Widely treated as the best short statement of liberalism’s essence, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” from On Liberty states, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It is important to note Mill’s qualification about a civilized community. The harm principle, he states later, is inapplicable to “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.”

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

Liberalism, then, rests on an awkward paradox: the preconditions that make it possible are usually illiberal: a benevolent despot who uses any expedient that hastens the passage from barbarism to civilization. It appears, however, that this story of trial and conflict has a happy ending. In Mill’s account, civilization and liberalism — free and equal discussion, improvement through persuasion, resorting to coercion for the sole purpose of preventing harm to others — are very advantageous, agreeable modes of life. Those nations that have made the difficult, dicey transition from barbarism to civilization are highly unlikely to climb back down voluntarily. There was a long, benighted barbarous era anterior to the attainment of civilization, but as soon as the civilizational prerequisite for liberalism is attained, the harm principle becomes fully operational and morally mandatory. Coercion for any reason other than preventing harm is “no longer admissible,” implying it will never again be admissible, implying in turn that we may expect the civilizational prerequisite of liberalism to go on and on, from strength to strength.

What if, however, civilization is not an irreversible attainment? As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik has written, “Mill is like a man who has spent his life on one of those moving walkways you find in airports. He takes the forward movement so much for granted that he never makes it his subject.” If civilization is not self-sustaining, then liberal societies must confront the possibility that the harm principle might not perpetuate itself, and may even help extinguish itself, by undermining the civilization its operation presupposes.

The case of Mill suggests there are good reasons why so many people use the political terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably. Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle: freedom promotes progress, and progress promotes freedom. As the quality of life improves, and the sources of and occasions for conflict diminish, people are left increasingly amenable to further improvement through reason and persuasion. In turn, reasoning people see how life has been improved by free discourse and inquiry, and knowing these benefits they wish to preserve and expand freedom in the expectation of securing even greater benefits in the future.

The hallmark of the conservatism that stands athwart liberal progressivism yelling, “Stop!” is the conviction that the civilizational prerequisites of liberalism are not self-perpetuating: not always; not necessarily; not usually; and, quite probably, not ever. In 1964 Evelyn Waugh reviewed two biographies of Rudyard Kipling, whom he described as “a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. From Donat Gallagher, ed., The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983), p. 634. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.”

The beliefs Waugh discerned in Kipling were ones he had expressed in his own voice 25 years previously. “I believe,” he wrote in his “Conservative Manifesto,” “that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.” He was profoundly skeptical of the idea that the airport walkway that took us from barbarism to civilization will simply keep going forward forever, either because it cannot be stopped or reversed, or because no one would wish to. To the contrary, “Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all.” By the same token, “Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity.” Thus, without “unremitting effort,” Gallagher wrote, we risk “the dissolution … of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.”

Waugh’s pessimism, combined with Mill’s stipulation about the impossibility of liberalism outside of civilization, poses a serious difficulty: a civilized community may find it advisable to exercise power against some of its members, not only to prevent harm to others, but also — sometimes, under some circumstances — because failing to exercise such power will lead to the community becoming uncivilized, or insufficiently civilized, so that reason and persuasion can no longer guide public life. It may be, in these circumstances, that the illiberalism required to civilize barbarians, and make liberalism possible, is also required to make liberalism tenable, either by maintaining or restoring the prerequisites liberalism rests on.

In Revolt of the Elites (1994), Christopher Lasch called for “a revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.” Like most of what Lasch wrote, that’s pretty gloomy, but maybe not quite gloomy enough. Borrowed capital implies the intention and capacity to make restitution, to generate new cultural resources that, even if different from the ones consumed, will adequately replenish the sources of stability and cohesion a society requires. If, instead, the normal course is for liberal democracies simply to use up the capital of moral and religious traditions, then democracy has a cultural contradiction for which there is no obvious solution.

Consider the Netherlands, described by Dutch writer (but American resident) Ian Buruma as “an oasis of tolerance, a kind of Berkeley writ large, where people were free to do their own thing.” In 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by an assailant who shot him several times before cutting his throat from ear to ear with a knife, which he then used to affix a letter to Van Gogh’s lifeless body. The letter made clear that the murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, a second-generation Moroccan immigrant, was infuriated by “Submission,” Van Gogh’s documentary movie about the abuse of women by devout Muslims. Bouyeri appears to have acted alone, but his cause was not the private mission of a solitary lunatic. Buruma reports that for many weeks after the crime, “young men of Moroccan origin … cheered as they passed the spot of the filmmaker’s death.” One told a television interviewer that Van Gogh’s violent end was just; he had been punished by God.

