We are not...prisoners of economic calculations and therefore unable to influence the moral character of the societies we inhabit. Instead, we are quite capable of deciding what moral purposes we want our societies to serve and then designing our economic arrangements accordingly. It is not a planned economy liberals seek -- that is a goal more properly identified with socialism -- but a society that can decide what it stands for and do its best to realize it. There is a common good. We can know what it is. And we can achieve it. (84)
Wolfe stresses, however, that identifying the common good is a collaborative project that requires compromises of interests. He doesn't disparage self-interested thinking, but demands that it be what used to be called enlightened self-interest, rational above all. He virtually concedes that some people will find liberalism boring because it requires people to be rational and calculate the possible consequences of actions. Wolfe prefers dispassionate rationalists like Jeremy Bentham to heroic Romantic types who are all too often tempted to go for broke in all-or-nothing attempts to achieve Utopia or rid the world of evil.
The strongest chapter I've read so far is "Mr. Schmitt Goes to Washington," which tends to define liberalism negatively as whatever hasn't been tainted by the influence of the German political scientist Carl Schmitt. A contemporary of Leo Strauss who stayed in Germany and served the Nazis while Strauss fled, Schmitt's influence derives from two dangerous ideas: that political sovereignty consists of the power to make exceptions to the rule of law, and that politics itself is based on an inevitable division of the state into friends and enemies. Schmitt's ideas, however indirectly transmitted, have strong appeal for both modern partisan conservatives and many leftists, Wolfe claims, because both groups are inclined to see those who disagree with them as the enemy. Liberals are defined by a refusal to do so. They prefer proceduralism and the rule of law to the heroic fantasy of the exception because, as a rule, they don't see politics as a struggle to defeat enemies, but as an attempt to reconcile different interest through appeals to reason.
Wolfe doesn't try to prove that Carl Schmitt influenced the Bush administration -- after all, it's very unlikely that George W. Bush has ever heard of the man. But Wolfe does invite you to notice the similarities between Schmitt's notion of the sovereign declaring exceptions to the rule of law and the American concept of the "unitary executive's" right to wage war unchecked by the other branches of government. He also finds it interesting that many leftists seem to admire the quasi-Nazi Schmitt, and explains that by assuming their desire to destroy ideological enemies. I might add that a revolution would also count as a "state of exception," and that some leftists I've read, particularly Slavoj Zizek, embrace the concept of the exception because they think revolutionary terror may be necessary for "the people" to assert their rightful sovereignty over the state.
Liberalism's opposition to these ideas is a make-or-break stand. Look at it one way and it makes sense if you assume that we all don't have to be enemies despite our disagreements. Wolfe carries that argument in a new direction in the chapter I'm currently reading on religion. But liberals are waging a lot on the assumption that all political or philosophical differences are either reconcilable or manageable through proceduralism, and that society can continue to advance without decisive resolutions of at least some of these differences. I don't know if Wolfe can prove those hypotheses, or whether he thinks it necessary to do so. But I still have about a third of the book to read. We'll see how it all turns out.