Liberal Skepticism and the Gender Identity Culture Wars

Liberal Skepticism and the Gender Identity Culture Wars

This essay is cross-published on Substack for the author’s paying subscribers.

In the Smithian version of its origin story, liberalism takes the modern (Mercantile) state for granted and understands itself from the start as a reformist and ameliorative project of the many violent tendencies in it. The key conceptual-political move is to turn any zero-sum logic with winners and losers into a win-win agenda that promotes, as a political program, a moral vision — the good or open society — that is all about the expansion of individual freedoms (note the plural) and peace. In particular, it focuses on creating the social and legal conditions for the freedom to pursue meaningful choices within the context of moral equality, equality under the law, and robust property protections.

This is also illustrated by Smith’s views on leadership: a good leader serves the people and aims to create non-zero-sum and peaceful policies which allow the flourishing of everybody and does so by way ‘reason and persuasion.’ A good leader does not rely on force, but on arguments and rhetoric. She will exhibit considerable status quo bias, not from a Burkean impulse to preserve tradition, but from an awareness of the political and moral dangers of sudden reform. A true statesman is somebody who establishes or re-establishes practices and institutions that secure “tranquility and happiness of his fellow citizens for many succeeding generations.”[1] Building on ideas lurking in Locke’s “art of government,”[2] Smith advocates for a program of open-ended lifting of domestic and external barriers to individual decision making: this will lead to economic growth, to growing technologies, but also to better health, to new social relations and associations, and more room for play.

I do not mean to deny that commerce and trade have a special place in this liberal program as both exemplifying how politics can avoid the destructive focus on winners and losers and as well as a site of special concern. In the tradition inspired by Smith ‘liberty’ means the exercise of meaningful choice under the rule of law and while this involves the liberty of commercial contract, it is far broader.[3] It also involves non-commercial voluntary association or collaboration and play. In fact, the first main example of technological, labor saving improvement offered in the Wealth of Nations involves a boy that wishes to have more time to play.

Now my libertarian friends will emphasize that in contrast with the top-down order of Mercantilism, the liberal will promote a bottom up spontaneous order of markets and other voluntary associations. In fact, this Mandevillian-Humean-Smithian account of such large-scale mostly tacit social conventions which help constitute civil society, and which Hayek called ‘spontaneous orders,’ is itself very indebted to Locke’s account of conventions.[4] The libertarians get something importantly wrong and importantly right here .

What my libertarian friends get wrong is that the maintenance and development of these large scale social conventions themselves often require non-trivial state institutions and even state planning for freedom. As Michel Foucault’s  (1978-9) lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics explain, this is an important theme in post-WWII German ordoliberalism who, hereby, revive and deepen Smith’s, Walter Lippmann’s, and Max Weber’s interest in state capacity.

However, what the libertarians get right is more important. The liberal trusts individuals to pursue their own interest in their own way. The fundamental argument for this is political and emancipatory—it’s about freedom. The derivative argument for this is epistemic—we each know our own circumstances best (without being infallible). But there is also a kind of argument about the nature of progress lurking in it. This argument is indebted to Mill and Taylor, and the whole tradition of ‘experiments in living:’ by trying out life-styles and creating voluntary joint projects we end up creating unexpected and wholly new worlds, some of them centered on new ways of living peacefully, others on new technologies for meaningful collaboration that will surprise and hopefully delight us. Sometimes these experiments don’t go anywhere or are mistaken (and silly), but that’s okay because a meaningful choice involves the danger of being mistaken.

Let me clarify these issues and tie some themes together with a controversial example. As is well known, in America and England there is a culture war centered on the status of transgender people. And even in my own institution, the University of Amsterdam, this has generated some non-trivial recent friction. As should be clear for the liberal there is no objection to allowing people any self-identification they wish as long as they do not harm others thereby. I set aside, and allow, that agreeing on what ‘harm’ is itself partially political and partially philosophical in character in ways I do not address here. In fact, the liberty that the liberal values is precisely that of meaningful choices; gender or sex self-identification is in our culture a supremely meaningful choice of self-fashioning and self-affirmation as well as an occasion for social movement building. If anything, in so far as state agencies – including police violence and welfare programs – endanger such choices the liberal is unambiguously on the side of the trans community’s emancipatory program and eager to celebrate and recognize its achievements.

