Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

A Wolfe Tome

The Future of Liberalism, by Alan Wolfe (Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95)

Alan Wolfe of Boston College is a prolific and generally well-regarded author. In the last five years he’s published four books on contemporary politics and public policy: The Transformation of American Religion, Does American Democracy Still Work?, Return to Greatness, and Is There a Culture War? His new book, The Future of Liberalism, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Obama administration, tries to provide an in-depth intellectual framework for Wolfe’s mildly unconventional liberal political predilections. “No one is more temperamentally conservative,” he says, “than a Manhattan leftist living in a rent-controlled apartment and holding tenure.” (This quip is witty enough, but it’s followed by such solemnities as “Liberalism matters only because people do.”)

Academics and journalists haven’t been able to defend liberalism effectively, Wolfe claims, so he’s had to raise his pen once again. Liberalism’s core principle, he argues, is that “as many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” Who of any consequence in America would disagree? He goes on to insist that “the liberal proposition, tested by long experience, is that whatever dependency results from using public policy to address inequalities, the resulting gains in individual mobility, development of physical and mental capacity, and racial and gender equality far outweigh them.”

The reader, seeing this definition of liberalism, might then expect a careful, grounded discussion of how different policy options have played out over time. But with the exception of his thoughtful discussion of why religion and liberalism not only are compatible in the U.S. but sometimes reinforce each other (and this is far and away the book’s best chapter), the reader is led in a different direction. As Wolfe sees it, markets are what produce dependency, while rights, presumably including welfare rights, foster independence. I say presumably because at one point early in this hastily compiled book, the author lays out the argument against welfare reform — but then, many pages later, he inserts an endorsement of same into the text.

Instead of providing a careful, grounded, empirical evaluation of the welfare reforms and their implications, Wolfe mires the reader in a slough of European categories ill-aligned with the American experience. American critics of liberalism, says Wolfe early on, “rarely recognize how much they owe to Europe,” and specifically to the 19th-century Spanish priest Félix Sardá y Salvany, “for the liberal bashing they find so attractive.” Who? The how and when of the vast influence exerted by Félix Sardá y Salvany, who saw liberalism as the “evil of all evils,” is left unspecified but serves as a gateway to what follows. That’s the way the book is organized: It often reads as though Wolfe had poured out his note cards summarizing his reading onto the pages but wasn’t sure what order they should be in.

The book has two competing conceptual threads. The first is that Rousseau is the father of modern American conservatism — yes, you’ve got that right, the Rousseau who inspired the Jacobins is, according to Wolfe, the unacknowledged godfather of the Republican Right. Rousseau’s emphasis on the need to hew to nature, Wolfe argues, cuts off his supposed heirs from recognizing the need to improve on nature through human artifice. The second is that liberalism has its roots in Immanuel Kant, who said that man should “dare to know”; people should, says Wolfe, “take the side of culture over nature.” In this framework,  both Jerry Falwell and contemporary evolutionary biologists are, with their pessimistic insistence on the limits imposed by human nature, Rousseau’s heirs and hence allies of a sort. In fact, Wolfe suggests, if Rousseau were alive today, he might well have become an evolutionary social biologist. I was tempted to stop reading right there.

#page# Wolfe says liberals should be inspired by Kant’s insistence that — in Wolfe’s words — “the human race ought to be and can be the master of its own fortune.” Kant wants us to wage a creative struggle against our brutish nature by using our reason to “cultivate” ourselves through the “arts and sciences” that Rousseau feared. Liberalism’s problem, says Wolfe, is not the absence of surefire policy proposals; it is, rather, the “failure to link liberalism’s politics to the kind of generous and creative conception of human purpose associated with” Kant’s vision of human possibilities.

The author does, however, acknowledge a small wrinkle, noting that Kant had praise for Rousseau. But it was far more than that: If Wolfe, who has genuinely interesting arguments to make about sociobiology, a subject to which he has clearly given considerable thought, hadn’t been in such a hurry to get yet another book out, he would have taken the time to find out that Kant was actually Rousseau’s most ardent admirer, bestowing upon him the august title “Newton of the moral world.” Kant’s philosophical efforts to develop the “categorical imperative” (the application of which he thought guaranteed ethical choices) were aimed at providing the intellectual underpinning for Rousseau’s concept of the General Will — which itself helped inspire not only the Jacobins but the totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

What this has to do with modern America is not altogether clear even to Wolfe. “Conservatives,” he notes, “may be discovering what they have in common with Rousseau, but not all that many on the left recognize what they ought to share with Kant. If anything, Kantian sympathies . . . remain decidedly out of fashion on the left, many of whose leading thinkers and activists oddly share the Rousseauian sentiments so prominent on the right.” In which case, what has this exercise been about?

It’s difficult to convey the full extent of the book’s slapdash character as the author leaps between ill-argued assertions, often impaling himself on the sharper points. Wolfe, who mentions environmentalism only in passing though it occupies a central place in contemporary liberalism, writes, “The political right today shares much of the suspicion of progress held by conservatives of yesterday.” But is there any significant group in American society more hostile to the ideal of progress and the humanism that goes with it than the adepts of extreme environmentalism, who thrill to the idea of an Earth without people?

“These days,” says Wolfe, “one is likely to find arguments from genetics coming from the left rather than the right.” But the writer of those words needs to acquaint himself with the history of the Left. The 19th-century American utopian socialists of the Oneida Colony anticipated eugenics with what they then called “stirpiculture.” And in the early 20th century, their liberal and left-wing heirs preached a eugenic version of family planning packaged together with the ideal of a planned economy.

Finally, Wolfe is also chronologically challenged. He writes: “In their determination to carve out space to avoid the condemnatory moral judgments of the religious right in their personal and sexual lives, liberals adopted arguments similar to the laissez-faire propositions once used to justify economic inequalities.” But arguments for free love and abortion as a matter of individual choice took hold in the 1960s; they preceded the Religious Right, they weren’t a reaction to it.

It’s difficult to explain why a book written by such a widely read and sometimes thoughtful writer is so disappointing. Perhaps he just writes too much. In any case, the future of liberalism is likely to rise and fall on the efficaciousness of the Obama administration, and that should and will be little affected — the chapter on religion aside — by the arguments shuffled into this book.

– Mr. Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and a contributing editor to City Journal.


Fred Siegel — Mr. Siegel is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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