02 January 2019

What is liberalism?

One day after making my resolution to study political philosophy more closely, I found the latest New York Review of Books in my mailbox with David A. Bell's essay, "The Many Lives of Liberalism." Bell reviews three recent scholarly volumes that attempt to reconstruct the history of liberalism informed by a new consciousness of its fragility at a time when, as the reviewer claims, demagogues on the right and left argue that liberalism is "too fragile" or "too weak" to protect ordinary people from disruptive forces operating on a global scale. Anxieties over illiberal populism have been added to recent progressive skepticism toward liberalism's usefulness toward egalitarian ends. The authors under review tend to draw distinctions between a still-useful liberal tradition rooted in continental Europe and a purported "liberal tradition" that proves to be a Cold War construct privileging Anglo-American concerns with property rights and laissez faire principles. Continental liberalism has its flaws, particularly an elitist sense of entitlement to instruct the masses, but thanks to the French Revolution it's more firmly committed to equality, at least when it comes to political participation, as a primary goal.

On another front, a "preservationist" tradition premised on inalienable human rights butts constantly against the Hobbesian view that political citizenship requires a surrender of "natural rights," if not unconditional and perpetual submission to authority. Bell himself seems most pleased with Dan Edelstein's project, which describes a consistent assertion of transnational human rights dating back to the Middle Ages, including the French Physiocratic thinkers who so greatly influenced Jefferson. The egalitarian implications of all this are limited by an equally consistent commitment to property rights, but Bell's own ideal allows for a balance of imperatives, combining economic liberty with a strong safety net. These books leave him satisfied that "the liberal ideal has a much richer, deeper, more varied past than [readers] might imagine from accounts that stress only the supposed Anglo-American path to 'classical' liberalism." His account leaves me wondering what liberals, classical or continental, think about why political societies exist and how that informs their range of beliefs in what individuals should expect from political life or should expect to do as citizens. Beyond a presumed agreement that leaders shouldn't abuse power and should be called out without consequences when  they do, it's hard -- forgivably so in this case -- to understand whether liberalism says anything coherent about the obligations upon individuals inherent in citizenship. That's why I think it important to go back to the question of why individuals call political entities into being and whether liberalism as we or others know it has anything actually to do with that fundamental decision.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"liberalism's usefulness toward egalitarian ends."

The problem, of course, is that humanity is far from being ready for any system of true egalitarianism. The BEST we can offer - and already do - is equality before the law. People will probably never treat one another truly as equals, and I have to posit on what basis they would do so to begin with.
I don't accept any argument based on a notion of "human rights" or "natural rights". Unless, of course, the arguer can provide concrete evidence of an intelligence that grants and guarantees such rights.