Selfishness is killing Liberalism


The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago.

Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise.

I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.

But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely.

Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.

Liberalism is not a doctrine founded on a sacred text, like Communism.

It is something more like a set of predispositions—a faith in individuals and their capacity for growth, a tempered optimism that expects progress but recoils before utopian dreams, a belief in open debate and the possibility of persuasion, an insistence upon secularism in the public realm, an orientation towards civil rights and civil liberties.

Precisely because it has no canon, liberalism perpetually redefines and renews itself.

Liberalism is not intrinsically majoritarian, but because it fully thrives only in democracies, seeks to align itself with the broad public will.

Nevertheless, liberalism has a core, and that is the right of the individual to stand apart.

John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is the closest thing liberalism has to a founding tract.

Mill set out to explain why it was in the interest of society in general to give individuals the greatest possible right to speak and act as they wish.

Individuals, that is, do not have some kind of “natural right” to free speech independent from its social value.

Rather, he wrote, mankind is fallible; our saving grace is that our errors are “corrigible.”

We acknowledge our fallibility by listening to those with whom we disagree, and testing our ideas against the strongest possible counter-argument.

Only thus do we have a chance of approximating, if not actually reaching, the truth.

Read today, this passage sounds as archaic as the chivalric code.

In our own world, after all, free speech abounds while the intellectual habits that make free speech actually matter degenerate.

The rhetoric of “fake news” turns different sides of the political debate into rival camps, each encased in its own cognitive bubble. Continue reading

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