Monday, January 26, 2009

The liberal perplex

In a 1956 paper, the British philosopher W. B. Gallie (1912–1998) introduced the term "essentially contested concept." Gallie sought to enhance our understanding of the various applications of abstract, qualitative, and evaluative concepts—such as “art,” “democracy,” and “social justice”—that circulate in such domains as aesthetics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion.

Gallie’s coinage is useful for several reasons. One is that it challenges the common view among intellectuals that statements must be absolutely clear or they are nonsense. This claim was central to the demarcation criterion defended by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. More recently, philosophers have become leery of such simple solutions. Still, a popular version is alive and well: “My answer is right and yours is wrong.” This is the trouble, so we are told these days, with disputes between the supporters of Israel and the supporters of the Palestinians. Each side assumes the absolute correctness of its own position, in contrast with the manifest absurdity of that of their opponents.

Baffled by the larger problem, some retreat into skepticism, maintaining that “all answers are equally true (or false); everyone has a right to his own truth.” A related approach proposes that each meaning offers a partial view (perspectivism). In this light, the more meanings we have, the better. While we would all agree that it is important to keep an open mind, overextension of this precept may lead to intellectual chaos.

Some find this thicket exasperating. As Gallie notes,“[s]o long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means. But once [we] let the truth out of the bag — i.e., the essential contestedness of the concept in question — then this harmless if deluded hope may well be replaced by a ruthless decision to cut the cackle, to damn the heretics, and to exterminate the unwanted.” While perhaps understandable, this harsh conclusion must be avoided.

Simply put, an essentially contested concept is one where there is widespread agreement on an abstract core notion itself (e.g., "fairness"), while there is endless argument about what might be the best instantiation, or realization of that notion.

According to Gallie, there are "concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users,” and these disputes "cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone."

Although Gallie’s term has enjoyed some currency when speaking of issues of overlapping, indiscriminate, and imprecise use of technical terminology the expression has a more specific application. At first glance, it may seem that the notion could be used to justify assuming the weasel principle to the effect that "we must agree to disagree" sort of evasive stance. Yet a closer examination reveals something more valuable.

The disputes that attend an essentially contested concept are driven by substantive disagreements over a range of different, entirely reasonable (though perhaps mistaken) interpretations of a mutually-agreed-upon archetypal notion. One such is the legal maxim "treat like cases alike; and treat different cases differently," with "each party [continuing] to defend its case with what it claims to be convincing arguments, evidence and other forms of justification" (Gallie).

Many laypeople who attempt to come to terms with the contemporary art world are tempted to say that such-and-such a work is not in fact art. In this way the assertion that "this object is a work of art" may meet strong disagreement based on differing views about the proper interpretation and application of the term "work of art." Addressing this problem Gallie suggests that there are three avenues through which one might resolve such a dispute:

1. One might discover an entirely new meaning of the term "work of art" to which all of the disputants could henceforward agree.
2. One could propose one meaning (new or otherwise) and convince all of the disputants to henceforward agree to conform to this new, expressly stipulated meaning.
3. One could declare the term "work of art," as used by the different disputants, to be a number of mutually exclusive and quite different concepts which simply share the same name.

Absent any one of these three solutions, it is highly likely that the dispute centers on an "essentially contested concept."

The ensuing discussion has disclosed a number of interesting points. Instead of going into these, however, let us turn to an instance of current concern: l i b e r a l i s m. (On a later occasion, I will address the idea that homosexuality is an essentially contested concept.)

The Europaeum is an association of ten leading European universities that seeks to foster collaborative research and teaching; to provide opportunities for scholars, leaders, academics and graduates; to stage conferences, summer schools and colloquia; and to enable leading figures from the worlds of business, politics and culture to take part in transnational and interdisciplinary dialogue with the world of scholarship. Just a coule of weeks ago, on January 9-11, 2009, the Europaeum hosted a major international conference on “Liberalisms in East and West,” with leading participants from many countries , including Professors Henk te Velde from Leiden; Paolo Pombeni from Bologna; Michael Freeden, Director of the Centre for Political Ideologies, Oxford; and João Espada from Lisbon Catholic University.

While the proceedings of the conference have not yet been published, Timothy Garton Ash, a participant, offered a lively preliminary account in the New York Times for January 25, 2009.

