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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Wolfe is an eminent social scientist and prolific public intellectual whose book, by his own chronicling, caps a political and intellectual journey from the left to a "liberalism in full." But the liberalism he has rediscovered does not merely lean left. According to Wolfe, the larger philosophical sense of liberalism implies the narrower party sense: Properly understood, and applied to today's challenges, the ideas developed by Locke, Kant, and Mill and embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he contends, yield the Democratic party's outlook on governing. To make the case that the liberal spirit takes a clear side in today's political controversies, however, the passionate partisan in Wolfe must overpower the serious scholar.

Much is valuable and well put in Wolfe's ambitious restatement of liberalism for the first decade of the 21st century. Individual freedom that, of right, belongs equally to all is "the single most influential component of liberalism," and liberalism is "the dominant, if not always appreciated, political philosophy of modern times." And as Wolfe illustrates in wide-ranging discussions of ideas, history, and contemporary politics, the liberal tradition does involve a substantive commitment to individual autonomy; a procedural commitment to general rules that are interpreted impartially and enforced fairly; and to a temperament that is open, inclusive, curious, and generous.

These components are neither inseparable nor exclusive to the liberal tradition. As Wolfe observes, one can be a conservative critic of the view that it is government's responsibility to ensure liberalism's substantive commitment to individual autonomy while still supporting procedural fairness and displaying a liberal temperament.

What Wolfe fails to properly appreciate is that, out of concern for individual freedom and equality before the law, one can oppose the assignment to government of increasing responsibility for developing citizen's talents, expanding their powers, and maximizing their control over their lives.

Conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer, political standard-bearers Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and such towering thinkers as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill loved individual liberty and provided good reasons to believe that the nation-state, which tends to be both distant and intrusive, will, if not vigilantly limited, create forms of dependence that shrink the opportunities and stifle the initiative that sustain individual freedom. Because Wolfe is bound and determined to exclude or disparage this conservative case for freedom, the "liberalism in full" that he purports to recover is, in reality, a part of liberalism disguised as the whole.

Wolfe's insistence that the ideas of the liberal tradition's founding fathers give rise to the policies and priorities, more or less, of today's Democratic party conflicts with his assurance that "liberalism tells us not so much what to think but more about how to think." In fact, Wolfe is at his best when he is elucidating those defining, pre-political "liberal dispositions"--the disposition to grow, a sympathy for equality, a preference for realism, an inclination to deliberate, a commitment to tolerance, an appreciation of openness, and a taste for governance--that, he argues, emerged as a distinctive sensibility in the 18th century and are crucial to dealing with the moral and political challenges of the 21st century.

In his chapter on religious freedom, for example, Wolfe argues that the Constitution weaves together freedom from religious authority and freedom for religious faith. But the proper balance, he shows, eludes many on the right and left today. On the right, Christian conservatives who seek to use the state to further specifically religious goals, he warns, risk corrupting their spiritual mission. At the same time, Wolfe is withering in his criticism of the new atheists--Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens--whose writings advocate, or fan the flames of, intolerance of religion. And to conservative theologian Stanley Hauerwas, the iconoclastic Stanley Fish, and numerous postmodern theorists who argue that tolerance is a mirage and liberalism and religion are mortal enemies, Wolfe usefully retorts that individual freedom and religious faith have coexisted in America for more than two centuries.

His admonition to liberals concerning how to think about religion today is sophisticated and stirring: