Politics & Media
Aug 28, 2023, 05:57AM

Classical Liberalism: Back, Again, With Even More Theory

The cobbled-together ideology is ill-suited to achieve visionary inspiration.

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Classical liberalism, the philosophy and the semi-popular ideology, is in revival now, as always. Yale Professor Samuel Moyn is one of many bemoaning liberalism's alleged retreat in the face of its current foil, "right-wing populism," as well as against newly ascendent religious traditionalisms such as Patrick Deneen's. Moyn says that liberalism needs to return to its "visionary" and "optimistic" pre-cold-war roots. But even Moyn's basic formulations of liberalism—"limited government, personal freedom and the rule of law"—show some of the PR problems that would likely persist even if all liberals said what Moyn wants them to.

Classical liberalism is a compromise position. It demands individual liberty—and rule of law. It rests ultimate power in the hands of "the people,” but it’s a political philosophy of professors whose advocates in their hearts demand rule by experts. It’s passionately egalitarian, yet compatible with economic and political hierarchies. In short, it’s a mess, and an uninspiring one. It makes no commitment that it doesn't temper or qualify. The sales problem is intrinsic to the product.

Some political ideologies are theorized more thoroughly and systematically than others. There was a fair amount of pro-divine-right-of-kings literature, for example, but it's not as popular as it once was, though maybe we're catching echoes in the new religious conservativism of people like Deneen. Marxism was invented by a philosopher and has generated a vast theoretical literature, albeit of mixed quality, a lot of it constrained by party orthodoxies. Fascism is a wacky conceptual mess cobbled together from random elements like bigotry, cult of personality, extreme nationalism, state capitalism. Here, you could call up the specters of Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger, though if they were trying to give fascism philosophical underpinnings, they didn't exactly say so, and their philosophies are distant from politics on the ground.

But no political ideology has received the gigantic and distinct conceptual defenses associated with classical liberalism. The originating statement is John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, and it boasts historical advocates of the caliber of Immanuel Kant, James Madison, John Stuart Mill, and some of the 20th-century's most intimidating and systematic thinkers, in particular John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. It's in revival yet again in a number of recent books.

It’s an amazing philosophical record, and these intellects have torn all human life and culture down to their very foundations and argued for liberalism from the ground up, apparently employing no assumptions. Never has as much sheer intellectual wattage been devoted to a single project, except maybe quantum mechanics. Locke, Mill, Rawls, and Habermas establish classical liberalism, once and for all decisively and against all comers, in completely separate ways. Classical liberalism is either the best defended position ever taken, or else it’s so indefensible that a systematic genius will have to arise yet again, to defend it for another 3000 pages.

We might characterize this position along the following lines: (1) people are equal, and this should be construed to mean that they have equal intrinsic value and each has the same bundle of (2) individual rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. (3) The legitimacy and power of the state rests on the consent of the governed (possibly expressed as a social contract), or "the people" are the bottom-line political authority. (4) Liberalism eschews direct democracy (legislating by direct popular vote, for example) in favor of representative institutions that filter the popular will through elite or educated opinion. (5) Some form of modified capitalist or democratic socialist economy regulated by an administrative state governed by experts. (6) "Rule of law," which will take some explaining.

I'm an anarchist. If I criticize liberalism, I'm not doing it from the religious or conservative points of view from which people like Chandler and Moyn defend it. I think there are terrible problems with classical liberalism, but I think it’s far preferable to many of its alternatives, including Marxism and fascism. This is partly due to its mildness; it's kind of a compromise position, asking, how can we have both liberty and order? This is a fundamental political problem, though perhaps the formulation already bends us toward certain answers.

The basic problems of liberalism from my point of view run along these lines: We endorse human equality foursquare. But how much equality can we really achieve practically in the sort of bureaucratic hierarchy that we envision? That's how much we recommend. No value is put forward that isn’t qualified. Laws can't really rule, and agents of the state are exempted from various laws by definition.

Rawls argued that If people were completely rational and had no ethnic, gender, religious, or other identities to distract them, they would settle on classical liberalism. I recommend you read Rawls's A Theory of Justice and see whether you can take inspiration from the driest, most hypothetical prose the world has ever known, and then think about whether creatures such as ourselves should be worried about what Rawls-designed-personswould decide if they had their own planet.

Habermas argues that the basic conditions of human communication—the presuppositions of the very possibility of our having a genuine conversation—entail that classical liberalism is true. As soon as you say a few words, you’resupposing that you’re free to speak and your interlocutor to reply. You’re assuming a structure of "communicative rationality" of the sort that, Habermas thinks, entails that the European Union is a good idea. As you might imagine, it has taken him hundreds of thousands of words to almost get there. He's 94, so I don't know how he's grappling with communication in its current forms, which don't seem to be heading in his direction.

I'm not sure how, exactly, to advise my liberal friends on how to improve the PR. An anarchist or an authoritarian can give you very plain answers and very passionate commitments, problematic though they be. An anarchist authoritarian, or someone who shares the basic values of both of those sides, or who's trying to cobble together the insights of two contradictory positions, and doing it in the most intellectually sophisticated way imaginable, is just not going to have the same emotive or persuasive effects. Liberalism is dull, in both senses: not sharp and cutting, and very boring, as Rawls and Habermas show.

Saying the word "visionary" isn't going to help. Neither is another million-word foundational justification. Perhapsliberalism is the best we can do. But I really don't think so.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell



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