Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Alan Wolfe on Liberalism’s Future
Alan Wolfe’s defence of liberalism is an invigorating exposition of 300 years of liberal thought, but his unconcealed contempt for those who disagree is distinctly immodest.
By Matthew Price. The National, March 20, 2009

The Future of Liberalism, by Alan WolfeThe Future of Liberalism, by Alan Wolfe. Knopf.

Liberalism is the most capacious of political terms, and defining it can be a vexing pursuit. The Ted Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party in the United States is often described as “liberal”; but so too is Friedrich Hayek, the laissez-faire economist and hero of the libertarian right. In American political culture, liberals tend to stand on the left. But in a European context, “liberal” generally describes a supporter of free-market capitalism. Anti-globalisation activists take to the streets against “neoliberal” economics. One version of liberalism asserts the primacy of liberty; another, equality.

Writing earlier this year in the New York Times, the English political journalist Timothy Garton Ash put forth one definition. “A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st-century liberalism,” he wrote, “would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress.” Any way you parse it, liberalism is, by its very nature, a sometimes unstable mixture of competing goods and ideals.

Liberalism’s roots stretch back to the intellectual and political tumult of the 17th and 18th centuries, when Europe was casting off the shackles of feudalism and monarchy. It is, at its core, is a doctrine grounded in the freedom of the individual. Constitutions enshrined rights and set out limits to check the use of arbitrary power by the state; liberty and equality became rallying cries. But if liberalism became identified with specific political goals, it emerged from a deeper shift in sensibility, as sceptics challenged religious orthodoxy and thinkers advanced new ideas about human nature and the role of institutions in society. Liberalism, then, was a philosophical orientation before it was a political one.

The principles of liberalism, in whatever combination, are now in operation in much of the West. In the United States, many have taken the election of Barack Obama as a return to the New Deal liberalism that dominated American politics until the late 1960s. But according to Alan Wolfe, this does not mean liberalism itself is thriving — “conservatism’s increasing problems,” he writes in The Future of Liberalism, “in no way guarantee liberalism’s political success.”

For liberalism, which Wolfe calls “the dominant, if not always appreciated, political philosophy of modern times,” today suffers from “a crisis of confidence”. Wolfe submits his new book as a corrective: a return to the glories of liberal philosophy intended to stiffen the spine of liberal politics. Wolfe takes the reader on an invigorating tour of liberal thought over the last 300 years, from John Locke to Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey and John Maynard Keynes, as he makes the case for the necessity of liberalism. For Wolfe, the term has three definitions. In the first, liberalism is a political commitment to realising both liberty and equality, and its core principle, according to Wolfe, is that “as many people should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take”. The second, what Wolfe calls “procedural liberalism”, refers to an adherence to rules applied fairly and impartially applied to all. Lastly, he writes, it may be characterised by a distinctive temperament, one that “seeks to include rather than exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than stigmatise, to welcome rather than reject, to be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean”.

In a 1999 essay, Wolfe identified in liberalism a “certain protean quality”, and his own definition tends to be as mutable as the philosophy he seeks to describe. For him, liberalism is attached to no party or faction; both liberal proceduralism and the liberal temperament are “trans-ideological”. “A conservative who opposes liberalism’s commitment to the welfare state,” Wolfe argues, “but who gives generously to charity is acting liberally.” His aim is to reassert the tenets of what he calls a “pre-political” liberalism, one that harks back to the buzzing ferment of the Enlightenment. “Liberalism,” Wolfe writes, “tells us not so much what to think but more about how to think,” and he sets out a series of “dispositions” by which we might understand its direction: a sympathy for equality, and an appreciation for openness, debate, pragmatism, reasoned negotiation, tolerance and the art of governance.

For all of these reasons, Wolfe argues, liberalism is the most suitable political doctrine for our times — indeed, he says, liberalism is the political doctrine that most suits modernity itself. (He makes many such sweeping claims.) “It is liberalism’s underlying philosophy,” Wolfe writes, “its understanding of human nature, its respect for both individualism and equality, its discovery of the social, its passion for justice, its preference for experience over theory, its intellectual openness, its commitment to fairness — that offers us the surest path toward individual freedom and a collective sense of purpose.”

Wolfe’s argument for liberalism is that it alone offers the means to ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to grow and flourish. Throughout the book, he counterposes the virtuous creation of “culture” against the malevolent defenders of “nature”, an opposition he traces back to the debate between Kant, one of the author’s heroes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who plays the bad guy. Where Kant believed society and its institutions could lift the lot of mankind, Rousseau thought civilisation rubbish and humans hopelessly imperfect, impervious to efforts at improvement.

