The Magazine

Melancholy Liberalism

The virtues of democracy that knows its limitations.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By MARK BLITZ
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Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents

by Brian C. Anderson

ISI, 225 pp., $25

Brian C. Anderson's Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents is a clearly written, thoughtfully argued book about important matters.

It consists of three interconnected parts. He opens by discussing some friendly and unfriendly critics of democratic capitalism, turns to questions of civil society, religion, and judicial activism in the United States, and concludes with alternating discussions of good and bad analyses of liberalism and modernity. Some of his essays (on Pierre Manent and Bertrand de Jouvenel, for example) are better or more generous than others (on John Rawls and Jean-Paul Sartre). But each is illuminating.

This book as a whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, for Anderson skips lightly over issues such as education and technology that a complete discussion should consider, and the occasional nature of the essays and reviews cannot be altogether overcome.

Given Anderson's standpoint, however, this difficulty is less telling for him than it might be for others. His is a conservative and pluralistic liberalism, not a simply systematic one. His greatest praise is for those who support democratic capitalism, but reflect on its limits: "It has been a virtue of the richest currents of liberal democratic thought, from James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville to Irving Kristol and Pierre Manent, to explore bourgeois society's inherent limitations and failings without losing sight of its basic decency and relative justness."

The modest awareness of imperfection that shapes this "melancholy liberalism" contrasts with "the hubris of the secular religions," such as communism, that believed "they had solved the 'political problem.'"

Liberalism's two central limits are its "egalitarian spirit," which "easily becomes subject to egalitarian overbidding," and its "moral indeterminacy." Anderson explores the effect of these tendencies and of apolitical utopianism or fantasy in authors he criticizes such as Rawls, Sartre, and Negri, in Europe's extreme secularism, and in our Supreme Court's inventive excesses.

Anderson's judgment about how best to deal with these problems stems primarily from his view of the importance of culture. Social failures such as those that followed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society did not result from economic disruption alone. Cultural changes, directly and through the Supreme Court's mistakes, also caused them. Consequently, they can be ameliorated by renewed attention to family, neighborhoods, and other institutions of civil society, and these gain sustenance from religion. America's religious life is vigorous as Europe's is not; we therefore benefit from the breadth, communal friendship, and moral seriousness that religion can enhance. For anyone to ignore "theism" is to ignore something crucial to healthy democracy.

Anderson brings out democratic capitalism's virtues indirectly, largely by discussing others' arguments. It is vital in reducing poverty. The dislocations it causes are real, especially in its current global moment; but authors such as John Gray are wrong when they overplay the problems and sell short the immense economic achievement. It also allows unprecedented pluralism and, as Anderson writes, we "should indeed be pluralists, open to the varieties of human flourishing, at least up to a point."

We may engage Anderson's analysis most usefully by raising several questions about it, and discussing them allows us to suggest approaches to the problems of liberal democracy that modify his arguments.

The first issue is Anderson's reticence about natural rights. He says little about them. He asserts individualism's tendency to willfulness, nihilism, and libertinism much more than he explores what is natural and reasonable in individual freedom. But if we cannot show what is natural and reasonable about rights--what is true about them, even if it is not the whole truth--all that remains are the arbitrary preferences and intuitions that correctly concern Anderson when he discusses John Rawls. Anderson prefers an "originalist" understanding of our Constitution to the "living" Constitution's invitation to judicial legislating. But is this preference wise unless one further argues that what we are originally is sensible and good? Originalism without excellence is despotism.