Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Travelling Toward LiberalismTravelling Toward Liberalism

Travelling Toward Liberalism

Political theorist Travis D. Smith maintains that liberalism as a credo is worth approaching if we do so with full awareness of its perpetual distance from reality.

Travis D. Smith
13 minute read

Many facts on the ground may give us cause to despair the future of liberalism properly so-called. But a certain piety compels me to remain hopeful and come to the defence of this political perspective against its alternatives, some of which are admittedly tempting to those who have more hope in the potential of political power to do good in this world.

The following reflections are occasioned by my having been asked to wonder whether liberalism, as a political theory, corresponds to reality and, if so, how well, and to defend it accordingly. According to my understanding of it, however, classical liberalism is a theory worth recommending precisely because it does not pretend to correspond to reality. This is what makes it preferable to and much less pernicious than other modern political ideologies, which tend to make systemic claims to representing reality, either as it is or as it is supposed to be or, worse still, as it shall be. Properly understood, liberalism is not so immodest. It is on account of my appreciation for classical liberalism, with all of its faults, prejudices, omissions and distortions – all of which its principal architects were consciously aware of, I have to imagine – that I tend toward conservatism on the ideological spectrum that sets the terms of today’s debates. In contrast with the principles of liberalism’s founding, today’s so-called liberals are not exactly friends of liberty. They are instead, as I have argued previously in Convivium, advocates of Machiavellian liberality – seeking reputation for righteousness by taking what belongs to some and giving it to others.

When I identify as a liberal, I qualify that by saying that I am practically, partially and classically liberal. Let me break that down.

First, to be practically liberal can mean several things. It means recommending liberalism not at the level of theoretical truth, as a science or object of contemplation but rather as a matter of practical judgment, as the best course of action toward goals that are relatively good, determined by practical reason to be more or less available to us, given due deliberation on the circumstances. Being practically liberal can mean appreciating liberalism because, in practice, it by and large works, doing what it says it is supposed to do, despite its shortcuts and shortcomings. It can also mean that the practices belonging to it are all right. Liberalism generally yields rules that are fair, respectable habits, and decent behaviour. It teaches people, for instance, to get along well enough with, and do business with, people with whom they disagree strongly about important things, in a civilized way that is mutually advantageous and commendable, even if it does not lead men and women to exhibit great virtue. Also, being practically a liberal can mean being almost a liberal, or pretty much.

Second, to be partially liberal can mean a number of things, too. It means that you don’t have to give yourself entirely over to it. Liberals need not define themselves altogether by their liberalism. They can have other commitments, too, some of which may be in tension with liberalism, and liberalism is okay with that. Liberalism is partial because it does not try to rule over the entirety of the human condition or determine the whole of the human good. It recognizes that there are aspects of the human condition that are prior to politics, and others that are higher than politics, and it does not try to dismiss them in reductionist fashion or else dominate or destroy them. It thereby resists the temptation to totalitarianism that is common to other ideologies. A liberal can recognize that liberalism does not represent the whole of what is true and good and be satisfied with it nevertheless as a political perspective. Compare that with the true-believerism that many other doctrines demand of their devotees. Liberals can disagree with each other about what liberalism means or recommends without perpetrating purges in the pursuit of ideological purity or demanding unflinching dedication to the full realization of the cause according to prescribed means. Liberalism doesn’t have to be altogether true or good in order to be acknowledged as preferable to its alternatives. Human beings in this world only ever have partial knowledge of things, themselves included. Given our ignorance, any worldview or agenda that pretends to be in possession of the whole truth is a lie, and those who seek to rule on the presumption of possessing the whole truth will rule ruinously.

Liberalism is also partial in that it has its biases and leanings. It’s not actually neutral; but that’s okay, as no political position is. Everything political is normative, even claims to neutrality. It’s not normativity that’s the problem; the issue is discerning and assessing which norms to follow. Liberalism is undeniably generative of certain forms of thought and character, and it should be able to defend why they are largely desirable and even relatively praiseworthy, even if they are not particularly noble.

