It sounds moderate, prudential, even sophisticated.
“Socially liberal” suggests individual choice about sex, marriage, and life in general. “Fiscally conservative” suggests spending restraint and market freedom.
Both statements come from the same philosophy. The first is social liberalism, the second economic liberalism.
In other words, “I am socially liberal but fiscally conservative” is simply liberalism through and through.
What, then, do we mean by ‘liberalism’?
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Liberal just means freedom. Most people like freedom, at least for themselves.
Libertarians make a whole political philosophy out of freedom.
Liberalism, on the other hand, means something more.
Francis Fukuyama is perhaps the most well-known expert on liberalism. At the end of the Cold War, he wrote, The End of History and the Last Man (1992).
Fukuyama predicted a future of liberalism without contest or equal. No more socialism, conservatism, or anything else. Nothing but liberalism forever and ever.
Given the lack of competition, Fukuyama did not need to define liberalism against its enemies. Everyone knew what he meant.
Fukuyama’s endless future lasted two decades. The liberal consensus is dead, and liberalism faces attack from all sides.
Patrick Deneen, a political science professor, wrote an unexpected best-seller in 2019 called, Why Liberalism Failed. Even former U.S. President Barak Obama offered a blurb for the back cover.
In 2020, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a best-seller, A Decadent Society.
Paul Embrey, the British trade unionist, offered a proletariat attack on liberalism: Despised – Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class (2021).
There are loads of books and articles with the same theme.
This spring, Fukuyama published Liberalism and Its Discontents. (While on my reading list, I haven’t gotten to it yet. But here’s a book review by Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University.
Fukuyama relies on English political philosopher John Gray to define liberalism. Gray said liberalism has four main features. They are:
- individualist (a person who is independent and self-reliant)
- universalist (the idea that universal facts exist and can be progressively discovered), and
- melioristic (the belief that the world can be made better through human efforts).
Gray writes well and attacks everyone. One of his best books is Enlightenment’s Wake (2007), on the origins and failures of liberalism and conservatism.
Gray explains how liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment emphasized reason, progress, and universality. Liberalism leveraged Enlightenment ideas and promoted the abovementioned ideas (individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, and meliorism).
John Gray argues that the Enlightenment had multiple children. Karl Marx used Enlightenment thought but emphasized collectivism, the inevitability of historical progress, and universality.
Liberalism and Marxism are sibling rivals (a paradox to explore another time).
In practice, liberalism is a thin philosophy: it leaves most things to individuals and works well when society shares a general consensus.
A social consensus includes agreement on the use and limits of things such as honesty, civility, public debate, evidence, and so on. Liberal societies last until people lose awareness of “You just shouldn’t do that.”
Both woke activists, and revolutionary populists, have abandoned social consensus. The big questions are up for debate again.
Why tell the truth?
Why listen to divergent opinions?
Why not punch someone in the face if you think they are evil?
What’s wrong with doxing someone to help our side?
Why shouldn’t we aim to “own the Libs” or cancel the Right?
Thin philosophies cannot answer these questions. They offer little content as a point of principle.
German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said every civilization contains the seeds of its own destruction. Marx believed this idea made the collapse of capitalism inevitable.
As per Hegel, liberalism seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction. For example, freedom and equality cannot co-exist without one trying to consume the other.
Or consider universality. Liberalism makes people think they can simply remove an illiberal regime and replace it with a liberal one.
If liberalism is true for us, it should also be true for Iraq and Afghanistan. We just kill Hussein and bin Laden, set up elections, and then watch 1,000 flowers bloom. (Note how liberalism innervates all western political parties.)
A thin philosophy cannot build a society from scratch. It assumes too much, promises even more, and delivers it all too slowly, if at all.
Liberalism works when it rests on a robust network of vibrant social institutions: voluntary associations, educational networks, families of all sorts, faith groups, cultural associations, and more.
However, liberalism remains silent on institutions themselves. Liberalism can steer a thriving civilization the same way a child can steer a car on a clear day with a dry road. But liberalism cannot arrest decline or reverse decay any better than a toddler can correct oversteering in slush.
What’s worse, liberalism animates the destruction of the very institutions it needs to survive. It calls for emancipation from anything which might infringe on individual freedom.
Think of all the expectations of being part of a profession. Or consider all the involuntary obligations associated with having parents or siblings.
Liberalism finds involuntary obligations guilty until proven irrelevant by a new welfare program or medical therapy.
We cannot turn back time. Current struggles could last decades as we search for answers.
Why care about individuals?
Does society make individuals, or do individuals make society?
Is equality an absolute or relative good?
What do we mean by progress?
Does reason have limits?
Can we ever be truly rational, or are we tragically tied to sentiment, habit, and prejudice?
Asking big questions is itself a conservative endeavour. Philosophical conservatism wrestles endlessly with them.
Of course, many self-described liberals grapple with these questions too. However, the endless digging for answers, which most people do not need, makes these ‘liberals’ philosophically conservative. They feel unwelcome in the unquestioning masses of the modern liberal left.
The outcome of rehashing big questions is unknown.
We might see another 70 years like the Soviet era; or maybe a second industrial revolution, this time electric; or perhaps a reactionary revolt will inspire us all to plant gardens, raise chickens, and study Cicero (I wish).
We cannot dispatch liberalism and conservatism in one post. But hopefully, we have slain the sorry nonsense about being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Just call yourself a liberal through and through.
Shawn Whatley is a physician, past president of the Ontario Medical Association, and a Munk senior fellow at MLI. He is author of When Politics Comes Before Patients – Why and How Canadian Medicare is Failing.
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