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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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."