Being partial to liberalism also means taking sides with it, coming to its defence, despite its deficiencies. Just like being a true friend always means recognizing another’s deficiencies and looking to compensate for them and perhaps assist in overcoming them, a good liberal never forgets liberalism’s limits and defects and looks to avoid exacerbating them while promoting its basic premises and purposes.

Third, I recommend being classically liberal, by which I mean a couple of things – from the inside of liberalism and from the outside. From the inside, I recommend classical liberalism against its late modern variants, from John Stuart Mill through John Rawls and beyond. Classical liberalism is premised on the assertion of the natural equal right to self-governance, the idea that there are no natural rulers or masters among us. “You’re not the boss of me” is its mantra – not unless I agree to your limited and temporary authority, subject to review. It affirms the natural freedom of all women and men, and the goodness of that freedom. It insists that, simply as human beings, we have several rights, from self-preservation to private property to conscience or religion to speech and assembly, among others. On these premises, the legitimacy of limited government and the rule of law, versus arbitrary or absolute power, are based. The people who comprise that government are merely office-holders, representatives of the people, authorized on the basis of consent, and they do not rule directly on the basis of privileges they hold personally – whatever someone like Hillary Clinton thinks. Classical liberalism plays well with commercial society and modern technological science, but not without occasional quarrels. There’s an ethical side to classical liberalism, too, requiring citizens in regimes based on it to develop certain qualities of character and mind, from toleration to personal and interpersonal responsibility, not only to sustain and enjoy the benefits of that model of society, but to recommend it, to make it worthy of being defended.

That brings me to my next point. Classical liberalism can be defended, as well as constructively criticized, from the outside, for reasons that come from classical sources, broadly construed – from perspectives that predate and transcend it in scope and intention, from worldviews that actually make stronger claims to comprehend the whole of reality. Those who are liberals for extra-liberal reasons are not aberrations to be tolerated, barely, and preferably re-educated or else persecuted. These partial, practical partisans can best defend liberalism precisely because they can see the merits of liberalism from a vantage point that exceeds it.

Consider classical political science, with its virtue ethics, according to which you cannot live well unless you are free to think and act, to cultivate the mind through study and to practice personal and interpersonal responsibility through voluntary, deliberate, prudent action, where good habits and good judgment are acquired only through experience, in pursuit not only of the profitable and the pleasant but also the honourable and admirable, in light of what reason recommends as most conducive to our flourishing, individually and together. On these terms, a slavish and irresponsible life cannot and will not be a good life – not even if you have good masters. Classical liberalism can be recommended from this perspective because it gives people the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives while contributing to the well-being of their communities, which requires thinking for themselves and engaging others in discussion and debate. It does so while also recommending that people should by and large mind their own business, thereby not depriving others of the opportunity and obligation to take responsibility for themselves, too.

Modern liberal society does not represent the classical model of the best regime in theory, where the most wise and virtuous would rule directly, and their legislation would constitute overt and thoroughgoing soul craft. But it can be understood as a variation on what Aristotle describes as the universally applicable or practicable regime, a sort of mixture of democratic and oligarchical elements that forgoes republican romanticism and aristocratic pretensions, dominated by a strong and extensive middle class, a society that refrains from conquest in the pursuit of glory and does not educate people to great virtue, not being particularly oriented toward what is noble. Such a society is nonetheless decent and highly livable. When it is compared not to the ideal but rather to the actual ways in which human beings tend to find themselves living together in this world – hey, wow, not bad, eh? So, if you can arrange it, savour it – and do what you can to preserve it.

