Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Four Pillars of Liberalism

Edmund Fawcett lists the main tenets of liberalism:
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.

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. 
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.

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.


Thomas said...

Of course, there are some cases of "romantic" liberalism - almost always civil rights and righting of injustice. It's just as easy to create simplified tales of great injustices righted as it is to create tales of kings, and quite a few people who call themselves liberal believe these tales in their simplest forms, and view their liberalism as part of a romantic battle against injustice.

The fact that this battle is never done, while fairy tales always end, is the nature of fairy tales, not the nature of liberalism.

Conservatives are just as inclined towards conflict. Indeed "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" is often cited by conservatives, they just have a definition of "liberty" that is often strange, and usually means, "the way I grew up." I suspect liberals more every so slightly more comfortable with conflict, and living with it, rather than trying to eradicate it, but not by a whole lot.

John said...

In the broadest view, most Americans fall into the "liberal" classification, since we think the state exists to serve the individual rather than the other way around and don't want priests telling us how to live. A certain sort of conservative -- one who is suspicious of grand plans for betterment and enamored of old ways without wanting too much to force them on people -- fits perfectly well within the broad liberal paradigm. No all parts of the modern conservative mindset do, but then not all parts of the modern progressive mindset do, either.

Anonymous said...

It does seem to me that that definition is so vague as to be useless. When I read it I thought it was the creed of the Tea Party. The author is trying to combine what "liberalism" means in Europe (=economic freedom, so that the most right-wing major party in Germany calls itself "the Liberals") with what it means in the States, and he has ended up with an intellectual mess.


John said...

Within contemporary politics the old definition of liberalism is not much use, because all the major parties are liberal. It is very useful for distinguishing our mainstream from fascists, anarchists, theocrats, radical greens, or any system that existed before 1776. We have found endless stuff to argue about within the paradigm, but liberalism is, in the main, the language we argue in. I suppose the mishmash comes from eliding the old definition of liberalism as a philosophy focused on individual freedom and practical improvement with the contemporary use of the word in America to mean the center-left. My own goal is to reinvigorate the center-left by thinking hard about liberalism as a philosophy. Obviously I have yet to achieve great clarity on this score, but I intend to keep trying.

Unknown said...

If one wants to revivify the center-left with philosophy, my recommendation would be to come up with a philosophy and preach it, and see if it works. But I doubt the philosophy will work if it is based largely on an effort to understand what contemporary American liberalism means, and then to come up with a philosophy that explains or justifies it.

Part of the problem is the fact that the US’ winner-take-all system means political parties start out as coalitions, rather than smaller, philosophically specialized parties trying to come up with coalitions post-election. I actually think this is a good thing about our system, in part because it makes political philosophizing and manifesto-writing so difficult.

A difficult question would be, what is it that unites the groups that typically make up the American left, and what unites the groups that typically make up the American right? Why, given the winner-take-all two party system, do isolationist small-government libertarians, security hawks, little America values voters, and capitalist free-for-all rigorists all tend to vote one way, while sexual libertarians, cosmopolitan antihawks, and economic safety-net voters, tend to vote the other? And why is the first group more white, male, and old, and the second group more non-white, female, and young? I think it would be difficult to come up with philosophical propositions, if there are any, that actually unite these groups. A better place to look might be psychology.

John said...

I have long wondered how these disparate things get put together, especially pro-business economics and religious conservatism. The psychological principle escapes me. Respect for authority, however constituted?

My real project, I guess, is narrower: I want to build a case for redistributionist economics within a paradigm of freedom.

Unknown said...

FWIW, these days my thinking in this vein starts with the proposition that we are a community of free citizens who, in principle, have nothing in common save our humanity, and who have come together very much in a Lockian, social contract sort of way. As a community, we have some obligation to take care of each other. What sort of community would we be, what sort of humans would we be, if all we had to say to a substantial portion of our fellows was, "You lose!"

I prefer to do this caring for one another through government, because this is an obligation on us as a whole community; our fellows have a claim on all of us as of right.

BTW, I do not mean my social contract language to be a pledge to buy into the whole Enlightenment project. I'm aware there are grave problems with that project, and I'm not in any case the sort of person who goes misty-eyed over Montesquieu. I do like the social contract concept as an antidote to blood, soil, & faith type thinking.

I'd add I'm not the sort of person who's clamoring for emotional community. That's not the point of my community language. Parades, pep rallies, commencements, and similar sorts of community rah-rah leave me cold.

John said...

From a social contract perspective, what does one say to a libertarian who says, "I refuse to sign?"

I suppose mine would be, "Whatever you think, you actually do benefit hugely from being part of a society that includes things like public education, mandatory vaccinations, and the Clean Air Act, so shut up."

I find this persuasive, but libertarians do not.