Monday, May 09, 2005

31 flavors of sweet liberalism

Ezra has noticed that there are more books tracing the intellectual evolution of conservatism than that of liberalism, and he's curious why "conservative ideology is treated as a topic more worthy of study than its liberal counterpart." He then asks liberal philosophers in the blogosphere to explain why! This clearly justifies putting off my other ways of putting off dissertation work.

There really isn't a unified liberal tradition of political philosophy, in any sense that connects with the way 'liberal' is used in politics today. There have been Marxists, feminists, social critics from various ethnic groups, libertarians when they aren't talking economics, Rawlsians, my utilitarian homeys, pacifists, sexual nonconformists, environmental mystics, and people who have mixed a bunch of these views together. Writing an intellectual history of liberals would be like writing about the history of purple things. The topic is too diverse for a unified characterization.

So how did all of us get lumped together under one term? Well, we all want some deep changes in the cultural practices around here -- in particular, we generally want to fight prejudice and help poor people. (Who are our greatest heroes of the 20th century? I'd say MLK and FDR. Civil Rights and the New Deal are what we're all about.) But despite the fact that we all want to go in the same direction right now, our views about the best possible society and our ways of arguing for it are different, which again is why writing the intellectual history is so hard. While Rawls and I would probably agree about everything in contemporary politics, we're radically opposed in our views about why those conclusions are justified, and given a very different world, we'd be political opponents.

Conservatives, on the other hand, commit themselves to defending the status quo or something close to it. While we're all over the map in terms of our social goals, they're clustered pretty close together. As a result, their range of possible views is smaller and admits of a more unified characterization. And to come from the other side on the point I made before, they're committed to defending a wacky set of prejudices and institutions from which all of us are pulling away in the same direction. So it's no wonder that it's all of our views against theirs.

The take-home message for anyone worried about the lack of a unified liberal political philosophy is this: don't worry. We've got plenty of flavors for you to choose from, and lots of them are yummier than anything conservatives can hope for.

5 comments:

Rousseau said...

I'm bemused by how many "get you from both ways" attacks Republican spin machines use. A dumber, more confident president is better, and academics is decadent and irrelevant. Oh, also we have true intellectual discussions about the nature of policy, not like you dumbags!

Anyway, the fratboy did beat the egghead, and governs in a manner with no reference to a consistent ideology. Which means one of two things. His party is not the party of intellectual policies, or the intellectualism of its discussions have no effect on its policy. Either of which kinda makes this whole path of "who has more discussion about their ideas" irrelevant and futile.

(Lastly, political posturing about the vibrancy of academic debate outside the institutionally-objective world of ahrd science, has fatal flaws. When you just discard all your opponent's views as "silly" with no further reference, of course the only debate that is going on is among those you find palatable. Witness, economics.)

Julian Elson said...

Well, I think you're conflating too many left-center and Democratic Party-affiliated ideologies with "liberalism." If you took all right-center ideologies and ideological affiliates of the Republican party and called them "conservatism," you wouldn't get much of a coherent ideology either. I think that liberalism DOES have an intellectual heritage that, if not coherent, is as coherent as conservatism: Locke, Condorcet, Mill, Berlin, Rawls. We get sidetracked because there are people who voted for Kerry who were other things, like non-liberal environmentalists, or non-liberal social democrats, but that shouldn't confuse us in thinking about liberalism per se.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Julian, I was talking about "liberalism" in the sense that it appears in contemporary US political talk, because I think that's the sense in which Ezra was asking about it. I'm familiar with the sense of "liberal" you're talking about, and I agree that that's a fairly coherent ideology.

Kenny said...

Oh, I was hoping this was going to be one of those 2^n versions of X posts, where you would list 5 issues on which anyone could take 2 positions, and show that one of these combinations leads to conservatism and all the others lead to liberalism.

Yay utilitarians!

And don't conservatives consider Locke one of theirs too?

Neil Sinhababu said...

O to do the 2^n versions of X thing! You'd get some fun stuff -- sexually nonconformist Rawlsians, black Utilitarians, enviro-Marxists... there are already ecofeminists, as I understand it.

Yeah, Nozick and libertarians draw lots of inspiration from Locke. Liz Anderson had some posts a while back dissing the libertarian interpretation of Locke. I don't know who's right on this one.