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Diversity and Forbearance

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In moments of crisis for the liberal democratic system, it’s worth asking ourselves whether the system is even worth it. When human rights are being violated and unjust wars waged in our names, when some of us can be killed by the authorities with impunity, and when a liberal democracy has just installed a man with illiberal and authoritarian tendencies as president, we’re faced with tough questions. What can justify continued faith in the liberal democratic system?

Forbearance and irreconcilable difference

The dream of liberal democracy is that all kinds of people, despite deep differences in their values and beliefs about the world, can live together in social and economic cooperation. But some of our values necessarily conflict with one another, not in the sense that we have opposing interests, but in the sense that sometimes our values require certain actions from others, actions their values prohibit. And yet sometimes democratic outcomes put these values at loggerheads.

Consider abortion and reproductive freedom. To the pro-life person, a human soul—as unique and precious as any other—is present in an embryo from the moment of conception. Abortion thus represents a legally sanctioned holocaust of millions of innocent lives. The thoughtful pro-lifer may acknowledge that it isn’t fair that women have to shoulder the burden, but in their minds the right to life trumps considerations of fairness.

By contrast the pro-choice person simply does not see the fetus (at least during the periods when 99% of abortions are performed) as sufficiently developed to suggest it has a soul. The pro-choicer thus sees abortion restrictions as unconscionable violations of bodily autonomy, indeed as a dehumanizing slavery by which women’s bodies are treated as incubators for offspring they don’t want and didn’t ask for, significantly interfering with their lives, projects, and well-being. The thoughtful pro-choicer recognizes that they might view the matter quite differently if they considered fetuses fully human and deserving of human rights themselves, but see no reason to.

The example of abortion shows that thoughtful, good people may simply parse the world differently, even when they understand the alternative positions. No amount of good faith engagement will prevent such different construals of the world from leading to irreconcilable differences.

It’s not hard to come up with more examples. Animal rights activists see many animals as agents with interests and at least some degree of moral standing; others follow the long tradition of believing animals exist primarily for human purposes, having no genuine interests of their own, and note that since animals cannot express their own alleged rights claims, human persons must do so, leading to a clash of ultimately human interests.

Free speech absolutists and sex worker rights advocates construe pornography as an issue of freedom of expression; some feminists point out that the issue is more akin to hate speech and slander against women, and is best understood as propaganda for male supremacy and female objectification that can materially harm women with its spillover effects. The question of wearing the hijab in public turns on whether it is understood in terms of religious liberty or freedom from sexist oppression.

Such fundamental perspectival differences abound in the economic realm as well. Libertarians and market anarchists proclaim taxation and redistribution are literally theft, while radicals on the left claim the same about private property and capitalist profits. Many moderates don’t fully endorse these stark statements but are nonetheless swayed by one polar perspective more than the other and their understanding of economic questions in politics is colored by this.

With fundamental perspectival differences on such important questions, partisans cannot reasonably hope to ever fully, finally win in the democratic arena. Occasionally some such question is suddenly decided, like slavery, but when and how this shift happens is a bit of a mystery. In the case of slavery in America, the perspectival shift only happened after a massive and bloody political failure, the costs of which make it a frightening example to try to follow.

It’s not surprising that democratic cynicism has been creeping up along with political polarization in recent years. A large segment of voters in the West has begun to opt for anti-system candidates who sell themselves as not only anti-establishment but also uniquely capable of cutting through gridlock and imposing their will (or “the people’s will”). Anti-system voters who doubt any such unique abilities at least view anti-system candidates as “bulls in the china shop,” the idea being that the system is so bad that if a few institutions get destroyed, whatever is rebuilt is bound to be an improvement. These temptations are powerful, but misguided.

For the sake of the liberal democratic peace, the conservative Christian must patiently accept that millions of innocent souls will be slaughtered, because, for the nonce at least, the pro-choice perspective mostly prevails as the law of the land. The animal rights activist must abide the wholesale torture and slaughter of millions of sentient creatures. And, to continue with our few examples chosen from among many, the radical feminist must suffer the propaganda of male domination paraded around as a core freedom.

Is the liberal peace worth it? The only alternatives are to exit the political community or to take up arms or otherwise subvert the political peace. But usually—when democracy isn’t suffering a crisis of confidence—most conservative Christians, earnest animal welfare advocates, and radical feminists neither seek to exit the political community nor take up arms.

Both options, of course, have their mundane difficulties. Attachments to family and friends and the ability to find work are high hurdles to moving even in the absence of more bureaucratic barriers. And political violence is criminally prohibited. But keeping the peace of political liberalism is worth the struggle for more fundamental reasons. Purely political emigration is a kind of shallow escapism.

In our examples, the perceived problems of mass slaughter and patriarchy will persist after the departure of dissenters; indeed, such exit would seem to dampen dissent. The separatist suffers similar problems along with a hard coordination problem of moving people en masse. These options also offer only ephemeral relief. All communities are cut through with important ideological divisions. The political emigrant will replace one set of perspectival impasses with another, while the separatist will achieve some uniformity for a while, but such unanimity will inevitably degrade over time. Even individuals who grow up in the same communities may develop divergent understandings.

Actual violence, meanwhile, has well-known rhetorical difficulties. Political violence is rightfully understood as terrorism, and rarely persuades anyone on the merits of one’s perspective. Violence also actively alienates people from the cause and often inspires retaliatory violence. Whatever the rhetorical successes of violence, for the present article I assume private violence is beyond the pale.

Democracy, among its many virtues—and for all its faults—is an outlet for continuing dialogue on contentious issues. It keeps people talking and provides periodic opportunities for factional victories that offer the hope of at least nudging policies in one’s preferred direction. Living peacefully in a liberal democracy thus requires a powerful commitment from every individual with strong beliefs. Consciousness-raising, persuasion, activism, civil disobedience, and political organization are valid paths for change. These are painfully slow and uncertain, but they acknowledge the reality of earnest and reasonable differences in beliefs, and they treat one’s political opponents with the respect due to equals.

Forbearance under oppression

Fetuses and animals cannot speak for themselves. They cannot vote under any plausible scenario, and they certainly cannot organize protests. Political dialogue around these entities is just that: around and over. But the rights and freedoms of groups of people who can speak for themselves are also regularly threatened by the political back and forth. Liberal political theorists prefer to set aside core rights of the individual as beyond political dispute or tampering. Theorists of course have good reason to do this, but in real democracies individuals belonging to disfavored groups have had to struggle mightily to have their rights and dignity recognized. Even constitutional protections—themselves hard won always—are ultimately at the mercy of a political community that can turn inward and illiberal at the scent of threat.

