vrijdag 31 oktober 2008

What Liberalism is and isn't


Dit is een interessante blog die ik jullie wou delen. Het is dus niet mijn tekst, maar zeker het lezen waard.

Just wanted to try and come to some kind of conclusion regarding Christopher Insole’s The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defense of Political Liberalism (see here, here and here for previous posts on this topic).

In his concluding chapter Insole wants to clarify what the defender of political liberalism is and isn’t committed to. He says:

"The position I have been circling around in this book is that there is order, meaning and participation, but that it comes to us in ways that are fragmented, graced, unbidden and hidden. I have argued that a refusal to conflate the visible and invisible Church leads us to endorse some strands of political liberalism, while cultivating an aversion towards global invocations of new (or ancient) world-views and divinely sanctioned political activism. On the other hand, the Church - because of the specific and theological nature of its endorsement of political liberalism - is always called to resist liberal triumphalism and global revolutions and wars in the name of ‘liberty’, when these campaigns ride roughshod over the fallenness and complexity of our shared human condition. "(p. 170)

Insole concedes that such a position may risk falling into a complacent acceptance of the status quo. But, he argues that the 20th century experiments in “transformative projects” - such as communism and fascism - give us good reason to appreciate anew liberalism’s prosaic virtues. And Insole’s brand of liberalism can, he thinks, provide a check on the more millenial version of “crusading liberalism” that seeks to impose one model of political and economic life on the entire world:

"An aversion to political liberalism, one suspects, is frequently motivated by a profound discomfort at the ravages of late global capitalism; such a discomfort I would suggest is the driving force behind Milbank’s self-styling as a Christian socialist. If nothing else, this book should show that there is a tradition of political liberalism that is much older than global capitalism, and that is conceptually quite distinct from it. Political liberalism is motivated by the desire to preserve the liberties of the individual within a framework of law and fair institutions. A sense of the frailty of human individuals and their vulnerability to the enthusiasms of other individuals leads the political liberal to adopt a cautious attitude when presented with attempts to plan society on the model of a unifying common good, a ‘political community’." (p. 172)

He notes that the liberal as such isn’t committed to any particular view of political economy; “liberal” views range from the relatively laissez-faire of F.A. Hayek to the rather extensive degree of redistribution and regulation envisioned by John Rawls. Nor must the liberal demand that “market values” be extended to every sphere of society - i.e. that all professions, communities, etc. be “run like a business.” Burke, though a fan of Adam Smith’s economic theories, certainly didn’t think that the “little platoons” of family, community, church, college, etc. should consist entirely of contractual relationships. And neither is the liberal committed to the global extension of a particular social and economic model that runs roughshod over indigenous customs and institutions.

The essence of the liberal view of political society is that it is (to use Michael Oakeshott’s terms) a nomocracy and not a teleocracy. In a nomocracy, the job of government is to establish a set of rules under the constraint of which people can pursue whatever goals they choose. A teleocracy, by contrast, seeks to direct its subjects to a particular goal or purpose. For instance, when people talke about America’s “mission” or “purpose” they’re speaking teleocratically. Which is not to deny that the various communities within liberal society - churches, schools, associations of various sorts - may be legitimate teleocracies. The crucial distinction for the liberal is that political society has the power to impose a particular ordering of values, whereas these other bodies can only propose.

Critics of liberalism sometimes charge that it celebrates an essentially empty notion of freedom without taking a stand on which choices we should make. But for the political liberal that’s as it should be, because political liberalism isn’t a comprehensive theory about the good life, but a doctrine about the proper limits of political authority. The liberal wants the discussion about the proper ends of life to be hashed out in the essentially non-coercive sphere of civil society rather than being imposed from above by government.

Which is not to say that there aren’t versions of liberalism that do propose (or maybe presuppose) a comprehensive theory about the good life. There is a strain in liberal thinking (perhaps derived from J.S. Mill) that sees the development of individual personality without restraints as the highest good, period. This “expressive individualism” is what critics of liberalism often have in mind I think. Since it denies the existence of an ordering telos of human life it is inconsistent with more robust accounts of what makes for a good human life (including religious ones). But what Insole and other political liberals want to say is that political liberalism can exist independently of liberalism as a comprehensive view about the good life.

The critics, on the other hand, think that political liberalism will bleed into the rest of social life, dissolving all social bonds into relationships based on contract and consent, and promoting a nihilistic denial of any good beyond the preferences of individuals. That is, they think that political liberalism will inevitably lead to a society of expressive individualism and moral nihilism (critics like Alasdair MacIntyre think that our society has already reached such a point).

While I think Insole has done a good job showing that political liberalism is conceptually distinct from liberalism more broadly conceived, I doubt the critics would be convinced that there isn’t still a slippery slope from one to the other. On the other hand, I think he’s done a good job reminding us of some of the virtues of liberalism at a time when perhaps there are neo-traditionalists and communitarians itching to have society reflect a prescribed set of values. And for all their polemics, I don’t think the theological critics of liberalism want to see the replacement of the liberal political order with a confessional state, so maybe there’s less substantive difference here than some of the rhetoric might lead us to think.

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