intellectual roots of liberalism (continued)

Yesterday, I responded to a comment by Jacob T. Levy. He has since posted more (including a response to me)–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For a month now, influential bloggers have been discussing why liberals don’t seem to prize and utilize their own intellectual tradition as much modern conservatives do. The whole conversation was started in a critical vein by Jonah Golberg.

I think that what we call “liberalism” is not a coherent ideology. It is rather an effort to balance a set of conflicting principles. It combines majority rule, protection for individual rights against the state, a minimum level of welfare to be guaranteed by the government, pluralism and an independent civil society, individual choice, disciplined organizations (such as unions), prosperity (created by allowing the market to allocate investments), some redistribution via taxation, environmental protection, neutrality about the good life, and state sponsorship of scholarship, natural assets, and high culture. Does this combination amount to “intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism”? Or is it defensible?

I think liberalism is highly defensible–indeed, preferable to any purer alternative. It’s the result of more than a century of problem-solving and “experiential learning” by a democratic people. We Americans decided that censorship is a problem, so we invented a solution: the modern First Amendment. We viewed poverty and early death as problems, so we invented Social Security and Medicaid. There’s been a constant cycle of identifying problems, proposing solutions, experimenting in the real world, and debating the results.

Libertarians want to set limits on this debate, perhaps even amend or reinterpret the Constitution to forbid popular state action. Marxists view public debate as badly distorted by inequality. They also see it as unnecessary, because their theory tells them what we need to do. In deliberate contrast to laissez-faire conservatives and Marxists, my heroes in the Progressive Era defined themselves as experimental democrats.

Pragmatism is not an adequate political theory. We can’t just do “what works” without having either (a) criteria for good outcomes, or (b) procedures for deciding what we value. If we opt for procedures, then they must reflect some principles or values other than pragmatism itself. Progressives like Jane Addams, John Dewey, Louis Brandeis, and Robert M. La Follette combined pragmatism with a strong commitment to political equality and freedom of debate.

Even if pragmatism isn’t adequate, it still teaches a very important lesson. As Dewey wrote:

There is no more an inherent sanctity in a church, trade-union, business corporation, or family institution than there is in the state. Their value is … to be measured by their consequences. The consequences vary with concrete conditions; hence at one time and place a large measure of state activity may be indicated and at another time a policy of quiescence and laissez-faire. … There is no antecedent universal proposition which can be laid down because of which the functions of a state should be limited or should be expanded. Their scope is something to be critically and experimentally determined. … The person who holds the doctrine of `individualism’ or `collectivism’ has his program determined for him in advance. It is not with him a matter of finding out the particular thing which needs to be done and the best way, under the circumstances, of doing it.

I think this kind of pragmatism is fundamental to the Progressive Era and the New Deal–what we call “liberalism.” If “liberals” are highly pragmatic, then it is no wonder that they rarely cite great theoretical works in making their arguments. Thus I disagree in part with Jacob Levy. He explains that conservatives and libertarians were forced to refine their theories because they were “shut out of power” for a half century, while the center-left could put its energy “into actually doing stuff in government or on the courts.” I think that “doing stuff” is the essence of what we Americans called “liberalism” during the 20th century. Progressives and New Dealers were pragmatic experimentalists even in periods (such as the twenties) when they were shut out of power. Meanwhile, the American center-right has been consistently concerned with political theory, because what we call “conservatism” is heavily influenced by classical liberalism, which is a coherent (if unrealistic) political theory.

(By the way, our terminology is a nightmare. Today’s conservatives are actually classical liberals, and modern liberals make Burkean conservative arguments in favor of preserving the welfare state.)

In a blog posting and an article in The American Prospect, Mark Schmitt (“the Decembrist”) lists some thinkers whom liberals should read today: Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Daniel Bell. [Revision, 4/28: I don’t think that Mark means this list to be a canon of the greatest liberal thinkers, nor is it a syllabus that liberals ought to work through; Mark simply offers a few examples to demonstrate that there are major historical thinkers on the center-left who continue to provoke constructive thinking. With that in mind, let me discuss his examples briefly …]

I’ve cited Dewey here. He’s a frustrating writer–vague just want you want him to be precise–but he epitomizes the spirit of experimentation and learning that is central to Progressive politics. Croly was influential mainly for arguing that America needed a strong federal government and a concomitant sense of national community. I don’t see Croly’s nationalism as essentially leftist; there have been Progressive proponents of localism as well as conservative centralizers (such as John Ashcroft). Therefore, as important as he was historically, I wouldn’t cite Croly as a great Progressive or expect today’s left to learn much from him. Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Bell are all concrete thinkers rather than abstract philosophers–a virtue, in my opinion.

Finally, Rawls has come up a lot in this conversation, starting here. Here’s my take. By the time Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice, liberals had engaged in 70 years of debate about the proper role of the state power in a modern economy. They had developed a miscellaneous set of institutions that were sometimes in fruitful conflict, ranging from an activist Supreme Court to an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies to the AFL-CIO. Rawls was like a rapporteur who observed the results of this long conversation and said, “This is what you mean, in essence.” His contribution was important, but it could never replace the history of experimentation and adjustment that had created a liberal society in the first place.

