Which Liberalism? Which Soul?

Paul Gottfried

[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998 © National 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, from 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.

Updated 8 April 2000