The election of Barack Obama would seem to have given the concept of liberalism a new vibrancy. As Garton Ash notes, “[l]ike many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary political discourse in the United States understands why.”

Or do we? First let the Oxford scholar continue. “Just over 20 years ago, a group of leading American intellectuals, gathered by the historian Fritz Stern, placed an advertisement in [the New York Times], trying to defend the word ‘liberalism’ against its [perceived] abuse by Ronald Reagan and others on the American right. It was in vain. Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting—to put the matter a tad frivolously—some unholy marriage of big government and fornication.”

Why has it been so easy for conservatives to transform “liberal” into a term of abuse? The answer lies in a point made last year by Hilary Clinton in a primary debate. When pressed to define “liberal,” and say if she was one, Clinton replied that a word originally associated with a belief in freedom had unfortunately come to mean favoring big government. So, she concluded, “I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning.”

Setting aside the red herring that “liberal” is possibly un-American, Hilary Clinton has nonetheless hit upon the core of the problem. From British political discourse, the source of many of our noblest political and constitutional ideals, we have inherited a dualistic concept of liberalism.

First, there is classical liberalism (also known as traditional liberalism, or laissez-faire liberalism) Outside the English-speaking world this form is known simply as liberalism (tout court, though sometimes endowed with a prefix: neo-liberalism). This is a doctrine enshrining the principles of individual freedom and limited government. Also stressed are human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, the protection of civil liberties, and free markets. At the core of classical liberalism, according to some adepts, is the idea that laissez-faire economics will foster a spontaneous order allowing the beneficial operation of an “invisible hand” that benefits the entire society. The state retains a role in helping to guarantee basic public goods, together with maintaining the administration of justice and fairness. In this respect it differs from anarchism.
Abroad, free trade must prevail. And in intellectual life, John Stuart Mill famously defended the free interaction of ideas. By tolerating variant views, we are enabled to strengthen our own ideas, Mill held. Proponents are confident that these components of classical liberalism are mutually consistent, forming an organic whole that must not be tinkered with.

All the same, in early twentieth-century Britain liberalism underwent a fateful change. Somewhat mysteriously, classical liberalism morphed into social liberalism, a very different animal. A group of thinkers known as the New Liberals made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and in favor of state intervention in social, economic, and cultural life. The New Liberals, including such figures as T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favorable social and economic circumstances,

To achieve these ends government must move beyond its role as referee, ensuring that free-market principles prevail. Instead, government and its allied institutions must actively intervene in public affairs to achieve the ends of social justice. The New Liberals decried the poverty, squalor, and ignorance in which many people lived, maintaining that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong welfare-oriented state. After World War II these social-liberal principles triumphed in Britain’s welfare state, only to be curtailed by the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In the United States, the shift of climate that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan had a similar effect with respect to the New Deal, a typical social-liberal regime.

As has been frequently noted, freedom and social justice are mutually antagonistic; the more you have of one, the less you have of the other.

Some observers, however continue to believe that one can eat one’s cake and have it at the same time. These bien pensant individuals see the contrast between classical liberalism and social liberalism as unimportant: it is all just liberalism pure and simple. Not so fast, though. It should be clear from what has been said above that this amalgam is not viable. It is like one of those party stunts in which two distinct individuals get under a cloak to simulate a single horse.
Others, viewing the matter in a less pollyannaish way, gravitate to version one of liberalism (classical), while others prefer version two (social liberalism).

At all events, it has become clear that two such radically opposed ideas cannot easily inhabit the same dwelling. Or, to put the matter differently, liberalism, as it has evolved in the English-speaking world, has stretched the principle of an essentially contested concept to the breaking point--and beyond.

And that is not all, for Garton Ash acknowledges another complicating factor. “The United States is not the only place where ‘liberalism’ is fiercely contested. [At the Oxford conference,] with speakers from the Americas, Europe, India, Japan and China, we explored what we deliberately called ‘Liberalisms.’ Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as ‘liberalism’ in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or ‘fiscal conservative’ strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce ‘liberalism,’ they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)”

Garton Ash further comments as follows. “Faced with this worldwide conceptual cacophony, some at the conference argued that we should abandon the term, or at least dismantle it into component parts with plainer meanings. But combinations and balances belong to liberalism’s defining essence, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As the Oxford political theorist Michael Freeden observed, if just one of the necessary components—for example, the free market — dominates, then the result can be illiberalism. The vital, never-ending debate over liberalism is not just over its indispensable ingredients, but also over their form, proportion and relation to one another.”

