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.

Connected to this reticence is insufficient attention to character and virtue. Liberal democracies foster (though they hardly guarantee) certain virtues: hard work, tolerance, pleasantness, responsibility. Nor do they simply ignore the more classical dispositions of courage, justice, and moderation. Anderson touches on, but does not explore, these virtues, so liberal democracy sometimes appears too selfish and low in his telling, and its good qualities less individual and more vestigially communal than they are.

As he himself suggests, however, what makes civil society sensible is that it encourages responsibility, and good government requires prudence. These virtues form a ground and goal for liberal democracy that is more substantive than the sometimes-pointless variety of pluralism, and they are naturally congruent with individual rights. It is intelligent to advance them through the mechanisms Anderson prefers, and against the tendencies he deplores. But we should appreciate that, in encouraging virtue, we often can work with the liberal tide, even while clearing its debris.

My third question concerns religion. Anderson discusses religion in liberal democracy at some length, with impressive sympathy and understanding. The standpoint from which he analyzes liberal democracy's shortcomings is strongly influenced by Roman Catholic intellectuals such as Michael Novak, Pierre Manent, and Bertrand de Jouvenel. At the same time, he is alive to the Catholic church's former attacks on modernity.

My disquiet centers on the significance of toleration. Anderson treats it primarily by mentioning economists who argue that the variety toleration encourages is good for religions because it keeps competitors on their toes. But this view overlooks how toleration changes religions by limiting the elements in many of them that seek full legal or political control. The Founders' religious references do not gainsay the fact that American faith becomes more a private than a public matter. Religion is compatible with liberal democracy, but it is transformed so that the elements that support democratic capitalism and liberal reason come to the fore.

In order to see the effect of healthy liberalism on religion, you might ask what Islam would need to give up to become fully liberal. Not only the extremists' murderous hatred, but also many of its legal, cultural, and sexual restrictions would need to be transformed. Anderson is right to suggest how continued religious health in American liberal democracy elevates us and helps prevent a mad dash to selfish vulgarity. But it is dangerous not to acknowledge the importance of the rational common sense that worries about religious excess, and not to face up to liberalism's rational redirection of faith.

In general, indeed, Anderson downplays the relation between religion and reason. The Declaration of Independence refers to God in several ways, as he suggests, but God is "Nature's God." Anderson does not focus sufficiently on the coordination of faith with rational, natural, understanding that, in liberalism, is dominated by the reasons that issue in natural rights.

My final question concerns Anderson's defense of pluralism. The difficulty with the pluralism that Anderson admires is its kinship to the relativism he deplores. He correctly ridicules the Supreme Court's ludicrous discovery of the "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life." Compared with such sophomoric mumblings, Justice William O. Douglas's hazy emanations and penumbras are the essence of mature sobriety. But how, exactly, does one argue (as Anderson would wish) that a "Muslim .  .  . 'concept of meaning'" that "allows me multiple wives" is wrong and does not constitute a "constitutional right" to multiple marriages?

Can one merely oppose faith to faith, or impose legal force? Is it enough, when educating students, to give them no guidance but speeches about "the incommensurability of human goods," and the varieties of "human flourishing," "political arrangements, and conceptions of the good life that human nature legitimately allows"? Anderson would not think so, but he apparently leaves the possibility of "universal moral claims," such as "the moral superiority of the traditional family," to the "precepts of one's faith." He suggests, indeed, that one can "argue for the universal truth of one's faith" while still tolerating "human practices that fall short of the ideal," and admitting "the uncertain nature of moral life."

The problem is that this says nothing of rational claims to universality. But without these, is not faith's "argument" willful? Anderson, perhaps, takes for granted the rationality, or at least the compatibility with reason, of the precepts of the faiths he admires. It is otherwise difficult to account for his confidence in faith's reasonable relaxation of its universal demands.

A related problem is that moral precepts do not guide sufficiently our choice of ways of human flourishing. The virtues discussed earlier provide some guidance, and restrict the range of reasonable choice without being irrationally absolute. Even they, however, cannot fully govern how we should rank and use our powers, or the justice and effectiveness of our practices and institutions. Does this openness, then, force education and choice to be grounded in the accidents of tradition, irrationality of absolutism, or arbitrariness of pluralism?

Anderson closes by calling for a "renewed commitment to classical education." The classics are, indeed, a good place to search for answers to our questions. Aristotle's flexibility in recommending political institutions in the light of a rational account of human happiness, or Plato's rational account of the good, just, and noble that permits reasonable subtlety in following the imperfect images of these ideas, are models of a rational guidance that shapes gently, not with absolutism's icy hand. How to secure this understanding within liberalism's reasonable virtues and rights, and how to invigorate it within the accidents of our situation, are difficult questions, of course.

As Anderson tells us in this prudent yet lively work, politics is imperfect. We will help to protect ourselves from a threatening winter of discontent if we linger in the autumnal liberalism that Anderson favors, and reflect on the problems it raises.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.