In America, you can draw a line from the Three Fifths Compromise and chattel slavery through Jim Crow, redlining, and straight on to the racially disproportionate War on Drugs and our current mass incarceration state. Black Lives Matter arose to call attention to the impunity with which white persons can so often kill black persons, only to be met with #bluelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter in response, diminishing their legitimate concerns that black lives are not afforded the same rights and dignity, in effect if not de jure. Meanwhile even sacred suffrage, enshrined in the Constitution after bitter struggle, is under constant assault as Republican state governments attempt to disenfranchise blacks with demographic “surgical precision.”

Immigrants—now most conspicuously Latin Americans, Arabs, and Muslims, but historically Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italians, even Germans during the early days of the republic—face a uniquely unstable situation with respect to their rights. “Illegal” immigrants of course can be deported more or less according to the prerogatives of the executive branch. But as the political winds change, even immigrants who are crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s in the manners so tortuously prescribed [pdf] are at risk for sudden changes to the rules. And of course in the current environment there is a real risk that Muslim Americans irrespective of legal status will be unjustly detained, sequestered, or be victimized by tacitly approved private pogroms.

Women still haven’t won full social equality with men in various ways. They’re still too often treated as vessels for the next generation, sexual assault is still a scourge, and sexism ranging from casual to harassing still colors much of their lives and plans. Gays and lesbians have managed a coup with the social and legal recognition of their rights to marry, but in a resurgent right wing, these victories must feel tenuous at best. The very bodies of trans persons are viewed as immoral, and they are killed in disproportionate numbers. I’m just skimming the surface here.

When liberal democrats like myself raise the hue and cry to rally once more around liberal democratic institutions, we often do so from a position of privilege, without acknowledging that recommitting to liberal values—recommitting to “the system”—asks significantly more from some of us than it does from others.

It is very easy to see rallying cries for liberalism as white, upper class elite men suddenly feeling the reeling, the doubts, and the fears of the system tottering that has cossetted them—us, I’m speaking of my own massive privilege—so much. Suddenly we are feeling uncertain, not only of our rights, but of the basic shape and character of our society. When so many folks who look like me felt shock and horror on November 8th, we felt just a little of what so many of our fellow citizens feel even under the liberal democratic system that we tout as essential for social progress.

The liberal democratic system, for all its faults, has benefited the marginalized. We have seen progress, since abolition, since women’s suffrage, since the Civil Rights Movement and the Pill and freedom to marry. The economic growth generated by the system has benefited even the poorest among us, despite the economic turmoil of recent years and despite the ways the economy is rigged in favor of the already privileged. It goes without saying that all societies have disadvantaged and disfavored groups and that it’s better to be marginalized in a liberal democracy than in any existing alternative.

All these things are true, but they sound hollow coming from an upper middle class white dude who is just suddenly out of his political comfort zone. And members of marginalized groups are likely tired of being told how to feel. The marginalized haven’t abandoned liberal democracy, and they have more to teach about forbearance and faith than folks like me. It was women who organized the Seneca Falls Convention and the suffrage campaigns that ultimately won women the franchise. It was black Americans who led protests and sit-ins and nonviolent resistance that led to the Civil Rights Act and victory over Jim Crow. Instead, it is the system liberal’s turn to listen, learn, and adapt the liberal program to truly embody the universal liberty and equality of its promises.

Forbearance, not passivity

One lesson from these past campaigns is that the forbearance required to advance liberal causes is anything but passive. Shikha Dalmia has recently discussed the abolitionist tactics that faith communities, civic organizations, and sanctuary state and local governments are using to resist the Trump Administration’s efforts to escalate deportations of peaceful people. Sanctuary jurisdictions are refusing to cooperate or lend their resources to deportation and faith groups are preparing Underground Railroad-style safe houses for migrants and others at risk.

There may seem to be some contradiction between the democratic forbearance I discussed in the first section with the abolitionist tactics that directly resist the implementation of policies enacted fairly through the legitimate legal channels. (This may not be the case for any specific executive actions currently in the news, but it’s plausible such actions will be enacted through correct procedures at some point.) There certainly is a tension here. But a look not only to our own national history but to the history of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience around the world informs us that these campaigns often provide us with our most inspiring national heroes and our greatest occasions for civic pride.

This kind of direct action to protect individuals directly threatened by those the liberal democratic system has empowered is partly how the system learns who is included within “universal” and who deserves liberty and moral equality. The forbearance required to allow the other side to win elections and enact policies despite our deep disapproval could not possibly have extended to slaves seeking their freedom. And it is doubtful that it extends all the way to peaceful immigrants and peaceful Muslim Americans allowing themselves to be forcefully separated from their families and livelihoods and either deported or detained in camps.

But what forbearance does require is that we continue talking to one another and continue listening. It demands that we respect the legitimacy of electoral outcomes and not resist the mundane functioning of the established governments, and to reserve civil disobedience only for specific unconscionable policies. Liberal forbearance demands we continue to recognize—as my colleague has put it—that our political foes whose visions of moral equality have shorter horizons than ours nevertheless remain members in full standing of our shared democratic institutions.

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The New Liberal

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We’ve all heard the bad news. Liberalism is on the run, they say. From its birthplace on the British isles, to the European continent, to the Philippines. Most pressingly for us, it has taken a beating here in the United States—a country that was self-consciously founded on the principles of liberalism. A new populism characterized by a brash authoritarian attitude is on the rise at home and around the globe.

That’s the bad news. The good news, if it can be called that, is that liberalism is new again.

You can see it in the countless pieces calling for a revitalization. There is a shared sense that we all grew too comfortable. That liberals have rested on their laurels and are in this way partly complicit in the turn against liberalism. But liberals around the world and in America are treating this as a wake-up call. They are seeking a revitalization—even a revival. They are scrambling to develop a fresh liberalism more prepared for the challenges of the day.

What does it mean to speak of a new liberal?

Ideals do not float abstractly in the air. They do not exist in the contemplation of philosophers. Ideals exist in their application. The ideals of liberalism live through their concrete history, originally in fighting backing church authority with state power, in opposing primogeniture and entail, in abolitionism and in the enfranchisement of women. As successive generations of liberals have attempted to carry the basic ideals forward, they found fresh applications for those ideals, making liberalism new again for their own eras.

Liberalism was never a homogeneous project, and different liberal thinkers and statesmen have found varying ways to apply its ideals. Liberalism is like a big river with many currents and eddies, rather than a monolith. Liberalism’s fortunes also wax and wane; our era is not the first to see it on the ropes. Whether through dramatic defeat or slow decline, it has cycled through rises, falls, and revitalizations many times in its history.

After a slow stagnation during the long malaise of the 1970s, the last great liberal revival was ushered in during the 1980s. It was called neoliberalism by its critics, and it represented a triumph of social science in general, and economics in particular. It therefore had more of a technocratic character than previous waves. We here at Liberal Currents are humanists; we prefer the messy work of history, democratic persuasion, and jurisprudence to the ambitions of social engineering.

