Injustice in liberalism and totalitarianism

Let a liberal society be one that allows extensive social relationships outside the reach of law or politics, and therefore (at least) tolerates some degree of what now gets called discrimination. At it’s most sympathetic, tolerance for this sort of discrimination appeals to the equality of justice. If, for example, a consumer can buy or refuse a product or service for any reason he wants – or for no reason at all – why doesn’t the seller enjoy the same right of denial? For liberalism, tolerating what now gets called discrimination is a part of justice, since justice is freedom of association. 

This toleration is easier when technology is relatively undeveloped. When we aren’t aware of the effects of discrimination we also lack the ability to control them, and even if we wanted to control these things it would run up against (a) the limits of our ability to observe what is going on too far outside our own community and (b) the intrinsic limits of the political.

When technology develops to a certain point – first suggested in the Reformation and definitely achieved in the Twentieth Century – Liberal society no longer enjoys the blissful ignorance of the discrimination it tolerates but either has to either double down and bite the bullet of allowing it or widen the political sphere to combat it. To extend the political sphere this far into quondam social sphere, however, demands there be nothing outside the state, i.e. a  totalitarian regime.

The totalitarian regime sees an injustice in tolerating the discrimination arising from the liberal division between the political and the social. What liberalism sees as integral to justice totalitarianism takes as the injustice mandating vigorous intrusion into the social.

One difficulty in deciding between liberal and totalitarian regimes is that it’s hard to abstract from the question of whose ox is gored. One appeals to the same freedom of association if a corporation puts “No Colored” signs over its lunch counters as when PayPal or YouTube deplatforms undesirable pundits, but how sympathetic one is to the “right of association” implicit in both, or the extension of state power to end either one, is more a matter of ideology than principle.

My point is not that there is no tertium quid between liberalism and totalitarianism (though I think the third option is a hard balance to hit) but about a fundamental division of opinion over what justice demands, and which plays itself out, at least at its extremes, in either a foregrounding of liberalism that backgrounds the dark sides of the freedom of association or a foregrounding of the evils of discrimination that backgrounds its totalitarianism.

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