Culture, as Wolfe construes it, stands for all that is good: science, technology, cosmopolitanism, the welfare state, religion in its more moderate forms, optimism, the belief in unlimited human potential. The apologists for nature, by contrast, peddle varieties of illiberalism that stifle the opportunity for individual growth. Like many defenders of the faith before him, Wolfe relishes the denunciation of liberalism’s putative “enemies” — and he sees Rousseau’s naysaying heirs everywhere, thwarting our potential with their incessant pessimism: Christian fundamentalists, who believe human beings are inherently depraved; sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who think we cannot escape our genetic fate; “radical ecologists” who think the Earth would be better off without humans; and laissez-faire economists who believe equality is but a delusion.

“We are what we make of ourselves,” Wolfe writes, and “liberals cannot, and should not, adopt the idea that people are inevitably helpless victims of forces larger than themselves.” It is an admirable creed — but then again, people are indeed often the victims of forces larger than themselves, if not inevitably so, and Wolfe’s unrestrained ire for critics of contemporary society sometimes verges toward an angry sort of Panglossianism: if his liberalism is the apex of reasonableness, he implies, dissident voices traffic only in unreason.

He aligns the construction of culture, broadly defined, with the pursuit of freedom, and he is at his best when he articulates the specific ambitions of “substantive liberalism” — the effort to achieve both liberty and equality. The book’s finest passage may be his account of how the welfare state, which he sees as one of culture’s supreme innovations, advances the goals of individual growth. “The welfare state is premised upon the assumption that while nature’s effects can be tragic, society’s need not be.” He does not accept the famous distinction, posited by Isaiah Berlin, between “negative” liberty — simple freedom from interference — and a “positive” liberty in which a state or society commits itself to fostering the potential for growth and equality. (“Liberty is liberty,” Berlin wrote, “not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”)

According to Wolfe, the resources of government — inevitably flawed as it may be — must be brought to bear on the forces that disrupt the drive to human equality. The welfare state, Wolfe contends, is the realisation of one of liberalism’s most cherished goals: individual sovereignty. It does not, as conservatives charge, foster dependency, but rather promotes the kind of mobility conservatives should welcome. It’s a mistake, he says, to associate liberalism with Big Government: “liberalism has never been in favour of the state as an end in itself. The key liberal idea has instead been self-mastery.”

Yoking together liberalism’s two senses — liberty and equality — Wolfe writes that “the welfare state aims to give individuals the autonomy they need to make their own choices about the kind of life they wish to lead. The welfare state in this sense is an exercise in self-governance; just as liberals in the eighteenth century held that people need not be ruled by the arbitrary powers of a monarch, twentieth century liberals insisted that people’s lives need not be determined by the arbitrary gyrations of economic performance.”

In order for individuals to truly flourish, Wolfe contends, conditions of equality need to prevail. Liberty only takes us halfway to the full sense of liberalism: the important question is not whether we are “free”, but in what condition we enjoy that freedom. Wolfe returns to the great age of liberal thought, he writes, to give strength and direction to liberalism today — to remind “ourselves about what liberalism has stood for”. The distinct implication is that liberals were right then, since we can see clearly how their ideas have shaped the present; therefore, it is asserted, they must also be correct now.

And indeed, the “trans-ideological” senses of liberalism have widely prevailed: today almost no western society objects to liberal proceduralism. Democratic institutions and the rule of law may not prevail worldwide, but there is a solid consensus that nations should strive towards these goals. Liberalism may or may not be the philosophy “best suited” for modernity — but it has become the default one.

Wolfe, however, rarely concedes liberalism’s limitations. Take just about any issue facing the West today, Wolfe tells us — immigration, terrorism, the place of religion in society, government secrecy, the economic consequences of globalisation — sprinkle some of liberalism’s magic dust on it, and a solution is at hand.

Wolfe identifies a realistic modesty as one of liberalism’s hallmarks, but he is offering a rather immodest vision. An implication, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, ripples across the pages of The Future of Liberalism: if we’d only taste of liberalism’s sweet reasonableness, then the world would be a better place. As Wolfe sees it, liberalism seems to encompass all that is right and good, and pity those who do not see things this way. At times, with his checklist of liberal virtues, he can be as rigid as a political commissar sniffing out smelly little heresies. Wolfe preaches an open mind — indeed, as he repeatedly notes, this is one of liberalism’s sacred tenets — but he tends to dismiss all those who stand beyond the pale of his own philosophy.

Liberals are not the only ones who pass off their theories as a reflection of the natural order — for this, in many ways, is the central philosophy of conservatism — but they may be the only ones who forcefully deny they are doing so. This is dirty secret of The Future of Liberalism. Wolfe’s readings of Mill and Kant are bracing, and his defence of the welfare state generally solid, but if you press the logic of his claims, you end up with something very much like a liberal version of natural law. Wolfe holds liberalism’s truths to be self-evident, when they are no such thing.


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