Selfishness Is Killing Liberalism
The path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
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. In The Open Society, written in the heyday of Nazi Germany, Karl Popper described irrationalism as the sine qua non of the totalitarian state. Popper and Mill compel us to ask an epistemological question: How can the quintessentially rationalist faith of liberalism flourish in an age that systematically demeans rationality?
Whether one begins an account of liberalism with Mill, or Locke, or the Founding Fathers, it is fair to say that all early liberals would have accepted Adam Smith’s proposition that prosperity will be best served if men are given free rein to pursue their self-interest. Yet by the end of the 19th century, as the industrial economy both raised living standards and plunged workers—now equipped with the vote—into appalling conditions in factories and mines, the doctrine of laissez-faire became both politically and morally unsustainable to liberals themselves. In 1909, Herbert Croly published The Promise of American Life, an immensely influential book that argued that Jeffersonian individualism no longer offered a real guarantee of freedom. “The democratic principle requires an equal start in the race,” Croly wrote, but so long as private property was sacred, equal rights could not guarantee equal opportunity to citizens not born to privilege. Liberalism could not be satisfied merely with the promise of equal rights.
The trunk of liberalism now separated into two boughs. One revived the free-market tradition, arguing that political freedom could not flourish absent full economic freedom. This point of view, associated with Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, flourished in the 1920s, but was discredited—or was certainly seen to have been discredited—by the calamity of the Great Depression. It would not reemerge for decades. The other liberalism was buoyed up by FDR’s New Deal and then sustained as the bulwark against totalitarianism by mid-century thinkers like Popper, Isaiah Berlin and George Orwell. This was the moderately interventionist, secular, empirical, pragmatic doctrine that became something like a civic religion in the United States after World War II. The “vital center,” as Arthur Schlesinger called it, occupied a spot midway between the strict individualism of 19th-century England and the collectivist social democracy of post-war Europe.
In his famous speech announcing the advent of the Great Society, LBJ used Croly’s metaphor of the unequal race. But by the 1960s it was not white middle-class American who needed state intervention, but minorities, above all African Americans, who had been left behind as American became a broadly prosperous nation. This moral commitment carried obvious political dangers, for liberals were now asking Americans to make sacrifices for others. By the end of the decade, liberalism had begun to lose its hold on the white working-class, once the prime beneficiary of government programs. Liberalism has never regained its appeal for those voters. By 1980, the abandoned laissez-faire tradition had revived, and left-liberalism had been replaced by Ronald Reagan’s right-liberalism of small government, low taxes, and free-market economics. (This is over-simplifying, of course, for Reagan also ran against liberal secularism and liberal doubts about American power and virtue.)
The Democrats responded to their marginalization by dropping the tainted word “liberal” and accepting crucial parts of the Reagan program. “Neoliberals” or advocates of a “Third Way” like Bill Clinton (or Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder in Europe) endorsed the conservative emphasis on economic growth but applied liberal principles of social justice to public investment and the distribution of wealth; they aspired to forge a liberalism of the middle class. The right-liberal and left-liberal parties traded power; each appeared to have almost exactly half the country on its side. Then, in 2016, the seesaw stopped: Both parties were rejected in favor of a candidate who simultaneously attacked Wall Street and the welfare state, professed little regard for individual rights and none for free speech, opposed globalization and free trade, and called for the country to erect a wall against pretty much the entire outside world.
Donald Trump’s election has thus provoked a crisis of identity both for the party of the market and the party of the state. Conservatives need to rescue their own party, now marshaled under Trump’s populist banner. Liberals have a problem of a different order; they need to reconstruct their faith as they did in 1912 and 1964 and 1992, when they learned or relearned how to speak to the broad middle of the country. Or rather, liberals need to decide whether that is their goal. Can they, should they, seek to address the deep sense of grievance that the election exposed? Politically, after all, they may not need to: Trump’s base is melting down to the hard core, and Democrats may return to power simply by letting his party self-destruct, and by mobilizing a base fired up by righteous fury.
The issue has provoked an important debate inside the center-left. In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla argues that the growing obsession with identity politics has stripped liberals of the civic language they long used to address the American people collectively. Now, Lilla observes, conversations on race, gender or ethnicity often begin with the privilege-claiming expression, “Speaking as a…” Hurling the ultimate insult, Lilla describes this as the Reaganism—the harsh individualism—of the left.
I doubt whether the near-obsession with identity issues can be uprooted from the heart of the Democratic Party. But liberalism’s appeal has always sprung from its commitment to the language of collective interest—the language of “we.” This offers liberalism a platform very different from the insistent “I” of conservatism, and the “they” of populism—the not-us, whether elites or their clients. One way of thinking about the choice liberals face is this: At a moment of intense polarization, they must either return to the old “we” or deploy their own version of “us and them.”
I don’t know which is the shorter path to political victory. But if Mill and Popper were right about liberalism’s foundation in reason and science, and if Isaiah Berlin was right in thinking that liberal democracy depends upon a skeptical “pluralism” about basic goods, then liberalism simply cannot survive the violent division that now afflicts our culture. Intellectual polarization follows, and reinforces, social polarization. It is in the interest of liberals to take seriously the dictum of Lincoln that a house divided cannot stand.
