a case for liberalism

Prominent people like Cass Sunstein and Samuel Moyn are publishing manifestos for–or at least about–liberalism, evidently responding to heightened critiques from both right and left.

The word “liberalism” has many meanings and is applied retrospectively to authors who lived before it was even coined; therefore, it lacks a clear and detailed definition. Instead, it names a field of debate with debatable outer bounds.

But most classical liberal texts are at least about the same topic: how best to design authoritative institutions, such as governments or schools. Typically, liberals argue that the individuals most affected by such institutions must hold enforceable rights and entitlements–cards that they can play to obtain things or to block actions against themselves.

Liberalism is biased in favor of making such rights extensive and equal. Although not everyone can hold the maximum conceivable rights, liberals are skeptical about goods that could compete with rights in general, such as religious values or the intrinsic worth of the state or the group.

In order to make rights enforceable, liberals advocate a mix of institutional safeguards, such as limited powers for leaders, rule-of-law, and universal suffrage–with varying recipes, depending on the flavor of liberalism. Another major dimension of debate within liberalism is whether to include positive rights or entitlements, and if so, what they should be.

Liberal ideas are sometimes grounded in ambitious philosophical views, such as a Kantian notion of autonomy. But liberals’ philosophical premises vary, and one can also arrive at liberal principles pragmatically, believing that rights must be safeguarded to avoid disaster.

I often think about the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At first it advocated equality and a certain kind of freedom in a very radical way, eschewing individual rights and constitutional limits as obstacles to revolutionary change. While retaining its official charter and passing power from fathers to sons within the party, it evolved from radical egalitarianism to rapacious capitalism and then to a kind of statist corporatism, all during my lifetime. Chairman Mao’s successor belongs to a family with $300 million in personal assets. This shift happened because goals and missions hardly ever trump institutional design. Liberals recommend the fundamental design-principle of using individual rights to limit rulers. Since the CCP’s leaders were never limited by rights, they altered their values to advance their interests.

My sense is that when people are focused on designing or reforming authoritative institutions, many are attracted to liberal design principles. Not everyone: for example, Maoists are explicitly opposed, as are Catholic integralists. But quite a wide range of thinkers and activists, when they consider institutional design, will endorse limited powers and enforceable rights and will envision individuals as the literal bearers of rights, even if they are concerned about structural injustices against social groups and even if they aim for social or economic equality.

However, many people do not think about the design or reform of institutions. To some extent, this is understandable. There are other ways to change the world. Social and cultural movements often seek to alter people’s beliefs, values, and identities. That work can be effective and important. If it is your main mode of political action, then you may not naturally think about who should hold which enforceable rights against whom. Although your own civil rights may be helpful, similar rights for other people can pose obstacles to your cause. Thus we see lots of people endorsing freedom of speech for me but not for thee. A charitable interpretation is that they are not focused on designing or running institutions that establish general rules about speech; they are using their own speech to change mentalities.

If you are deeply invested in a social movement that aims to change hearts and minds, then perhaps constitutional issues are not your problem. You’re not asking to be a federal judge. Likewise, no one says you have to be the Dean of Student Affairs, deciding which forms of protest are allowable on a campus. You can just protest.

On the other hand, we may be called upon to make decisions that are primarily about institutional design. For example, the outcome of the 2024 US election may cause dramatic changes in rights, enforcement mechanisms, and powers. When the question is whether or how to change the basic rules, our answers should be relevant to those rules. And I believe that the good answers fall within the broad boundaries of liberalism.

Some activists may be skeptical that institutions will change for the better, or optimistic about social transformation through informal channels, or so anti-authoritarian as to be against institutions and leaders per se. They may see rules as mainly constraints to be wielded against themselves, or they may feel morally superior to the people who hold offices and make compromises and decisions with limited resources.

In the US context, pessimism is understandable; our system is remarkably static and resistant to change. Many people have long experience with being mistreated and have learned to be skeptical. But such attitudes can be self-reinforcing and disempowering–they can block people from pursuing strategies that involve institutions and can dissuade them from trying to lead institutions. In any case, liberalism does not require trust; quite the contrary, it is a way of institutionalizing mistrust.

See also: introducing republicanism; from classical liberalism to a civic perspective; the core of liberalism; what defines conservatism?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.