Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Liberalism is still incoherent

In a recent posting I deal at some length on the unbridgeable difference between classical liberalism (of 19th century vintage) and social liberalism (mainly 20th century). They are radically opposed, and consequently incompatible.

Hope springs eternal, however, and some who claim the liberal label are still seeking to erase this difference with vague generalities. A case in point is Stanford professor Joshua Cohen, who recently made the following remarks at a conference.

"In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls offers a general description of a liberal political outlook. He intends the description to cover views ranging from the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguably in the tradition of Locke and Adam Smith, to the more egalitarian liberalism of his own "Theory of Justice." Rawls writes, “the content of a liberal political conception of justice is given by three main features:

1. a specification of basic rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind familiar from constitutional democratic regimes);

2. an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities, especially with respect of claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and

3. measures assuring to all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.

These [three] elements can be understood in different ways, so that there are many variant liberalisms.”

Oh, yeah? All three of these alleged unifying principles could have been endorsed by Joseph Stalin. Ignoring the red herring of "constitutional democratic regimes," Stalin would have said that indeed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has specified the basic rights, liberties, and opportunities afforded to Soviet citizens. The menu may seem a bit restricted, but that is beside the point. Priorities? Of course our people's democracy has priorities. And our devotion to the principle of perfectionism is sure to lead to the Shining Heights of Communism. And, Stalin would say, we are certainly prepared to adopt the appropriate measures. Go over to Lubianka and ask Comrade Dzherzhinksy.

Stalinism is then a "variant liberalism." QED

As this exercise shows, Cohen's list is so vague that it is virtually meaningless. It fails to pass the Popperian criterion of refutabity, since it is hard to imagine any modern regime--liberal or not--that would fail to meet these criteria by its own lights.

Void for vagueness. then.

However, we still have not addressed the real issue. That issue is the b a l a n c e or proportionality of these widely diffused components. Liberty and equality are opposites. An increase of one means a diminution of the other. But fantasists like Cohen assume that one can have a maximum of both--that one can eat one's cake and have it at the same time.

POSTSCRIPT (Presidents' Day, Feb. 16). Some readers are probably shaking their heads and saying what does it matter if liberalism is not "coherent" according to your standards, Dynes. Isn't the genius of the Anglo-Saxon political system that it operates with coalitions and fuzzy sets of doctrines? Pragmatism in short. By contrast we know of some other systems, such as fascism and Stalinism, that were all too consistent in welding principles into a coherent, airtight whole.

Not to make any invidious comparisons, in our own country Libertarianism has prided itself on the internal consistency of its body of doctrines. One of the consequences of this set of priorities is deregulation. And deregulation is currently decried as one of the reasons for the housing meltdown, and consequent economic crisis. As many suspected, Libertarian prescriptions have nt worked out very well in practice. Even Lindsay Graham says now that we should nationalize the banks. Considering his generally rightwing orientation, that would seem to be a sterling example of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.

There is, I think, a practical reason why we should be concerned about the failure (as I see it) of liberalism to achieve coherence. That is this. The present return of the Democratic Party to power may prove ephemeral. Such are the depths of the present crisis that this decline may be inevitable anyway. But the danger of incoherence at the present juncture is that it may prepare the way for another George W. Bush. Just one was almost enough to sink the Republic. Think of the damage that another would do.



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