Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Some Confusions about “Classical Liberalism,” Progressivism, and Necessity


    A prominent strand in defenses of “classical liberalism” is the suggestion that there is no necessary transition from classical liberalism (understood to be good) to progressive liberalism (understood to be bad). Yes, to be sure, liberals may betray the true doctrine, resulting in a corrupted and distorted version of liberalism, one in which liberation projects are enforced upon dissenters. But it is not inevitable that such a transition should occur. Whether it does occur is a matter of free choice, guided by right reason. If liberty is properly understood in relationship to natural right among free and equal citizens, there need be no such slippage to authoritarian, liberty-restricting progressivism.

    The remedy for progressive excess, on this view, is the renewal of a kind of civic virtue — the political virtue that respects the equality-in-liberty of all, especially “religious freedom,” while nonetheless insisting that natural law and divine law ought to be respected by all, even if none are to be compelled to respect it. In an Americanist version, this civic virtue is said to be the virtue envisioned by the Declaration and by the Founders, and embodied, albeit imperfectly, in the Constitution of 1789. The Founders show that it is perfectly possible, as logical matter, to combine public liberalism based on the consent of the governed with a commitment to natural rights and natural virtues, understood to include both the right and duty to worship Nature’s God.

    I think there are several conceptual confusions here. Dispelling these confusions is not in itself sufficient to refute the view I have described, but the indispensable first step is to ask the right questions. As it stands, the view is not coherently formed.

    First, there is a confusion between two very different counterfactuals (a confusion that has, incidentally, frequently bedeviled discussions of economic history).  I will illustrate with the American case. One counterfactual is what would have occurred if the requirements of civic virtue had been followed since 1789. An entirely different counterfactual is what would happen if civic virtue were renewed today. Defenses of Americanist liberalism often skip back and forth between these two distinct counterfactual baselines, even in the same paragraph or sentence. The result is that two entirely different propositions are often conflated:

    (1) If citizens had been virtuous starting from 1789, the evils of progressive liberalism would not have occurred.

    (2) If citizens would be virtuous in 2018, the evils of progressive liberalism could be undone.

    Of course, both propositions could be true, both false, or only one true. But it is a mistake to defend (1) and to think one has thereby also defended (2). The latter is much more difficult to defend than the former. Undoing X is almost always more difficult than never doing X in the first place. Suppose that it is true that the ills of liberalism do not necessarily follow from the Founding, as suggested by proposition (1). It isn’t at all clear what the cash-value of that observation might be in 2018, if it is also true (denying proposition (2)) that those ills cannot now be undone by some sort of “return to the principles of the Founders.”

   A second confusion is between necessity and structural propensity in politics. Illustrations are legion, both in markets and nonmarket settings. There is a structural propensity for littering in public parks, because of the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s not strictly necessary - we could all just be more virtuous! - but it’s a real propensity all the same. It is irrelevant that there exist possible worlds in which, despite the conditions of the Tragedy being satisfied, virtuous norms ensure that no littering occurs. Those worlds are sufficiently few, and sufficiently difficult to reach from a world without virtuous norms, that one cannot simply gesture in their direction and think that one has offered an argument.

   Put differently, talk of “necessity” obscures the main issue, which is the structural stability of classical liberalism. Of course one can imagine logically possible worlds in which virtuous classical liberals practice tolerance in just the right ways. The problem, however, is that those worlds — however imaginable — tend not to stick around for very long, for systemic reasons diagnosed by Maurice Cowling, Karl Popper, Carl Schmitt, and other theorists of liberalism (some of them liberals themselves). Classical liberalism licenses and in many ways structurally encourages the widespread view — indeed the fervent quasi-religious conviction — that the defense of liberty itself requires repression of those who reject liberalism’s premises. Under particular conditions, that repression will become severe, even if it is not logically necessary that it occur. The repression of dissenters from liberalism is a systematic, structural propensity. Exhortation to virtue is no more likely to solve the structural problem than is exhorting oligopolists to refrain from tacit collusion and price-fixing. One must instead break up the structure that predictably — even if not necessarily — produces the relevant ills. 

    In this way, classical liberalism resembles a soap bubble. The issue isn’t whether virtuous classical liberalism can exist, but for how long, and how robust or fragile it is when buffeted by environmental conditions. In the closely related context of theological liberalism, Cardinal Newman argued that liberalism was an unstable half-way house between atheism and Rome. Mutatis mutandis, that is the argument that needs responding to, not the straw men of logical possibility and necessity.


    Adrian Vermeule


(Some material in this post previously appeared on Twitter).


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