Frankly, I find this procedure more suitable as a recipe for cooking a soup--where too much garlic, say, can be a problem--than for meaningful discourse about a key political concept. Freeden is offering a salmagundi, not a viable political theory.

For his part, Garton Ash proffers some specifics. “A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st-century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason, and progress. The mix of ingredients differs from place to place. Whether some distant cousin really belongs to the extended family of liberalisms is a matter of healthy dispute. But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.”

Nice try, but this really will not do. It is too late in the day for such flaccid iteration to perform the task. Up to a point, Garton Ash acknowledges this problem. “T]he United States is still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name.”
“For obvious reasons,” he goes on to say, “we are now witnessing worldwide criticism of a version of pure free-market liberalism, a k a neo-liberalism, charged with having led us into our current economic mess.” This critique is a major complicating factor, for outside the English-speaking world liberalism is being routinely and endlessly denounced by those who (in anglophone terms) should be its allies.

What is the upshot? After reading Garton Ash’s piece one is left in a quandary. The concept of liberalism is manifestly afflicted with several serious disorders, yet--he holds--we can still rally to it. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, this is just feel-good scholarship.

Garton Ash and other defenders are whistling as they go past the graveyard, a graveyard that contains an embarrassing corpse.

The difficulties that attend any proper resuscitation of liberalism transpire from the fate of a text first promulgated in Oxford itself in 1947, just after the end of World War II. The Oxford Manifesto, drawn up by representatives from nineteen liberal political parties at Wadham College in Oxford, under the leadership of the Spanish thinker Salvador de Madariaga, is a document that sought to define the basic political principles of the Liberal International.

Fifty years later, in 1997, the Liberal International returned to Oxford, and issued a supplement to the original manifesto, called “The Liberal Agenda for the 21st Century,” seeking to describe liberal policies in greater detail.

I will not rehearse the contents of the Oxford Manifesto and its supplement; the texts are readily available on the Internet.

A key point, which speaks eloquently about the difficulty of simply reaffirming the old-time religion of liberalism, is that little letter added to the title of the 2009 conference: “LiberalismS.” It may be, as Garton Ash proposes, that the egregiously pluralistic jumble accumulated from some 150 years of evolution can in fact be reassembled with greater coherence so that a new synthesis emerges.

In my view, this expectation is decidedly overoptimistic. The subject of liberalism is now the object of a study in the history of ideas, not a reliable rallying point for actual policy proposals. By contrast, Hilary Clinton is probably right: “progressive” may work; “liberalism” will not.

POSTSCRIPT. While it is true that today the best known deployments of “liberal” as an epithet of derision stem from the right, the ploy was actually launched by elements of the Far Left. In their continuing struggle against social democrats, Communists and their allies did not hesitated to demonize their “progressive” rivals. It was leftists, for example, who invented the term “cosmetic liberalism” to designate what they viewed as vain efforts to address social problems by gradual change, instead of the radical solutions the far leftists demanded. Now, of course, the Far Left is no more. But it has wrought substantial damage.

SECOND POSTSCRIPT. Today (January 26) the hapless William Kristol has published another of his characteristically lazy columns in the NY Times: “Will Obama Save Liberalism?” Committing the familiar error of reification, Kristol doesn’t even acknowledge that there are two liberalisms. Which is it then that he hopes (so transparently) Obama will fail to save?

The good news is that this column will be Kristol's last in the Times. Kristol, who more than anyone else is responsible for bringing us Sarah Palin, should never have been hired in the first place.

One wag has said that the reason Kristol was let go is that he wasn't conservative enough for the NY Times. But what about the wacko leftist Paul Krugman? Well, what about him? His recent calls for throwing more and more and more dollars at our problems only serve to discredit the cause he is ostensibly supporting. And his Nobel Prize in economics only shows that that category has been overtaken by the same grotesquerie that has long characterized the process for awarding the Nobel literature prize. QED.



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