberalism" was very much in line with that of the people who are in favor of ever more expansive definitions of "hate speech" in order to invoke his "harm principle" to shut the mouths of anyone they disagree with.

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Feb 19·edited Feb 19

I definitely agree that Mill's opinions about non-Western societies are disheartening. But, to me, they are inconsistent with the philosophy of "On Liberty" and separable from it. And I still think that "On Liberty" comes closer to Branko's thesis in this post than other political philosophies.

I agree that bogus expansions of the harm principle (in ways that Mill would disagree with IMO) are a serious threat to free expression in liberal societies today. But I am not aware of non-liberal societies that do a better job of protecting free speech. Do you think that there are alternatives to liberalism that protect free speech better or do you believe that free speech is an inherently hypocritical ideal b/c anyone w/ power ultimately will use it to "shut the mouths of anyone they disagree with"?

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Patrick Deneen makes the argument somewhere that, if you read it carefully, On Liberty is arguing for a particular kind of "liberty", the kind of liberty that represents escape from popular opinion, custom and the judgement of the masses. And that is the kind of "liberty" that academic wokesters and the Democratic Party and all the range of "liberals" in between are insisting requires careful and decisive control of what can be said, where and by whom.

In my opinion, liberalism is ultimately incompatible with democracy, unless it is the kind of democracy that is controlled by liberal elites. Once the demos comes into conflict with whatever version of elite liberalism is in vogue, the demos becomes a cabal of "deplorable" populists whose refusal to "follow the science" (as long as it conforms to elite policy preferences) means they must be silenced and controlled.

Given Mills' preference for radical individualism and "experiments in living" as the ne plus ultra of liberal politics, it's hard to imagine him disagreeing with the expansions of the harm principle that underlie almost all the calls for censorship in whatever form. His enthusiasm for "plural voting" as opposed to "one man-one vote" is the measure of his anti-democratic stance.

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Maybe you're right about Mill. I don't know what his politics would have been if he had lived until the 21st C. He can be used to defend many things. But today, I definitely want (and Branko obviously wants) the liberty to disagree with popular opinion if we think its wrong. And I don't think that getting that liberty requires controlling what the masses (or anyone else) can say. Yeah, I know that lots of liberals are saying that we have to control misinformation, fake news, or whatever to "save" liberal society, but they're wrong. I reject the assumption that you necessarily have to suppress the liberty of one group to promote the liberty of others.

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I'm with you and Branko on the desirability of free speech and thought. As free-standing principles, disarticulated from either "democracy" or "liberalism", I think they are among the most important political principles we should strive for.

I question whether this principle can meaningfully be said to be a quality of "democracy" since I suspect that many forms of expression and thought would be anathematized if put to the vote in plebiscites in just about every jurisdiction around the globe.

It seems rather obvious that in no way, shape or form can contemporary liberalism be seen as an argument for free speech. It may be that liberalism itself has always been an elite project and therefore speech codes have been a matter of politesse as much as censorship ever since liberals first started calling for the right to blaspheme.

Maybe it is simply the case that the much-maligned 1960s and their extension in the '70s were a high water mark in liberal insistence on radical free speech and it has been downhill (sorry for the mixed metaphor) ever since.

Which might just mean that the obsession with free speech is the quirk of men of a certain generation and as we fade into the evening of our years we will necessarily see that fade as well?

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Agreed, I see two angles here: freedom of speech and freedom of agency

Concerning freedom of speech: you refer to the time people were debating for truth. These were the great debates of the Enlightenment, it gave us Kant, the Federalist Papers, Benjamin Constant discussing in the Paris salon of Mme de Stael, and JS Mill on Liberty.