Nevertheless, we feel that neoliberalism has often suffered unfair abuse. It brought with it enthusiasms for commerce across borders and freedom of movement, as glue for a peaceful global community. Neoliberal policies contributed to (though they cannot claim majority credit for) the rise of hundreds of millions of the world’s poor out of the most desperate material conditions.

But we are not neoliberals. Neoliberalism was too grounded in the dehumanizing assumptions of high modernism. And regardless, its day is done. The events of 2016, particularly Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential election, put the nail in the coffin of a moment in liberalism’s history that was, in retrospect, already drawing to a close.

Liberal Currents will be the voice of the new liberal, one willing to look back for insights and forward to a better future. The new liberal faces the practical, political difficulties of the here and now. The new liberal is “new” precisely in applying liberal ideals to the problems of today. For that reason, many of our chief concerns will be familiar: mass incarceration, the decline in checks on executive power, or the lack of legal protections for non-citizens. We also hope to draw attention to problems that haven’t drawn as many headlines, such as the abuses of prosecutorial discretion, the way housing restrictions hurt the poor, or strict occupational licensure stunts the options of low-skilled workers.

In America, at least for now, the new liberal is also a Democrat.

This is a crucial point. Liberal Currents is not a high-minded intellectual outlet that stays above partisan affairs. Liberalism is a political philosophy, and parties are the vessels of practical politics.

Moreover, we live in a time of heightened party loyalty but weakened parties. In that atmosphere, influencing the ideological profile of one of the major parties can make a crucial difference. While the 2016 election demonstrated that there is an ugly, retrograde element within the Republican Party, it would be wrong to suggest that that element represents most Republicans. Most Republicans, like most Democrats, vote out of party loyalty. It is precisely because so many are loyal to their parties that minority elements are able to exercise disproportionate sway over party platforms.

Parties are coalitions, and to form a coalition with the retrograde Republican minority who aggressively support Trump is simply unacceptable. The new liberal is far more willing to work with neoliberals and progressives—even socialists—than to risk assisting in the revival of publicly acceptable racism.

Beyond the outline sketched out above, the new liberal is someone still in the process of being discovered. We mean to embark on that process of discovery here at Liberal Currents. We hope that you will help us in this task, as a critically engaged audience but also as contributors. If you have a vision of who the new liberal is, we want to hear it! You can reach us at


Featured image is Women’s March on Washington, taken by Mobilus In Mobili

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Ideals Worth Defending in a Cynical Age

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The conversation about ideals in our culture has grown profoundly trivial. Our articulate class is very wishy washy about the ideals they promote, and hold opponents to the highest imaginable standards while sloppily and reactively moving goalposts on their own side. Meanwhile, everyone wants to pigeonhole good and evil. They will say that commerce is inherently corrupting, business exploitative, or government oppressive. Then they will turn around and treat the area they hadn’t denounced as intrinsically morally superior.

If we are going to get a grip on our ideals, we are going to have to come to terms with what it even means to have an ideal. To have an ideal is not simply to give yourself the soapbox from which to scream at your opponents. It is not to hold up the efficiency of markets so that you can shout about the inefficiency of government, or to cherry pick admirable liberals and contemptible conservatives.

To make a principled commitment to an ideal is to recognize fundamental human limitations. The libertarian narrative says that humans have a limited ability to control their greed—perhaps no such ability at all. As such, we should judge our systems based on which directs our greed in the most socially beneficial way. And that system, they argue, is what has been called capitalism; property rights and robust markets. Progressives respond that we can in fact overcome our greed, with the right encouragement. In fact, we have to in order to enact property rights at all, something that a sovereign would not necessarily directly benefit from. Progressives believe our limitations are primarily ignorance and the inertia of the status quo, which includes an economic system that they say fosters our greed.

I will focus on two of the biggest limitations to achieving our ideals. On the one hand, we feel a strong desire to do many things that we know are wrong; I will refer to this as our fallenness. On the other hand, it is very difficult to know exactly what we should do in the first place; I will refer to this as the problem of uncertainty.

The two-thousand-year tradition describing fallenness begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, writing toward the very end of the western Roman Empire. A theologian and interpreter of the Bible, Augustine believed that human will was tainted by sin. For that reason, even when we recognize the path of righteousness, we are drawn away from it. The only thing that can heal our will is the gift of God’s grace; that is the only thing that can lead us to salvation.

We need not be Christian or subscribe to this theology to see that we are tempted to do things we know we shouldn’t every day. This includes everything from overeating to adultery. A man who invites a beautiful woman to his home when his wife is out of town knows that betraying their marriage is wrong. He may even believe that he will not do it. But if he invites her over, and she is willing, he may find the temptation too great, in the moment. That is why believers and nonbelievers alike can find wisdom in the line from the Lord’s Prayer which reads “lead us not into temptation.” A good husband will not put himself in such a situation in the first place, because he will acknowledge his limitations as a fallen creature.

Where there are human beings, there will be betrayal, domination, and abuse, among a dizzying array of other wrongs. On top of this, there will be mistakes. Consider trust, one of the most important elements in any family, community, and workplace. Trust by its nature creatives vulnerability. Trust can be taken advantage of. It can be easier to get what you want from me by lying, if I am going to trust your word.

It is easier to hurt a child, if I am a parent, teacher, or priest—someone who the child trusts, but more importantly, someone the rest of the community trusts with the child. It is easier to embezzle money from a firm if you have been trusted with its finances and there is minimal oversight.

The need for trust is the point at which our fallenness intersects with our uncertainty. Trust is an act of faith—a leap in the dark. We need to make that leap because we cannot know in advance how people will behave. No matter how reliable someone has been in the past, they can disappoint you in the future. And we may not even know all that much about someone before we have to rely on them—interviews and resumes only tell you so much about a potential new hire. Trusting someone else means making ourselves vulnerable to the fallenness of their nature.

But being able to take that leap of faith and put your trust in someone new is an important ideal in a diverse, cosmopolitan society. It is a difficult ideal precisely because it makes you vulnerable. But it is an important and necessary one because we can never bridge that gap in our knowledge. If we knew whether we were really vulnerable, whether someone would ever conceivably take advantage of us or what the specific odds were that they would, it wouldn’t be trust. But we can’t do away with that uncertainty any more than we can do away with the fallenness that puts us at risk. And so we must not only trust, but strive to be trustworthy ourselves, even when we have fallen short of it in the past, even if it seems easier to cut corners, and even when we’ve had people rely on us who haven’t turned out to be particularly trustworthy themselves.

Drawing up laundry lists of how we have fallen short of our ideals in certain domains is far from sufficient for convicting entire swaths of life of being intrinsically immoral. We are always falling short. Even the great Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., cheated on his wife. That was not only contrary to his own faith, it was simply wrong. He fell short.

