Open University

On Liberalism


By Jacob T. Levy

I hope to have time this week to work up a reply to co-blogger Linda Hirschman's piece on the supposed electoral consequences of Democrats' supposedly excessive embrace of the philosophy of John Rawls. But one related note: I recommend and second Marty Peretz' reflections on the replacement of the word "liberal" with the word "progressive" over at The Spine. "Liberal" and "progressive" are non-identical categories in American political thought, and we suffer some real impoverishment of political discourse if one replaces the other just because "liberal" tests badly. I'm a liberal (and, yes, a Rawlsian, of a very attenuated sort) but not a progressive, in part for the reasons identified by Peretz.

At a somewhat different level of abstraction: "progressive" as a concept is tied up with a partly-inchoate philosophy of history that I'd have thought long since discredited. It doesn't share in Marxism's rigid determinism; but it does always tell a story in which one's own side in political disputes happens to be the side of the future and the march of events. That tied together the racist imperialism of the Progressive Era, its anti-constitutionalism, and its technocracy: we enlightened white Americans with university degrees and a sense of good order and planning will drag non-white people, the uneducated, the messy chaos of the economy, and an archaic governing structure based on archaic ideas on the limits of state action into the future.

Liberalism as such doesn't believe it will necessarily win. Liberalism a la Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar, and behind them figures like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, is deeply inflected with a sense that freedom might be precarious, and the humane and human accomplishments of liberal politics might be precarious. The liberal sense of history is not necessarily pessimistic, but it shares none of progressivism's certainty.

And liberalism has always looked unambitious to progressives: the mere rule of law, mere protection of basic civil liberties, mere procedural fairness seem uninspiring compared with plans to remake a society or an economy. On the other hand, the idea that, say, the mere, unambitious, uninspiring rule of law, the mere immunity from arbitrary executive action and detention without trial, might be a difficult and precarious accomplishment, one that should not be taken for granted, perhaps seems more plausible than it did a decade ago.

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