The Future of Liberalism

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In contemporary political discourse, ideological labels such as liberalism, progressivism, conservatism, socialism, and libertarianism are used in many different ways, and these differences result in considerable misunderstandings. In the United States, the label “liberal” is commonly used as a synonym for “left-wing,” just as “conservative” usually denotes “right-wing.” Americans utilize these two labels in reference to a great variety of controversial issues, including social programs, abortion rights, constitutional interpretations, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, economic regulations, deficit spending, and separation of church and state. In European countries, where the concept of socialism enjoys more popularity, people tend to speak of “the Left” and “the Right,” usually reserving the term “liberal” to denote free-market economic policies that would be classified as conservative in the United States.

In The Future of Liberalism, Alan Wolfe makes a helpful distinction among three overlapping aspects of liberalism: the first focuses on temperament, the second on substance, and the third on procedure. The concept of a liberal temperament relates to psychological characteristics, such as tolerance and empathy toward others. Concerning the substance of liberalism, Wolfe writes that the core principle is that “as many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take”a democratic principle that logically implies commitments to two values: liberty and equality. He observes that this principle mandates legal protections for individual rights and freedoms, including the right to advocate reactionary and conservative policies that liberals hate. Liberalism is not anarchism, but while liberals accept the necessity for authority, they insist that constraints should be established “by people themselves through some form of consent or interdependence.”

From the perspective of procedures, both political and judicial, Wolfe writes that liberals are committed to the goals of fairness and impartiality and that they support constitutional forms of limited government that guarantee free elections and due process. He believes, moreover, that they usually oppose special privileges and exceptions to established rules. While acknowledging that many procedural rules are not necessarily incompatible with political conservatism, he observes that conservatives are much more willing to accept compromises based on expenses and pragmatic considerations. In criminal trials, for example, the majority of liberals have insisted on strict application of the exclusionary rule, which requires that illegally acquired evidence must be excluded from the trial. Conservatives, in contrast, typically look upon this procedural rule as a “judge-invented” technicality that obstructs law enforcement, and they become furious whenever it allows a guilty and dangerous person to escape punishment.

Most thinking persons mix the two ideologies, expressing liberal views on some issues while taking conservative positions on other topics. Despite the complexity of individual persons, however, Wolfe insists that liberalism constitutes a coherent ideology and that it provides the most viable option for the twenty-first century. In his view, the ideology is characterized by a set of at least seven “dispositions”: the assumption that people are capable of growth and progress; a bias in favor of equality; a preference for a sober sense of realism; an inclination toward rational deliberation; a commitment to tolerance, even for persons who are intolerant; an openness toward diversity and alternative ideas; and a favorable view of governance, based on the belief that elected officials can fashion intelligent policies in the interest of the common good. Wolfe argues that these dispositions were primarily products of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, making their political debut in the period between 1787 and 1815. “For all the talk about how the Enlightenment project failed,” he writes, “we live with the consequences of the Enlightenment all around us.”

In the realm of political economics, theorists have long distinguished between “classical” and “modern” versions of liberalism. Adam Smith, the “quintessential classical liberal,” advocated a minimal state that would maintain low taxes and provide very little regulation of the economy. Such an ideology, which basically aligns with modern American libertarianism, remains the most common definition of the term “liberalism” in Europe. In the United States, by contrast, persons called “liberals” tend to endorse British economist John Maynard Keynes’s approach, which emphasizes the benefits of governmental spending and other forms of economic intervention.

Wolfe, however, attempts to minimize the difference between classical and modern liberalism. Viewed historically, he argues that Smith and other eighteenth century liberals...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The American Spectator 42, no. 4 (May, 2009): 73-76.

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 6.

Commentary 127, no. 3 (March, 2009): 59-62.

Dissent 56, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 128-131.

The Economist 390, no. 8617 (February 7, 2009): 75-76.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 24 (December 15, 2008): 1300.

Library Journal 134, no. 3 (February 15, 2009): 121-122.

The Nation 288, no. 18 (May 11, 2009): 32-36.

National Review 61, no. 4 (March 9, 2009): 44-45.

New Criterion 27, no. 7 (March, 2009): 4-9.

The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 2009, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 41 (October 13, 2008): 43.

The Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2009, p. A17.

Weekly Standard 14, no. 34 (May 25, 2009): 30-33.

The Wilson Quarterly 33, no. 2 (Spring, 2009): 110-111.