But does anyone doubt that when he did shine, he shined brighter than anyone? We look to King for reaching towards an ideal of mutual respect and dignity across races and creeds, and getting closer to it than many of us could dream of doing. King was fallen, like all of us. But he was also a hero and a worthy role model in more ways than one. He is the sort of role model available in an imperfect world, disappointing only to those for whom any imperfection at all invalidates everything good in a man.

Cynicism is not a morally serious position, at least not as a stand-alone picture of the world. It is the stance of people who have given up. Too many people today have given up in just this way. They have given up believing that liberty is more than a mask for power struggles. They have given up on the ideal of good commerce. Most frightening of all, they have begun to give up on democracy and democratic ideals.

When I say that we need to strive to honorably provide what can be used wisely, I am not attempting to whitewash the frequently ugly reality on the ground. The leftists are right that, too often, the employer-employee relationship involves the one-sided domination of the latter by the former, or that too many managers abuse or exploit the vulnerabilities of those they manage. And the economists are right that too many employees steal from their employers, from the college kid working in retail to top corporate executives. And the libertarians are right that regulators are often in the pockets of the regulated, or that politicians are too willing to turn win-win scenarios into win-lose scenarios so long as their constituents are the winners.

The defense of an ideal which could be defeated by a simple example of any of the abuses above, or even by a pattern of such abuses, is no defense at all. Where humans tread, there will be human wrongdoing. Sometimes, that wrongdoing will proliferate and come to characterize whole areas of society. In the worst case, it will characterize whole societies.

But that is not a reason to abandon ideals and embrace cynicism. The fact of the matter is that much of the time, large swaths of most societies are not swallowed up in vice. And the only hope for keeping them that way, and for reforming those that have already fallen terribly far, is to keep our ideals in clear view, to defend them and strive after them with all the energy we can muster.

We must take ownership of our ideals again, and devote ourselves to their defense.

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Liberals and Nationalists: Compromise Without Reconciliation

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If “populism” is the first word on everyone’s lips these days, “nationalism” isn’t far behind. To critics, the word seems to be little more than a synonym for prejudice. To Trump’s defenders, it is akin to pride in one’s community, and a belief in communal self-determination. Even conservatives critical of Trump are stepping up to defend nationalism’s good name. My argument here is twofold: that nationalism is a political reality that will have to be compromised with, and that liberal principles cannot be reconciled to nationalism as an ideal.

In Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry’s defense at National Review, they write that “Nationalist sentiments are natural,” going on to compare its place in politics with self-interest. But while the way we conceive of our self-interest may have changed over time, self-interest itself is an eternal feature of human nature. Nationalism, on the other hand, has existed for scarcely more than two centuries. This claim is not without its critics, but it is widely agreed upon among scholars of nationalism.

In Benedict Anderson’s classic formulation of nations as “imagined political communities,” nationalists are members of communities that are formed largely by strangers who will never meet but believe themselves to be part of the same “deep, horizontal comradeship.” Indeed, without this imagined and limited comradeship, the very idea of national interest suffers from fatal conceptual difficulties. Ponnuru and Lowry refer to the European Union as “a collection of disparate nations with disparate interests and traditions,” assuming rather than defending the idea that each nation has distinct interests which are more cohesive than the “disparate interests” of the groups within a nation’s borders. This is but one claim that a principled liberal cannot let stand uncontested.

Democratic compromise

But that contestation must occur within the confines of democratic politics. The willingness and aptitude for striking productive compromises is as important a facet of politics in a healthy democracy as partisan contestation. We must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that Anderson’s “imagined” component of nationalism means that we can simply wish it away. As Jacob Levy aptly puts it:

[W]e need to take seriously the enduring power of group loyalty and attachment, and the durability of ethnic and cultural groups. Ethnocultural identities are strongly felt, and experienced by many people at many, perhaps most, times to be permanent and immutable.

Even if these identities are historically contingent and impermanent, there will always be some such identity that people are willing to defend and even die for. The “position that no accommodation can be made” for nationalism or any identity of its type “because it ought to be left behind has forgotten that ought implies can.” These identities are, by their nature, exclusionary. Even if the defenders of the free movement of people did not have to contend with nationalists and their reasons for closing borders, other ethnocultural groups would find reasons of their own and particular groups they would want to keep out.

It is not my intention to defend these reasons or the impulse to exclude. My point is simply that the existence of such groups is a fact and in a democracy, we ignore this fact at the peril of electoral defeat. Complacency during the moments of liberalism’s greatest triumphs frequently sows the seeds of its most terrible defeats. In terms of immigration alone, the biggest waves in the last century and a half have all been followed by the fiercest reactions. The first immigration restrictions were implemented at the turn of the 20th century after what was probably the biggest per capita wave of immigration in our history. There were signs of a reaction to the last big wave well before Trump became a contender for the highest office in the land. It’s easy to second guess in hindsight, but I believe compromises could have been made to mitigate this reaction. At minimum, we ought to be ready to deal in the future to avoid further empowering Trump and others like him.

Let us take the infamous travel ban that Trump began his presidency with. Had an actual immigration reform law been passed under Obama, circumstances might have been different. If Republicans’ constituents were screaming to restrict immigration from the Middle East and not take in Syrian refugees, Democrats could have given them something in order to get something greater. There are many millions of refugees in the world that are not from Syria, and there are many billions of desperately poor people who are not from the Middle East, and who would love to have a shot at a better life.

In exchange for restrictions that Republicans’ constituents want, Democrats could ask for looser restrictions on immigration from India and China—where over a third of the world’s population lives. Moreover, these terms need not be in proportion—at the bargaining table, Democrats ought to fight for the smallest possible tightening of restrictions on one side of the ledger, and the loosest they can get on the other. This requires, of course, that we elect Democrats who are both willing and capable of this kind of bargaining.

So much of this is in the marketing; Americans reacted dramatically to the Syrian crisis even though we weren’t even planning to take in many refugees to begin with. If Republicans reach a compromise that they have a political stake in, they can go to work selling whatever restriction Democrats were able to hold them to as more drastic than it actually is.

This is why the way that the undocumented immigration reform debate actually played out in 2014 was entirely counterproductive to liberal goals. Democrats flatly rejected a House GOP compromise bill that, while not ideal, would have been substantially better than the current status quo. They threatened to go with an executive order if the GOP did not swallow the Senate version, a threat Obama ultimately saw through. Obama challenged congress to “pass a bill” if they didn’t like it, when he and congressional Democrats bore their share of responsibility for failing to make a compromise happen.

We could have had a bill, which left undocumented immigrants less vulnerable to unilateral presidential action than they currently are. Instead, Obama gave us a small change that was completely reversible, and presented it in rhetoric designed to stoke up supporters and humiliate enemies. No one who favors meaningful reform that is likely to survive the short term shifts in political winds should thank him for it.

