Liberalism and It’s Discontents

First I suggest you click this link and read this very interesting post on challenges to liberalism and liberal responses by Zack Beauchamp. It is an excellent essay, not super brief, but well worth reading end to end. Also stimulating enough that I began to type this comment before finishing it (I finished it after typing “by” and before typing Zack.

I was lead to it by a tweet in which Ross Douthat asks if Beauchamp sees anything useful people to the right of liberals might contribute. I think he obviously doesn’t, because such people (including Douthat) have nothing useful to contribute. In any case, that’s clearly what Beauchamp thinks.

I am going to attempt to summarize the post, but do ask you to read it.

1) liberalism is under attack, has been rejected by majorities in many of the largest democracies, and is challenged by significant minorities in the rest of them
2) It faces criticisms that should be taken seriously from both the right and the left
3) It’s defenders don’t make a strong case for the defense.

I will consider these points in order after the jump.

1. Of course Beauchamp starts with the USA and considers the crisis to have hit on November 8 2016. He says it may have began as early as September 11 2001. Yes indeed. He seems to have forgotten the Bush administration’s direct assault on all principles of liberty and limited government. Trump is more absurd, but he hasn’t done anything that Bush didn’t do and he hasn’t done many things that Bush did. It was argued that the rule of law was a luxury which we couldn’t afford. This was argued by then unitary executive himself and he acted on that basis. I am old enough to remember a time when a much smaller fraction of people lived under Democracy even using a definition such that many arguably fake democracies are now excluded. I suppose what Beuchamp is noting is that the end of history has ended, and Francis Fukayama is a fool unless he was Fukayaming.

The arguments he notes have long be familiar to me. I recall them from the 1970s.

On the other hand he is right about the rise of illiberal parties and elected presidents. I can only respond “that about Indonesia” by far the largest Democracy not yet afflicted. I note that Shinzo Abe has a far right ultra nationalist not so liberal political past. Basically decent liberals can look (in order of population represented) at Joko Widowo, Angela Merkel and Emanuel Macron (who is despised by all French people whom I have ever met). I may be insulting one of the widows who are constantly fighting over Bangladesh and definitely insist that whomever is actually in charge in Pakistan doesn’t play cricket. Still maybe Bangladesh and Pakistan beat Germany as last bastions of liberal Democracy. OK so I concede Beuchamp’s point 1.

2. On criticisms. Beauchamp notes leftist critics of “neoliberalism” he briefly notes that he doesn’t think rejecting neoliberalism implies rejecting liberalism. He doesn’t note any counter argument from the left. They just say no. They are critiquing the extreme pro market ideology called “neoliberalism” outside of the USA. They are critiquing Bill Clinton and his extreme centrism. I must admit that Bill Clinton’s extreme centrism is identical to extreme pro market rightism in Europe. But he wasn’t that way before 1994 (and isn’t that way now).

The neoliberal policies critiqued by the left include austerity. That has nothing to do with liberalism (or neoliberalism although it is called ordoliberalism). The unconvincing argument by Naomi Klein that “Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously,” reminds me of something odd I read in “The Great Transformation” by Karl Polanyi (I sure hope Klein would be flattered by the comparison). He said that when it expired in 1933 German Liberalism had sacrificed all its other principles in defense of the gold standard. I didn’t see any connection between liberalism and the gold standard, and I still don’t. Chancellor Heinrich Bruening has found his true heirs in Jens Weidmann and Wolfgang Schaeuble, but, aside from hoping things turn out less badly this time, I note that none of them is simply liberal. All also have a fanatical attachment to something which has something to do with the idea that no pain no gain so lots of pain lots of gain. It is insane. It has no particular connection to the idea of a government of laws, love of liberty, or anything coherently liberal.

