Monday, April 14, 2008

Why I Am/Am Not a Liberal

Guest post:

I am taking the unique stance of simultaneously embracing and rejecting "liberalism." This is not simply an ironic pose, however. The difficulty lies in the term. Labels stand as convenient representations of abstract concepts. But over-generalization can cause a lot of trouble. Hence, as a "traditional Christian," I find myself

1) rejecting theological liberalism;
2) partially accepting political liberalism;
3) accepting economic liberalism.

The problem is that liberalism has been applied to many different things by many different people across the political spectrum.

In ancient times, to be liberal meant to be magnanimous. It also implied a liberty of means. A sufficiency of power and goods was needed in order to freely exercise one's generosity. We see an expansion of this idea with regard to the liberal arts. This term referred to the education appropriate for a freeman (as opposed to a slave or serf).

I am not sure when "liberal" began to take on modern connotations. Certainly by the late 16th century, liberty was a leading theme in European society. Part of this grew out of the Reformation, with the idea of individual "religious liberty" and the rejection of the ancient hierarchy and teaching authority of the Church. For more about theological liberalism, see this article from the old Catholic Encyclopedia. I think a lot of conservatives would favor the critique of liberalism as a kind of substitute faith; however, my main focus here is not on the religious side.

Over time liberalism also referred to the advocacy of political liberty. But there has always been ambiguity about this. Sometimes this was favored by radicals. On the other hand, consider the Italian Cardinal Robert Bellarmine who, in the name of religious conservatism, promoted a degree of political liberalism. In De laicis ("A Treatise on Civil Government") he opposed the tyrannical theory of the "divine right of kings" and advanced the idea of government by consensus of the governed. By that same token, the absolutism of Henry VIII was actually very progressive for its day, advancing the "benign despot" view of power that was popular up through the Enlightenment.

I am therefore a "classical liberal" in politics, as regards the methods. But I am a conservative in rejecting complete and unrestrained liberty. Liberty is a means to certain ends. It is not an autonomous concept. It must be defined and governed by some higher human purpose. Liberty, after all, implies free will and the ability to do good or evil. Without liberty we would be robots (of the sort proposed by Rousseau and Marx). We need freedom in order to exercise virtue, whether for the benefit of ourselves or others. But the fact remains that we have the ability to act badly.

In classic terms, politics is the prudential achievement of certain social aims. This also involves a degree of pragmatism. If my aim is justice, liberty and stability, then I will seek out whatever form of government can fulfill this. I may find that a moderate, representational republicanism is better than monarchy. By that same token, there are times when a monarchy is preferable to a democracy (e.g., Russia or Germany in the early 20th century). As John Henry Newman said in regard to matters of polity: "It is no principle with sensible men, of whatever cast of opinion, to do always what is abstractedly best."

Insofar as being "liberal" refers to a way of employing and advancing rational liberty for the individual, I agree with it. That is why I accept the broad concept of economic liberalism, about which there are huge misconceptions. The intellectual conflict of the 18th and 19th centuries suffered from this confusion as well. Traditionalists (rightly) condemned moral liberalism but they sometimes (mistakenly) condemned aspects of political or economic liberty. It didn't help that there were people advancing both "liberalism" and "anti-liberalism" to promote their own vested interests. A few sagacious thinkers, like Alexis de Tocqueville, hit the right balance and discriminated between good and bad aspects of liberalism.

To mistake labels for realities is a form of unthinking reaction. Concepts should stand or fall on their own merits. To give an example, some conservatives today have become so fixated on combating "Western liberalism" that they have actually allied themselves with leftists and proponents of totalitarianism. As a result their "conservatism" has been surrendered for a mess of pottage. It has ceased to conserve those values which it set out to protect and instead has become their enemy.

To push the paradox to its ultimate conclusion, liberalism needs conservatism in order to work. Certain things must be maintained and even restricted if meaningful liberties are to be exercised. Complete liberty would destroy the security and trust by which normal economic and political freedom is obtained.

In conclusion, it might be better if we treated "liberal" and "conservative" as viewpoints for the sensible individual in given situations, and instead use terms like "radical" and "reactionary" as the improper and extreme expressions of these ideas. I only suggest it of course. In the meantime, we'll just have to make use of the old labels... while adding the appropriate qualifications.