From Aristotle’s perspective, modern liberalism pursues wealth and technological power immoderately, in ways that are detrimental to our souls and ultimately undermine the regime. Those pursuits intensify our insatiability and undermine our chances for happiness amidst plenty and opportunity. But our awareness of dangers like these can mitigate them by recommending gratitude and moderation, so that we may enjoy more of what we are blessed with. The hedonistic psychology on which modern liberalism is largely based represents a potential problem – hence the need for distinguishing ordered liberty from licence and educating people to behave in a dignified manner, valuing some goods higher than pleasure, retaining some sense of our duties toward others and esteeming the sacrifices that some people make in the name of liberty. Simply getting and doing whatever one wants is actually the tyrant’s definition of freedom, especially when it is combined with a sense of entitlement, requiring others to satisfy your desires while refraining from all criticism. Free society is unsustainable if its residents are but petty tyrants.

Classical political science understands that the regime of freedom and equality, such as liberal democracy represents, has an unnatural tendency to descend toward despotism, both within the souls of its members and within the system as a whole, mainly on account of the passionate love of equality that it engenders, which not only generates envy, resentment and class conflict, but also suppresses freedom of thought and expression. Because classical political science can see liberalism from the outside, it can better diagnose its maladies and recommend some remedies. Classical political science understands that the liberal doctrine of universal natural freedom, taken as a given, is only a partial truth because we all also have the potential for slavishness – even when we get what we think we want, or perhaps especially then.

Whether we remain free or live in a fashion that is worthy of our freedoms depends on how we use them. This depends on how we are educated in the broadest possible sense, what opportunities for action we have and take, and whether we are raised to take responsibility for ourselves by gaining experience in so doing. Classical liberalism emphasizes our freedom to the point of exaggeration for salutary reasons, but as liberalism evolves it downplays or disregards the perils of slavishness, practically inviting them thereby. If we are raised to irresponsibility in our sentiments, opinions and actions, quite possibly by never being expected to take any action for which one is responsible, with respect to either the decision itself or its consequences, we may call ourselves free if we get to make some choices in the satisfaction of our appetites, but we will nevertheless be prepared for a life of dependency thereby. Thus, efforts must be taken to sustain the culture, traditions, organizations and institutions that lend themselves to the development of responsible character and good judgment. Otherwise, our very freedoms will render us slavish, leaving us clamouring for others to take responsibility for us so that we may indulge ourselves freely.

Religious perspectives, especially but not only the Biblical traditions out of which modern liberalism emerged historically, also provide some basis for its defence and advancement, even though there are some tensions there. There is, of course, the argument that says that modern liberalism was introduced via Christianity surreptitiously, in a way that was subversive and intended to undermine the faith from within. But devout Christians should not worry about that too much. On their own terms, even the best laid plans of antichrists are not only sure to be thwarted but are oftentimes turned to good through providence. For many reasons, Christians should see the potential for good within liberalism, including but not restricted to the ways in which it multiplies opportunities for almsgiving and generally alleviates the material conditions of the poor. It is true that the life recommended by liberalism falls short of the Christian model of the best life. For starters, it inculcates ingratitude and covetousness. It is true that liberal political institutions fall short of the Christian model of the best regime, where an all-good, all-wise God-King rules, directly and forevermore. But in the interim, in this fallen world of sin and suffering, liberal society is capable of mitigating our conditions. Even if it threatens to corrupt the youth and spread heresies, paganism and unbelief, it nevertheless saves Christians from the worst forms of persecution. It opens up spaces for communities to live as much as possible by God’s grace in accordance with the law of love. We must remember that the original and best arguments for the separation of Church and State were designed to protect religion from politics, not to protect politics from religion as is commonly supposed today. Christians also know that secular rulers cannot save anyone’s souls, not even rulers who supposedly believe the same things they do, and so Christians do not pin their hopes on the government to accomplish everything that is important.

To sum up, whether from a Biblical perspective or one guided by classical political science, nobody is required to deny that there is such a thing as the good life and that such a life is not the explicit (or even likely) goal of liberalism in order to be a good liberal – one who recognizes that in practice, under the circumstances, it makes sense to be partial to liberalism. One can recommend liberalism for reasons that differ from and exceed those that liberalism puts forward for itself.

