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 public 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 are irresponsible.
When I listen to conservative critiques of liberal ideas, it seems to me that no matter what kind of conservative perspective it comes from — whether 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, that it’s immoral, or that it’s just too risky… 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 to your taste 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. And in the end, they see themselves as having the moral authority to decree what is right for society, while you lack that authority unless you happen to agree with them.
Even those who boast of seeking to lift the burden of law from you as much as possible, in the name of liberty, 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 are better off with these rules, their answer is either propaganda that says “of course they are” with no data to back it up, or to tell you that your question is the wrong one to ask. Their goal in this is to exclude discussion of alternate choices — to pretend their way is the only real alternative.
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 they 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 not just the recognition that we have the right to drastically rewrite the social order if necessary: it’s also a recognition that we 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 — possibly the most 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. They were a pragmatic empirical response to an observed problem that was undermining the working of capitalism. When such regulations are repealed, that undue concentration comes right back, so we need to keep them.
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. Every society that has provided real liberty and opportunity for average citizens has been essentially liberal. There has never been another way to do it. Of all the ways that people have tried to produce a thriving society, only the ones that allow this kind of responsiveness have worked well. Nobody can plan a social order that will, a priori, support 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 responsiveness to the public. One allowed the people to make changes and the other did not.
It also helps explain how Russian democracy fell apart after the fall of the USSR. America’s ruling class largely assumed that once they could vote and buy Coca-Cola, the job was done and democracy had triumphed, so they left the Russians to sink or swim on their own. They forgot that it takes ongoing effort and skill to maintain a functioning free society, and that people without working institutions in place would need some help.
Speaking of outcomes, of course, raises the question of how we decide what outcomes are desirable. You can be liberal by my above definition without necessarily being just or democratic. Consider the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II: he was very liberal compared to other Emperors, in that he reformed many dysfunctional old feudal institutions in order to improve opportunity for ordinary people, but when it came to his own power, he was still an unapologetic 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 prudence over recklessness or indulgence. Different conservative movements have widely varying ideas of what kind of society everyone should have to live under, and liberal people’s 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, or when they’re being taken advantage of, and do something about it.
But now that I’ve written all that, it occurs to me that there’s a simpler and more familiar way to define liberalism: it is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Any form of conservatism or other illiberality amounts to trying to oppose one of those three phrases. Anarchists oppose government of the people, preferring to be ungoverned. Monarchists and theocrats and anyone else who favors a ruling class opposes government by the people. But most important for defining liberalism is the idea of government for the people. What today’s antigovernment right wingers and their corporatist leaders oppose is the idea of a government that is actively on our side. Their vision of government is, at best, that it should be neutral and passive. For libertarians, this neutrality is ideal. But being “for the people” does not just mean that the government isn’t corrupted to serve the few over the many; it also means that it isn’t indifferent. Our government should be on our side, actively supporting us in striving for success — it should be “for” us like a sports fan is “for” his team. That is the crux of what liberals favor and conservatives oppose.