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History of Liberalism, Post 1: Reservations

Much bandwith has been spent on the National Review initiated discussion on the roots of American liberalism, and why, Mr. Goldberg alleges, so few modern liberals have a full understanding of their history. A brief history of the conversation:


  • Jacob Levy at Volokh has another post, where he uses a charicature of modern liberalism to deny it its legitimate heritage.
  • Jacob Levy at Volokh has a post emphasizing Rawls.
  • Goldberg at NRO has a snide post about how Cato interns are smarter than anyone at CAP.
  • Goldberg at NRO has another post on how a preference for change doesn't obviate the need for knowledge of history.
  • Steve Hayward at NRO has a post on how there is no foundational text of American liberalism.
  • Goldberg at NRO has a post on how a preference for change doesn't obviate the need for knowledge of history.
  • Goldberg has a snide post claiming that he's "observed first hand" that liberals are ignorant of their history.
  • Matthew Yglesias has a number of posts on the subject, here and here, generally defending pragmatism and impugning conservatism.
  • John Holbo has a thorough criticism of Goldberg's rhetorical assumptions.
  • John Rosenberg responds, emphasizing legal realism.
  • Mark Schmitt starts a new American Prospect column on liberal history.
I am actually something of a liberal history buff, despite being just a random fellow. I want to attack what are some misguided premises underlying this entire conversation, but only in part - because I think its currency is an excellent opportunity for resurfacing some old ideas that are useful in modern debates.

Criticism 1: Liberalism is a Position, Not a Movement. Goldberg, the poster boy for movement conservatism, is befuddled by modern liberalism because its structure and organization is so foreign to him. Conservatism is a clearly defined movement, with fairly concrete historical origins, and an obvious network of relationships. Conservatives working on taxes, conservatives working against regulations, conservative culture warriors, all conceive of themselves as part of a greater movement. Until recently, liberalism has been completely different. It has been comprised of a number of people, who generally share certain epistemological foundations, that enter into coalitions as the need arises. If you work for NOW, or NARAL, you might work with environmental groups on third world development, human rights groups on trafficking in women, and civil rights groups on pre-natal care. You don't necessarily work with these groups because of some ideological affinity, because you are all part of the "movement" - you work with them for a discrete policy goal.

Criticism 2: There is No Such Thing as a Professional Liberal. Perhaps as an analogue of the organizationl structure of modern liberalism, there is no single person that embodies "liberalism." In fact, liberals work in particular policy areas, and develop what we like to call "expertise." Conservatives think they are qualified to talk on something when they have received the Heritage or AEI talking points - liberals let the actual experts do the talking. Putting an expert on regulation, like OMB Watch's Gary Bass, on a panel with a random conservative is a charade - the conservative currency of apocryphal anecdotes can't buy a thing compared to the cash of genuine expertise liberals bring to the table. Even conservative leaders of the anti-regulatory think tanks, like Tozzi of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, are clearly movement men first. Legal experts like Kip Viscusi or current OIRA head John Graham are better, but only marginally: their reliance on industry funding ensures that they toe a party line. When was the last time the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis published a pro-regulation piece?

When Goldberg claims that Young Republicans know a lot more about their intellectual forefathers than College Democrats, he is probably right. But if you asked the same groups about about, say, international development, you would have some liberals that knew a lot of real science on it, and some conservatives that had read their talking points. If you asked about tax policy, or Constitutional law, or American history, or any other of a number of subjects, the response would be the same: some liberal experts, some conservative ideologues. That is actually the strength of ad-hoc coalitions - specializiation - something the benefits of which conservatives should be able to recognize.

Criticism 3: Much of the Conservative Knowledge about their Roots is Counter-Factual. Conservatives stake a broad claim to much of the intellectual history of Classical Liberalism (as opposed to American liberalism). Unfortunately, much of their geneological tracing is based on distortions, hope, and "lawyer's history," in the phrase of Morty Horwitz. For instance, the libertarian fetishization of Adam Smith is simply ridiculous - the author of a Theory of Moral Sentiments, the ally of Hume and leader of the Scottish Enlightenment - would probably be repulsed by the quasi-theological interpretation of one of his texts. The Scottish Enlightnment comprised a motley crue, and Smith had more mot than most. Emma Rothschild, for instance, has admirably filled the academic literature with analysis of Smith's muddled, occasionally radical, occasionally liberal positions.

Rothschild's texts are largely ignored by liberals, though. Why? Because liberalism is not a movement. Movement's rely on appeals to authority, be they to Strauss and the classics, Hayek and the Chicago/Austrians, or Kirk and the banal.

All this said, it is a worthwhile project to retrospectively build a body of literature capable of motivating a liberal movement. I hope the blogosphere is up to it. I'll try to do my part.


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