📰 Yan Fu’s Lessons on the True Mission of Liberalism
Full Title: Yan Fu’s Lessons on the True Mission of Liberalism
In the West, both liberalism’s critics and its embattled defenders can find in Schmitt’s Chinese reception a confirmation of the sense that the form of regime characteristic of the modern West is in crisis, threatened by authoritarian states abroad and a collapse of legitimacy at home.
Yan Fu was the first Chinese thinker to undertake a comprehensive study of liberalism, and an advocate of liberal ideals from freedom of speech to laissez-faire economic policy.
Even in its most apparently individualistic aspects, such as the defense of personal freedoms against the state and society, this tradition has always been concerned with transforming the moral character of citizens for the benefit of the collective.
Yan’s first major work, a translation of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty,” reveals that freedom of speech is a means to the end of state power.
We usually imagine liberalism as reducing or restraining state action, protecting citizens from government, and allowing individuals to pursue their own ends without reference to a common good or shared values.
Through Yan’s eyes, we can see liberalism afresh—as a means of producing certain kinds of subjects whose apparently liberated selves serve the interests of the state.
Freedom of speech, as Mill saw it, is thus not simply a matter of the state stepping back from the regulation of what can be said. Rather, it is a kind of violent intervention by which individuals are transformed against their will from narrow-minded and weak-willed subjects, fearfully attached to their old opinions, into more strong-minded and dynamic ones capable of considering a range of views.
For Mill, politics is the art of producing citizens with certain desirable cognitive capacities and emotional qualities.
Mill’s ideal citizen is full of energy and ambition, insistent on developing their own opinions and acting according to their own moral standards.
These qualities of mind are crucial, Mill claimed, not only to personal flourishing but to the power of the state.
Feelings and Desires, he insisted, are “another name for energy,” and the task of politics is to incite and harness individual energy for social purposes—not to drain that energy away with clichéd moralisms and socially obligatory routines.
Those with good characters and energy must be helped to become still more virtuous, and even heroic.
Liberalism, from this point of view, is a series of techniques for restraining bad characters, rewarding good ones, creating productive competition, and teaching citizens how they can be both most authentically individual and usefully social.
Few of Mill’s modern commentators in the West have caught the importance of this point. Perhaps the sharpest observer to have done so is the American philosopher Elijah Millgram.
Liberalism, with its focus on restraints on the state’s interference in people’s private lives, was not as such a means of setting individuals free from social control. Rather, it allowed them to contribute to social and economic progress through the removal of harmful restraints and the transformation of individuals into “strong-willed agents.”
Their energies, released from convention and censorship, would also ultimately contribute to the power of the very state from which they had only seemed to be emancipated.
Developing this internal ethical core of agency is the “True Way.” From this perspective, liberalism is not a refusal to legislate morality, but precisely an effort to compel citizens to pursue a vision of the good, understood as a certain ideal of character.
The liberalism of the modern West no longer seems to produce the kind of dynamic, independent-minded agents that Mill and Yan expected it to. Indeed, Westerners—and especially young elites in prestigious Western universities—seem increasingly conformist and censorious.
If Mill and Yan are right, such censorious personalities are not capable of competently managing institutions and ensuring social and economic progress in a world full of rival states.
Even if the West maintains a firmly liberal self-conception through our coming crisis, it can and should be a liberalism of heroic action unleashed from small-minded censorship and procedural restraint, rather than the inertia that has come to characterize our society, as it did imperial China in its decline.