Liberalism? Which Soul?
[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998 ©
Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]
The Growth of the Liberal Soul, by David Walsh. Columbia,
Missouri, and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997. 386 pp. $39.95.
David Walsh’s most recent book puts him squarely into the discussion
about whether "liberalism" or the "liberal soul" is worth defending.
In recent years this topic has been treated by academ-ic luminaries Alan
Ryan, Stephen Holmes, John Gray, John Rawls, and William Galston. While
Walsh covers at least some of the same ground as these other authors, his
treatment differs from most of theirs owing to his view of liberalism as
a distillation of inherited values. Having come down to us out of a civilizational
past, these values now inform human dispositions and outlooks. In this
respect Walsh stands farthest from self-described liberals Galston, Rawls,
and Holmes, who stress the disjunction between liberal attitudes and institutions
and what preceded them historically. Whether Walsh, a devotee of Eric Voegelin,
will accept this association or not, there is a good deal of Hegel rattling
around in his work. His stress on a composite and historically shaped liberal
tradition recalls the writings of the liberal and centrist Hegelians of
the last century and the works of Croce in our own. The reason such an
approach is rejected by Galston, Rawls, and Holmes is that contemporary
"liberals" need a rootless liberalism as a basis for social experiment.
Their improvised Lockeanism, with imaginary states of nature or preferred
beginning points leading into Bill Clinton’s America, allow them to assign
"liberal" to whatever it pleases them to designate as such.
Walsh, by contrast, underlines the classical, Hebraic, and Christian
foundations of the liberalism emerging in the postmedieval world. He clearly
understands that ideas do not develop ex nihilo, and that it is
reasonable to trace the classical liberalism of the West to an older formative
civilization. Unlike, for example, Galston and Rawls, he insists on the
need for a religious dimension in making liberalism humane and in drawing
it beyond an often self-contradictory skepticism. Although Walsh does not
address this problem directly, he is aware of the tendency among contemporary
"liberal democrats" to impose their judgments about fairness and equality
while claiming to be value-free skeptics. Walsh emphasizes the "unsustainability
of a liberal order" based on a "tradition that is not a tradition." Over
time, argues Walsh, liberalism has been "evacuated of its own moral authority"
by denying, while drawing on, the "residue of moral truth that has sustained
it from the beginning." Quoting Alasdair MacIntyre, Walsh criticizes the
"liberal proclivity" of "failing to recognize how integral the conception
of truth is to a tradition constituted from some form of inquiry."
Where I differ from Walsh’s interpretation is that I find radical discontinuity
in the "liberal" heritage (really heritages) of the last two hundred years.
Indeed it may be futile to try to talk meaningfully about the "liberal
soul" without noticing its journey, from a bourgeois to a managerial society,
an ethic of ordered liberty through acquisitiveness to expressive individualism,
and from a defense of civil society and the nuclear family to a call to
have public administration colonize and sensitize these institutions. All
of these results may be described as "liberal" but only in the way that
"Christian" can be stretched far enough to designate both the primitive
church in Jerusalem and the Spanish Inquisition. "Quid sibi vult nomen?"
and "Quoad significa appellatio?" Such Ockhamite questions about
the meaning and limits of terms remain relevant for defining political
concepts. Unlike Walsh, I for one have methodological doubts about placing
Lord Acton, John Rawls, J. S. Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Ronald Dworkin
all within the compass of liberal thought. If socialists, classical liberals,
and liberal Catholic monarchists all fit within the parameters of the liberal
soul, who then does not, save perhaps for Muslim fundamentalists and whacko
totalitarians? It may, on the other hand, be possible to make Walsh’s hermeneutic
inclusiveness work, but there is no evidence it does, and certainly not
on the basis of his lavishing of liberal certificates upon a multitude
of dead and living white males. For example, when he comes to J. S. Mill’s
turning toward social democracy, Walsh does not observe the obvious tensions
between Mill’s proposed social reforms and liberal conceptions of the state,
society, and family. Instead we are told that "Mill reestablished the transcendent
dimension of liberty [Mill the agnostic?] within a social setting where
the liberal impulse was in danger of becoming the victim of its own success."
In his defense it should be noted that Walsh points to a persistent
stress on the individual and his fulfillment as a liberal leitmotiv.He
also, in a lyrical final chapter, Meditative Expansion of Limits,indicates
"the impossibility of ever resolving the moral crises of our day within
the parameters of the liberal agenda" and calls for a "religiously-grounded
liberal order" no longer "shorn of transcendental connections." But again
it must be asked whether any of this tells much about what "liberals" are
about. A parallel may be in order: By now almost everyone is for "rights."
This has become the Esperanto of Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, Bill Clinton,
Pat Buchanan, the National Rifle Association, the National Organization
for Women, and the Right to Lifers. But the term in question and its applications
are becoming banalized to the point that it may be fruitless to look for
common philosophic ground among all celebrants of "rights," or, to pick
another equally inflated concept, among those who appeal to "democracy."
A serious investigation of beliefs must look beyond rhetorical window dressing
to what people really believe. Thus, while the "liberal" Lord Acton was
trying to reconcile an essentially medieval Church to nineteenth-century
bourgeois constitutional arrangements and (in England) to a limited Protestant
monarchy, the "liberal" John Rawls is defending a postbourgeois socialist
regime. Calling both of these thinkers and their projects "liberal" blurs
significant differences between personalities and societies.
Nor will it do to adopt the practice, sometimes utilized by Walsh, of
calling the pre-socialist liberals "classical." Such a practice is like
distinguishing between Aryan Christians and Brethren in Christ. At a certain
point the presumed overlap between what are intended to be subgenuses becomes
so thin that it may be best to abandon the attempted classification. My
objections here are not simply taxonomic but are directed at the essentialist
(or pseudo-essentialist) view of liberalism present in Walsh’s work. Like
conventional anthologies of liberal thought and putative genealogies of
the "liberal tradition," Walsh’s interpretation assumes far more permanence
and consistency in those who have called themselves or been called "liberals"
than seems to me evident. Though his rechristianization of the concept
of the individual may be entirely worthwhile, Walsh’s liberal tradition
needs further clarification. That tradition, as contended, may have existed
in the past, but Walsh does not demonstrate that what he takes to be "liberal,"
or what I think he means by it, is today the common usage. Merely assuming
that it is, moreover, gets us nowhere semantically or philosophically.
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