Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Liberal on Liberalism

A fascinating and quite revealing short essay by Alan Wolfe is on the The New Republic website currently. It is entitled "A false distinction."

Particularly instructive is this paragraph:
The idea that liberalism comes in two forms assumes that the most fundamental question facing mankind is how much government intervenes into the economy. To me, perhaps because so little of the means of production lies under my control, this is a remarkably uninteresting subject. I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.[emphasis added]
I wonder how Mr. Wolfe would feel about it if we substitute intellectual control for economic control. What if a business man wrote something like the following:
To me, perhaps because so little of intellectual production lies under my control, censorship is a remarkably uninteresting subject. I think the whole question of government censorship is a matter of technique. Sometimes freedom of speech does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.
Then again, liberals have not exactly been consistent defenders of free speech lately, if one thinks of their support for restrictions via campaign finance reform as well as so-called "hate speech." Of course, he's probably right about Adam Smith who, despite his seminal role in economics had some, at best, mixed views in his overall philosophy.

2 comments:

Michael Gold said...

Good point.

What's more, with his comment "a society simply does what it has to do", Mr. Wolfe shows himself to be a pragmatist. Schooled by Dewey.

Gideon said...

Absolutely. Modern liberalism is infested with pragmatism. That makes them very suspicious of the religious but unfortunately also of any systematic ideology or principles.