The leftist critiques of liberalism are quoted criticizing liberal capitalism, neo-liberalism. They can claim to criticize classical liberalism, liberismo and various things. But all of this depends on defining the term to mean what it meant in the 19th century. The critique is fine as it goes, but it is (as they note) a criticism of a political fashion which started in the 70s, took over in the 80s, and is now dead and gone. They include Bill Clinton (who massively increased the EITC and introduced sCHIP) and Tony Blair (who implemented policies which were followed by a halving of child poverty in the UK (after 10 preceding years of stagnation). They don’t include Jeremy Corbin, Bernie Sanders or Elisabeth Warren (they would probably include Hillary Clinton based only on her marriage) They are beating a dead horse — and it isn’t and never was liberalism.

I’d add that I think the deregulation which has caused harm is fairly specific. It was financial deregulation. This was a huge mistake (which current Republicans are repeating). It does not discredit the less important but beneficial Carter deregulations of airlines, trucking and beer. It certainly doesn’t imply a defense of regulation of building heights etc.

I think the left critique of liberalism is based on accepting a fraudulent defense of laissez faire as the only liberal approach (these anti-liberals are arguing with Von Hayek and Friedman not any actual liberal who opposed Pinochet). The idea of the rule of law,freedom under the law, a government of laws not of men. and rights under the law do not imply any particular maximum tax bracket or any right to pay less than a legal minimum wage. The Locke/Hayek/Nozick argument does not follow from core liberal principles (even if Locke was the first liberal). It requires going way beyond the rule of law to argue that only their proposed laws respect liberty and that equally anonymous, precise, and neutrally imposed laws do not.

The conservative critique of liberalism ignores entirely the concept of voluntary associations. They assert that liberals believe in isolated individuals. They can’t point to any actual liberal who does this, because none exists or has ever existed. I think Beuchamp is just wrong when he writes “conservatives are right that liberals have been too inattentive to the importance of community”. I note that the author of “Bowling Alone” was a left liberal enthusiast for the definitely liberal Italian Commnunist Party in Emilia Romagna (I am not joking — I know lots of Italian communists and they all the ones I know well are liberals and many of them guilty of over affection for neoliberalism (I added the “I know well” because I have heard anti liberal speeches well maybe one anti liberal speech)). What happened here is that conservatives (as usual) claim as their exclusive property values that are pretty much universal.

I note the tweets I wrote before reading Beauchamp
Douthat tweeted

The question I’m left with at the end of this interesting
crisis-of-liberalism survey is whether he thinks there’s anything that liberalism can learn or drawn on from the *right* in order to survive and flourish anew:

I replied

obviously the reason you are left with that question is that neither he nor you can think of anything useful that anyone can learn from conservatives. The reason is that all alleged conservative insights have been disproven by massive evidence

In fact I challenge you. I suspect the answer will be to claim for conservatism universal values and widespread beliefs or to pretend that the only alternative to conservatism is something like Marxism. I say conservatism has the same epistemic standing as astrology.

I can’t claim to be proven right, but I can claim to be able to predict my sincere response to conservative critiques of liberalism. The claim that liberals ignore the importance of community and of voluntary associations (like say churches) is a plain falsehood. Basically either a lie or a proof of complete ignorance of anything outside of the conservabubble.

I guess this isn’t the place to ask for an indication of any useful contribution of 21st century conservatism, but I ask here too.

The right wing criticism of liberalism is based on a false claim about what liberalism is. It also is based on the assertion that the key threats to US democracy are the law requiring corporations to pay for contraception (if they buy insurance for their employees) and law suits by gay couples who are not baked a wedding cake.

I do have to admit that most conservatives have noticed that Marxists are thin on the ground these days (I think never Trumper Tom Nichols is a conservative who hasn’t noticed this but basically none of those quoted by Beauchamp claim that liberals believe in the perfectability of human nature nor that liberals are taking a step onto the slippery slope to serfism).

