I’ve talked a number of times about conservatism here and elsewhere, but rather little about liberalism. If I’m a liberal, what does that mean? I think I now have a clear description of what I think it means to be a liberal. If I were to try to state what I think liberalism stands for in one sentence, giving it a sort of mission statement, I’d say this:
We the people have the right and the responsibility to manage our social institutions so that they work to our benefit.
In other words, if our political and economic systems are not serving us, we have the right to choose ones which do. We have every right to modify, adjust, debug, or even wholly replace our laws and institutions in order to improve their outcomes. They are ours. We created them, and their purpose is to serve us, and not vice versa. And when an institution is working badly, we don’t just have a right to adjust it, but a duty. Neglect and inattention to problems with them is irresponsible.
When I listen to conservative critiques of liberal ideas, it seems to me that whether they come from a perspective that’s feudal or theocratic or law-n-order or laissez-faire capitalist or even anarcho-libertarian, what they have in common is a refusal to admit this right to choose. They may claim that it’s impossible, that it’s unworkable, or that it’s immoral, but all come down to someone with power telling you that you need to accept and embrace and surrender to the system as it is, or as they would like to make it. They all agree that for you to change the system that they think is right and good is unacceptable — that it’s wrong and harmful for you to try. They expect society to work by certain rules, and once those rules are established, they get treated as sacrosanct. Even those who boast of seeking lift the burden of law from you as much as possible follow this same pattern: they treat their no-rules metarule as morally inviolable. And if the consequences of living within their system turn out to be harmful or limiting to you, that’s your problem, not theirs. You should have worked harder to make the best of the hand you were dealt. And if you ask whether the people as a whole have more opportunity than they had before, the answer is either propaganda that says “of course they do” with no data to back it up, or to be told that your question is the wrong one to ask.
Any system will develop problems if you leave it running long enough without adjustment. Rules that seem balanced and fair at first start to produce uneven rewards for those who have a chance to take advantage of loopholes or artificial opportunities, or start encouraging unhelpful behaviors that weren’t intended by the drafters of the laws. The way to handle these problems is to dynamically adjust the system as you go along. By responding actively to issues and problems, you can keep imbalances and flaws from blowing up to catastrophic size. Liberalism is the recognition that, besides having the right to drastically rewrite the social order if necessary, we also have a responsibility, once we have a good system, to constantly make small tweaks and adjustments to keep it running well. Policy has to be active and responsive, not static holy writ. In other words, we need to govern. We do this ongoing adjustment of policy on the basis of whether the system is producing desirable outcomes, not by whether it embodies desirable moral virtues on paper. Antigovernment ideology basically says we should let problems run their course unabated, instead of allowing ourselves to catch them small — they’re telling us that to actively fix things is not a job we can be trusted wth.
One common way that a social problem can grow out of control is the development of a privileged ruling class. In the end, what system you pick initially almost doesn’t matter: whether it’s tribal anarchy, warlordism, feudal aristocracy, theocracy, corporatism, anarcho-capitalism, socialism, or communism, they’ll all eventually produce a minority group which has large and increasing power, while the power remaining with the majority decreases. This is because whatever allows one person to get a little bit ahead of those around him will then allow him, once he’s gained that ground, to improve his advantage further. Any system will have some tendency to be pulled toward this outcome, no matter what principle it starts with. The only way history has shown that this growing advantage for a few can be held back, is when the people have the agency to make countermoves to check the growth of excess power and privilege, in whichever particular areas it starts to crop up. This is why we have things like banking regulations — because they were needed in order to counteract the concentration of wealth and power into places where they no longer benefit society. When such regulations are repealed, that undue concentration comes right back.
Antiregulatory demagogues like to warn of slippery slopes, where overregulation will produce terrible stifling results. But when regulation is dynamic and active and based on outcomes, this becomes a non-problem: when things start to have a bad effect, they’re corrected. I believe that application of this dynamic approach is what’s responsible for every historical success at producing free and prosperous societies with widespread opportunity. There has never been another way to do it. Of all the ways that people have tried to produce a prosperous and thriving society, only the ones that fit this principle have worked well. Nobody can plan a social order that will, a priori, support flat widespread opportunity and a large middle class (or whatever other definition of a successful society you wish to use) over indefinite time. You can only keep that going by reacting to imbalances that undercut your desired outcome.
I think this definition clarifies some things that might otherwise be confusing, such as the paradox of Soviet communism: the Russian Revolution was clearly liberal, yet the Soviet Union which arose from it was not at all liberal, even though they were both based on the same values and rhetoric. This definition clarifies that the ideology is not what matters. What matters is that one allowed the people to make changes and the other did not.
Speaking of outcomes, of course, raises the question of how we decide what outcomes are desirable. You can be liberal by this definition without necessarily being just or democratic. Consider the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II: he was a tremendous liberalizer of dysfunctional old feudal institutions, but also an extreme centrist authoritarian. Conservatives tend to worry that this is what liberalism could lead to. Will liberal forces get caught up in some enthusiasm that makes them forget the “we the people” part? In theory, it’s certainly possible.
But I’m not nearly as worried about the question of deciding which outcomes are desirable as you might think. I see that the people, when given a true choice, can mostly be counted on to support liberty over slavery, equality over privilege, and responsible preparation for the future over short-term indulgence. Different conservative movements have widely varying ideas of what kind of society everyone should have to live under, and liberal ideas of what they’d like to see also have lots of variety. But when you put everyone together, basic fairness and justice are concepts that almost everyone supports. And if they occasionally forget that, they will remember it when reminded. So I consider the question of exactly what outcomes to pursue to be a secondary issue. Given a true choice in the matter, the people can normally be depended upon choose fairly well. The important thing is just that they are really able to have that choice — the opportunity to notice when something isn’t working, and do something about it.