With mass suffrage, people started to fight for votes, and mass-litteracy creates the tabloid press. Discourse with Walter Lippmann on how to frame Public Opinion: https://polsci.substack.com/p/public-opinion in 1922, Hitler's Mein Kampf (https://economiepublique.blogspot.com/2024/02/mon-combat-les-ecueils-du-nationalisme.html) in 1924 which is a manual on how to win against stupid communist with more stupid nationalist propaganda, Gramsci (written in jail as well). Habermas in 1962 recounts that story (https://economiepublique.blogspot.com/2021/01/habermas-la-transformation-de-la-sphere.html). The economiepublique blog might need a google translate.

More on mass media: you don't win if you fight socially desirable bias as explained by Alfred Sauvy in 1964 (https://economiepublique.blogspot.com/2023/09/lopinion-publique-selon-alfred-sauvy.html.) and McLuhan in 1964 on "electric medias" that save the average man the effort of readership (https://economiepublique.blogspot.com/2023/08/la-galaxie-de-gutenberg-selon-marshall.html).

Democracy is mostly a symbol. As Milton Friedman explained in Capitalism and Freedom, most of the effective freedom has been eroded by secular growth of the welfare State, to above 50% of GDP, which is more than what Adolf Wagner anticipated.

So the public sphere is still much of a fight for engagement and amplification, and for your Dutch friend there is a question of increasing State capacity and destruction of social capital as the State effectively took most of the liberty that Europe enjoyed in the boomer time.

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Is there not a confusion between a “liberal society” and a “democratic society” here? You can read what you want if a society is sufficiently liberal; whether it is democratic or not.

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True, this is a distinction made by Kant early, and Karl Popper would call this an Open Society, opened to ideas.

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I think democracy has made more difference than this article perhaps concedes. Liberalism hasn’t always been democratic. In the UK (where I live) there were liberal representative institutions long before the franchise was anything like inclusive. Anyone apart from colonial subjects could access and write almost anything if they could afford it. Intellectual refugees like Karl Marx sought refuge here.

It's hard to imagine how social democracy and it’s welfare projects could have succeeded politically without a democratic franchise. As a result almost everyone felt they benefitted from the political status quo and that traditional class barriers had been greatly reduced. It could be afforded because of the overwhelming economic and political advantages enjoyed by Western countries. In other parts of the world it couldn’t.

The crisis in liberalism has followed the crisis in social democracy. Welfare has been cut even as inequality increased. Many people are insecure and feel that the current apparent priorities of liberalism will not address their problems. They are ready to consider alternatives, some of them very nasty, and there are ambitious politicians prepared to exploit this.

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It seems that the liberals limit the freedom of expression and thinking in the most illiberal way nowadays. See for example Germany where those who think Palestinians should not be killed are kicked out from their jobs, and Britain where even asking questions about a construction project in a letter may land you with huge fines, see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/feb/02/plutocrats-powerful-laws-uk-rich-corporations.

So the differences that may have existed between liberal states and authoritarian states are shrinking. Probably because the liberal project in itself is so politically illiberal. It was, remember, introduced in Chile by a violent military dictatorship, and if the opposition to it increase in its core countries I don't doubt they will take recourse to the same kind of violence. The liberal project is about creating a monopoly of power for a wealthy elite to use the goods of the world as they like, as George Monbiot says in the link above, and the rest will not feel happy about that. For that reason they will have to be silenced.

I agree with Branko that the liberal project and the communist project have much in common. Both believe "science" says that they are right and what people in general think is not important. Both believe they are entitled to power because of their sublime insights in the working of nature. This in sharp contrast to traditional 20th century liberalism, or social democracy for that matter.

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I think democracy can have an impact on a social level - for example, by ensuring peaceful transfers of power, it can help address the instability many other sorts of regimes encounter when it comes to successions. In addition, it should in theory support better decision-making insofar as various voices can make themselves heard and it’s more difficult for elites to simply drive favoured policies through

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When I thought of that, my answer was: the freedom to read and listen to whatever I want, and to say whatever I want.