There’s no doubt that heightened divisions in congress have made compromises of these kinds harder to reach than they had been. But I believe that this is the basic approach liberals should take politically with nationalists and similar identity groups: we need to treat their presence as an empirical fact and strike what compromises we can, on the most favorable terms that we can get. But they should be compromises, so that these groups feel they’ve had their voice heard in the political proceedings and we don’t purchase a victory today at the price of losing it all in an election cycle or two.

Unreconciled ideals

But liberals are not and should not be nationalists. Though synthesis has frequently been sought, there is no version of nationalism that is compatible with liberal principles.

Here is Ponnuru and Lowry’s outline of a “benign nationalism”:

It includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.

Jacob Levy makes a liberal case against nationalism in his paper “Against Fraternity.” Here is his remark on “gratitude”:

Neither the United States nor Canada nor Sweden nor France is corporately responsible for the economic tide that has lifted them all over the course of centuries, and individual persons or firms do not benefit from that history qua Americans or Canadians, etc., but qua persons born in the portion of the whole world that was so lifted. This means that the members of any particular polity are not united even by a demarcated “society” to which they owe gratitude for the advantages to which they are born.

Ponnuru and Lowry probably have more in mind than merely gratitude for affluence, of course. And depending upon their manifestation, loyalty and a sense of belonging are benign and can bring meaning to people’s lives. But no version of liberalism is consistent with the idea that the welfare of one’s countrymen comes in principle before that of foreigners.

Ponnuru and Lowry advance the claim that nationalism is a natural relation like family or self-interest, but never defend it. Instead, they lean heavily on the aesthetics of nationalism:

A flyover or July Fourth fireworks display is not creedal. Neither is a Memorial Day parade, or laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. John Philip Sousa marches aren’t statements of ideals. Surely, the revulsion that most people feel when protesters burn an American flag is based on the belief not that the protesters are symbolically destroying an idea, but rather that they are disrespecting the nation to which they owe respect and fealty.

Further down they quote G. K. Chesterton:

Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.

I would never dismiss the importance of this sort of artistic and animating spirit. Part of our mission here at Liberal Currents is to defend a humanistic vision of liberalism. But something is peculiar here. Ponnuru and Lowry want nationalism to be a natural relation like the family, but the behavior they described is clearly acculturated. As they themselves point out, it has been imitated around the world.

That doesn’t make nationalism any less of a force in the world, of course. It does make it something that people have created, rather than something they are born with. The process of that creation is complex and bigger than any of us, but the end result is not destiny. Co-nationals are not like the family, or like friends, whose welfare we do naturally value above just anyone’s. If we value them above anyone’s, it is because we have been taught to, because our art and other cultural trappings have led us there.

But that’s just it—American culture most certainly does not do that, on the whole. Conservatives claim to be defenders of our culture against the “denationalizing” forces of liberalism, and yet in the same breath will denounce the messages behind America’s vast and globally influential cultural output. Whether it’s movies, television, comics, novels, or music, liberalism has an enormous footprint in American culture. And it has an enormous place in our national mythology. What better symbol for American culture is there than the Statue of Liberty who beckons the world to give her “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”?

Building an open and accepting liberal culture is not some cosmopolitan’s utopian dream. We have done it right here, in America, already. It was accomplished by people of principle, and it is a principle that liberals ought to demand from apologists for nationalism who assert, falsely, that it is simply a natural sentiment. Our current through American culture is just as real or natural as theirs, it simply isn’t the only one. And that is the greatest conceit of nationalist myths: that there is but one current, a Real America to stand opposed to those “denationalized” cosmopolitan elites. In fact America is a constellation, not a unity; a fact which, as mentioned above, creates irreparable problems for nationalist theories of the national interest.

So family and friendship are out as models for citizenship, but what about neighborliness? Ponnuru and Lowry turn to this next, quoting Roger Scruton on the nation as the expression of “the slowly forming agreement among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory.”

This is both ahistorical (as nationalist mythologies inevitably are) and based around a sentimental notion of neighborliness at odds with the reality on the ground. In what is probably the most thorough study to date of American neighbor relations and the ideals implicit in them, Nancy Rosenblum decries the “impulse to borrow the luster of good neighbor for citizenship”.

The thought is that citizenship on the model of neighbor would illuminate our connections to one another and undergird more robust social justice. But neighbors’ commitments are voluntary and limited; our encounters do not aim at the provision of public goods; rough equality of reciprocity is not a homely application of justice. Neighborly give and take is a poor touchstone for shared sacrifice and solidarity. Neighbor relations, personal and individual as they are, do little to clarify and a lot to obscure the motives, interests, justifications, and decisions entailed by justice among strangers, which citizens are.

One also wonders what Ponnuru and Lowry’s personal experiences of neighbor life in America is like, that they would draw such thick communitarian metaphors from it. The average American moves more than 11 times in their life, 6 by the time they are 30. This is not the ideal situation for “slowly forming” anything, pseudo-social contract or otherwise. Rosenblum emphasizes that American neighbor relations are characterized personal encounters based purely on the coincidence of proximity, absent the structures of formal institutions.

Levy argues that our moral obligations to fellow citizens is more like what we owe strangers rather than what we owe family, so perhaps neighborliness is a viable model (though I doubt Ponnuru and Lowry had this vision of neighborliness in mind). Rosenblum notes this possibility:

Some conduct is adequately characterized in general moral terms that apply regardless of relation or proximity. The obligations neighbors have to warn of danger and to avoid acts of arrant cruelty, for example, are obligations in every setting; neighbors just have more occasion than others to look out for trouble and more occasion to make people nearby miserable.

But few roles are so shaped by formal institutions as that of citizen. In this way, neighbor and citizen are almost formal opposites to one another. A citizen of America is someone who owes taxes, can vote in elections, and has a whole laundry list of other duties and rights that are specified by legislation and the courts and enforced by police and other executive agencies.

Those formal institutions do bring more obligations than just what we would owe to any random stranger on Earth. Levy argues that citizens are “fellow travelers with a shared responsibility to the means of our travel, as fellow captives in a social world we did not make or choose, with a shared responsibility to its maintenance.” To elucidate this shared responsibility he does not turn to any liberal or radical, but to Augustine’s City of God.

Augustine holds that what the human polity offers is sufficiently valuable that Christians are called to civic participation and service, even as soldiers or judges who risk spilling innocent blood.

Political institutions are the means to peace and justice, means “we did not make or choose” but the currently available means nevertheless. As citizens, we are fellow travelers who owe it to each other to do our duty as judges, jury, soldiers, and elected officials.

But we do not owe each other solidarity or “allegiance”. These notions of citizenship make it difficult to conceptualize serious disagreement or dissent as anything other than a form of treason. As liberals, we do not owe it to Trump voters to conform to their projection of what Real America is, nor do we have to agree on what the risks of immigration and trade are or what level of risk is acceptable. We do not even have to respect them, except in as much as the basic human dignity of everyone deserves to be respected.

