Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflections: Updating Classical Liberalism for the 21st Century

Another theme that emerged on this blog was "updating classical liberalism for the 21st century." This is the notion that has really resonated with me and that drives much of my reading and thinking. I grew up in a Democratic family and so entered adulthood with a generally liberal worldview. But my parents weren't ideologues or true believers and I was enough of an individualist that I arrived at views that spanned the political spectrum. Eventually as I neared 30 I became more interested in politics and made a conscious decision to develop or discover a philosophy of freedom, of the free society. Right about that time I came across libertarianism and felt an immediate affinity. My introduction was via Virginia Postrel's book The Future and It's Enemies, which is still one of my favorite political books. Regardless of how my views change I am now, have always been and will always be a Dynamist. Shortly thereafter came 9/11 which changed everything. I was surprised to find that many libertarians saw the US government as more of a threat to liberty than radical Islamists. And thus began a process which over time led me away from libertarianism.

For the next several years our response to 9/11 and our effort to defeat radical Islamism was my primary focus. I remember a discussion among libertarians after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which revealed a rift between those who supported the war and those who did not. And I responded that I was pro-liberty and that meant that domestically I supported rolling back government activity but that internationally I supported an active government. This was an important moment for me because I realized that being pro-liberty sometimes meant being pro-government. The center of gravity of libertarianism is an anti-government attitude. I struggled with this for a few years and eventually stopped describing myself as a libertarian choosing instead "classical liberal."

But what was a classical liberal? It took me a long time to figure this out because there is no intellectual history of liberalism from beginning to the present. There are books about different aspects of liberalism's history but no book that really covers it all and puts everything in the proper perspective.

Liberalism is a vast ideology, it includes libertarians but also New Deal liberals; people who think government is the primary threat to the individual and people who think that government is the primary ally of the individual. Liberalism has many forms and styles. It is different from one culture to the next, different in the agricultural age and in the industrial age and the information age, different for a small country and for a superpower, different when addressing issues within a state and issues between states. People created hybrids, created syntheses of liberalism and conservatism, liberalism and nationalism, liberalism and socialism, and the American Founders created the most successful synthesis: liberalism and classical republicanism. But there is no "pure" form of liberalism, no one true way. It is always a neverending improvisation. Always an attempt to apply abstract principles to specific circumstances. And always imperfect.

The forms of liberalism that were appropriate responses to specific eras and challenges and circumstances are for the most part inappropriate in other eras etc. Therefore we are faced with the responsibility and the opportunity to craft forms of liberalism that are appropriate for our time, for our challenges, for our sensibilities. The classical liberalism of the 19th century was appropriate for its time, but not for the industrial age. That doesn't mean it was wrong, just that industrialization posed challenges and created opportunities that pre-industrial "classical" liberalism could not address. The industrial age liberalism created in the mid-20th century was imperfect but appropriate for its era, but that time has now passed.

And so here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, at the beginning of an era where the old liberalism is no longer appropriate and a new liberalism has not yet been crafted. But we have the good fortune to be in at the beginning. Too many people are wasting their creativity, intelligence, energy and resources either defending the old liberalism or attacking the old liberalism.

And so as I am now at the other end of a long decade I find myself with a different perspective from where I began. My core beliefs remain the same: I recognize the inherent value of each individual and support a social, political, economic order within which individuals may pursue their own ends and attempt to actualize their potential while respecting the rights of others to do the same. This type of society will always require a market economy. It will at times require an active government and at other times require a more restrained government. I am willing to support both depending on the circumstances. But either way that government must be administered in a fiscally responsible manner. I have no interest in either anti-government or anti-market attitudes, I find them both to be distractions. In the end my primary loyalty is to the American Experiment. And my goal is to realize the true potential of the American Experiment in our era. This will be neither "progressive" nor "conservative" but something else entirely.

So I no longer think of myself as a classical liberal, but rather as a 21st century liberal. But the details have yet to be worked out so that will mean nothing to anyone. And the goal is not to "update" an older form of liberalism, but imagine a newer form of liberalism.