I'd say it no longer holds true, meaning these days in modern dictatorships you would be able to say pretty much whatever you want. There is a mechanism that allows to marginalize you and ignore you, which is exactly the same as in modern democracies, ironically. Internet allowed for very efficient informational tribalization, where people of the same opinions form their own cosy bubbles. This is what is happening in liberal democracies, and the same is happening in dictatorships, to utmost delight of power holders in both. Divide et empera in automatic mode.

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The contrast between “institutions” and “comprehensive outcomes” applies equally to “free speech”. If we view “freedom of speech” narrowly only institutional terms, it doesn’t matter that half the population in society is uneducated or too burdened with poverty to have any real opportunity to have a say in social choice. All the elites care about is whether they are free to express their views on newspaper columns free of restrictions, no matter how prejudicial their views are.

But a comprehensive understanding of free speech involves ensuring that all members of society have minimal education, employment opportunities, public health, so everyone have a genuine opportunity to engage in public discussion.

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«a comprehensive understanding of free speech involves ensuring that all members of society have minimal education, employment opportunities, public health»

But that is... COMMUNISM! :-)

In 1724 Bernard de Mandeville wrote the manual for neoliberals and tories in an essay (less famous than another one he wrote) arguing passionately against the education of the servant classes:

“Essay on charity" (1724): “The Plenty and Cheapness of Provisions depends in a great measure on the Price and Value that is set upon this Labour, and consequently the Welfare of all Societies, even before they are tainted with Foreign Luxury, requires that it should be perform’d by such of their Members as in the first Place are sturdy and robust and never used to Ease or Idleness, and in the second, soon contented as to the necessaries of Life; [...] From what has been said, it is manifest, that, in a free nation, where slaves are not allowed of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor; [...] To make the society happy and people easier under the meanest circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor”

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Your last paragraph describes precisely why the elites and their hired help are busy ensuring that a great many of their fellow citizens have to spend all of their time and energy scraping together the merest essentials of life so as to ensure that they never have any left over with which to engage in said discussion.

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China just has a broader understanding of democracy than “liberal democracy” which prioritises “democratic institutions” over “democratic outcomes”.

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Yongshun Cai thinks, in Collective resistance in China, Stanford, 2010, that Chinese authorities consider about as much opposition to their projects as European politicians do – but for different reasons. Chinese politicians aren't elected, so they have to gain legitimacy the hard way, while European politicians can say, and often say, that you have elected me so you can shut up.

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«“liberal democracy” which prioritises “democratic institutions” over “democratic outcomes”»

The liberal theory here is that only “democratic institutions” can lead to “democratic outcomes” because institutions and the people running them are self-serving in the long term and therefore only institutions run by or accountable to the majority will in the long term produce good outcomes for the majority.

In practice however direct democracy (institutions run by the people) is impractical at scale, and representative democracy ends up accountable to the "sponsors" of the representatives, not to the majority of the people electing them.

In the chinese system the "mandate of heaven" concept means that the institutions are ultimately accountable to the majority, because it means that the majority has the right to rebel against institutions that have lost the "mandate of heaven", but that is a bit too drastic a level of accountability perhaps.

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We do also have a more gradualistic version of the Chinese rebellion in Europe. It is called social (or popular) movement. Which means that you organize to articulate demands while also trying to implement them in practice. More about that on http://www.folkrorelser.org/demokratins/carriers-book-2019.pdf and http://www.folkrorelser.org/english.html.

We have for example labour movements, national movements, environmental movements, women's movements and so on.

Politicians are institutions for making compromises, it's for that they have their legitimacy (and you can't govern without a modicum of legitimacy). But compromises are only possible between alternatives that are put forth by a mobilization. Nowadays, capital, and upper middle class interests, are almost the only ones that are mobilized, and the political compromises are made according to that.

It doesn't matter what the institutions are like if the mobilizations are lopsided.

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Hi, I would agree that democratic institutions are important. But (1) we can’t assume there is only one single correct institution that is democratic; and (2) in reality no institution guarantees democratic outcomes.

