William F. Buckley Jr., if I recall correctly, once declared wearily that he was determined not to read another book vindicating liberalism or reflecting on its prospects until his grandmother wrote one. Old Billzebub may have been right, for once: liberals do seem peculiarly given to anxious self-examination and self-justification. Still, an uneasy conscience is better than no conscience, which has been the general rule among conservatives since 1980 at least. So let us attend, even if a little wearily, while Alan Wolfe and Jedediah Purdy examine contemporary liberalism’s entrails and peer into its future.
Wolfe is a sociologist of religion and a prolific commentator on American politics and society. His best-known books, including Moral Freedom and One Nation After All, argue convincingly for the existence of a core American morality, compounded of civic virtue and muted, nonsectarian religiosity. He interviewed a great many ordinary people, listened to them sympathetically and perceptively and produced an account of contemporary American moral psychology that was at least as illuminating as the better-known Habits of the Heart.
Wolfe is a public intellectual as well as a scholar, a preacher as well as a scribe. The Future of Liberalism is not a work of intellectual history or political theory, nor is it exactly a sermon, much less a manifesto. Admonitory, authoritative, benign and bland, it resembles a pastoral letter, an encyclical from one of the bishops of the Church of Liberalism, American Synod. “Dearly beloved,” it exhorts us, “lift up your hearts. Our fathers have set our feet upon the path of moderate righteousness. Therefore, let us shun extremism, straying neither to the left nor the right, but instead march together, at all deliberate speed, toward a better–though still necessarily imperfect–world.”
In one respect, at least, The Future of Liberalism is wholly successful. Wolfe has found the perfect epigraph, an austere but luminous passage from a 1934 address by John Dewey titled “The Future of Liberalism.” Because it expresses so well the fundamental premise of Wolfe’s book, it is worth quoting in full:
[Liberalism] knows that an individual is nothing fixed, given ready-made. [Individuality] is something achieved, and achieved not in isolation but with the aid and support of conditions, cultural and physical–including in “cultural,” economic, legal and political institutions as well as science and art. Liberalism knows that social conditions may restrict, distort and almost prevent the development of individuality. It therefore takes an active interest in the working of social institutions that have a bearing, positive or negative, upon the growth of individuals who shall be rugged in fact and not merely in abstract theory. It is as much interested in the positive construction of favorable institutions, legal, political and economic, as it is in removing abuses and overt oppressions.
That liberalism is concerned with both positive and negative liberty, with development as well as freedom–that in fact the traditional distinction between them is oversimplified and misleading–is Wolfe’s guiding conception.
As he puts it in his first chapter, concerned with definitions: “The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” That means, on the one hand, open societies with no more than a necessary minimum of state coercion, and on the other hand, a guarantee of “sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent on the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life.” As this definition makes admirably clear, conservatives and libertarians are simply one-handed liberals, opposed to restraints on economic activity but unconcerned about those unable, for whatever reason, to take part in economic activity on equal terms.