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Only Words: Liberalism, Past and Future | The Nation

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Only Words: Liberalism, Past and Future

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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.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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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.

Liberalism is committed to liberty and equality, Wolfe reminds us. When economic inequality is too great, the liberty of the less powerful is diminished. "The freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective." Freedom has material prerequisites. Liberals recognize this; laissez-faire conservatives don't, or don't care.

Wolfe's account of liberalism's substantive commitments is straightforward and persuasive--much the best part of the book. The conservative and libertarian enemies of liberalism have squandered so much wealth and welfare, blighted so many lives, that it is always satisfying to see them intellectually routed yet again. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not stop there. He sees liberalism's enemies, or unreliable friends, everywhere and feels bound to scold them all. Wolfe's spiritual home is The New Republic, and he manifests the same complacent centrism as most of its regular writers (though not--for better and worse--the snarky wit and verbal edge that make the magazine at once irresistible and insufferable). Half The Future of Liberalism is valuable affirmation; the other half is an ideological Syllabus of Errors.

The first and most dangerous heresy that Wolfe rebukes from the pulpit--"the single most influential illiberal current of our time"--is evolutionary psychology. The attempt to view human behavior in Darwinian perspective amounts to "nothing short of a determined campaign to reduce human beings and their accomplishments to insignificance." According to these anti-humanists, humans "rarely accomplish very much independent of what nature has bequeathed to them"; culture is a "side effect," a "by-product," just "one more way in which nature imposes its designs upon us." All this, Wolfe protests, radically undermines liberal morale. Liberalism is about choice and purpose, but the aim of evolutionary psychology "is to show that leading any kind of life we think we are choosing is impossible."

If science really and truly discredited liberalism, then the only honest response would be: so much the worse for liberalism. But, of course, it does not. The distinction between nature and culture that Wolfe brandishes so menacingly is far more subtle and tenuous than he recognizes. His version, like the obsolete distinction between body and soul, implies that we cannot be both purely physical and meaningfully moral. And yet we are. Whatever "free will" means, it does not mean that choices are uncaused. Someday our descendants will emerge from the metaphysical mists, shaking their heads and wondering what all that philosophical fuss was about. Meanwhile, as Wolfe acknowledges, a majority of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are liberals who believe that "it is wrong...to confuse a scientific theory such as evolutionary psychology with a moral and political agenda." Wolfe thinks he knows better. I cannot understand why.

Easier to understand, even if no more persuasive, is Wolfe's antipathy to the "new atheists," that quartet of scoffing skeptics: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Though not overtly religious, Wolfe is a fellow traveler. He recalls liberalism's debts to John Locke and John Leland, the Social Gospel movement and the civil rights movement. He repudiates fundamentalism but also complains that many contemporary believers feel beleaguered. "Nonbelief has historically taken both liberal and illiberal forms, and...much of the resurgence of atheism we have been witnessing in recent years belongs in the latter category."

It is, Bishop Wolfe admonishes these nonbelieving zealots, "a cornerstone of the liberal sensibility to extend rights to those who hold ideas with which you disagree." Well, yes. Don't Hitchens and Harris agree that citizens of a liberal democracy have a right to their beliefs? According to Wolfe, Hitchens "just barely" agrees, and Harris "not at all." They are "intolerant," "closed-minded" and do not believe in "the free exchange of ideas."

As anyone who has read Hitchens's God Is Not Great and Harris's The End of Faith knows, Wolfe cannot mean this, and he does not. What he means is that they do not show their allegedly benighted fellow-citizens sufficient respect. They raise their voices, make fun, jeer. This may be unwise; it is certainly uncharitable. But there is nothing illiberal about it. Liberal equality means (or will mean, if we ever get there) that we all have a chance to be heard during the discussion and all have one vote at the end. To be impatient with superstitious nonsense violates no one's rights--though if Hitchens and Harris are listening, I would recommend a little more patience.

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