The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment — principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.
This seems right to me. It puts the thumb on “pragmatism,” which suffers no overindulgence in formalities when sensible ends are at stake. This is some distance from Elihu Root’s observation in 1911 that we merely “forget,” from time to time, the limits of government:
Law cannot give to depravity the rewards of virtue, to indolence the rewards of industry, to indifference the rewards of ambition, or to ignorance the rewards of learning. The utmost that government can do is measurably to protect men, not against the wrong they do themselves but against wrong done by others and to promote the long, slow process of educating mind and character to a better knowledge and nobler standards of life and conduct. We know all this, but when we see how much misery there is in the world and instinctively cry out against it, and when we see some things that government may do to mitigate it, we are apt to forget how little after all it is possible for any government to do, and to hold the particular government of the time and place to a standard of responsibility which no government can possibly meet.
The only part of Levin that I have read is the part you quoted, so I am speaking from some ignorance here. But I think we need to be careful about what we mean by “liberalism.” Are we talking “liberalism” as the construct that emerges in the late 18th century–rights of man(kind), anti-mercantilism (and pro-free marketism), opposition to centralized government (the “Country Whig” antipathy to the “Robinarchs” of the 18th cenutry)–or are we talking of, say, post-New Deal liberalism? (I admit, if I just took the 10 or 15 minutes necessary to read Levin’s work, maybe I’d have a better grasp of what we’re talking about.)
A second point: I question how much of what Root said is applicable, by definition, to liberalism to the exclusion of any other non-anti-statist approach to government. That which sometimes passes for “conservatism” today–I’m thinking of social conservatism, such as, say, opposition to same sex marriage, or support for arguably paternalist laws like laws against drug use–seems to fall under what Root seems to identify as our propensity to attribute to government more ability to remedy perceived social ills.
Now that I’ve actually read Levin’s piece, I think I know some of the answers to my first point and a bit of its relevance for my second point.
But I still have to mull it over. All in all, it’s an interesting article, although I think I disagree with much of it.
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