Sunday, December 19, 2010

Liberalism 1.0 Through 4.0

The political terminology of the United States is often at odds with the terms used in Europe and the U.K. When corresponding with colleagues, I've had to recognize terms such as "neo-liberal," "Anglo-capitalist," and several others. The greatest confusion, though, is the simple "liberal" — which is seldom a compliment in European commentaries. What I consider "libertarian" might be close to "liberal" in European usage, but not quite a perfect equivalent.

Regardless, this is an interesting column on the word "liberal."
Can The L-word Be Saved?  
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world.  Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative.
It is an unholy mess and it needs to be cleared up.  It’s time for a language intervention.
Despite the mess so many “liberals” have made of this great political tradition, liberal and progressive are two of the noblest and most important words in the dictionary.  They describe essential qualities of the American mind and essential values in American politics.
But today the words have been hijacked.  They’ve been turned into their opposites: a liberal today is somebody who wants to defend and restore the Blue Social Model from the last century; a progressive is now somebody who thinks history has gone horribly wrong and that we must turn the clock back to make things better.
I'm not convinced that liberals want to restore or defend the social programs of the past, though many are locked into a defensive posture, especially as these programs relate to the Great Society. The American "left" has mythologized the Great Society, unfortunately. I believe the left is stuck in an idealism that doesn't recognize the realities of the twenty-first century. The general problem is that "progressive" liberalism anticipated a "scientific world" like something out of Star Trek, with rational thought controlling all human interactions. It hasn't happened and isn't likely to happen; Star Trek idealism is fiction.

This faith in logic and science, rationalism, can be traced to what Mead calls "Liberalism 1.0." This was the Enlightenment liberalism.
Liberalism 1.0 was the political expression of the original enlightenment philosophy that developed in Britain and shaped the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  
By the time the next incarnation of liberalism appeared, there was also an underlying shift in Western philosophy. In the U.K. and United States, the early seeds of what would become analytic philosophy and pragmatism were starting to take root. As a result, Liberalism 2.0 tried to reconcile economics, politics, and philosophy via unified theories of human nature.
Liberalism 2.0 as developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was rooted in the thought of 1.0 liberals like John Locke, but thinkers and politicians like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington developed and put into practice a set of ideas about how individual liberty could be reconciled with economic development and good governance.  Note how the names changed. 
Personally, I like Mead's definition of Liberalism 3.0, when individuals started to have the same rights, and responsibilities, as the educated elites. I personally believe modern libertarianism (small "L") can be traced to this moment in history, approximately overlapping the U.S. Civil War and the early Industrial Revolution.
3.0 liberals had much more confidence in the common sense reasoning power of ordinary people than earlier generations; their programs included once unthinkable ideas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, an end to state-enforced monopoly corporations, limited government, free markets at home and free trade abroad.  
Eventually, Liberalism 4.0 appeared, about the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency. I do not like Wilson or most of what he represented. There are some fantastic biographies of Wilson, in particular Cooper's Woodrow Wilson, Brands' Woodrow Wilson (notice the original naming), and Pestritto's Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. I also suggest any number of books on the history of progressivism, though you should balance reading books by several authors since the biases do lead to either uncritical support (The Progressive Revolution) or extreme criticisms (Liberal Fascism).

The reality is that the progressive era was both necessary and prone to excess. We cannot ignore the positives of the progressive movement.
The progressives and liberals who created liberalism 4.0 did their best to address these and similar problems in ways that they hoped would preserve as much as possible of the old liberal heritage in a new and more difficult world.  The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests – and split into classes with most industrial and agricultural workers subject to very low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. 
Unfortunately, the excesses of the progressive mindset took over, especially faith in a managerial, scientific class. This mirrors the Marxist faith in "scientific history" and the notion that humanity can be perfectly logical and reasonable. Sorry, but that simply doesn't work in reality. Thankfully, American politicians of the left and right realized they could accept some Socialist Party goals and avoid the potential nightmares witnessed in other nations.
Although socialists and social democrats sometimes made common cause with 4.0 liberals, it’s important to realize that, at bottom, 4.0 liberalism was built as an alternative to socialism rather than as an introduction to it.  That is, many American liberals came to believe that providing benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance would inoculate American workers against more virulent forms of socialist ideology, and attract the new immigrants and their children toward the American liberal tradition.
If there is to be a "Liberalism 5.0" it will have to take the best of "Liberalism 3.0" (libertarian individualism) and recognize that we cannot risk the Gilded Age 2.x at the same time. We have to create more opportunities for individual success and the small and mid-sized businesses that deliver new ideas and products. Instead, we are stuck in the Liberalism 4.0 that aligned massive corporations like GM and labor unions like the UAW. That model of "liberalism" (really nothing more than corporatism) must be undone if the U.S. is going to compete and prosper in the new world.

We cannot embrace the "public-private partnership" language of modern progressives because that leads to yet larger and more powerful central control. The government and industry are meant to be checks and balances on each other, and even the government is divided to limit its power.

The original progressive idea, that logic and reason would somehow reveal the perfect solutions to problems is absurd. First, people can be logical, reasonable, and still reach different conclusions. Even physicists develop competing theories and mathematical solutions to the same problem. In other words, "scientific" thought does not always lead to a single answer, however troubling that might be.

That is why a "marketplace of ideas" is so effective. We have to test ideas and theories. There is still nothing better than an open market to test products and ideas.

Also, even as the West has advanced, the world has not become more "logical" — wars, famine, crime, and so on prove we haven't advanced much as a species. People are not logical, reasonable, or scientific. The world is one of religious wars, ethnic / tribal conflicts, organized crime, and much worse.

Our values, our very cultures, conflict. The Western emphasis on the individual conflicts with the Asian concept of conformity. The Western theological trend suggesting all faiths lead to the same place is definitely contradicted by fundamentalist views in religious around the world.

So, we need a Liberalism 5.0 — but what will that be?

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