Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

You wrote:

"The principles of classical liberalism have no color and gender, and are, to my mind, indispensable to getting past both."

But in fact some of the principles of classical liberalism -- notably self-ownership and freedom of contract -- have historically been shaped by both "color" (more specifically racial slavery and its post-emancipation legacies in law) and "gender" (e.g. coverture). The self-owning subject at the heart of classical liberalism was, in the first centuries of liberalism's existence, rarely a woman or a person of color.

Neither women nor ex-slaves in the British Empire (or the American republic during most parts of the 19th century and much of the 20th as well) could reasonably expect to be able to own or control their own lives and labor in the way white men could.

This is not an abstract or legalistic quibble: political thinkers and actors of all descriptions proceeded from the assumption that women and non-whites were less capable (or wholly incapable) of behaving as liberal subjects should, because they lacked self-control or brainpower or some other essential quality. Thus folks as classically "liberal" as post-emancipation Liberal Republicans in the U.S. carved out huge areas of exception for former slaves, whose contract-making they policed and in the obliteration of whose free agency they quickly acquiesced once former slaveholders sought to regain power. Married women's erasure as liberal subjects was likewise considered natural and normal, and marriage (about which I know you have thought a great deal) became a very odd form of contract indeed--one in which one of the contracting parties essentially surrendered her economic subjectivity.

The legacies of this blind spot (black hole?) at the center of "classical liberalism" as a human experience persisted well into the twentieth century: without rehearsing the history of Jim Crow and its unmaking, let me just note that well into the post-WWII era a married woman could not expect to be able to purchase a car without bringing her husband along.

I wouldn't quibble with a word of this as historical fact. But my point was that the principles of classical liberalism know no inherent race, class or gender. The challenge for conservatives is to include all citizens into this project of formally equal, self-reliant individuals, able to forge their own futures without being molly-coddled or bossed around by government any more than absolutely necessary. Making these principles universal is more than a few generations' work - but the point is: they can be universal. And the more they are, the freer we all will be.