Liberals are captive to their first principles.
Take the issue of nationalism. The general attitude adopted by liberals to nationalism has little to do with their own preferences or experiences. Nor has it much to do with their study of the moral consequences of nationalism, or the place of national identity in the life of man.
Instead, their attitude is largely predetermined by the underlying principle of liberal individualism. The logical process goes something like the following:
1) The liberal principle that we should be subject only to our own individual will and reason so that we might be self-created in any direction.
2) Traditional nationalism is based on an ethnic tradition (a shared ancestry, language, religion, culture, history etc) that we are born into rather than choosing for ourselves. It is something that shapes who we are but which is outside the sphere of our individual will and reason.
3) Eventually and inevitably, the more consistent, radical or intellectual liberals recognise the incompatibility between the first point (the basic liberal idea that we should be subject only to our individual will and reason) and the second point (traditional nationalism)
4) Traditional nationalism then becomes increasingly disallowed as a public policy. It finally becomes politically incorrect to support it, and any remnant expression of it is damned as "racist" or "xenophobic".
The process by which the liberal attitude is formed is logical in the sense that it flows rationally from a first principle. However, the first principle itself is arbitrary inasmuch as it can't be either proved or disproved logically. It's simply an assertion about what ought to order human life.
It's helpful for conservatives to note that there are differences in the way that liberals move through the logic of their position. In particular, there are characteristic differences in the attitude of left liberals and right liberals.
Left liberals tend to be more "anti" their own national tradition. They have a more alienated and pessimistic view of what their own mainstream national tradition represents. They are also more inclined to favour state intervention in both the economy and society.
Right liberals on the other hand are generally more positive in their attitude to their own country (though they are unwilling to uphold a traditional national identity). They tend also to be assimilationist, preferring everyone to merge into a common culture. Right liberals also prefer the free market to state intervention.
The recent debate in Australia over TV rules helps to illustrate these differences. Australia currently has local content laws which require TV stations to broadcast a certain percentage of Australian made television. It is possible though that some of the local content rules might be traded away as part of free trade negotiations between Australia and the United States.
The Australian TV industry, which is dominated by left liberal types, is horrified by this prospect. At the recent Australian Film Industry awards, actor after actor made speeches condemning any loss of the local content laws.
The interesting thing is that in doing so, they made an appeal to Australian nationalism. They claimed to be protecting a distinctively Australian culture against foreign influences.
This is in stark contrast to the more familiar inter-nationalism of left liberals. The inconsistency is perhaps most obvious in the case of the left liberal journalist Phillip Adams. A few years ago he campaigned for "Project True Blue" which aimed to "keep Australian faces and Australian stories on our screens" in order to maintain "part of our power as a nation to define and express our culture."
Yet Phillip Adams has also openly expressed his belief that "national borders─are fairly silly and should be laughed at."
The situation then is that left liberals are generally internationalists who condemn their own nations as racist or sexist. They are capable, though, of expressing a sympathy with nationalism when it is specifically a case of protecting an industry they depend on, and defending state regulation against free trade.
In contrast to the left, right liberals like Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair have argued for the dismantling of local content laws in favour of free trade.
They were quick to use the usual anti-nationalist rhetoric of the left against the left itself. Bolt, for instance, claimed that a column by playwright David Williamson "brayed that old Bunyip nationalism" and that Australian artists were simply "terrified" of being "swamped" by US films.
Bolt advised Australian artists to "Embrace the world, don't try to lock it out."
Tim Blair attacked Williamson for wanting to be "quarantined from market and social forces" and he compared the "xenophobia" of Australian artists to that of populist politician Pauline Hanson.
As is so often the case, the debate around TV rules was dominated by left liberals versus right liberals.
It's important that conservatives not fall in too closely with either side. It's true that the left liberals used nationalism to try to defend local content laws. However, the same left liberals then use these laws to produce TV shows which mostly attack and undermine the traditional Australian national identity.
The right liberals, for their part, might be generally less "anti" their country than left liberals. But the debate on TV rules showed just how far they are from supporting a traditional nationalism: they were willing to use the standard anti-nationalist rhetoric of the left to attack the local content laws.
For conservatives, it's important that an individual is naturally immersed in the culture of his own country. This strengthens the normal identity we have with the tradition to which we belong.
Local content laws are a reasonable way to help to achieve this aim. They ensure a certain amount of local culture on television, without requiring too much direct involvement in cultural production by the state.
The only reason such laws don't work so well in Australia is that we don't have a cultural class who are sufficiently sympathetic to their own tradition. But for this, the local content laws are not to blame.
(First published at Conservative Central 28/12/2003)