What we do owe them is recognition as participants in our shared political institutions. They have votes, and are free to act in concert to exert a pronounced influence on our politics. For that reason, our representatives ought to work with theirs. The democratic compromises I outlined in the previous section are necessary if we care at all about democracy itself, as liberals must. Nor should liberals worry about voting for representatives who deploy nationalist rhetoric while working towards liberal ends—that’s just another form of coalition building, another way of striking compromises among the “disparate interests and traditions” that make up our polity.

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A Critical Defense of Commerce

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In the movie Sabrina, the character David Larrabee (William Holden) confronts his brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) about his obsession with running their family business. He accuses Linus of caring only about money. To which the elder brother responds:

Linus: Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.
David: What’s the main objective? Power?
Linus: Ah! That’s become a dirty word.
David: What’s the urge? You’re going into plastics. What will that prove?
Linus: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

Little else in the cinema or art of the 20th century expressed the doe-eyed passion for enterprise and trade that was so characteristic of the first generations of liberalism. But liberalism’s love affair with commerce over the three centuries of its history has been tumultuous, with high peaks in the era of doux commerce, and low valleys in the era of The New Industrial State. Since the 19th century at the latest, the only constant in economic relations has been radical transformation; what looked like a space for radical egalitarianism in the 18th century looked less so to those who lived during the rise of the modern corporation. And yet the responses to this rise have too often taken the dominance of large corporations for granted; John Kenneth Galbraith for example failed to take into account the ability of small startups to introduce innovation and competitive pressures into industries dominated by large companies. Meanwhile, the libertarian offshoot from the liberal tradition has too often been uncompromising and categorical in its defense of absolute property rights.

In this dark chapter in the history of liberalism, as we seek its revitalization, it is time to return once more to the question of commerce. The presumption of liberty, which is central to liberalism of any sort, guarantees that commerce will always have some place in a liberal political order. But the range of possible laws which more or less respect this presumption, while also taking other considerations into account, is quite vast. Whole books have been written on just the presumption of liberty or the rule of law, or the implications of balancing the two political ideals. They will not be the focus on this piece.

Instead I will discuss the moral ideal of commerce, as a central part of a good and flourishing life. This ideal does not rely on whitewashing or excessive cynicism; it is a standard we can reasonably strive for but frequently fall short of. The ideal, implicit in American practice and attitudes towards commerce, is to provide honorably what can be used wisely.

Ditching producers and consumers

Before moving on to the ideal I wish to defend, let’s get rid of the vocabulary of producers and consumers. If they were ever relevant—do I really “consume” a car?—they certainly are much less so today, as more people work in service industries rather than physical production. Instead, let’s talking about providing for use. More importantly, let’s stop thinking of these as two separate things apart from one another, and try harder to talk about them like the unity they actually form.

In their home lives, parents may buy books, and educational video games, and cable TV with cartoons, all for their children. If they’re the planning sort, they buy food for the week. If they’re not, they might find themselves ordering pizza one night. If they want some time away from the kids, they probably need a babysitter, and odds are they will go out to a restaurant, or a movie.

Every item or service that they and their children use—books to read, games to play, TV to watch, food to eat, a babysitter to make sure their children are safe and taken care of, somewhere to spend time together away from typical routines—must be provided, and the work of provision is primarily done in advance.

A large number of people are involved in providing a children’s book; we may think of the author, of course, and the people who work at the publisher, but complex supply chains bring countless hands into the process. All of these people, in turn, contribute to providing books like the ones our parents bought, so that they, too, may be able to buy books or games for their own children, or for themselves.

So, too, is the provision of a service such as babysitting largely carried out prior to its use. Even a ‘sole proprietor’ of a babysitting outfit must organize his life to clear out time, arrange for travel and handle other logistics, communicate and coordinate with potential customers, and so forth. And the travel and communication services essential to the babysitter’s work, which are delivered through vehicles, devices, networks, etc., come about through the same sort of complex supply chains that lie behind any ‘tangible’ good.

Meanwhile, the parents in our story must have helped to provide some thing or service in order to have been able to buy the items mentioned above in the first place!

In this way, providing and use are processes which form a unity.

Today, a huge majority of what we use is provided through commerce. But not all of it, not by a long shot. Infrastructure is largely provided through tax-financed institutions, for example. Politically, countries like America long ago moved towards providing the great bulk of education that way, as well.

For most of human history, nearly everyone had to spend nearly every hour of the day working so that they could provide for their most basic needs. The shift from subsistence farming to providing food for everyone through commerce has been both a tremendous material gain, and a liberation from constant toil.

In the 20th century, there were many attempts to provide everything through government administration. They went quite badly, in relative terms at the very least. As I said above, this does not discredit the provision of anything through government administration. But it has certainly made it clear that there are limitations we would do well to heed.

In a country like America, providing through government largely takes the form of government participation in commerce. Tax funds are the basis of the purchasing, and government officials oversee and make key decisions, but the materials must be bought from companies, and the labor is often done by contractors. And government officials go home and pay their babysitter, buy their children’s books and games, just like everyone else—in our country, public providing forms a unity with private use, as well.

Providing honorably what can be wisely used

Working for Google rather than the Red Cross is not something you should be embarrassed about. Nor should you be embarrassed for working at McDonald’s, as opposed, say, to being a police officer. Food and technology play an important role in a good life, alongside those who serve and protect, or those who provide blood transfusions. Whether through commerce or some other means, we do our best to support a good life for ourselves and our loved ones by contributing to the good life of other people.

A healthy commerce is made up of the interlocking efforts to provide honorably and use wisely. Use wisely, because it takes wisdom to integrate something into a good life. Television can waste time and turn you into a couch potato, or it can delight you and enrich your life. McDonald’s can foster unhealthy overeating, or it can be one way among many to cut expenses when money is tight or expedite dinner in a time crunch. Video games can be isolating, or they can foster a community of gamers and be appreciated for their often quite sophisticated artistry and storytelling. Not everything can be turned into an ingredient of a good life, but with enough wisdom, the set is quite large.

What can be used wisely ought to be provided honorably, because it takes honor to avoid the many temptations to engage in shameful opportunism. It is wishful thinking to believe that being good is invariably good for business. It can be good for business, or at any rate being good doesn’t have to put you out of business. Nevertheless, opportunities abound to cut corners, act out of spite to a coworker or subordinate, or throw good people under the bus. It is a real challenge to be both good and successful—but a challenge that we must not shrink from.

Those of us who support ourselves in the working world know it is a mix of good and bad, honor and vice. Often, it is a mix within the very same people. Henry Ford provided cars that were affordable enough for the masses and paid his workers wages that were above the market rate. However, he made these wages contingent on clean homes, healthy diets, abstaining from drinking, and a number of other stipulations, which he enforced by sending inspectors to their homes without warning. Steve Jobs pushed an artistic and technological vision which delighted and empowered consumers for decades, but he was notoriously emotionally abusive to his employees. We can examine these cases critically because we know what ideals are being ignored or fallen short of. The cynical rhetoric of our times subverts the hope for moral criticism as a productive enterprise.

