Notes From Babel

Some thoughts about what liberalism is and isn’t

with 2 comments

E.D. Kain complained recently that the critiques of late concerning libertarianism seem to put too much emphasis on low-hanging fruit by focusing on libertarianism’s “fringe,” minarchist goals such as abolishing public roads and the welfare state—things that will never happen.  I pointed out in the comments that, say what you will about libertarianism, it’s honest about what it’s after.  Not like, say, liberalism, whose greatest accomplishment is having made socialist Progressivism—a la turn of the century thinkers like Edward Bellamy and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger—fit for popular consumption by omitting from the official literature its radical logical conclusions, such as the abolition of property rights and a centralized economy. The advantage is that liberalism has become wildly successful.  The terrifying part is we’re not permitted to know where the train is headed.  Indeed, when conservatives and libertarians moan that things like the Individual Mandate are one more step down the road to socialist Progressivism, the left won’t own up and defend the Mandate as a logical conclusion of socialist/Progressive political theory; instead, they scoff at the objections as reactionary.

This led to another commenter, Michael Drew, rejecting my characterization of liberalism and offering his own, as follows:

(1) A commitment to a consistent process or structure for decision making; (2) an embrace of politics as the animating force driving action in the process/structure, (3) a commitment to certain rights-based limitations on process outcomes, and (4) a broad agnosticism regarding outcomes, or at least a commitment to accept legitimate outcomes, whatever they may be (which is not to say a disavowal of taking strong positions in the political input part of the process).

This definition is almost entirely incorrect.  Although Drew cites to this entry on “Liberalism” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as his general authority, the entry says little resembling his definition.  In fact, it actually supports my claim that liberalism is either silent or schizophrenic about its “ends.”  I think it is helpful to walk through Drew’s proffered criteria and explain why they do not accurately describe liberalism.

The first two criteria deal with liberalism’s purported fealty to process.  However, the only reference to “process” in the Stanford entry is to John Rawls’s notion of liberalism as “largely restricted to constitutional principles upholding basic civil liberties and the democratic process.”  Nowhere is there any suggestion that liberalism puts a premium on “consistency” in that process, or of the “structure for decision making.”  Indeed, there are serious arguments that liberalism, more than conservatism or libertarianism, galvanizes “judicial activism”—a substantial sacrifice in consistency in process for the benefit of certain ends.  Again, it is the fact that liberalism is so cryptic about its objectives that such problems arise.

As to Drew’s third criterion—that liberalism espouses “a commitment to certain rights-based limitations on process outcomes”—the principal objection is to the single word “certain.”  Because liberalism is schizophrenic about the meaning of “liberty” and the existence of any objective “rights,” it is false to suggest that anything concrete may be said about them.  It is all too true, however, that this does not stop liberals from interfering with otherwise legitimate process by proclaiming the existence of some new “right” or another.

The fourth criterion is false for similar reasons.  Liberalism purports to be agnostic about norms and behaviors.  In fact, its animating principle is a sort of bohemianism:  that individuals ought to be enabled to pursue and fulfill their unique desires with minimal interference of prevailing cultural norms and customs, and indeed that the state ought to aid and encourage this individualism.  (Liberalism’s disdain for cultural norms is inherited from John Stuart Mill, who resentfully endured the scorn of Victorian society during his 21 year courtship of a married woman.)  Thus, when laws, however legitimately enacted, interfere with individuality, it may be challenged under the liberal model so long as the liberal resentment against the encroachment is sufficiently strong.  In other words, under liberalism, there’s no telling whether the process is legitimate until a liberal activist challenges it in court.

Thus, I still say that while Progressivism and liberalism do have separate histories, they are undeniably linked.  It can be said that Progressivism is a shorthand for the “progress” made in U.S. constitutionalism toward liberalism—the replacement of natural with positive law, and the replacement of rights with entitlements.  It is the practical arm of liberal theory.  (I briefly explain here why I think the same cannot be said about conservatism.)


Written by Tim Kowal

January 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm

2 Responses

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  1. P.S. I have a big ‘why I am not a progressive’ post in the works which, unfortunatley, will just be me walking back on a bunch of things from my ‘why I am not a conservative’ post now that I, uhm, realize how very not a progressive I am even if I do have somewhat liberal views on a handful of issues.

    E.D. Kain

    January 3, 2011 at 12:46 am

    • I’m looking forward to it. I’m also working on a post about what conservatism is in terms of a political philosophy, as opposed to the modern American movement. As I’ve suggested, Progressivism was/is the practical arm of, the political movement founded upon, liberal ideology. The Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was fascinating because it was actually galvanized by a conservative streak to restore values compromised by the growing disparity caused by economics and the rural/urban divide. Yet, in their efforts to “restore” these conservative values, Progressives found they would have to “remake” man and society. In so doing, the movement on net did far more to undermine conservatism than to honor it.

      Tim Kowal

      January 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

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