‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith
I read an excellent essay this morning on the nature, history, and purported death struggles of liberalism. It clarified many things for me, reminded me of others, and provided a renewed sense of hope and strength in what I believe is a treacherous political period, especially in my home country.
Here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:
“…[T]he meaning of ‘liberalism’ has always been ambiguous. As Montesquieu noted nearly 300 years ago: ‘No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.’ The same might be said about its close relation, liberalism. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writing in 1987, ‘liberalism’ does not describe a unified, coherent political theory but serves as an umbrella for a large family of theories created over the course of several centuries by diverse authors with disparate notions of its meaning, and harbouring no intentions of creating a fully fledged system of governance.
The name ‘liberalism’ has been used to describe systems of governance as distinctive as the French physiocrats’ laissez-faire, the libertarians’ ‘night watchman state’, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the law-ordered state of German Ordoliberals, including Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility. At the same time, ‘classical’ liberals denounce the excesses of the social welfare state for its encroachments on individual liberty and the state-dependency it creates.”
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“…[L]iberalism creates a big tent for many different conceptions of the ‘good life’, in accordance with its commitment to individual choice. Some have seen this feature as a weakness of liberalism. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset could not have disagreed more. Writing at a moment when liberalism’s death was being widely proclaimed in the Western world, he argued in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism should best be defined as ‘the supreme form of generosity’. In liberal regimes, he argued, the majority, which has power on its side, concedes to weaker minorities the right to live on their own terms, thus announcing the determination to share existence with – and respect those – who have a different view of the good society.
That such ‘generosity’ can be a source of real strength is attested by liberalism’s real successes. Late in his life, Popper, a self-described liberal ‘optimist’, named several liberal achievements as undeniable facts. At no other time, and nowhere else, he pointed out in 1986, have human beings been more valued, as individuals, than in liberal societies: ‘Never before have their human rights, and their human dignity, been so respected, and never before have so many been ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.’
Popper was no Dr Pangloss. He did not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did he overlook social problems that persist in liberal societies. But he appreciated that modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create. He believed that such societies create the best conditions for individual development and social improvement”
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“Success itself is a highly ambiguous and contingent concept. It would be inappropriate for the members of a liberal society ever to expect more than a partial success. Given what Immanuel Kant in 1784 called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, liberalism’s ambitions and hopes will always exceed its actual achievements. Moreover, liberal democratic societies remain congenitally unstable and imperfect, in part because of liberalism’s conflicting demands for both more individual autonomy and greater equality. Because of that inherent tension, liberalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.
At the same time, it might be short-sighted to see liberalism’s alleged failures as anything more than partial and temporary ones. Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us, it was no mean accomplishment ‘that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined’ in the course of a long history marked by bloodshed, intolerance and violence.”
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“For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it. Those doubts should cause us to heed, even celebrate, liberalism’s critics for pointing out its real flaws. Less attention should be paid, however, to the loud prophets of liberalism’s demise, who declare the entire liberal project dead or fatally flawed. To the extent that liberalism is about solving problems, if only incrementally, we must continue to conjecture, experiment and refute hypotheses about the best means of maintaining and improving our coexistence on Earth.blockquote
Declaring the ‘death of liberalism’ might trigger alarm bells in the media and help to sell books. But it will not solve any of the real problems that modern liberal societies confront, including the real threats to liberal values about which nearly everyone cares and agrees.”
I hope you enjoy and are as enlightened by this essay as I am!
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