A Few Kind Words for Liberalism

By Green, Philip | The Nation, September 28, 1992 | Go to article overview

A Few Kind Words for Liberalism


Green, Philip, The Nation


Toward the beginning of the Reagan Administration James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, remarked that though he used to think there were two kinds of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, he'd now become convinced that we were divided into American and liberals. Just a few short years after that neofascist invocation, Mike Dukakis fled from the "L word" as though he had been accused of card-carrying Communism; and now Bill Clinton is doing the same. Liberal-baiting has replaced redbaiting as the favorite pastime of venomous conservatives.

How has it come about, this curious phenomenon of liberalism on the defensive in a cultural milieu that Louis Hartz famously described, in his The Liberal Tradition in America, as wholly and uniquely liberal? More curiously, why does liberalism seem to have, at least in the United States, such a self-annihilating history?

As Hartz pointed out, liberalism is an import from Britain, where it developed on the historical stage as a doctrine of individual property right (John Locke); unencumbered business enterprise (Adam Smith); utilitarian social reform to increase the general happiness (Jeremy Bentham); and equal civil liberty for all, individuals as well as collectivities, minorities as well as majorities (John Stuart Mill). In the United States it reached its modern apotheosis in the New Deal, but its direction can be seen as early as 1848, in Mill's Principles of political Economy, in which, after countless encomiums to the "free market," he concludes with a discussion of "the grounds and limits of the laisser-faire or non-interference principle" that virtually lays out a complete theory of the contemporary welfare state.

Although it's sometimes said that the reformism and egalitarianism of Bentham and Mill have displaced the private-property, free-market orientation of Locke and Smith, what has always remained central to liberalism is the notion of social order in which individual liberty will be able to flourish equally for all to the limit of their capacities, regardless of an one's membership in a social group other than the one that defines itself as "the majority." The great statements of this tradition have become classics, and deservedly so:

On any of the great open questions ... if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in the minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. [Mill, On Liberty]

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex. [Mill, Utilitarianism]

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., dissenting in U.S. v. Schwimmer, 1929]

Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. [Justice John Harlanm dissenting in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896]

Why, it seems reasonable to ask, should this tradition of equal citizenship for all be so much on the defensive in a democratic culture? Most obviously, liberalism stands in a very uneasy relationship to democracy, which enshrines majority rule. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Few Kind Words for Liberalism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.