I recently spoke with Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, about his new book, The Future of Liberalism. Here's what Wolfe had to say about liberalism -- what it is, why it's essential today, and how it can move our nation forward.
Q: Let's start with a definition. What exactly do you mean when you talk about "liberalism"?
A: I see the liberal idea as one of autonomy. We should be in charge of our lives. Crucial decisions about how we should live properly belong to us, and are not determined by God or written in our genes. What's good for one person has to be good for every person. If we're talking about a society in which only a few lead an autonomous life, that's not a liberal society.
In some ways, liberalism is the sort of automatic by-product of all the forces we call modernity -- industrialization, urbanization, cosmopolitanism. These produce a world in which self-directedness or autonomy become the only way to live.
Q: That sounds like something a lot of people could get behind. But you write that the book grew out of a sense that liberalism needed defending. From what or whom?
A: One of the places where I see the liberal idea really threatened is in sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, whatever you want to call it. The bestseller lists are dominated by books that tell us how we always make the wrong choices. That's on the left end of the spectrum. Then you have this revival of conservative religion in the United States, which says that God chooses these things. I've found the need to defend the liberal idea against both science and religion.
Q: So what is liberalism's answer to those challenges?
A: Liberals are on the defensive because they lost sight of the idea that we live for a chosen purpose. That wasn't always the case. I talk at length in the book about the great liberal moment of FDR's inaugural address in 1933. The most famous line is "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but the speech was filled with language about how we are in control of our destiny. That language of mastery bothers people on the left just as much as it does on the right. It seems sort of imperialistic, like we're going to colonize nature, but the opposite of mastery is slavery. Any idea that we are slaves to something else -- our emotions, our genes, or some supernatural force -- is an idea that we have to properly distrust.
Q: So, at the core of liberalism is this idea that we live for a purpose. What's your understanding of what that purpose is?
A: For a deeply devout religious person, the purpose for which we live is already determined. Liberalism is quite different. If we have the means to think seriously about who we are, and a mechanism through government to shape the world, then that ultimate purpose can emerge out of people's own actions, as opposed to being some a priori, predetermined purpose. To take a concrete example: if we believe people should be able to lead lives in which debilitating illnesses will not destroy their future, we develop a policy and use government to achieve that. The problem is the sense that such a goal would be beyond our means, or, as conservatives always point out, have unanticipated consequences. There are a hundred million reasons not to try something. But you need to try, or else you give up.
Q: You make a distinction in the book between "substantive" liberalism, meaning a set of specific policies, and procedural liberalism, which has to do with how policies get made in a democracy. Talk a bit about the two.
A: Liberal democracy establishes a certain set of procedures. It's true that because we have liberal procedures we don't necessarily arrive at a liberal substance. But inevitably we do; it happens sort of sociologically once we commit to the idea that government should be open, fair, and in the interest of all, and that the Constitution establishes the rule of law rather than the rule of man. Those liberal procedural ideas lead ineluctably to people asking if our government is organized that way doesn't it imply a certain kind of end that we wish to achieve through those means? Every now and then, of course, conservatives will come along and dominate for a while. Real conservatives now say George Bush was a liberal. I think that's absurd, but I can understand what they're driving at, because even Bush couldn't avoid the idea of trying to use government to achieve certain collective purposes. It's just built into the way we live these days.
Q: I want to pick up on what you said about substantive liberalism. As you write in the book, liberalism at its core is committed to liberty and equality. But aren't the two in tension?
A: Not nearly as much as people say. There is a taste for equality that runs through the liberal idea, in part because you cannot really imagine a society surviving in which liberty extends only to a few. The notion that there was a kind of golden age of classical liberalism and that liberalism today is statist is false. What really happened in history was that Adam Smith was a great liberal. The idea of the free market arose and it took root in western societies and people began to lead lives in which they were in control of their destiny. This was so compelling that people said, "If some can do it, why can't the rest of us?" To me there's no contradiction between Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, or between the eighteenth-century notions of the free market and the twentieth-century welfare state. They follow one from the other because they're both committed to the same. That's why I think equality is built into the liberal idea.
Q: And this is logically where government comes in, right, in that government is the mechanism by which equality is, let's say, facilitated.
A: That's right; it's the only mechanism we have. I talk in the book about what I call "the curse of the state." Government is not the perfect mechanism, and there are always problems when you rely on it. But every political philosophy relies on government and is in a sense cursed by it. I will lead a life of greater fulfillment and greater security if there's no poverty in my country, because I won't have to live in fear of crime. If I want my health to be protected, other people being free of disease makes me free of disease. It's in my interest to want others to have a basic level of equality, and government is the only mechanism that can do that.
Q: So the way you lay it out, what's not to like about liberalism? But liberalism has its opponents, to put it mildly. Can you sort of give a sense of what are intellectually the best arguments against your basic view?
A: There is an argument that is associated with what I call "conservative populism." In the last twenty or thirty years conservatives have said they are the true believers in equality and liberty, and they constantly denounced liberals as elitist. There's a lot of excessive rhetoric in that, but it's an issue we need to wrestle with. You can get too far ahead of public opinion, and that's a constant danger for liberals. Take a very controversial decision like Roe v. Wade. It's inevitable and good that liberals will be pro-choice. But there's no question that it was a terribly argued decision that needlessly offended religious believers and led to a kind of conservative backlash.
Q: Let's turn now to the present and the future. You argue in the book that not only is liberalism uniquely well suited to negotiating modernity, it's uniquely up to the job of tackling the biggest challenges of the age. Let's take two -- terrorism and globalization. How does liberalism help us here?
A: Globalization is an issue where you have substantial critique coming from the left, and I'm somewhat sympathetic to that. If you go back historically, liberalism has always been associated with the ideal of cosmopolitanism and the notion of a universal morality. If we become too parochial and think about policies that protect us against global forces, that could lead to an undermining of principles like respect for human rights. The default position on a complicated issue like that is to be for the world. That doesn't mean we can't have some kind of protection if other countries are doing that as well, but the basic disposition has to be an openness to the world.
On terrorism, I feel very strongly that certain kinds of liberal voices take us in the wrong direction. Paul Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, almost says that liberal society doesn't have sufficient resources when faced with what he considers to be a totalitarian enemy like Islamic extremism. (I don't believe it's a totalitarian enemy, but he does.) That's selling liberalism short. An open world is the best remedy against terrorism. The Bush administration was a case study in how to do it wrong. Bush talked a lot about the universal idea of human freedom. I think he was right in that language, but his policies encouraged quite the opposite. Get The Future of Liberalism for $1 when you join Progressive Book Club.