There can be many different institutions that lead to democratic outcomes, and the Chinese system (which combines election and pre-selection). The key issue though is that no political system can blindly assume that its system is democratic without actually looking at the outcomes. China has to keep checking that it is engaging the people so they have a say over how their lives are governed. The US doesn’t seem to care what whether black Americans have the same say as white Americans, or whether the wealthy top 5% have more say than the bottom 95%.

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3,000 volunteers at the People's Congress stand in for the majority.

They only green light government proposals when two-thirds of them support it–a process that can and does take decades.

They have the last say on Five Year Plans, all legislation and all senior government personnel appointments and renewals of appointments.

It's working very, very well, according to 94% of Chinese.

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It is more important for the society to be allowed to speak at work, not in internet. First, nobody cares what other people write in internet. Everyone cares about his own oppinion, which does not reach broad public. Second, internet is used for data mining and designing data based political parties. Data driven political parties are not the ones that must listen you in internet. Instead your co-workers, co-students but mostly your boss should listen. I will tell you why. Because the socialists in the 30's didnt rely a lot on newspapers and media, but they used social pressure. No social pressure can happen in internet, but it will be a different story if 10 co-workers or 20 football players, or entire nation stops greeting you or looks at you badly, because you are supporting capitalist slavery and inequality. The society has more power out of internet. Being attacked in internet is not the same as being kicked out of a bar. And using internet to conduct attack on the big capitalists doesnt have the same effect as mild social pressure on the workers of the big capitalists by some self-proclaimed neo-unions.

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At risk of dissent, I have to say that I read your article as expressing an elitist point of view.

Only when you know yourself to be in an unassailable station in life, such as is provided by wealth (à la Elon Musk), political clout (Ted Cruz-like), or academic tenure, you would think that the only thing we should be concerned with is freedom of speech.

Don't get me wrong, freedom of speech is crucial, and I agree with your take that it should be absolute, whatever the cost, but the important point is that for those of us further down the social scale the simple consideration of how to sustain oneself and one's family is just as crucial.

And in that regards, there's no comparison between a democratic, free-market society, and an authoritarian one. And pardon my conflating democracy and free market, but it happens that when you see things from below, you realize that the latter is part and parcel of a true democratic society.

I say this as someone who lived for decades in an authoritarian-leaning society, and learned from early age that as the ruling party controls everything (either by direct ownership as in Cuba or by indirect controls such as in Russia today) your chances of getting a decent job, choosing your career (e.g. being able to pursue a university career), or even securing a place to live with minimal health standards, depends on your parents, your siblings and yourself, of course, following the party line and abstaining of any dissenting opinion.

In a free-market and democratic society you might lose your job if the company's owner doesn't like your ideas, but you have a chance at getting a job in other companies where they don't care about your ideas, or maybe they even share those (just ask the few lads who lost their jobs after marching to the tune of "Jews won't replace us!" In Charlotesville in 2017- all of them got some other employment afterwards).

So, it's not just the liberty to think and say whatever one chooses to believe, but the liberty to pursue one's sustainment.

To quote Locke: "Life, Freedom, and Property", or as the US Consitution put it: "Life, Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness".

That's something that no authoritarian regime can provide.

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“I write this as somebody who believes in Enlightenment (...)”

Then you're in the dwindling minority in the West, even if we only take into account the educated middle class, because the West has already abandoned Enlightenment in philosophy at least 50 years ago (with the rise of Structuralism in France). Economy -- ironically, your area, which you swear is a direct descendant of Enlightenment -- was one of the first areas of the Humanities to abandon the Enlightenment tradition (because of Marx, the last inheritor of Enlightenment): all of the Neoclassical tradition arose outside of the main Enlightenment line, instead descended from what Marx called “vulgar economy” (in opposition to its enlightened brother, Political Economy).

