The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.Interesting. I am on board with all of this, although I regard disharmony as more of a cold reality than something to be celebrated. Obviously the citizens of modern states are not going to get along, so we might as well celebrate the benefits rather than moon over the impossibility of universal brotherhood.
Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.
Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable. . . .
Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are.
Fawcett's list cuts against a big part of traditional moral and political thinking. There are no philosopher kings or benevolent dictators, no priestly elites or aristocracies that can be trusted to rule. There is no golden age, either in the past or in the future, only constant pursuit of a somewhat better alternative. There are few rules we can hold each other to, few beliefs that we can expect our neighbors to hold; the divine order plays no part here. There are no heroes, only fellow humans in better or worse degree. Most cruelly, there is no chance of living in a world where we all get along and are never confronted by neighbors whose beliefs we find despicable. We can never feel like we truly belong in and are accepted by a tribe of people just like ourselves. This last seems especially hard for our social species, primed by evolution to always divide the world into us and them and attribute all good things to us. The recent battles over the tolerance of homosexuality show that even many people who call themselves liberals actually can't stand to live with those who disagree with them.
Liberals love justice; the great movements of modern liberalism from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights era have been crusades for justice. Yet to be a liberal in a profound sense is to recognize that justice is no pure thing, no shining monument, and that we will never achieve even our dim human understanding of it. As Learned Hand put it, justice in a liberal world is "the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society;" better than that we cannot do, and if we push too hard for it we wander into illiberal acts and thoughts.
Liberalism as I understand it is a cool philosophy, a philosophy of limits. It concerns the possible and the practical, not the ideal or the amazing. It has neither the warm, beloved past of conservatism nor the shining future of socialism; it celebrates mistrust and dismisses holy mystery. When I imagine a story, it is set in a world of kings and wise women, but when I vote I live in the unromantic suburbs. There is the word I was looking for -- Romantic. That is what liberalism is not. Revolution, God, the Queen, these are things to sing about, but designing a better health care system will never be the subject of an epic tale. What is great about this vision of life is the accumulation of small blessings. In a liberal society we can think, believe, and say whatever we want, go where we please, work where we choose; we can indulge our curiosity to the limit; we can work to make our communities and countries better places to live, or just stay home. We can enjoy the fruits of science, technology, and business creativity; we can eat food from around the world, appreciate or scorn every sort of art, dance to whatever moves us and ignore the rest. To live in this way we give up many dreams. I believe, though, that in our world those dreams are faulty illusions that lead to disappointment, cruelty and bad policy. I believe that in the modern world, liberalism is the best we can do.