What would it mean to address the sense of grievance that cost Hillary Clinton the election? Doing so requires liberals to find ways of buffering the effects of the globalization of jobs and products and people, without surrendering to Trump’s xenophobia and isolationism. And it requires addressing the issue of inequality, which Donald Trump exploited and then abandoned once he reached the White House, without declaring a self-defeating jihad against Wall Street and corporate America.
But the inequality that makes Trump voters seethe is not the same one that enrages voters on the left; not the “1 percent,” but liberals themselves. The meritocracy of professionals and academics and upper-white-collar workers has ossified in recent years into something that looks to people on the outside more like an oligarchy. In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce dubs this phenomenon “hereditary meritocracy.” Luce observes that about a quarter of American children from the top 1 percent of the income scale attend an elite university, while only 0.5 percent of those from the bottom fifth do. The well-to-do also have access to tutors and private guidance counselors and fancy summer programs and the like. “Why wouldn’t the losers be angry?” Luce asks.
Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Died, has a word for this class: the “liberalocracy.” While the aristocratic family perpetuated itself through the landed estate, Deneen writes, the liberalocratic family rests upon the legacy of liberal individualism “loose generational ties, portable credentials, the inheritance of fungible wealth, and the promise of mobility.” Deneen insists that the hereditary meritocracy is not an aberration of liberalism, but its greatest achievement, since a system built on impersonal considerations of “merit” is impervious to attack in liberal terms.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider Deneen’s intriguing solution to this problem. Deneen argues that both left- and right-liberalism are the fruit of a poisoned tree. That common source is an individualism which sees man as an autonomous being, standing apart from his fellow man, his past and his place. Liberty, in this formulation, means freedom from coercion, freedom to do as you wish—“negative liberty,” as Isaiah Berlin called it. Liberalism has thus presided over the elimination of all the old impediments to individual progress—religion, community, custom. Deneen reminds us of an older tradition, reaching back to Plato, which argues that citizens must gain self-mastery in order to be capable of exercising self-government. Liberty of this sort presupposes an “education in virtue” administered by precisely those institutions that liberalism has done away with. Deneen would have us restore that tradition—he’s not very convincing on the means—and reforge the old world of custom, including the traditional family, that once sustained “losers” and provided a whole world of value apart from meritocratic triumph.
Deneen is a Catholic conservative who offers an alternative reading of history that will be appealing to other Catholic conservatives, though perhaps only very reactionary ones. He is capable of writing that higher education began going to hell with the end of compulsory chapel and parietals. He claims that the liberal commitment to equality is a piece of pretty hypocrisy designed to distract the ordinary citizen while elites build their gilded meritocratic cage. But this is a false reading of history, for liberals have long worried about the hold on power of a privileged class—including a liberal class. In The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly writes that in a free society, men of talent will naturally rise to the top. But that privileged position begins to corrode social bonds when it threatens to become permanent, whether through inheritance or through the exploitation of privilege. “The essential wholeness of the community,” he writes, “depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.”
Croly hoped to preserve the “essential wholeness of the community” in part through a steeply progressive estate tax. Teddy Roosevelt, his great patron, agreed. In a famous 1910 speech partly inspired by Croly, Roosevelt, himself a wealthy man, called for a progressive income tax—none then existed—as well as an inheritance tax “increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” Writing in The Atlantic in 1943, James Conant Bryant, the president of Harvard, declared that an “American radical” “will be lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege.” He would, in fact, call for the confiscation of all inherited property every generation. The unwillingness to permit a “caste system” to form, Conant wrote, “is the kernel of his radical philosophy.”
There is, in fact, no sharper difference between left-liberalism and right-liberalism than the estate tax, with its implicit principle that privilege ought not be transmitted generationally. There is no better rebuttal of Deneen’s contempt for liberalism. And there is no better way of standing up against the power of money in politics, the great theme that brought Bernie Sanders to the brink of the Democratic nomination. No less important, the willingness of the left, unlike the right, to gore its own ox might demonstrate to hard-pressed Americans that the liberal elite understands, as it once understood, the meaning of sacrifice.
But do liberals understand sacrifice? Liberalism did grave damage to its reputation in the 1960s by demanding real sacrifices from ordinary people and very little from elites, whose children were not the ones being bused to inner-city schools, nor drafted and sent off to fight in Vietnam. Has anything changed today? So many of the things liberals favor—globalization, a generous immigration policy, an increase in the minimum wage, affirmative action—do them real good and little harm, while impinging, or at least seeming to impinge, on Americans a few steps down the ladder. What do liberals favor that’s good for America broadly but not good for them? Still thinking?
This is not a problem for conservatives, who believe in the social value of selfishness. But liberals fancy themselves idealists. They need to prove it by pulling themselves off their perch. What about mandatory national service? Not killing anyone—that’s for professionals—but clearing brush in a national park. I would advocate eliminating legacy admissions at elite universities, as others like Richard Reeves of Brookings have argued, save that I can’t believe that institutions whose economic model depends on alumni donations will ever do that.
National service and even the estate tax are essentially emblems; perhaps sacrifice itself is a kind of emblem. But it is a language that Americans understand, and appreciate. If liberals are to find a way to speak to Americans who have been trained to regard them as the spawn of Satan, it will not be enough, as Hillary Clinton amply demonstrated, to have the best policies. The death-knell of liberalism really might prove to be premature if liberals can rediscover the deep sources of the collective “we” in the face of Donald Trump’s devastating strategy of “me” and “us.”