Finally, I’d like to say that my own complaint about modern progressivism is not its weak basis in political theory, but rather its flagging commitment to pragmatic experimentation. Such institutions as public schools and labor unions are starting to have “inherent sanctity” for liberals, which betrays the spirit of 20th century Progressivism.

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2 Responses to intellectual roots of liberalism (continued)

  1. Hellmut Lotz says:

    Dear Peter,

    I enjoyed your blog on the experimental nature of liberalism. I agree with this assessment. There are basic features of human nature that render the deductive design of social institutions undesirable.

    The libertarian hope for perfect markets is at least theoretically justified. As long as costs and benefits of action accrue to economic actors, markets coordinate self- and collective interest perfectly. Selfish individuals contribute to society without coercion as long as they get paid. But the benevolent effects of markets cannot satisfy human needs entirely because markets do not nurture. Compared to other species human beings require a lot of nurture. In hunter and gatherer societies children need to be nurtured at least for twelve years. In postindustrial societies it may take more than twenty five years before people finish a graduate education. As dependency rather than exchange is the characteristic of nurturing children it is impossible to restrain selfishness reliably. Therefore institutions that can provide the nurture that the human species requires are open to abuse. The Janus faced nature of nurturing institutions is unavoidable. Family, the institution that enables the survival of human offspring, also does tremendous damage in terms of child abuse. It is no different with government and organized religion.

    Given that humans are an altricious rather than a precocious species we cannot escape dependance on the family. What about institutions beyond the family? For one thing, given the potential for familial abuse it is useful to have other institutions that families have to answer to with respect to the treatment of their off-spring. Unfortunately, any such institution will open the door for its particular abuse. More importantly, humans are not only an altricious but also a neotenous species. Neoteny refers to the fact that human adults retain the childish characteristics of other primate species. Human neoteny manifests itself most importantly in the play instinct, which is the foundation of innovation including the arts, technology, science and research. For the human species the play instinct the pay-off is tremendous. On the other hand, because the probability of failed innovation is high and benefits manifest themselves often only in the long term individuals would be hard pressed to sustain themselves in the exchange environment of the market. Childlike innovators require childlike nurture. The preservation of innovation requires institutions that interposition themselves between markets and inventive individuals. These institutions may include corporations, patronage, organized religion, and government.

    The bottom line is that there is an inescapable dilemma: Non-market institutions will always open the door to the most horrible abuse but without them humans can neither sustain the species nor acquire any of the benefits of humanity. There is no institutional equilibrium that can be deductively obtained. Therefore we shall always have to evaluate the performance of social institutions on the spot, which is how I understand your call for rigorous experimentation. This also means that there is no structural escape from virtue. No matter how well we design institutions there will always be the need for virtuous individuals that take it upon themselves to keep humanity accountable. These individuals need to combine the childish playing drive with the most mature of all characteristics: a high capacity for empathy.

  2. futurstan123 says:

    Great Post. I agree that it’s a good thing 20th Century liberalism is more focused on concrete proposals rather than abstract philosophies, especially compared to philosophies that have been packaged and marketed for casual mass consumption like we’re seeing with modern conservatism. I do wonder, though, whether or not the left would be better off with a more high-profile and robust abstract philosophical debate to go along with its discussions over what specifically our government should do….Not just so that there’s some sort of response to the never-ending debates in political philosophy that are always going to be taking place in a democracy, but also as a way to stimulate new thought and ideas within the left and find common ground with other political theories. Who knows, the more philosophical common ground the Left and the Right discover they have, the more likely we might be able to find majority support for specific solutions.

    If the Left actually began developing an explicate philosophy (or set of related, competing philosophies), I’d like to think it wouldn’t get stuck with the kind of unbalanced, rigid dogma we’re seeing on the Right these days. But, like you were suggesting with the developing inherenct sanctity of public schools and unions, I don’t see why that couldn’t happen, especially with the success we’ve seen with philosophy-lite branding of simple concepts (like “lower taxes=good).

    So, since I think the “spirit of experimentalism and learning” is so vital for any political theory, important to sacrifice for the sake of developing a robust political theory for the left (I don’t think any theory could be robust enough to provide all the answers we’ll need) maybe the Left could start developing a coherent set of principles around that very idea.

    For example, I’d like to see a set of principles that combines both the intellectual honesty and philosophy of the scientific method with an idealism that encourages and celebrates the value of greater public engagement in the process of self-government. I guess this kind of philosophical starting point is even more abstract than many of the existing philosophies, but maybe that kind of compromise can balance the need for political proposals based on concrete realities AND some sort of guiding philosophy that people can latch onto. At the very least, by having a core philosophy that focuses more on how we approach the task of effective self-government and includes the need for a constant learning and change within the governing theory, the Left could present an attractive political alternative that contains plenty of principles that intuitive ring true to voters but is still flexible enough to provide the solutions we can find for real problems.

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