When I talk about my recent book The Future of Liberalism, and especially when I talk to more conservative audiences, I’m frequently asked which liberalism I favor: “classical liberalism” with its preference for the market and its belief in individual freedom, or “modern liberalism” and its reliance on the state and commitment to equality. One thing I know is this tendency to see two different kinds of liberalism is wrong.
It’s true that Adam Smith argued in favor of the market, just as John Maynard Keynes made the case for state intervention. But liberalism, as I define it, means as many people as possible should have as much say as feasible over the direction their lives will take.
Autonomy and equality are goals that transcend the classical/modern divide.
In the 18th century, legacies of feudalism and the rules of mercantilism created a situation in which free markets could both allow people greater control over their lives and at the same time spread that capacity to others. Smith, although claimed today by libertarians, was a liberal, indeed one of the great liberal thinkers, not because he made such a lasting contribution to economic theory but because he developed a moral philosophy respecting both freedom and equality.
Under conditions of contemporary capitalism, by contrast, individual autonomy is threatened by poverty, economic instability, and concentrated corporate power. Using government to control economic fluctuations, as Keynes argued, gave society the capacity both to improve the ability of any one person to become more autonomous as well as to extend the same notion more broadly. Keynes, a member of the British Liberal Party, was never a socialist. He, like Smith, was a liberal because he too respected both freedom and equality.
But autonomy as well as equality is always constituted in a social context. Liberalism is as much a philosophy of how society ought to be organized as it is a defense of individual autonomy. Indeed one of the tasks in which so many liberal thinkers engaged was to defend and protect the idea of society against its rivals. For Immanuel Kant, this meant defending society against a Rousseauian preference for “nature.” For Thomas Jefferson it meant protecting the capacity for self-government against those who argued that law was God’s province, not that of human beings. Liberalism emerged as a theory of human purpose. We have the power to shape our lives according to purposes we fashion together with others. The concept of society protects us from the anarchy of individualism on the one hand and the designs of all-powerful states on the other.
Society is made possible because human beings have culture at their disposal. In writing my book I was struck by the overlap between the ideas for which liberalism stands and how theorists from Emile Durkheim to Clifford Geertz understand and emphasize culture. Culture offers the means by which human beings establish and realize their collective goals. Culture both expands individual freedom (because it multiplies so enormously the range of possibilities open to us) and promotes equality (because it ties the fates of individuals together through language and symbols). Cultureless creatures would live with neither.
This is why it’s important to recognize that in today’s intellectual climate, the great threat to liberalism comes not from those who assert the priority of God over human creativity but from those who claim culture is merely a byproduct of evolution, something that happens in spite of what individuals want and reflects processes of transmission driven by something like our genes. (Richard Dawkins calls these means of transition “memes”). Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and their offshoots such as behavioral economics are anything but breakthrough sciences. They are, in fact, a throw-back to the ideas of such thinkers as Bernard de Mandeville and Thomas Malthus, who questioned liberalism’s understanding of human intentionality from the start and opted instead for one form of determinism or another.
Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to call themselves liberal. Their tradition is a long, honorable, and consistent one. It includes many different thinkers with many different ideas and approaches. But so long as they’re committed to the notion that freedom can’t exist without equality and vice versa, they are liberals. I am proud to call myself one of them.