Kevin Williamson At The National Review: ‘Whose Liberalism?’

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Original review in The Nation:

‘Before the 1930s, histories of liberalism told a different story. In his excellent Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the journalist Edmund Fawcett, a former correspondent for The Economist, returns to this earlier telling. For Fawcett, liberalism is, at its simplest, about “improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power.” To understand its history, “liberty is the wrong place to begin.” Liberalism wasn’t created in the seventeenth century but in the nineteenth, after a trio of revolutions—American, French and industrial—shattered the old order. Liberalism’s first job wasn’t simply to defend private individuals and limit the size of government, but to cope with the rise of capitalism and mass democracy amid the aftershocks of a postrevolutionary world.’

Reducing Locke’s influence thus would serve certain ends:

For Fawcett, all of these solutions count as liberal ones. His book is intended as a defense of liberal values, capaciously defined. The usual cast list of Mill, Tocqueville and Isaiah Berlin is expanded to include unfamiliar philosophers and household-name politicians on both the left and the right who wouldn’t normally make the cut: Roger Nash Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, stands alongside the German progressive Eugen Richter; Margaret Thatcher and Herbert Hoover are squeezed in alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson; Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre rubs shoulders with Milton Friedman and conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott.’

To which Williamson responds:

‘Forrester, a lecturer in the history of political thought at Queen Mary University, London, begins with a strange assertion: that the idea of liberalism as a consent-oriented view rooted in the work of John Locke and based on “toleration, private property, and individualism” is in effect a propaganda coup, “a recent invention. It is, in fact, largely a product of the Cold War. . . . Before the 1930s, histories of liberalism told a different story.”


‘This speaks to an ancient but fundamental disagreement over the nature of human beings and, consequently, over the nature of human society. Conservatives — those who seek to conserve the liberal national order formalized by the founding of the American republic — tend to be oriented toward process, toward a narrow reading not only of Constitution and statute but also of the meaning of rights (negative) and the role of the state (limited); in our view, rights are enjoyed by individuals rather than by collectives, even when those rights are exercised in aggregate. Forrester characterizes this habit as “polar thinking,” and against it opposes what she calls “practical thinking” and “practical compromise.”

The fight for the ‘pragmatic’ and the view from nowhere is always going on. Comments are worth a read.

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4 thoughts on “Kevin Williamson At The National Review: ‘Whose Liberalism?’

  1. The whole thing boils down to Keynesian, demand side economics and the votes it buys. High taxes create a big pot of money and the pols micromanage who gets it. Get enough folks dependent on government and their votes are controlled forever. Europe was at the forefront of this which is why their conservatives look like liberals here. Please don’t send me the bill.

  2. Williamson does a good job at skewering Forrester’s article. I didn’t recognize the tradition in which I have made my intellectual home all these years.

    “Pitting economics against politics led liberalism to forget its own lesson: politics is about managing conflict, and because conflict is inescapable, abandoning politics is never an option.”

    This ignores the liberal class theory of Charles Comte, Charles Dunover and Augustic Thierry, which stated that absent intervention by the State there is no exploitation, but class warfare does take place when the State interferes in voluntary exchange, creating a conflict between producers and the parasitical political classes.

    • Malcolm,

      Where is the earthly paradise in Forrester’s thinking where economics and politics merge into some unified whole (never mind, I don’t think I want to know).

      But the managers always seem to think they know it’s possible.

      On that note, religious believers often seek the power of the laws to enforce what many regard as God’s laws, and thus seek to make those laws the laws of man, but they don’t seem to consistently make such teleological errors exhibiting ends which usually justify the means arguments, majoritarianism, ever expanding power, led by, you guessed it, themselves and the State.

      At least the private reason and shared faith and demands of belief can often distinguish between the pulpit and the ballot box in many of the religious believers I’ve known.

      I can’t say the same for so much of what passes for Left, Left-liberal, and liberal thought these days.

      Perhaps we may disagree about national defense, some areas of encroachment of religious belief upon individuals, but it seems we often agree about articles like Forrester’s making what seem ex post facto defenses of current Leftist strands of thought and trying to claim the high liberal moral ground.

      I’m glad Williamson did some work out in the public square.

      Thanks, as always, for your insight.

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