K. Anthony Appiah writes:

Alan Wolfe is the sort of social theorist who would rather be plausible than provocative. Eschewing the lunacies of the left and the right—avoiding even their slighter sillinesses—he hews to a sensible, if unexciting, center.

Which is a nice thing to say.  It would be nicer still if it were correct.  Sensible is open to debate I suppose, but center (or centrist) not so much.  Exhibits A and B and C to that point.

Wolfe, whatever else he is, is a liberal not a centrist.  I would have thought Appiah would have figured out that rather central piece of information from the title of Wolfe’s book that Appiah reviews:  The Future of (wait for it) Liberalism.  Why can’t we call a spade a spade on this one?  Back at League Headquarters, I think I can hear Freddie’s about ready to throw down over this inability/unwillingness to use the dreaded “L” word–“progressive” “sensible center” (dear sweet JS Mill anything but liberal).

That aside, Appiah nicely lays out Wolfe’s thesis:

Wolfe’s distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter. Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: “a sympathy for equality,” “an inclination to deliberate,” “a commitment to tolerance,” and “an appreciation of openness.”…But Wolfe’s sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: “a disposition to grow,” “a preference for realism,” and “a taste for governance.”

Arguably the first four (and #6 “realism”) could be said of conservatives as well–or at least some kinds of conservatives (e.g. Beaconsfieldians).  Ditto, even more so, classical liberalism.

Now the fifth one “disposition to grow” acts as a transition:

What he means to resurrect is the faith that we can remake ourselves…The response of liberalism—epitomized, for Wolfe, in Kant—is that “we are not merely what God ordains us to be, but what we create through our own deliberate acts.” Far from being at our best when we follow a nature that is already given, we human beings are creatures destined to remake the world by shaping ourselves.

Classical liberalism would accept this point (classical liberalism in fact is nothing perhaps but that point), while a good many conservatives here begin to be worried if not outright in rejection.  Which is why Mark and Will Wilkinson are saying libertarianism lost its classical liberal side by aligning with movement conservatism.

But #7, here comes the juncture and the separation it seems to for liberaltarianism:

It is this conviction [ed: the view that humans can constantly remake themselves for the better] that explains the connection between liberalism and an optimistic commitment to politics.

Classical liberalism accepts the optimism of being able to change while seeing it more properly manifest through non-regulated, non-coereced action say in the market, in civil relations and the like. 20th century liberalism seeing that ability for positive change most powerfully through government as an agent of the democratic will.  Liberalism and libertarianism then are two various modifications of the same basic modern-era stance.**

Adopting Wolfe’s notion of liberalism as a series of habits/dispositions would I think go a long way to answering Freddie’s excellent challenge laid out here:

But I am left, reading John’s [Schwenkler] post, and many like it from what we might call the American Scene strata of contemporary conservatism, with a deep dissatisfaction and sense of injustice. Because I think that John and Will Wilkinson and many other reformist conservatives have the unfair habit of judging conservatism entirely from the lens of their notional ideals of what conservatism is, but judging liberalism, and the Democratic party, from the lens of vulgar politics.

And further this:

All of this takes me back again to my constant suspicion, that American conservatism, and especially reformist conservatism, is inherently reactive, that it still has crafted no purely positive vision, that for all of our failings conservatives are still fundamentally looking over their shoulders and critiquing us. I think that many of them want more for their movement, but expect more from ours, and someday, if reform is to come to the American conservative movement, it will have to come from an honest accounting of that fact. And with that accounting, it seems to me, must come credit, credit for liberalism, credit for liberals.

Now I don’t think it’s fair to say “no purely positive vision”, but Freddie does have some precedent to backup his case.  Here’s Michael Lind’s trajectory of US history (my italics):

The first three American republics display a remarkably similar pattern. Their 72-year life span is divided into two 36-year periods (again, give or take a year — this is not astrology). During the first 36-year period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small government, small business and an older way of life. During the backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.

Now undoubtedly the history doesn’t have to predeterminedly follow these cyclical patterns in some Hegelian fashion, but events are lining up in a way that this could well be taking place–the stimulus bill and undoubtedly more like-minded liberal bills to come as setting a new Hamiltonian, government-buildling phase. This building is built into liberalism’s DNA going back to Wolfe’s point 7: optimism about the ability to change human nature by being open to multiple points of view and emphasizing a certain kind of rationality legislated and enacted through larger government entities.

The reformist conservatives–and here I am thinking more specifically of David Frum, Ross & Reihan–already aligning to form their response which if history is a guide will modify but not undo the frame/paradigm currently being brought into motion (unless of course Obama and the Democrats completely blow their moment I suppose).  Freddie calls this response “reactive”, I don’t know about that, but it certainly is in response to, and deeply related to, the emerging liberalism which buttresses Freddie’s point about how any future effective reform conservatism will need to give partial credit to liberals.

**Another post for another day would be to bring in a postmodern critique, perhaps in the line of Nietzsche to this modern burgeoisie worldview.

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4 thoughts on “liberalisms

  1. I think you’re exactly right that the difference between libertarianism and liberalism lies in “taste for governance.” But the fact that this is where the difference lies helps to explain why the bridge between the two really isn’t that wide. To the extent these 7 tenets are an accurate description of modern liberalism, the “taste for governance” is the sole tenet that expresses a preference related to means rather than ends.

    In essence, for the libertarian, the lack of a “taste for governance” emerges from a general skepticism about the ability of government to achieve that which it sets out to do without imposing unintended consequences that undermine the achievement of tenets 1 through 6. This is where the writings of FA Hayek come into play so strongly.

    But, as I said, these are differences over means rather than ends. As a result, a libertarian should be open to arguments for various government programs, provided that the liberal can convince him that the program will, in fact, achieve at least one of goals 1-6 without excessively undermining others of those goals.

    Similarly, a philosophical liberal ought to be open to libertarian arguments that a proposed policy will either fail to achieve its goals or will excessively undermine at least one of goals 1-6 in the process of achieving its stated goal.

    Assuming that both the liberal and the libertarian act as they should, then the end result is a discussion in which the two can arrive at a compromise that is as narrowly tailored towards the achievement of the stated end as possible.

    Unfortunately, the current political alignment has caused many liberals to treat point 7 as an end unto itself rather than a means, just as the current alignment has caused many libertarians to treat its antithesis as an end unto itself rather than a means. As such, there has been all too little room for compromise on something that otherwise ought to be utterly subject to compromise.

    As for the relationship of all this to conservatism, I suppose it really depends on the brand of conservatism about which you are speaking. But I’m not sure that most conservatives would really adhere to many of the 7 liberal tenets; this isn’t to say that they reject these tenets outright, but rather that they likely don’t hold these tenets as core goals of government. Speaking in an overly general manner, I’d say that a conservatism untethered from libertarianism would most likely be primarily concerned with things like social stability and the preservation of cultural tradition….in essence, it would closely resemble paleoconservatism.

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  2. Unfortunately, the current political alignment has caused many liberals to treat point 7 as an end unto itself rather than a means, just as the current alignment has caused many libertarians to treat its antithesis as an end unto itself rather than a means.

    I think this is dead on the money. Any ideas about what could change the political context? That’s a mighty tall order it seems to me.

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  3. I’m beginning work on a follow-up to this, but the short, short answer to your question is, I think, that changes in political alignment can do pretty interesting things. It’s worth remembering that our political coalitions are more historical accidents than they are entrenched advocates for competing governing philosophies.

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