“The Future of Liberalism”

I have some recommended reading: “The Future of Liberalism” by Boston College professor Alan Wolfe.

Liberalism – and by extension its politics, politicians, and causes – have been on the defensive for decades now. I believe we liberals and progressives should shoulder much of the blame for that. We’ve been unable, and maybe unwilling, to articulate and defend what liberalism is, what it stands for, and why it’s important. We might intuitively know what it is, but that only takes us so far. It might be great to commiserate with like-minded people, but we also have to be able to explain liberalism to those who might be hostile to it at first, but remain persuadable. This is the realm of political independents, and it’s the ground on which campaigns and causes are won.

Only in the last few years have I seen more books articulating and defending liberalism. I guess that’s something, in a perverse way, for which we can be thankful for the Bush administration. Wolfe’s book is among the best of those books that I have read.

“The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take,” he writes on page 10.

True freedom is not just freedom from interference by others. That’s more libertarianism. True freedom is also having the capacities to make something of our lives in ways that we choose. That’s when we get the turn into liberalism, and it’s the principle from which flows many of the initiatives that libertarians and conservatives criticize, like the welfare state, health care for all, income protection, etc. (By the way, I think “welfare” state is a horrible label. “Freedom” state would be better, but more on that in another post.)

Wolfe also writes, “Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal.” This dedication to equality often gets expressed elsewhere as “equality of opportunity”, which is directly related to the ideas of liberty in the last paragraph. Everyone deserves to have a roughly equal shot to develop their capacities so that they can live the freely chosen life that they pick.

So, for Wolfe, those are the key propositions of liberalism. He goes on to describe some of liberalism’s other features, as well. There is procedural liberalism, which is the system of rights, checks-and-balances, and democratic deliberative politics that’s enshrined in our government to give us all equal protection under the law. And there is the liberal temperament – the open-minded approach to the world – that allows all to find that approach to the world that works for them.

Obviously, I could go on. As I said above, this book is well worth the read in order to understand liberalism, even if you are a liberal.

Wolfe makes clear that liberalism is truly about liberty – true liberty – and as one of the chapters is titled, “The Most Appropriate Political Philosphy for Our Times”.

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