May 22, 2004
liberalism's great texts
Although I don't usually blog on weekends, I can't resist responding to Jacob Levy's comments about why liberals don't seem to understand--or care about--the intellectual tradition of their own movement.
I see modern liberalism as an eclectic mix of institutions and principles: an expansive First Amendment; cultural pluralism; public education; labor unions; welfare entitlements; a strong private sector; environmental protection; campaign finance reform; and more. After the fact, John Rawls managed to make all the ingredients of the modern liberal state appear to flow from a few fundamental principles. His effort was valiant and skillful, but it came too late to influence actual liberal institutions, which were already in decline. (As usual, the Owl of Minerva flew at dusk). Besides, Rawls did not identify the psychological and cultural roots of the institutions that he defended. Liberalism didn't spring from abstract principles, but rather from experimentation, experience, accommodation, and compromise.
Libertarians constantly return to an impressive canon of major theorists, because libertarianism is the application of a few simple theoretical concepts to reality. Likewise with Marxists. Even Christian conservatives have modern theorists who help them to interpret their biblical sources. Modern liberalism is fundamentally different. It is pragmatic and eclectic rather than theoretical, and I think that is its great strength.
Moreover, liberals do have classic texts to which they constantly return for guidance and inspiration. These aren't theoretical treatises, but rather chapters in the history of experimentation from Reconstruction through the Progressive Era and the New Deal to the Great Society. The "primary sources" of liberalism are speeches by leaders like FDR, JFK, and MLK Jr.; the biographies and autobiographies of Jane Addams, Robert M. La Follette, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Ralph Bunche, Hubert Humphrey, and many more; and major judicial opinions. The "secondary sources" are histories of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and other efforts to push back Darwinian capitalism, Marxism, and ordinary bigotry. The importance of these "secondary sources," by the way, means that historians, rather than political theorists, are often the most influential liberal authors.