Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Liberalism After Liberalism” is one of three addresses given to a symposium on “After Liberalism,” put on in late February with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company. Yuval Levin and James Rogers responded to this paper. The other two addresses and the responses will appear in the June/July and August/September issues.

Like other key words of American political and cultural discourse, the term liberalism suffers from a frustrating, even maddening, degree of ambiguity and imprecision in the way it is used. It can provoke heated arguments in which the disputants seem agreed in embracing liberalism, according it high and even talismanic qualities—but then go on to use it in such manifestly divergent ways that the ensuing discussion hardly rises to the level of a coherent disagreement. Something of the same confusion occurs among those who start out arm-in-arm as staunch opponents of liberalism but soon find it hard to agree on exactly what it is they are opposing, let alone what they are for, and even harder to ferret out the extent to which they may be presuming liberal tenets even in the act of challenging them.

One can complain about this incorrigible untidiness of our discourse, but the untidiness reflects the nature of political speech in a democracy, which even at its best combines a boisterous and unregulated vitality with a curious but persistent preoccupation with abstract words. We cannot do without such abstractions, since they are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations. But inspiring words may also deceive, and the use of these words—such as change or hope or promise or fairness, not to say freedom and social justice—plays an essential role in the acts of cultural sleight-of-hand to which democracies are so notoriously prone.

Before discussing liberalism more fully, however, I have to say a few words about the term after. Even that simple preposition can be tricky. When we speak in terms of before and after, we invoke a very different set of considerations from those that obtain when we speak of for and against. The two sets of binary opposites may be compatible but they are not always the same, and sometimes they point in highly divergent directions. By introducing the medium of historical time, the former set of opposites allows for certain discriminations, and certain ambiguities.

Let me offer a specific example to help flesh out what I mean. One can argue that many European societies have entered a post-Christian era, without necessarily viewing that development as anything to celebrate or deplore. One can also make the more subtle observation that being a post-Christian society is a different matter from being a pagan one, or even an anti-Christian one, a fact that points to something important about the term after. To come after something else may well imply that the successor has defeated the predecessor, that the anti has triumphed over the pro. But not necessarily. Coming after may point to the overwhelming success of the thing that came before, at least to the extent that it has left an indelible mark upon all possibilities available to its successors.

A society, even a totalitarian one, can only unremember so much. It cannot help but carry the past in its bones and sinews, or wrap it in customs and mores whose initial promptings and pretexts have been forgotten, or deposit it in public memorials and street names and literary allusions and other pockets of memory that persist even when conscious memory fails. There is such a thing as momentum in a culture. The deeply rooted residual features of a society’s having been Christian, including systems of law, structures of sensibility, and reflexes of conscience, will disappear only very slowly, if ever.

So before and after can accommodate a fair amount of ambiguity. Imagining a world “after liberalism” could mean several distinct things. It could mean that liberalism may have had its day and is now a spent force, or at any rate an unsustainable or problematic or incoherent one. Or it could mean that in the years to come liberalism will cease to have any lingering influence, will suffer instead complete erasure or reversal, and will see all its most worthy aspects thrown out along with the bathwater of its many follies and excrescences. Or put the distinction another way. There is a difference between saying, on the one hand, that liberalism is and was utterly false, an error from start to finish, and saying on the other hand that it is exhausted, or that it has done its historical duty, or that it has become pernicious and needs to be overturned, or simply that it is ripe to be superseded by something better. I would argue against the first proposition, but not necessarily against any of the others.

Speaking very broadly, there are two basic ways we can understand liberalism. The first, and older, emphasizes the protection and empowerment of individuals and institutions over against encroachment and invasion by the sovereign political power. In that sense, it should be seen as a healthy response to the threat of absolutism. It is a modern view, coeval with the emergence of ideas of constitutionally limited government, natural rights, a free-market economy, private property, civil liberties, and, above all, with a robust sense of individualism, in both its political and metaphysical meanings.

Liberalism in this sense is above all a doctrine upholding the independence and supreme value of the individual person as a free agent who bears fundamental rights that exist prior to and independently of government. Hence it regards the ultimate source of authority for all legitimate forms of government as the consent of the governed, as expressed in and through representative institutions. For what other source could possibly be compatible with the equality and free agency attributed to each individual person?

