Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

After Progressivism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

After Progressivism

Article excerpt

I come not to bury liberalism but to praise it - or at least to praise a strand of the liberal tradition that we too easily ignore. Wilfred McClay largely ignores it in his brilliant and insightful essay "Liberalism After Liberalism," and this causes him also to ignore a potential cause for hope amid our worries.

McClay offers a useful and concise definition of liberalism, describing it as "emphasizing] the protection and empowerment of individuals and institutions" against the power of the state, and as "coeval with the emergence of ideas of constitutionally limited government, natural rights, a free-market economy, private property, civil liberties," and individualism. But he then proceeds to identify that set of views entirely with a series of abstract Enlightenment principles, and thus as a break from the earlier political tradition of the West - a break with many salutary consequences, to be sure, but one that has also left us devoid of deeper roots and so unable to resist the deformities of liberalism.

And those deformities are our reality, alas. McClay argues that over time our original liberalism - the Lockean view he attributes to the founders of our republic - devolved into another political form, which we know by the name of progressivism and which was simultaneously an extension and a rejection of the original liberal ideal. Progressivism has exhausted itself, and so we live not only after liberalism but after progressivism, and in search of a way to keep the best of the liberal project while moving past the worst.

It is a compelling and bracing case, but an incomplete one. The total equation of the forms of modern liberalism with the abstract principles of Enlightenment liberalism is at the heart of what we might call, and McClay does call, the first kind of liberalism: the liberalism of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, of the English radicals of the same era, and of the French Revolution. But a denial of that equation was at the heart of a second kind of liberalism that has been with us almost since the beginning and that exists still as a living alternative to progressivism. This second kind of liberalism was given voice in the writings of Edmund Burke, in the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville, in the profound wisdom of Publius, and in the forms of the Constitution that the authors of the Federalist Papers helped to design and champion.

These two kinds of liberalism largely agree about the first part of McClay's description: about the protection of individuals and institutions against the power of the state, about constitutionally limited government, civil liberties, rights of conscience, and so on - the forms of the liberal society. But they disagree about its origins and have quite different views of what matters most about it.

The first kind of liberalism, which has always been the more common, argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment, principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society.

The second kind of liberalism holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of gradual political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms.

Thus one view understands liberalism as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society, while the other sees liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced. The first is therefore progressive while the second is conservative. …

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