Some defenses of commerce avoid explicit ideals, opting instead to stress how great our uncertainty is. Friedrich Hayek and sympathetic thinkers emphasize how our ideals themselves often emerge from processes that are much larger than we are. Commerce is just such a process, so we ought not to be overhasty in judging what comes out of it. This confronts us with the question: Can we judge innovations by typical moral criteria? Is there anything which we are intrinsically unable to provide honorably or use wisely?

And the answer seems to me to obviously be yes. There is no honorable way to provide child pornography, or any way to make use of it that is anything short of despicable. Using heroin is nothing but a method for ruining your life, and providing such a thing in full knowledge of what it does is indefensible. Any defense of commerce which pretends such things are not clear as day is unlikely to sway anyone with a conscience.

Cigarettes are more debatable. Phillip Morris has a reputation for treating its employees very well and being very generous. Does that make them an honorable provider, when their bottom line depends entirely on something so carcinogenic? It would certainly be worse if they were selling their particular product and did so through a hostile work environment. But it’s not clear to me that addressing the latter is enough, no matter how close to an ideal workplace they might succeed in creating. This is a question on which reasonable people can disagree.

Pornography is similarly controversial, and we need not even look to religious moralists to see it. One school of feminism holds that it can be a source of empowerment and liberation for women, under the right circumstances. Another holds that it is pure domination and exploitation. The former clearly implies that it can be provided honorably. And if the users are just indulging in a fantasy, what’s the harm?

But the anti-porn feminists argue that the rhetoric of pornography hurts women outside of those directly participating in the act. Moreover, even if we can imagine a liberating or empowering sex-positive world, in practice it never works out that way. As Robin Morgan put it, “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” I confess I find this view more persuasive, with regard to this industry. I do not think human relations are so plastic that we can be so cavalier and transactional about sex without consequences. And I believe that sex industries create an image of human relations which is deformed, and which has no place in a good life.

In a liberal democracy, freedom of choice among consenting adults is one of our most prized political ideals. But that does not mean that every conceivable choice that people are within their rights to make will be a good one. There are many political, pragmatic, or legal reasons why we might consider something a bad choice but oppose outlawing it. Many who believe that most illegal drugs are bad still favor legalization, because the drug war has had consequences that are worse. But to draw such distinctions, we must have a clear view of our ideals.

This is my proposed sketch of a liberal characterization of commerce appropriate for today: a sphere in which we strive to provide honorably and use wisely, together. Honorable provision and wise use are enabled by the presumption of liberty, within the confines of a body of law. It is only a sketch, and this isn’t the place to make these concepts more concrete or determinate; that happens on a daily basis in public discussion, in democratically elected legislatures, and in open court. From the outline of the basic concepts above, I hope it is clear that a liberal defense of commerce can be a critical one, and rest on a thick moral groundwork rather than assuming the neutrality of market forces.

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Principles of Liberalism

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It’s beginning to sound cliché to say liberalism is in crisis, but anti-liberal parties are on the rise across Europe, Brexit is generally understood to be a setback for liberalism, and in America, Donald Trump rode anti-liberal sentiments to power and early signs point to a deeply anti-liberal agenda. Many have abandoned liberal principles, and even those I would call friends of liberalism have begun to think that liberalism has failed. It’s time to remind ourselves of just what liberalism is and what are its basic features.

Liberalism comes in many forms, and any tradition this old and studied will frustrate those who attempt to define even a common, agreed upon core. What I’ll offer instead is a family of principles that almost always constitutes what we think of as liberalism. My aim is to describe these principles and discuss what they mean and dispel what they don’t mean. My hope is that many people who may be disillusioned with liberalism will look upon these principles with fresh eyes.

Liberalism is often defined in terms of the primacy of individual liberty. This is already two concepts: individualism and liberty. These apply to all human persons, which is to say the principles are universal. Individualism and universalism are supported by the idea that persons have in some sense an innate moral equality merely by virtue of their humanity. Finally, pluralism, or a commitment to toleration of diversity of belief and culture, directly obtains from the moral equality of individuals and their free use of reason.


Individualism takes the individual human being to be the fundamental unit of ethics and politics. Individualism does not mean atomism. The liberal may adhere to individualism and acknowledge the profound importance of human connection and relationships. Each individual of course has a mother, and enters the world bearing the genetic imprints of both their mother and their father. The absolute dependency of early human life ensures that the initial conditions and some general contours of an individual’s life are not their own in any obvious sense. And the culture, languages, and communities an individual is born into further shape their life’s possibilities, and even their understandings and values to some extent. A liberal may place immense value on their membership in different groups, whether family, ethnic group, nation or state, community, faith, and so on.

Nevertheless, there is a deep internality to human life. The individual experiences a narrative and store of memories they alone are privy to. They alone perceive their thoughts and internal debates; they dream only their own dreams. While thoughts and emotions may be held simultaneously for the same reasons across persons, they are still felt distinctly by each individual. Our bodies are separate. An individual digests only their own food and feels only their own thirst and hunger; they feel fatigue only from their own muscles, pleasure and pain from only their own nervous system. The individual breathes with only their lungs and pumps blood with only their heart. And of course the individual is fated to die alone.

The liberal takes this separateness as a fundamental truth. Any ideology that ignores or denies this separateness of individuals, or that asserts the individual is of less moral importance than some group, is to that extent illiberal. Thus, utilitarianism, an ethical approach that aggregates pain and pleasure across individuals, must be at least in tension with liberalism, though there are forms of utilitarianism that seek to resolve this tension. Ideologies of “national greatness” that view the flourishing of the nation irrespective of individual well-being face a similar tension. While trade-offs are inevitable in our world of limitations and some individuals are bound to lose against others in these trade-offs, the liberal maintains that no individuals may simply be subsumed into a collective or otherwise ignored in ethical considerations.


The liberal begins by assuming the intrinsic value of individual liberty. The individual may do or be what they please and no one should interfere with their actions or projects unless they have powerful justifying reasons to interfere. This applies to everyday actions like choosing where to go, what to eat or drink, what to buy or sell, what to wear, whether to pray or sing or exercise and how. And where these actions involve others, the assumption of liberty extends to whom the individual chooses to interact with. It applies to our long term projects. The individual is free to choose a course of study (or not to study), a career or job, whether to have a family and whom to create that family with, a sport or craft to master, and so on. An individual is free to choose and pursue their own understanding of God(s), the heavens, and the good life. They choose a religious faith, or not to believe at all. They determine for themselves the importance of civic engagement, work-family balance, and education. And they are free to develop their own political beliefs, and which political factions to join, if any. To the liberal, none of this requires permission or approval.