This understanding of liberalism may also extend to encompass a high degree of social tolerance, religious disestablishment, pluralism, individualism, and the like, along with an Enlightenment optimism about the possibility of steady and certain progress in the world, given the proven capacity of human ingenuity to ameliorate the hard conditions of life. This is the liberalism we associate with John Locke, the American Founders, and the John Stuart Mill of On Liberty (1859). It well reflects the concept of “negative” liberty made famous by Isaiah Berlin—a form of liberty that seeks above all else to protect the individual from coercion and to minimize the incursion of others into the zone of individual privacy.

That first kind of liberalism proved insufficient in the eyes of visionary and committed social reformers, who proposed to replace it with a far more sweeping and ambitious formulation. They offered a new liberalism that saw the achievement of a high degree of equality as the essential precondition for the exercise of any meaningful political liberty and that was severely critical of individualism as an atomizing force that underwrites social selfishness, wasteful inefficiency, and inattention to the common good. The older liberalism’s commitment to the primacy of formal rights rendered it blind to the substantive difficulty faced by those who had to exercise their rights under conditions of persistent social and economic disadvantage. They did not intend to be bound by any such formalism.

The goal of liberalism, they believed, was still ultimately about the establishment of a society of free and equal citizens. But the means of achieving that goal were changing dramatically. Thus began the transformation of what had been a philosophy of limited government into a philosophy of expansive and activist government, though undertaken still in the name of liberalism, still with the same intention of preserving the same goods.

Modern democratic liberalism thus understood itself as emerging out of the desire not to repeal the older liberalism but to amend and update its nineteenth-century version, seeking to temper liberal commitments to property rights and laissez-faire economics and thereby to uphold the necessary principle of equality, in response to the unprecedented inequities of wealth and power generated by modern industrial capitalism. It hoped to use the power of the state to empower the individual, not to diminish him. The classic expression of this shift in American political thought was Herbert Croly’s sweeping historical analysis in The Promise of American Life (1909), with its central thesis that under modern conditions it was imperative for liberalism to adopt the “Hamiltonian means” of an activist state in order to further the “Jeffersonian ends” of individual liberty. The same argument has been presented in strikingly unchanged form a century later, in Paul Starr’s liberal manifesto Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism (2007).

Despite its being so semantically miscast for the part, this statist form of liberalism is the form most likely to go under that name today. It points to the political thought of the Progressive movement and of much of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the mainstream of today’s Democratic party. It understands itself as “positive” liberty, the liberty of the individual who has been empowered to act fully and freely in the world and can fulfill his human potential.

Of course, means that are pursued relentlessly have a way of turning into ends, and by standing much of the older liberalism on its head in the name of favoring “substantive” outcomes over the maintenance of merely “formal” or “procedural” rights, the newer liberalism has been becoming illiberal in all but name. This is why, in the end, Berlin himself chose negative liberty over positive liberty as the less dangerous alternative. And notwithstanding the verbal ingenuity of the Crolyan formulation, the historical record suggests that it is not really possible to reconcile Hamiltonian means with Jeffersonian ends. Big government is not merely the continuation of small government by other means.

Instead, it seems that the expansion of state power results not chiefly in greater individual liberty but in the creation of a vast web of clients dependent upon that power and in the sacrifice of a relatively free flow of enterprising energy in a vibrant civil society to a stultifying and inefficient regime of unelected bureaucracies, agency heads, and judges. As easy as it is to tick off the inequities to which laissez-faire economics can give rise, there is an equivalent obligation to speak seriously of the inequities and trade-offs and opportunity costs involved in the steady extension and intrusion of government into all facets of life. But that obligation is rarely met. Statist liberalism has thrived by encouraging the comparison of real-world apples with idealized oranges. A more balanced and honest assessment would acknowledge that the alternative to private-sector inequality generally is not the vaunted achievement of “democracy” but the gray reign of public bureaucracies, whose “equality” is administered and enforced by unaccountable officials, with exemptions paid out to the politically connected and the ideologically favored.