Ironically, you may be one of the last believers in Enlightenment because you came from a socialist country, because Marxism became the last Enlightenment tradition alive in the West after WWII. But, in the capitalist portion of the globe, Enlightenment was already dead by the 1970s (earlier, depending on the specific area of the Humanities you are talking about).


The materialist explanation of the cult of “democracy” in the West since WWII.

The logical, enlightened, conclusion of Political Economy (David Ricardo) and Idealist Philosophy (Hegel) was the communist revolution, as was demonstrated by Marx. But since capitalism had not exhausted its possibilities yet (Marx died in the apex of capitalism), the practical solution was to simply abandon Enlightenment and go with what I will call here “vulgar” sciences. The Austrian School was the first openly vulgar line of economy to be anti-Marx, and Philosophy had to bury Hegel (“like a dead dog”) and revive the corpse of Kant (Neokantism), thus devolving into a glorified “science” of (anticommunist) morality and ethics after WWII. Whatever was left out of morality and ethics was subdivided into many other new human sciences (Sociology, International Relations, Political Science, Cultural, Postcolonial and Gender Studies, (neo)Psychology, (the rehabilitation of) Anthropology, Kreminology, Pekinology, etc. etc.).

But how was this executed? The answer, at least for the postwar since, is very clear: the rise of the middle class. Originally (19th Century), the middle class was just some very well educated bureaucrats of the colonial empires: governors, administrator, physicians and teachers who were sent to the colonies in order to consolidate them for their metropolises. They were truly elite, because they were very few relatively and absolutely in terms of population; what we nowadays call the “experts” (people with Ph.Ds who know a lot and are authorities about some subject) was not really a thing: they were usually the sons of the nobility who went to Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale et al for pure and simple pleasure of knowledge and erudition.

After WWII, in order to compete ideologically with socialism (which they called, in the West, erroneously, “communism” -- already here a sign of rising anti-enlightenment ignorance), the capitalist elites had to appease the people without hurting the system, and the solution was an unprecedented expansion of the middle class. This expansion included the universities, where ideology ended up being produced -- both for practical (the system became too big to be administered by amateurs from the capitalist elite) and ideological reasons (universalization of the the capitalist ideal).

As a result, the production of ideology -- here in this post called the “freedom to be wrong” -- was transferred from the very top of the elite to a new, universalized, middle class: a scheme that still stands today.

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That is a trite comment without the provision of better alternatives . Freedom to be right and wrong is the liberal democracy aim, without the consequences of being defenestrated poisoned or jailed for your views. You can always chose to live in China or Russia if you feel that this is it good enough for you

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This sounds attractive at first sight. But there is a qualitative difference between a system in which one can have a different opinion, but not enforce it on others, and one in which difference of opinion is brutally repressed. Of course, ultimately the first system will have to repress those who seek to repress all difference, in order to ensure its own existence. But not allowing itself to be swallowed by the intolerant is not the same as being intolerant. One is of course entitled to cry foul when their intolerance is not allowed to prevail - this is precisely part of liberalism. But try crying foul, or claiming the right to be wrong, in one of your morally equivalent illiberal states and see how long it takes before you are disappeared. That this is a paradox is not a novel point, as you know - it's Polanyi's famous paradox of tolerance. But the fact that it's paradoxical doesn't mean that there is no morally significant distinction between being tolerant of difference while repressing intolerant movements and being intolerant.

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Well said. Kind of discouraging to even have to be defending the right to free speech, now, given the amazing world it has helped build in the last few centuries. A healthy humanity needs a diversity in thought just like it needs a diversity in the gene pool. Hopefully not too big a tangent here, but this need for real diversity is one of the biggest advantages of humanity becoming multiplanetary…ie in the 17th century puritans emigrating to future Massachusetts was an option. Hopefully in the 21st century plus, Mars etc become similar outlets for new ideas and societies…like the frontier North America became such a healthy influence on Europe in the recent past.

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what do you understand by "economic growth." and why do you "believe in it?"

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