So, a certain kind of progressive critic of contemporary ‘neo-liberalism,’ who wants to emphasize class and frowns on celebrations of diversity, and a certain kind of conservative critic of ‘woke,’ who wants to emphasize traditional ‘family’ values, get something important right: liberalism creates the conditions of possibility of new identity formations that cut across existing social groups and risks altering pre-existing affective ties. The peaceful emancipation and re-configuration of social identities is a predictable by-product of a program of individual liberty. This has important implications about how we should think of social order that I discuss elsewhere. But in closing, I want to draw attention to two features of the example I am developing here.

First, this example illustrates my more general claim that the liberal rejects, where possible, the idea that the state should be in the business of constituting the truth, especially where this is subject to political controversy. This rejection is driven by the realization that no compromise is possible on truth; something is either true or false. The politics of truth only generates, like class warfare, winners and losers (which is why I often call it ‘zero sum.’) The great achievement of turning the state’s back on religion, for example, is to avoid having the state arbiter a number of theological conflicts without possible opportunities to compromise.

Another reason to keep the state out of constituting truth is that the state often lacks capacity to do so. Truth production is a costly, time-consuming, and imperfect enterprise as the institutions of justice or law and science make clear and so orthogonal to key features of ordinary political contestation. Of course, the state can develop the capacity to do so, and often does, in the context of administration and public policy in ways that serve the public good unproblematically. But as Foucault has shown in a great number of works, in a non-trivial number of such cases, when the state’s authority and science’s authority mutually reinforce each other, the outcome may be oppressive.

The zero-sum nature of the politics of truth is also why the liberal objects to the militant secularism (or laïcité) of republican France; by homogenizing the public sphere deviation becomes ‘deviant’ (or ‘criminal’). This generates new oppression and conflict. So, it makes sense for the liberal state to avoid taking a stance on a question of ontology as a matter of public policy when such ontology is contested, or lacks a broad social consensus, and is not resolvable by public science.

Second, states should not be in the business of publicly identifying the truth about race and ethnicity or sex and gender (nor athletic ability, etc.). I hope that the controversy over trans identity encourages the state to drop public identification of sex and gender identities on public documents and registers. There is, in fact, no official need for that. And doing so also prevents political fights over iatrogenic demographic data. I don’t expect such a withdrawal from public identification of sex and gender to occur in the immediate future, so my (second best) hope is that once social debates have played out, there will be a broad consensus that, say, transwomen are women and then the state will rejig its laws, where necessary, to accommodate such emergent social facts just as marriage and adoption were redefined in my life-time to accommodate enduring non-heteronormative coupling. 

I am not claiming that states and their administrative units have no business to track demographic features of populations at all. It is sometimes necessary for us to solve coordination problems or provide remedial solutions by being legible to authority. But this should be on the basis of self-identification and in the contexts of particular or localized social problems (say, in public health, medical care, or child-welfare, or battling discrimination, etc.) with institutions that are embedded in practices of accountability.[5] In many ways, the state is a machinery of record in order to facilitate the public’s meaningful choices, some for profit others for other kinds of collaboration. So, rather than promoting a single unified identity in the service of public control, efficiency, administration, and standardization, the liberal state should, in so far as it is needed to keep track of each of us, allow each of us to keep our more meaningful identities distinct or, if you wish, to present a singular, thick identity to others.[6]

[1] Eric Schliesser “Adam Smith on Political Leadership” In R. J. W. Mills & Craig Smith (eds.), The Scottish Enlightenment: Human Nature, Social Theory and Moral Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Berry. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 132-163 (2021)

[2] See Second Treatise of Government para. 42 (added to posthumous edition). Smith, Brian. “Hands, not lands: John Locke, immigration and the’Great art of government’.” History of political thought 39.3 (2018): 465-490.

[3] See Schliesser, Eric. Adam Smith: Systematic philosopher and public thinker. Oxford University Press, 2017. Sagar, Paul. Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics. Princeton University Press, 2022.

[4] Smith, Craig. Adam Smith’s political philosophy: the invisible hand and spontaneous order. Routledge, 2006. Hume’s formulation of the nature and origin of tacit convention is famously given at Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Appendix 3.7; for discussion see Rescorla, Michael, “Convention”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. For the Lockean anticipations, see Essay 2.28.10 and Second Treatise sect 50.

[5] Cowen, Nick, and Eric Schliesser. “Novel externalities.” Public Choice (2023): 1-22.

[6] I thank Saskia Bonjour, Jessica Collins, Sophie-Grace Chappell for comments on an earlier draft. The Usual caveat obtain.

Featured Image is an LGBT-Inclusive Form, by Keshet