But even this bleak formulation understates the pathologies of present-day liberalism, because in many respects it is a hybrid of the two understandings, combining many of the worst features of each. The earlier liberalism, far from being entirely vanquished, has survived in the form not only of a highly competitive, restlessly aspirant, insecure, and jealously emulative culture but in a more fundamental commitment to the ideal of the autonomous self, boundless in its desires, and the self-legitimating creator of its own values. Or in the immortal words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “the heart of liberty” is now understood as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such an inward commitment to emotivism has grown more extreme and entrenched, even as the “outer” economic and social worlds have become ever more organized, interconnected, and interdependent and therefore more likely to be submitted to bureaucratic management and regulation.

This seeming paradox has become more and more central to the way we live. As I once expressed it in these pages, we live increasingly in a world populated by hipsters and organization men, and in many ways they are the same people. David Brooks’ conception of the bourgeois bohemian, or “bobo,” pointed to the same conjunction. It is a world in which you are likely to hear snatches of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” piped in over the sound system while you prowl the neatly ordered aisles at your gleaming supermarket, carefully checking the fat content of your FDA-inspected meats, picking your produce from the “local” and “organic” bins, and dutifully observing the signs prohibiting smoking and exhorting you to think globally while eating locally. Take a walk on the wild side, indeed.

How is such a logic-defying hybrid possible? The analysis offered by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) surely captured no small part of the answer. The modern world, in his view, has insisted upon a kind of split-mindedness, demanding the sacrifice of a “conception of the whole human life” characteristic of traditional social orders, in favor of a segmenting of the world into separate spheres of activity.

MacIntyre sees not merely a fragmented world but a “bifurcated” one, split between a “realm of the organizational” and a “realm of the personal,” which operate as nonoverlapping magisteria, each ruled over by a distinct calculus. In the former realm, “ends are taken to be given, and are not available for rational scrutiny”; in the latter, judgments about “values” are regarded simply as incontestable emotivist assertions, disconnected from any consideration of historical data or practices of moral reasoning that would make for rational deliberation. The clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles will tell you “That’s not my department” for all nonroutine requests, even if the request is obviously justified; and he will tell you “That’s none of your business” if you ask him, after hours, to explain his understanding of the good life for human beings.

There are constant debates in these bifurcated societies about a “supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism,” but that opposition is only an illusion and a sham. In fact the two are more partners than antagonists.

“It is,” wrote MacIntyre, “in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” The orgman and the hipster, the bourgeois and the bohemian, only appear to be opposites; in fact, they are mutually defined and mutually enabling. There is a realm of rational efficiency in which “ends are taken to be given,” and there is a realm of desire in which to each his own taste is the only law. There is still a great deal of individualism on offer, but it is an individualism of private enjoyment, a free-floating Saturday-and-Sunday individualism whose perpetual rebellion against the weekday is actually a form of loyal opposition rather than an individualism that takes pleasure in responsibility, and responsibility in pleasure. This makes the conduct of an integrated and morally serious life far more difficult for those who seek one.

Such a bifurcation, a feature of our culture as a whole, has had a terrible effect on our common life. There is surely by now ample reason to believe that our growing culture of government entitlements supported by an ever-enlarging national state engenders not the positive sense of freedom and self-mastery that would enable active participation and republican citizenship but a culture of sullen and suspicious dependency, of bitter ingratitude and crippling moral nihilism. In the years of public austerity that likely lie ahead, this will probably only get worse, as the cultivation of resentment is hailed as a form of raised consciousness, and all appeals to general sacrifice are seen as forms of betrayal, cheating us of what we are “owed” while failing to demand enough from others. This we see, perhaps, in the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The idea that there should be some connection between one’s own exertions and one’s own rewards not only will have been sundered but rendered outmoded and meaningless.

And that development, itself a quintessential product of the compassionate second liberalism, may become fatal to liberalism itself, once it is widely and generally accepted. For a thoroughgoing disconnection of exertions and rewards robs individual acts of purposefulness or meaning and recasts the human condition as the mere passive effect of random anterior causes. Under such circumstances, liberalism cannot endure, since it relies upon an understanding of human personhood and moral freedom it desperately needs but can no longer itself generate or support or sustain.

