30 April 2009

Liberalism's Future

Liberals can be stereotyped as the people who can't help seeing both sides of every question, or those who are too easily impressed by other people's vehemence, but Alan Wolfe says they need more self-confidence and more pride in liberalism. Those are his parting words at the end of The Future of Liberalism, which is really more a statement of what liberalism is and has been than a program for the future. Because Wolfe identifies liberalism with a capacious openness, and as a proceduralist puts means before ends, it's kind of hard for him to have a program. The most he can do is offer suggestions on how to deal with the obvious issues of the future.

Openness comes into the picture when he discusses religion, immigration and globalization. Predictably enough, he comes down on the mean old atheists who can't see anything of value coming from religious faith. He knocks Hitchens, Dawkins et al for intolerant arrogance and makes much of the fact that some people are led to liberalism by religious conviction. Wolfe claims greater acquaintance with believers and from his experience argues that, in many cases, "their faith had made them far better people, bringing them out of lives of cynicism and loneliness into communion with others," adding, "A society without religious people of this sort would be far more illiberal than one with only a few of them." As for the other kind of religious folk, possibly the majority of them, Wolfe thinks they make good sparring partners. They "give liberals the opportunity to prove just how liberal they are, an opportunity that liberals would be foolish to sacrifice" (184-5).

As far as immigration is concerned, Wolfe at least acknowledges that openness should be mutual. Americans should be open to people from different cultures, but the newcomers should be open to their new host culture. "If the native-born refuse to reach out to newcomers, racism and xenophobia follow," he warns, "But if the newcomers do not reach out to the native-born, exclusion and isolation follow"(206). Wolfe disagrees with "multiculturalists" who believe in preserving the inviolate integrity of every different group, since everyone should be open to change. By extension, assimilation would also be a mutual process, with Americans learning something, one presumes, from Muslim cultures as Muslim immigrants Americanize themselves. In any event, Wolfe would refuse to dismiss any particular group as hopeless or worthless.

On a related point, Wolfe is more enthusiastic about globalization than some liberals. He believes it should be embraced (but regulated) because of the opportunities it creates for everyone. He seems to reject the idea that opportunity for foreigners is automatically a loss for Americans, but admits that globalization can be "as wrenching as it is liberating." Taking a utilitarian view, he suggests that more people on Earth are better off thanks to globalization than they were in the past, and that therefore globalization is good -- again, as long as it is wisely regulated with democratic input. Liberalism must be cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic, however, so denying opportunity to others to protect one's own would be taboo to Wolfe.

Alan Wolfe doesn't speak for an existing liberal establishment. He's tried to define what a true liberal movement should stand for, not what today's self-styled American liberals actually espouse. He sometimes sounds like what some would call a "neo-liberal," and takes positions most professed liberals would oppose, for instance favoring school choice for everyone as a matter of equality. Wolfe's book would be an admirable blueprint for a global liberal movement, but liberals in any given country must please their fellow citizens first in order to get political power. He makes a good case that liberals are almost automatically more competent rulers than Bushite republicans (Hurricane Katrina being exhibit A), but in the absence of a global parliament, liberals anywhere will have to compromise their cosmopolitan principles for the sake of national interests. A more realistic prediction of the future of liberalism would try to recommend the appropriate compromises, but Wolfe seems to prefer the ideal to the real when it comes to the present world. A book like this has its uses, but anyone who reads it must be prepared to argue with it -- and Wolfe, being a liberal, won't mind.


Anonymous said...

It's not self-confidence that liberals lack - it's backbone. They are too afraid of confrontation and will almost always back off rather than deal with a face-to-face confrontation with conservatives.

Other problems I see is that liberals are far too soft on crime. Understandably, if one wants to eliminate crime, one needs to discover the root causes and eliminate them as well, but liberals MUST understand there are certain criminals who do what they do, not out of necessity, but out of perversity. These sort of criminals MUST be dealt with harshly.

A third problem with liberals is along the same line as Bill Clinton - they want to be loved. Or at least accepted. This is most obvious when discussing issues such as welfare. They don't seem to understand that some people who are against welfare simply believe that people have a responsibility to take care of themselves, rather than to rely on the state and by extension, on the taxpayers who pay for the state.

As far as globalization, we need to understand that, because it is up to the state to provide a framework of order to create a culture and society that is civilized, until we are ALL ready to accept the idea of a global government, globalization will not be successful. If we are to have one race - the human race - we must have one common law to facilitate order, and one common language to facilitate communication. Until that happens, globalization is bound to cause more problems than it solves.

Samuel Wilson said...

It may not suprise you to learn that Wolfe doesn't discuss crime very much. On welfare, he endorses the Clinton-era reforms because he thinks liberals should encourage people to be autonomous instead of permanently dependent, but he doesn't want to do away with the welfare state altogether, and he thinks it proof of liberal success in the 20th century that conservatives don't really dare try to get rid of it.

Anonymous said...

It's not possible at this point to simply get rid of welfare without watching the crime rate skyrocket and taxes as well to pay for all the new prisons that would be needed to deal with it (not to mention cops, correction officers, bureaucrats to handle the paperwork.)