No, let’s not give up on liberalism just yet

by Charlie Huenemann

(Credit: James Ferguson)

Liberalism has been so successful in promoting a wide range of different ideas that its own name has gotten pretty murky. Many people think it means supporting a welfare state, championing the voices of people usually pushed to the side, and generally showing sympathy for anyone or anything that can’t defend itself. Other people think it means being a stupid hippie crybaby. Still others lump liberalism together with belonging to a specific political party, and others argue it’s just another word for capitalism. But the classic meaning is that a liberal tries to establish a social order that gives people the freedom to live however they think best without getting in each other’s way. Fundamentally, it is the defense of pluralism, or the broad toleration of different visions of what’s good. It’s this sense of liberalism that I think we shouldn’t give up on just yet.

A recent blogpost by philosopher Liam Kofi Bright explains why he isn’t a liberal. (And a similarly forceful critique is offered by Christopher Horner here on 3QD.) Bright argues that humans just can’t maintain a sharp distinction between what’s private and what’s public: our own visions of the good life inevitably will pollute our politics (and so pluralism is unstable). Second, and relatedly, he argues the very idea is incoherent, and a governing institution necessarily shutters some visions of a human life as no longer open for business. He also argues that liberalism historically has been the vision advanced by white plutocrats, and it carries their worldview in its DNA, particularly under the banners of private property and rapacious capitalism. 

So, all in all, genuine pluralism isn’t possible, and so-called liberalism ends up being the exploitation of the poor and of the planet itself in the interests of the rich. Liam puts the conclusion of his argument with sharp clarity:

“I believe core elements of liberalism, derived from the central historical missions it is meant to fulfil, are untenable. We cannot have a neutral public sphere and nor would the greater good just so happen to coincide with what liberals say the neutral public sphere looks like. As such we cannot make liberal tolerance norms work. What is more, the notion of private property used to make that tolerance concrete by giving each a sphere of action over which they have control, in fact tends towards undermining what is elsewise best in liberalism, and prevents collective action that might stop its reliance on imperialist exploitation. I hence think a system which did not rely on the public/private division, or anything akin to private ownership of the means of production in a market society, is required if we are to make good on the promise of Enlightenment.”

Liam’s a smart guy and I don’t know enough to say he’s wrong. (At the end of his post, he also graciously offers links to worthy disagreements with his argument, and what I have to say is in the same spirit as these, especially Eric Schliesser’s rejoinder. As Eric would observe, this is a very liberal move on Liam’s part!)

So here’s my main thing. Humans will always have irreconcilable ideas about how we ought to live. So in the widest view, our choice is between finding some way of living together with those differences, or battling it out until one side can effectively subjugate the others. That is the choice between something like liberalism and something like illiberalism. And of the two, liberalism seems better, especially if you’re a wimpy milquetoast intellectual like me.

Yes, that’s simplistic, and there aren’t just two choices. There is a third choice, which is a muddled confusion of liberalism and illiberalism. In this muddled confusion, many of us push toward pluralism, or finding ways for people to get along despite their differences, while simultaneously many of us push hard toward a single vision of how things ought to be. This muddled confusion is in fact what we have been living with since the Enlightenment’s IPO in, what, 1750 or something. 

“Muddled confusion” doesn’t sound like much of a program, so let’s call it “the liberal dialectic”. While Liam despairs of liberalism ever delivering the goods it promises, we can be pretty sure that the ongoing liberal dialectic over the last two and a half centuries has helped to deliver a lot of juicy goods (like greater freedoms, lower mortality rates, higher standards of living, that sort of thing). It might be objected that it’s also delivered planet-wide ecological devastation as well as global injustices due to the liberal freedoms of rapacious capitalists. But these damages are due to liberalism losing the dialectic, not winning. The orthodox liberal line is to respect and preserve human freedoms wherever humans are found, and not to take so much so as to not leave enough for others (“Locke’s proviso”). Many successful capitalists have been illiberal, not liberal: they’ve pushed for their own vision of the good, those greedy bastards, instead of pushing for multiple visions of what’s good. The occasions when more rights have been established, when corporate greed has been limited, and when toleration has grown, have been the occasions when liberalism won the dialectic.

Liberalism needs a dialectical relationship with multiple private visions of what’s good in order to keep itself working. This blurring of the private and the public is a feature, not a bug. A society might devise a “perfect” set of liberal laws; but as complaints roll in from people whose good life is made difficult or impossible by those allegedly “perfect” laws, we find that we need to make changes, and those changes will reflect what those people think is good. No laws, no bill of rights, can ever be perfect, since diversity is always growing. But they get better as we have the freedom to argue over them and replace them with new ones.

An illiberal person who insists on seeing greater economic equality might object that the rules, whether “liberal” or not, will always favor those with greater power, and so they will insist that the only way to establish equality is by seizing that power, and then … establishing new rules that … somehow won’t favor those with greater power? Or there won’t be anyone with greater power because we can count on the people who seize the power to be more generous than the people they stole it from? (Sorry, I started this objection before realizing I didn’t know how it’s supposed to go.)

To defend liberalism is to defend the ongoing liberal dialectic. To give up on liberalism, or declare its death, is to believe we’re better off feeding our appetite for power after power without any limits and seeing who comes out on top. We have already given this a try for all of recorded human history until nearly three centuries ago, and on balance it didn’t work out so great. Steven Pinker’s basic challenge is pretty compelling: “When would you choose to live if you didn’t know who you would be?” Now is the smartest answer, unless you have a weird thing for slavery, poverty, illiteracy, wars, or plague. 

So let’s not give up on liberalism just yet. Be suspicious of capitalist grabbings under the banner of “free markets”, and hold everyone, no matter how powerful, to the Lockean proviso about not taking more than your share. Secure a balance between pluralism and protecting the vulnerable, and articulate what freedoms and rights are critical, and which are negotiable. It won’t be a clean business—but what else is new? Or better?