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Two Liberalisms


Jonah, your post about Wolfe and Hayek below (and especially points four and five) raises an extremely important question about the nature of what we call classical and modern liberalism. I completely agree that Wolfe’s contention that the two are identical just doesn’t hold together. But as you note, the idea that modern liberalism is one product of classical liberalism has a lot more going for it. And I think that’s the case not only because of the Schumpeter/Burnham kind of managerial class argument, but also because some liberals (including some classical liberals) have always seen their liberalism as a path to something else — something more like a rational or scientific or post-political politics.

Some conservatives have always noticed this too. Edmund Burke, toward the end of his life, suggested that the French Revolution had been so deeply transformative that in its wake there were really no longer any genuine Whigs or Tories — parties divided essentially on the question of the prerogatives of the monarch and the parliament — but two new parties had taken the stage and would define the politics of free societies from then on. He called them a party of conservation and a party of Jacobinism. These two parties were in a sense both liberal. The question between them was whether (classical) liberalism was a way of life or a means to a rationalized politics; whether it was an end or a beginning for political thought; and whether it was defined by its principles in their purity or by its practice with its exceptional capacity for putting up with diversity, messiness, and uncertainty.

One party therefore was a party of conservative liberals, who sought to conserve (and refine) liberalism as a product of countless generations of gradual social and political evolution. And the other was a party of progressive liberals, who sought to progress beyond liberalism by using liberal principles to enact a complete break with the past and begin anew from those principles alone, rather than from human nature or tradition or assorted lessons learned the hard way, with the ultimate aim of achieving a politics of rational control.

In this sense, modern conservatism has always been liberal, and there is nothing particularly contradictory about the fact that American conservatives are the defenders of classical liberalism in America. There is also nothing terribly surprising about the way in which the modern left, in the effort to progress beyond liberalism, has often undermined and attacked liberalism. In that same essay, Burke argued that this would happen because (among other reasons) their attempt to rationalize politics would create such a powerful state that it could not help but crush the essential prerequisites for a free society. Of the emerging French regime he wrote:

It is systematic; it is simple in its principle; it has unity and consistency in perfection. In that country entirely to cut off a branch of commerce, to extinguish a manufacture, to destroy the circulation of money, to violate credit, to suspend the course of agriculture, even to burn a city, or to lay waste a province of their own, does not cost them a moment’s anxiety. To them, the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of Government. The state is all in all. 

This concern about the sheer power of the state was one reason for Burke’s own capitalist inclinations. But he wrote before the age of capitalism had begun in earnest, so it’s hard to say what he would have made of Burnham’s and Schumpeter’s worries — I frankly think he would have shared them.

In any case, this is a long way of agreeing with Jonah: classical and modern liberalism are really quite different, but the latter does have roots in the former. One way to think about it is to see the question as whether liberalism is a way of living with human failings and making the most of our situation or a way of overcoming human failings and making a perfectly rational society. Another is to see the question as whether liberalism is an inheritance to be treasured and refined or a break from the past to serve as a foundation for a whole new social order. There in a nutshell is a great deal of the left-right divide.


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