The New Anti-Liberals

January 1 st 2000

The New Anti-Liberals by A. Alan Borovoy (Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, 1999, 193 pp., $18.95).

This is a remarkable and much to be welcomed book. Alan Borovoy has genuine liberal left credentials, having served for 30 years as the general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

He confesses to being a committed crusader for equality, a firm believer in the liberal political philosophy of the Enlightenment expressed in the three guiding principles of freedom of expression, equality, and procedural fairness.

Critique of political correctness

Borovoy wrote this book, so he says, out of concern for what he considers to be "excesses among my fellow equality seekers". Specifically, he laments the loss of commitment to universal liberal values and an appeal to group interests accompanied by a willingness to abrogate the three principles mentioned above.

Thus, for example, feminists and gays advocate draconian hate speech codes in order to silence those whose social and moral views are different from theirs. In short, The Anti-Liberals is a sustained critique of the phenomenon now often called political correctness.

I say that this is a remarkable book for two reasons. First, it is a sterling example of a rare and almost endangered species of political writing in Canada, a thoughtful articulation of substantive critical judgment on the dominant political ideology.

When it comes to political philosophy, Her Majesty has a very small and virtually silenced opposition in Canada. In The Anti-Liberals, a voice from that opposition comes to passionate and eloquent expression.

The book is doubly remarkable considering the quarter from which it comes. Author Borovoy is critical of elements within his own political family, a fact that gives him no little discomfort.

Ultimately, it is also his undying allegiance to a certain liberal left political ideology that finally leaves me disappointed with the book as well. But before I indicate my reservations, let me provide a brief summary of Borvoy's main points.

Equality excesses

After an introductory chapter indicating his reasons for writing the book, Borovoy tackles six areas where excesses in seeking equality have led to undermining equality (the following are his chapter titles): among feminists, among minorities, among professors and students, among doves, among governments and their agencies, among theoreticians.

Each chapter is devoted to specific issues that challenge genuine equality as Borovoy sees it, and he provides numerous concrete examples from Canadian life that verify his observations. Thus in the chapter on feminism, he addresses the issues of harassment, pornography, and the rape shield law, seeing them as challenges to free speech and procedural fairness.

Borovoy does support pay equity legislation for women but judges that governmental interference in favour of certain "oppressed groups" goes too far and mitigates fairness before the law. At the same time, he also judges that using categories such as "oppressed" and "advantaged" often obscures rather than clarifies matters and "is not a principled way to resolve disputes" (p. 27).

Similarly, Borovoy points out that speech codes (against "hate speech"), designed "to protect minorities like Jews and blacks [ironically] winds up being used against them" (p. 41). Borovoy's argument does get a bit clouded here when he throws public funding for religious schools into the same mix of issues as minority rights. As he sees it, a mistaken desire to honour the distinctiveness of minorities (racial and religious) is an illiberal idea that eventually undermines tolerance and universal liberal values.

The chapter on universities repeats the arguments against speech codes in the previous chapter and the chapter on "dovish" internationalists points to the irony that the "indiscriminate pursuit of liberal values . . . is likely to create an illiberal international order" (126). Desperate and naive efforts to avoid war at all costs and create a world government "would make war more probable and the democracies less viable" (126).

Finally, Borovoy takes on the excesses in the provincial Human Rights Commissions where an overly zealous effort to eliminate discrimination has succeeded in creating more discrimination.

Almost persuaded

From this brief summary, it should be evident that there is much in this book that will warm the heart of anyone troubled by intrusive political correctness and accompanying loss of freedom.

The author is not a convert from liberal left egalitarianism however. He's almost persuaded, but not quite. He cannot take the step to which his argument and evidence naturally lead.

Borovoy signals his nervousness from the outset; he worries that his criticism might encourage right wing opponents of equality. Furthermore, he openly expresses his fear that the reactionary forces of "anti-egalitarian conservatism" will undermine freedom to an even greater degree than the excessive egalitarianism of which he is so critical.

Typical is the following statement: "In North America, most of the attacks on free speech have been launched by right wing, anti-communist witchhunters" (p. xv). In spite of his own massive evidence to the contrary, Borovoy still claims that "with few exceptions, all these attacks on liberal values have emanated from right wing sources that were rarely distinguished by their championship of equality" (p. xvi).

Borovoy thus takes the current examples of attacks on freedom and free speech by the left as a curious aberration; the real enemy is always to the right. Stated differently, "the new anti-liberals are promoters of equality [basically good guys] who have gone off the deep end" (p. xviii).

Odd contradictions

The enemy is to the right because, curiously, Borovoy remains a committed man of the left. This results in some odd contradictions.

His liberal side insists that "everyone is entitled to be judged on the basis of individual merit rather than on happenstance affiliation" (p. xiii). But in the next sentence, Borovoy begins a paragraph that not only undercuts the principle he just articulated but also invokes the coercive power of the state as an instrument of social engineering.

In order to ensure greater equality, many liberals are prepared to use the financial and even the coercive power of the state. Thus, while liberals have sought the withdrawal of most state restrictions on permissible speech, numbers of them have promoted many state restrictions on permissible acts. Indeed, certain liberals (myself included) have campaigned for—or at least supported—human rights legislation, labour legislation, and a host of welfare state measures designed to reduce inequities.(p. xiii)

And indeed, Borovoy supports affirmative action (up to a point!) in industry as well as in education. As he puts it (in a section expressing approval of different kinds of testing for minority applicants to universities), "None of this [considerations of merit] is necessarily to discount the acceptability of some forms of preferential treatment in certain exceptional circumstances. It is, however, to rule out preferential treatment as a standard operating policy" (p. 158).

Little bit pregnant

Borovoy's opposition to "preferential treatment as a standard operating policy" is to be welcomed. But his "egalitarianism up to a point" seems to me similar to being a little bit pregnant.

Thankfully, he sees well enough to want to apply the brakes at a critical point; he realizes that an ideology of egalitarianism at all costs and supported by the coercive power of the state is a real threat to freedom and democracy.

The problem is that any application of the brake after the train is already rolling down the track is utterly arbitrary. One wishes that Borovoy had followed through on his perceptive observations about excesses to come to a challenge of the radical egalitarian ideal itself.

From a number of angles, notably his discussion of the schools issue, it is clear that Borovoy is not a genuine pluralist. His notion of universal justice still excludes those whose social vision is not based, as his is, on the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous reason. Striking in this regard is his omission of "freedom of association" from the list of liberal principles necessary for a free society.

In conclusion, then, Borovoy is close but still far. What is needed is a more thorough critique of liberal individualism that does justice to associational freedom and recognizes with the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke and others that the foundation of social harmony is the spontaneous social order arising from a free people and serving as an institutional buffer between the coercive state and the naked individual.


Dr. John Bolt is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has taught at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario and is the author of several books and numerous articles.