Philosophy, Politics

Classical liberalism without philosophy

In a blog post for the New Republic Alan Wolfe writes: What my critics call modern liberalism is instead the logical and sociological outcome of classical liberalism.” He further writes in another blog post that A liberal society, I believe, is one that allows room for free markets, but also allows room for many other kinds of social institutions, some based on love, others on obligation, others on solidarity.”

These statements are far from illuminating. For example, what does it mean to say that modern liberalism is the “logical,” let alone the “sociological,” outcome of classical liberalism? It surely cannot mean that interventionist government is logically implied by minimal government. Perhaps one could argue that in reality modern liberalism is an inevitable consequence of classical liberalism in the sense that as soon as people authorize a government to maintain peace and order, such powers will invariably be used to (further) distribute income, which in turn will generate a subsequent need to produce political philosophical legitimacy for these practices.

There is a sense in which “classical” and “modern” liberalism may be closely related and that is the shared preoccupation with “rights,” “equality,” and “democracy.” Although different liberals offer different interpretations of these concepts, the practice of seeking a society that is guided by these values is shared by most advocates of both  liberalisms. From this perspective both classical and modern liberalism, and even democratic socialism, reflect a tradition in political thinking that attributes values to humans as such and endeavors to move society as close as possible to the realization of these values.

There is an alternative liberalism, however, that cannot be reduced to this kind of reasoning. In this form of (classical) liberalism people do not have “rights” (or deserve respect for their “autonomy”) because there is a philosophical reason for this but because a real world bargain between self-interested individuals produces arrangements that more or less resemble a society that is characterized by respect for individual choice and private property. But such a Hobbesian account of the possibility of liberalism is far removed from the philosopher’s liberalism  that emphasizes values, human rights, and collective choice. It would be the “logical” outcome of practical reason applied to human interaction.

Considering our (evolved) tendency to moralize about the fate of society as a whole, and the widespread obsession with democracy and practical politics, the prospects for this kind of liberalism are even more remote than for either of the two liberalisms that currently compete for attention.