This recommendation will not satisfy ideological liberals, on the right or the left, who mistake liberal doctrine, however they construe it, for the whole and unadulterated truth regarding what is right and good. They tend to accommodate others only insofar as they expect to succeed in suppressing their extra-liberal aspects, all the while expecting to convert them (or their children) eventually. Many ideological liberals aren’t actually committed to liberalism either, I would note. They see it as a kind of temporary, transitional regime on the way to something that reflects the whole truth regarding the right and the good more fully still. Usually that something is socialistic. These pseudo-liberals will incentivize irresponsibility and dependency in the name of freedom in order to undermine the preconditions of liberal society’s success and coax people toward the totalitarian regime they yearn for, where the whole of the human condition will be centrally administered – probably by them, they figure – for everyone’s own good. For the time being, they will even cleverly exploit the way that individuals can be lured into believing that they are supposed to be guaranteed success and happiness in autonomously devising and executing their subjectively fabricated life plans, so as to raise and dash their expectations and thereby generate disappointment with an unrealistic model of personal freedom, leading people to clamour instead for collective responsibility under an immense and intrusive State apparatus that promises to prearrange success for all of our endeavours – without anyone ever really having to actually endeavour anything. Related to this is the development of a radical conception of equality of opportunity by pseudo-liberals that effectively undermines the possibility and purposes of free and responsible action, given that all genuinely voluntary action evidences and entails inequality.

The founders of classical liberalism, such as John Locke, understood what they were doing from within the framework of classical political science, even as they explicitly denounced it. They knew that in order to make their arguments persuasive and successful in practice, they had to present them in isolation from and in opposition to classical political science’s broader understanding of human nature and deeper conception of the good life. Once liberal ideas, habits and institutions are established, however, liberals have the option of narrow-mindedly doubling down on their prejudices, blinding themselves further to the upsides of the theoretical alternatives that came before, or reassessing and tempering their commitments in light of them, confident enough in their victory not to feel threatened in so doing. Later liberals, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, made the case for the relative goodness of classical liberalism within modern conditions, but they tried to warn liberals of the ways in which they could go wrong if they radicalized their own principles and attempted to extend them promiscuously everywhere, motivated primarily by their passion for equality. Instead, liberals should be aware and wary of liberalism’s own partialities – especially its prioritization of the body, its focus on pleasure and pain and its exclusive concern for material well-being. These are the matters regarding which we are already most equal and most available to being equalized further. But putting emphasis on them is always at the expense of concern for our souls. We should not make an idol or fetish out of equality. Souls matter more than systems. Even if equality in principle and under the law are essential for liberal justice, liberal justice is good for reasons that exceed considerations of equality, because it allows us to be responsible for the well-being of our souls, individually and together, as much as we can be.

The possibility of freedom being used well in this fashion depends on the culture, morals, traditions, laws, organizations and institutions around us educating people accordingly through obligation and opportunity. Admittedly, liberalism has within it the potential for eroding this capacity and abdicating this responsibility as its abstract principles are worked out in practice, when they are mistakenly presumed to account for the whole of what is right and good. Not trusting the government to engage directly in thoroughgoing soul craft, as liberalism does not, does not mean that it becomes a matter of indifference how people are raised. Rather, it becomes ever more essential that this responsibility is handled well at the subpolitical and transpolitical levels. It is a matter of debate whether the culture that is necessary to support classical liberalism still thrives or has utterly withered. If the latter, then a further question arises: What is to be done? My position is that piety and reason alike require us to have some hope. I imagine that those who are raised to responsibility these days, however, have their work cut out for them, compensating for the craven yet proud irresponsibility to which our culture nowadays raises the rest.

Travis D. Smith

Travis D. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press) and co-editor of Flattering the Demos (Lexington Books).

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