This presumption can be contrasted with an illiberal understanding that an individual is not assumed to be free to act without explicit permission. A totalitarian society may operate with this general understanding. Avoiding this extreme, we can consider areas of social life as illiberal to the extent they require that individuals seek permission from some authority before they commit some action, before they plan and execute projects, and before they fashion their own fundamental beliefs about life and living. Thus we speak of the illiberalism of a command-and-control economy because individuals are not free to pursue their own agendas in the market. Conversely we speak of liberalizing reforms when unnecessary or poorly justified regulations are removed. We speak of censorship and other curtailments of free expression as illiberal. State support of a specific faith and repression of disfavored religions are likewise illiberal.

But the presumption of liberty can be overridden. If there are strong reasons to forbid a person from doing something, then the liberal has no problem with forbidding that thing. Such overriding considerations can take many forms, such as the need to protect the liberty of others, facilitating social order for collective benefit, or preventing gross moral horror. Mileage will vary on when individual freedom can be justifiably overridden, and here is not the place to resolve ideological disputes, but the idea of the presumption of liberty should be clear enough.

And liberty must be understood in context. As noted above, we aren’t atomistic individuals who encounter one another in some ahistorical “state of nature.” The actual state of nature is the sociopolitical environment we find ourselves in now, which has evolved from a sequence of political power struggles, social movements, technological innovations, and multipolar democratic compromises. The basic liberties mentioned above are intuitive enough to understand outside any political context, but the imperatives of freedom in property, contracts, finance, intellectual property, common law, restitution for historical injustices, and other complicated domains are much harder to discern. Bodies of statute and precedent stack, interpenetrate, and co-evolve so that we can only make trade-offs among competing but legitimate values. What, for example, does the presumption of liberty advise in the case of separatist religious groups seeking to remove their children from compulsory schooling? The implications of freedom are even murkier where jurisdictions overlap, or where international conflicts and obligations are concerned. Some problems are hard.

Universalism and moral equality

The blessings of liberty belong to each individual, regardless of their sex, race, place of birth, religion, sexuality, wealth, class, disability, or any other contingent characteristic. Each individual deserves freedom just in virtue of their humanity and their abilities to reason and participate in society in moral ways. A person has a certain inalienable dignity as an individual just by being capable of enjoying free thought and action.

Those societies and belief systems are illiberal to the extent they fail to respect the dignity and liberty of individuals on account of these factors. Racist and ethnonationalist regimes; societies that place individuals in certain castes because of the identities of their parents that they cannot escape; societies that condone religious persecution; patriarchal societies that limit the freedom of women or transgender persons; all these societies are illiberal. And otherwise liberal societies are illiberal to the extent they condone or allow these sorts of hierarchies.

While each person deserves liberty, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a singular set of liberal policies, or that liberty will be protected in the same ways in every society. The liberal understands that different societies have developed along different trajectories. A society in which certain religious or ethnic groups suffered a long period of violence and strife may have a significantly different constitution from a society in which there was a dominant majority group for a long time. The liberal recognizes that no single liberal constitution can be simply copied and pasted to another society without paying careful attention to the social and historical context.

Furthermore, no currently existing society is perfectly liberal. Liberalism is a work in progress around the world, and while some countries are certainly more liberal than others, those we would consider basically liberal have different strengths and weaknesses (say, a freer labor market in one versus stronger protection for religious liberty or free speech in another). And all have adapted liberal principles to their institutions in slightly different ways (say, in the procedural details of legislative bodies). No one and no society is in a position to dictate to those from other cultures exactly how liberal principles must be applied. But this is no comfort to illiberal governments and other authorities around the world. No one and no society is free from liberal criticism. Indeed, liberalism encourages intercultural dialogue and exchange, both on grounds of freedom as well as learning and improving from exchange. Perfection is not a prerequisite for liberal criticism.


One might argue that, while sex, race, disability, and place of birth are obviously morally arbitrary, religions are chosen, and wealth, class, and perhaps to some extent sexuality may be significantly influenced by a person’s choices. First, some level of dignity is simply inalienable. Even if a person must be confined to protect the rest of society, their humanity affords them some basic level of decent treatment. Second, the liberal takes an expansive view of what choices are “morally arbitrary,” at least for the purposes of protecting individual liberty.

The very basis for individual dignity—the ability to reflect and choose—makes diversity inevitable. Individuals will come to different conclusions about matters of high and low importance and everything in between. To the extent possible, the liberal must respect the good faith beliefs of their fellows. A liberal may disapprove of the religious doctrines of others but they must still respect the rights of those others to practice their faiths. The liberal recognizes that in order to live together in peace, we must accommodate the sincerely held beliefs of others who understand the world very differently but who also desire peaceful and productive coexistence. Exceptions arise when some party takes their deeply held beliefs to be inconsistent with the pluralistic peace and acts on those beliefs through violence or threats of violence.

Thus, it may not matter much that religion and socioeconomic class may be determined to some extent by choice, though note here the deep effects one’s environment has on both. The liberal tends to minimize those aspects of an individual’s identity that are targeted for moral criticism. The liberal begins with the assumption that another individual has chosen their deeply held beliefs and lifestyle with a good faith use of their rational powers. The liberal society can thus be expected to be and become diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, and lifestyle. A society is illiberal to the extent it tries to impose uniformity or hierarchy along any factors that pertain to a person’s sense of identity.

Liberal purposes

These are the principles the liberal seeks to apply to society and its government. But it’s worth asking if in addition to these principles there are any overarching purposes that liberal society is directed toward. Given the importance of individual freedom and pluralism to liberalism, any social goal would need to be rather vague and capacious to avoid an illiberal prescriptivism.

Individual freedom itself is one liberal goal. That is, a liberal society is one that aims toward securing and nourishing freedom to ever greater degrees. The liberal looks to a future where each person, regardless of their background, is able to develop their capacities so they can make decisions and plan projects that are truly their own.

Peace has already been mentioned. One of the historical reasons liberal principles coalesced in the first place was to end ethnic and religious strife, and to find a way diverse people could live together in peace. Liberalism seeks to entrench this pluralistic peace, and to extend its reach as widely as possible.

Poverty, broadly understood to mean having a lack of means to secure one’s own well-being, is a kind of unfreedom. It prevents individuals from pursuing the kinds of lives they have good reason to wish to live because they are struggling merely to survive. Poverty can also exacerbate strife and conflict. While the liberal may choose to live their own life within frugal means, the liberal recognizes that a prosperous society empowers individuals to make more authentic choices about their lives, rather than choices circumscribed by desperation.

The liberal thus advances the principles of individualism, freedom, universalism, equality, and pluralism in society, and in so doing ultimately directs that society toward the natural liberal ends of peace, freedom, and prosperity for all.

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