Yet despite this fairly harsh view of contemporary liberalism, it is still vital to consider whether there are elements in it that we should preserve. José Ortega y Gasset observed in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism as originally understood had many attractive qualities and asked a great deal of its adherents. Far from being undemanding and self-serving, it was, he contended, “the supreme form of generosity.” Indeed it was, Ortega said, “incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so antinatural.” Hence, he concluded, “it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. [Liberalism] is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.”

Liberalism considered as an ideal has many of the noble and generous qualities Ortega attributed to it, and offers something that approaches, albeit in secular political terms, the Judeo-Christian understanding of the high dignity of the individual human person. For a Christian, of course, Ortega’s calling liberalism the “supreme” form of generosity goes much too far. No one would say, “Greater love hath no man than that he tolerate the errant politics of his weaker neighbor.” But even his comments about the difficulty of sustaining liberalism “on earth” suggest something of the transcendental and self-overcoming stretch that a certain strain of liberalism, rightly understood and conscientiously practiced, would ask of us. There is a kind of ascetic spiritual discipline, or the beginnings of one, implicit here.

Yet there is one aspect of our practiced liberalism in which one can clearly see the generosity of which Ortega spoke. It is a superlative gift of liberalism that should not go unmentioned in this context, not least because—as we have been seeing unfolding before our eyes in recent days, both at home and abroad—there are malignant elements in contemporary liberalism that have placed its future in increasing jeopardy. And that is the concept of religious liberty.

This is a claim that, to be made properly, must be hedged about with some qualifications. No one can deny that there have been in history many instances of nations recognizing religious freedom that are not attributable to liberalism. And it is an interesting and important question whether liberalism is in practice as neutral with regard to specific religious practices as it claims to be, or whether the doctrine of religious toleration does not in effect require religions to edit or soften their most interdictory and exclusivist claims.

Still, the wide, though far from universal, acceptance of religious freedom as one of the most fundamental human liberties, as enshrined in the American Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other places, owes much to the impetus of liberal political thought, which in providing grounds for mediating and overcoming the wars of religion at the dawn of modernity also, perhaps surprisingly, provided tools for the development and deepening of religious practice.

When James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), argued against the use of tax monies to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion,” on the grounds that such practices would constitute an unacceptable coercion of conscience, he made a political argument that also had profound religious implications and repercussions. Every man, he claimed, has a “duty” to render sincere and uncoerced homage to the Creator, and this obligation exists prior (“both in order of time and in degree of obligation”) to the claims of civil society. In so doing, Madison wisely adduced an argument grounded in something deeper than mere liberalism, or than the merely political. The effective practice of religious liberty derives energy and support from liberalism, a doctrine that also affirms individual dignity, but in the end it must be rooted in something deeper: the nature of God and man’s relation to him.

In 2006, I was honored to be invited by the State Department to give lectures in Turkey on the American understanding of the separation of church and state. I spoke around the country in a wide variety of venues and met dozens of political and religious leaders. It was an unforgettable ten days, mostly for the experience of encountering raptly engaged Turkish audiences who were, partly because of the peculiarities of Turkey’s blend of Islamic character and Kemalist secularism, fascinated by the American approach to religion in the public square and wondering whether there could be any value in adopting such an approach in their own society. I gave a talk, with variations, on the origins of church—state separation in American history, grounding it in the particularities of American history and making frequent reference to the riskiness of generalizing the American example to include other places and religious cultures. But my audiences almost always would ignore my disclaimers and ask me, usually in the first question or two, whether I thought this or that American practice would work in Turkey, questions I was singularly ill equipped to answer.

One encounter lingers in my mind. It occurred at an Islamic center for advanced study, located on the Asian side of Istanbul, where I was received with both endearing warmth and exquisite kindness by an impressive audience of dedicated Muslim scholars. I gave them a longer and more elaborate presentation, in light of their greater sophistication, and then opened the floor to questions, which went on for an unusually long time and were unusually probing. One woman in particular was especially interested in exploring the concept of religious toleration, and cut right to the heart of the matter. Didn’t I accept the Christian view of the primacy of love? Yes, I said, I did. (I had said nothing about being a Christian, but everywhere I spoke, it was simply presumed.) Well, she continued in a gently questioning voice, how can it be love, for you or me or anyone, to permit another person, someone we love, to believe something that we know to be false?

