Friday, April 24, 2009

'The Future of Liberalism' is now

Political scientist Alan Wolfe embraces a frayed ideological label

Though you might think so given his support of causes like gay marriage or a single-payer health care system, don't call Alan Wolfe a progressive: He considers himself an unreconstructed liberal. Though he recognizes, even in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, that liberalism "implies unelectability and marginality," Wolfe thinks the image makeover embraced by some of the left is misguided. "'Progressive is the wrong term and the wrong turn," he explains. "By returning us to the days of Woodrow Wilson and others who once adopted the label, it would take liberals back to a political agenda convinced of its own moral superiority and too hostile to civil liberties to serve the needs of an open and dynamic society."

As this assertion implies, Wolfe bristles about as much at political correctness and other forms of ideological orthodoxy as he does evangelical conservatism. It's part of the achievement of this surprisingly sprightly book that he pulls you along on the strength of his temperament as much as the content of his argument.

But does Wolfe mean by the term "liberalism?" He gives three answers: it's a set of policy proposals (in which "as many people as possible have as much say as is feasible in the direction the lives will take"); a set of procedures (rooted in laws, rights, and elections); and a temperament (a disposition of openness and tolerance of dissent). There was a time when liberalism meant loosening the restrictive bonds of religious orthodoxy and government control. In the twentieth century, however, government emerged as the lever by which people's lives can be made better. Over time, religion has become less restrictive; the "free" market less so. Wolfe traces the emergence of this tradition in the Enlightenment -- figures like Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill loom large here, and a big part of the value of the book is in the way it limns the emergence of a coherent, if complex and at times ambivalent, intellectual tradition.

But not the only part. Wolfe, whose previous books include
One Nation, After All (1998), a research-rich study of public opinion, has the great virtue of writing with concrete clarity. So his tour of liberal philosophy is studded with trenchant critiques of libertarian conservatism like this: "You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society's most well-off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years." He responds to Robert Kagan's formulation of as the left-right divide in foreign policy as a matter of Mars versus Venus by asserting that it's more like Apollo versus Dionysius, with neocons as the ones drunk with Romantic dreams of imperial power. And
he revises Richard Weaver's famous 1948 right-wing manifesto Ideas Have Consequences by saying "ideas have some consequences, even important ones, but by themselves their influence is limited. Philosophers can help explain the world. They are unable to direct its course."

But Wolfe can also demonstrate a clear-eyed skepticism toward some of his allies on the left as well. On a subject like immigration, for example, he argues vigorously for relatively open borders. But he also asserts that "liberals should insist that openness is a two-way street"; he regards a multiculturalism as problematic for a liberal vision more appropriately rooted in democratic ideas than ethnic or racial identity. He is a stalwart defender of the welfare state, and believes that giving people economic entitlements no less than civil rights is an indispensable prerequisite for fostering a true spirit of independence. But he also believes that the liberal aversion to making moral judgments about private life can be as problematic as the conservative aversion to regulating public life. He asks, "If the state studiously avoids telling a teenager that promiscuous sexuality is a bad thing, how can it make the case that obligations to the poor and needy are a good thing?" Wolfe is particularly critical of militant secularists like Robert Dawkins and Steven Pinker, and in an arresting inversion of the conventional wisdom, argues that such sociobiologists have much in common with ostensible evangelical opponents like the late Jerry Falwell. Both, Wolfe asserts, have a deterministic view of human nature that allow little room for the sense of human agency that is the hallmark of liberalism -- and the engine powering many of the improvements in the quality of everyday life, from the ending of slavery to providing health care, over the course of the last two centuries.

At the core of Wolfe's affirmation of liberalism is the belief that it, more than any of its ideological competitors, has been best able to adapt to a condition of modernity that has grown out of the emergence of industrial capitalism. And the heart of modernity, Wolfe believes, is a powerful tendency toward social equality, which, he asserts, societies tend to embrace when they get the chance. On the right, conservatives, who don't much like equality, must nevertheless pay it lip service to achieve their objectives (typically by fostering a sense of populist resentment). On the left, socialists and progressives, who believe they know better than the population at large, try to sidestep equality through legal rulings and expertise they claim (not always wrongly, though often arrogantly) serves the interests of all. Wolfe notes that elitism is a characteristic vice of liberals as well, though it's one he believes can be held in check by a commitment to a commitment to liberal proceduralism that even its most bitter opponents instinctively embrace.

It's here, though, that one begins to have intimations of doubt. For one thing, observers across the political spectrum agree that inequality -- certainly economic equality -- has been growing in recent decades, a development which will almost certainly foster other kinds if it hasn't already. But even if one assumes that liberalism has proven itself to be a hardy survivor in the modern world, no regime lasts forever. As Wolfe himself notes, liberalism has many passionate enemies, but liberalism is by definition moderate and skeptical of fervor of almost any kind. That's why, he concludes, liberalism's "biggest challenge is to get liberals to once again
believe in liberalism." But as the religious dissidents so instrumental in the creation of modern liberalism well knew, one doesn't easily arrive at belief through exhortation. Ironically, Alan Wolfe gives us many reasons in this book to feel love and loyalty to a concept that has been very good to many of us for a long time. But his book may be more successful in allowing us to appreciate where we've been than where we're headed.