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Melanie Phillips shows how not to defend liberty

It seems the death of Dutch politician and media commentator Pim Fortuyn, which continues to reverberate in the blogosphere and elsewhere, has shed light on just how useless the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ are when it comes to making sense of the political and cultural landscape.

An article in the latest edition of the UK weekly magazine The Spectator by Melanie Phillips, makes an attempt to figure out how Fortuyn grappled with the issues of defending secular, liberal democracies against influences thought to be malign, like militant Islam. But she fluffs it.

Take this dumb paragraph:

“Above all we have to reassert liberalism as a moral project which does not pretend to be morally neutral. We have to acknowledge that liberal values are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and sprang from British culture… Liberalism has to be rescued from the clutches of the libertarians, in order to defend liberal democracy from militant Islam on the one hand and the racist Right on the other. Fortuyn was never going to be the answer. He was part of the problem.”

Phillips’ attacks legalisation of drugs, voluntary euthanasia and same-sex marital unions, all causes Fortuyn championed, and avers that such “libertarianism” undermines liberty. Eh? Surely the common thread running through his stance on tax, public sector services, and social issues like drugs was support of arrangements arrived at by consenting adults and a general desire to stop Big Government getting in the way. His opposition to unchecked, massive immigration from largely non-Western societies was predicated on a fear that such freedoms were under threat. One can argue whether his fear was justified or not – I am not entirely convinced either way – but Fortuyn’s views struck me as entirely coherent.

As for liberalism’s roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that strikes me as only partially accurate. Unlike some atheists, I do fully appreciate the contribution of this religious tradition to liberty (such as the doctrine of Free Will) but for starters, what about the heritage of Greece and Rome? What about the Enlightenment?

Phillips’ analysis is flawed because, ultimately, she cannot see how freedom can flourish without state-imposed restraints. Nowhere is there any grasp of how order and rules can evolve spontaneously from below, rather than be imposed from above. This is a shame because Phillips does have some good things to say, particularly on how Fortuyn has forced many commentators used to thinking of politics through certain prisms to sharpen up their act.

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