After Van Gogh’s death, Paul Scheffer, one of the country’s most influential liberal public intellectuals wrote, “[T]he soothing talk of diversity and dialogue, of respect and reason, no longer works. Tolerance can survive only within clear limits. Without shared norms about the rule of law, we cannot productively have differences of opinion.”

Clearly, one danger of life in a liberal society, where the worth and nobility of free and equal discussion is considered self-evident, is that this congenial experience renders incomprehensible those who scorn rather than welcome such discussion. According to some reports, Theo van Gogh’s pleas to his assailant in the course of the lethal attack included, “Surely we can talk about this.” Shared norms about respecting reason and persuasion are neither necessarily nor most reliably imparted, sustained, and strengthened by reason and persuasion. People cannot be persuaded to let themselves be persuaded: they must first be disposed to think more highly of free and equal discussion than of resorting to force.

This dilemma cannot be easily resolved, in theory or practice. The understandable desire to escape it does, however, clarify the illiberal liberal politics of post-modernism. Having noted that “liberalism” and “progressivism” are often used synonymously, I add that the direct, commonsensical understanding of “progress” is getting closer to some goal, which is both comprehensible and clearly better than the current state of affairs. The ism of progressivism was, at first, a belief that understanding the laws of history would move mankind to a better future, just as understanding the laws of nature had improved the human condition through technologies like the steam engine and anesthesia. Condorcet asserted that there is “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it.”

Post-modern liberalism simultaneously enlarges and jettisons this notion. Progress cannot mean getting closer to a defined goal, because progressivism really means accepting that our standards of what it means to progress, to get better, will constantly change. As William James wrote in Pragmatism (1907), “‘The true’ … is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.”

The post-modern liberal rejects the modern liberalism of John Stuart Mill, with his stipulations that liberalism can work only among the civilized, and that barbarians need to be made civilized, however roughly, before they’re prepared for and worthy of liberalism. That whole distinction between civilization and barbarism strikes the post-modern liberal as morally repugnant and intellectually untenable. The “denial of universal principles,” according to historian James Kloppenberg, is the essence of “anti-foundationalism,” another term for post-modernism. In James T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 79. “[H]uman cultures are human constructions; different people exhibit different forms of behavior because they cherish different values.” Charlemagne and Akbar were neither better nor worse than the people they subjugated and “civilized,” just different, especially in the sense of being more powerful. If the battlefield results had been otherwise, the “barbarians” would have been the ones “civilizing”—imposing their values upon—the “civilized.”

Thus, if “the true” and “the right” are merely the expedient, they are held up as standards only because some groups have prevailed over other groups. The capacity to be improved by free and equal discussion cannot be taken seriously in social circumstances where some are markedly less free and less equal than others. Where such disparities obtain, the less free and unequal should feel no obligation to tolerate ideas, habits, or dispositions that perpetuate or compound their disadvantages.

Post-modern liberalism, then, aggressively reinterprets the harm principle. Even if you don’t pick my pocket or break my leg, you harm me if you hurt my feelings, especially if you do so in a way that diminishes my sense of self-worth by reinforcing existing status and power disparities. One of the first campus speech codes attempted to ban “inappropriately directed laughter” and the “conspicuous exclusion of students from conversations.”

For all that, post-modern liberalism’s feasibility and coherence is highly doubtful. If “the right” is merely expedient, then all the moralistic rhetoric about crimes in the past and unfair advantages and disadvantages in the present is beside the point. History’s subjugators committed no transgressions. They just won. Those who have inherited the privileges those victories made possible have no more right to perpetuate their advantages than those who want to redress the imbalances that have come down to the present day — but they also have no less. This view of things reverses Clausewitz’s famous dictum: politics is now simply war carried out by other means. So great are the practical and theoretical difficulties besetting the effort to fashion a liberalism that doesn’t require civilization, that the severe challenge of simultaneously upholding civilization and liberalism remains the path of least resistance.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.