Immediately a murmur of approbation moved through the audience, and I realized that she had given voice to the very question that, in one form or another, was on everyone’s mind. She then sat down, but her implications were clear. How could any insistence upon toleration be anything other than an illegitimate trespass of the merely political onto the sacred ground of the religious? How could toleration be a fulfillment of one’s faith rather than a dilution of it? Why was this not tantamount to apostasy?

I was not really ready for such a question, particularly since I was clearly being asked to answer it as a representative of Christianity rather than as a scholar. But there was no place to hide, and I could not dodge it without being rude to my gentle hosts. So I answered in terms meant to show that the liberal practice of toleration ultimately was best understood as something grounded in theology and in an understanding of God’s nature and of man’s relationship to God.

In this view, God desires our love, but he wants us to come to him freely and willingly—not by fiat, not by manipulation, and certainly not by coercion. So he leaves us free, not only to believe but also to err and stray. In fact, the possession of this freedom—the freedom to give or withhold our love, or our faith, even from our Creator—could be thought of as an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God. The story of the fall of man, I added, could be understood as a powerful expression of God’s love for us, since he loved us enough to permit us the freedom to disobey and reject him.

So yes, I concluded, that is “how it can be love,” as we understand love, to tolerate error in others. Not because we are postmodern liberals who believe that all truth is pragmatic and subjective, and that no one can be sure of anything at all, so that we must all therefore live in a state of complete epistemic suspension, lest we become fanatics who cruelly impose our subjective beliefs on others. Not because we are Millian liberals who believe in the free marketplace of ideas as the only place where truths can be warranted. Not because we are people of feeble faith who confuse what is politically or socially convenient with what is required of us by God. But instead because the commitment to noncoercion flows from a theologically grounded commitment to the fundamental and intrinsic dignity of each individual person and thus to the necessity of letting that person come to God freely, in a disposition of love, in the manner of God’s desiring.

Liberalism contributed in crucial ways to the establishment of this liberty but in ways that, like so much of liberalism, will not be sustainable unless other, better grounds can be found for them. Religious liberty itself will cease to be meaningful, and will in fact become trivialized, if religious faith comes to be regarded as merely another expression of subjective individualism, an individual act protected by the right to expressive freedom or to privacy rather than as a public expression of a moral community constituted by and embodied in a settled community of faith. Pope Benedict XVI was alluding to this very problem recently when he spoke to American bishops about “a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.” To protect “freedom of worship” on such terms is to protect the exercise of a rigorously private right, and no more than that.

Genuine religious liberty has, of course, an individual dimension. But it also is, and has to be, a corporate and associative liberty with a public dimension precisely because it makes ultimate claims about the order of creation and our place and purpose in it—something quite distinct from the to each his own taste of atomistic private individuals. In having this dual aspect, religious liberty is a dramatically different kind of liberty, and a different kind of right, from all the others. And its preservation, if we can hang on to it, as we must, will be the key to any general renewal of our culture.

In other words, there are liberal ideas that deserve to survive, but they can do so only if they can find confirmation in deeper and more enduring sources. In this regard, the task after liberalism is the very one that John Paul II pursued so energetically, of trying to “save modernity from itself,” by regrounding the concept of liberty upon the only foundation capable of sustaining “a culture of freedom.” It also resembles the task undertaken by John Courtney Murray, who sought, in We Hold These Truths (1960), to affirm the work of the American Founders by situating their achievement on a foundation that was older and more stable than their own vulnerable Enlightenment premises.

Liberalism’s recognition and elevation of the individual was salutary so long as it could presume a moral order that preceded it, an order it had not itself produced. But now, untethered to any such order, but tightly bound instead to emotivism as its sole moral calculus, it has become more and more chaotic and impossibly compromised, and Ortega’s gloomy prophecy looms larger. The question before us, then, is less one of liberalism’s future than of what kind of “after” we will seek for it.

Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of First Things’ advisory council. This paper was given to First Things’ “After Liberalism” symposium, produced with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company.