Liberalism, Past and Future

George Scialabba reviews Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism in The Nation:

Wolfe's account of liberalism's substantive commitments is straightforward and persuasive–much the best part of the book. The conservative and libertarian enemies of liberalism have squandered so much wealth and welfare, blighted so many lives, that it is always satisfying to see them intellectually routed yet again. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not stop there. He sees liberalism's enemies, or unreliable friends, everywhere and feels bound to scold them all. Wolfe's spiritual home is The New Republic, and he manifests the same complacent centrism as most of its regular writers (though not–for better and worse–the snarky wit and verbal edge that make the magazine at once irresistible and insufferable). Half The Future of Liberalism is valuable affirmation; the other half is an ideological Syllabus of Errors.

The first and most dangerous heresy that Wolfe rebukes from the pulpit–“the single most influential illiberal current of our time”–is evolutionary psychology. The attempt to view human behavior in Darwinian perspective amounts to “nothing short of a determined campaign to reduce human beings and their accomplishments to insignificance.” According to these anti-humanists, humans “rarely accomplish very much independent of what nature has bequeathed to them”; culture is a “side effect,” a “by-product,” just “one more way in which nature imposes its designs upon us.” All this, Wolfe protests, radically undermines liberal morale. Liberalism is about choice and purpose, but the aim of evolutionary psychology “is to show that leading any kind of life we think we are choosing is impossible.”

If science really and truly discredited liberalism, then the only honest response would be: so much the worse for liberalism. But, of course, it does not. The distinction between nature and culture that Wolfe brandishes so menacingly is far more subtle and tenuous than he recognizes. His version, like the obsolete distinction between body and soul, implies that we cannot be both purely physical and meaningfully moral. And yet we are. Whatever “free will” means, it does not mean that choices are uncaused.