The left criticism is a valid criticism of Locke, and maybe John Stuart Mill. However, it is not relevant to the current debate. It requires the idea that property rights are human rights — not a positive right to food clothing and shelter but a negative right to keep anything one has obtained without breaking the law (which law must not include much current law or else) and do what one pleases with one’s property (so long as air doesn’t blow from your property to someone else’s or — it’s just silly — it’s not liberalism and it isn’t coherent).

3. First damn this comment is long. Beauchamp isn’t just interesting. He writes well saying a lot without going on and on and on. But anyway, he’s not satisfied with defences of liberalism.

Here he mixes apples and oranges. He argues that many people are rejecting liberalism although they shouldn’t. Then he objects to Pinker who argues that people shouldn’t concluding with the argument that one has to respond to people who are foolishly rejecting something they shouldn’t reject.

I’m going to quote at length (finally)

The first of these unsatisfying arguments, which I associate most closely with Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, is that the narrative of a world in crisis is simply wrong. On every conceivable metric, the world is getting better — extreme poverty is declining, life expectancy is going up, deaths from war and violence are on the decline. If things are generally doing well, where’s the need for radical change?

I happen to find the data behind this view persuasive, and indeed have argued that it’s a compelling case for cautious optimism about humanity’s future. It’s not, however, a particularly good defense of liberalism at the moment.

Most of the current global improvement is happening in the developing world; the biggest recent jumps in global life expectancy largely come from these countries, including authoritarian states like China. By contrast, conditions in richer liberal democracies are getting worse on a bevy of different metrics. The data on global improvement is hardly making the case for liberalism in its historical bastions.

Note the key weasel word “including”. Progress in authoritarian China has been amazing. but there has also been huge economic growth in democratic (until recently liberal democratic) India. The pattern is world wide. It doesn’t show liberalism is needed for material progress, but it also doesn’t show it hampers progress.

I am also quite sure that the word “democracies” is misleading. Beauchamp is thinking of the USA now suffering from an immense opiate epidemic. I don’t think there are similar patterns in many other liberal Democracies.

Here is a graph from the article I cited when defending neoliberal Tony Blair

all ideologies should have such crises.

I don’t see decline in advanced countries here

I’m afraid that the problem is our US problem not a general problem with rich liberal democracies.

In any case, reality is not the battleground on which Beauchamp is trying to fight

But most fundamentally, liberalism’s defenders need to meet people where they are. And Pinker’s metrics notwithstanding, a lot of people really feel like the political status quo is failing them. The illiberals are explaining why that is; liberals are trying to talk them out of it. This won’t work, no matter how many statistics on infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa liberals marshal.

The second unsatisfying liberal argument is that liberalism may not be perfect, but it has a long history of repairing itself. This is one of the central arguments in Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, the New Yorker correspondent’s book-length defense of his liberalism.

the reply is that a defense of liberalism is not effective liberal policy (no duh)

“But saying that liberalism can repair itself isn’t the same thing as explaining how it can do so right now.”

Quite so, and the topic was [should liberalism be abandoned as it can’t solve our problems?] not [How can we solve our problems ?] Also, as Beauchamp knows, possible solutions to various problems are extensively discussed by earnest liberal nerds at, for example,

Finally Beauchamp objects to the liberals who argue that politically correct college students are a major threat (maybe the major threat) to liberalism. I agree with him that this is nonsense. I think this is a case of reflexive bothsiding hippy punching by people who just can’t stand to find that, at the moment, they happen to have no enemies on the left. Lenin isn’t always lurking.

But the old New Republic hippy punching is as irrelevant as it is irritating.

Liberalism will not be destroyed by safe spaces, trigger warnings, gay wedding cakes, bathroom bills or even by people who panic about those aspects of 21st century life. It has real dangerous enemies, but Beauchamp hasn’t interviewed them. I don’t blame him. They might send him to a prison camp in Siberia, Xinjiang or Kashmir if he tried. But in any case, they are not writing in Jacobin or First Things.