The Magazine

His Liberal Hour

Deconstructing the imaginary world of Alan Wolfe.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The Future of Liberalism

by Alan Wolfe

Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95

The country confronts severe challenges. Even before last year's global financial meltdown, Social Security, health care, energy, education, and immigration demanded reform. The Middle East remains a tinder box, the Taliban have regrouped in Afghanistan and maintain strongholds in nuclear Pakistan, North Korea is rattling its saber, and resurgent authoritarian powers Russia and China are flexing their muscles.

Compounding these and other challenges is an intense polarization afflicting America's political and intellectual class that erodes the lively debate and calm deliberation critical to responsible decision-making.

The moment, therefore, is ripe to rediscover that larger liberalism in America--the tradition of individual freedom and representative self-government--that provides the ground on which left and right can effectively air their partisan differences and achieve accommodations that promote the common good. Notwithstanding liberalism's post-1960s identification with the left wing of the Democratic party, and its even older definition as the opposite of conservatism, the nation was conceived out of liberal premises, principles, and practices. The liberal tradition proclaims that human beings are by nature free and equal, and regards government's chief purpose as securing under law the rights possessed equally by all. It proudly tolerates diverse viewpoints and ways of life. It welcomes a multiplicity of interests, the better to prevent any single one from oppressing others. And it limits government by a constitutional enumeration and separation of powers, by checks and balances, and by democratic accountability.

This larger liberalism is susceptible of more conservative and more progressive interpretations. Conservatives within the liberal tradition are inclined to emphasize freedom's dependence on social order and moral virtue, and the threat to both that comes from government's tendency to usurp the responsibilities of individuals and the associations of civil society. The liberal tradition's progressive side is disposed to stress government's role in reducing the gap between the liberal state's promise of freedom and equality, and the reality of individuals and groups who, through unlawful discrimination, breakdowns in the political process, market vicissitudes, sickness and old age, and personal misfortune, are unable to exercise their rights adequately and take advantage of freedom's opportunities.

Particularly over the last century, the liberal tradition has tended to favor the progressive impulse to enlarge government's responsibility over the conservative ambition to limit government to safeguard individual responsibility. But at its wisest, the liberal tradition recognizes the importance of giving both conservative and progressive imperatives their due.

At its wisest, the liberal tradition also recognizes that freedom is endangered by distinct excesses to which the partisans are prone. Conservatives are inclined to romanticize the past and underestimate government's role in maintaining the conditions under which freedom and equality become meaningful. Progressives are disposed to romanticize the future and overlook the dangers to freedom that spring from the steady enlargement of precisely those government powers intended to make men and women free and equal. The genius of liberal constitutional government is to provide a framework within which conservative and progressive excesses can be moderated, and the distinctive knowledge about freedom's promises and perils each possesses can be harnessed, to advance the public interest.

Alan Wolfe believes that the moment calls for a return to the larger liberal tradition. But in his view the liberalism inscribed in America's founding premises, principles, and practices is not what unites us but, on the contrary, what divides us. Although he offers throughout valuable observations, not only about the liberal tradition's future but also about its past and present, his book is marred by a theoretically unsound, historically inaccurate, and intellectually unscrupulous effort to efface the conservative contribution to the defense of freedom.

By fueling common prejudices on the left about conservatism--indeed, by going beyond them and elaborating arguments that he has advanced in recent years, that conservatism is not merely wrong about policies and priorities but at its root un-American--Wolfe does his part at this testing moment to amplify polarization and to hinder readers of diverse persuasions from reclaiming their shared liberal heritage.