04 October 2011

Liberalism . . . and liberalism

Miroslav Volf, author of the new book, Public Faith, speaks about the need to save liberalism as a way of securing an open public square where all faiths can meet and work for the common good.

I am increasingly persuaded that the contemporary debate over liberalism has been hampered by the failure of most of the participants to distinguish between two different, albeit related, meanings of the word.

On the one hand, there are those who critique liberalism, noting that its individualism is incapable of doing justice to community or accounting for our responsibilities to each other in a variety of settings. On the other, those defending liberalism, even if their defence is as moderate as Volf's, tend to emphasize that it provides a framework within which diverse citizens can work out their differences for the sake of the common good. This is the approach taken by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and many of the writers in First Things.

I would suggest that the two sides are talking past each other and are referring to different phenomena. The first group is critiquing what is essentially a spiritually-based ideology which tends to reduce all communities to mere voluntary associations, thereby levelling the distinctions among church, state, family, marriage, business enterprises, labour unions, &c. Under such an approach, it is virtually impossible to speak of intrinsic differences among these. That marriage has been increasingly reduced to a private contract between self-interested parties should not surprise us, given the predominance of liberal ideology in the English-speaking countries. This is the kind of liberalism I take on in chapter 2 of my Political Visions and Illusions, as well as here.

When the second group hears that some people, including Christians, are criticizing liberalism, they hear a critique of political institutions that facilitate deliberation as a means of resolving potentially intractable differences. Such people as David VanDrunen and my friend and colleague Janet Ajzenstat fall into this category. They think that the first group is dismissing representative democracy, democratic elections, parliamentary debate and constitutional limits and is pining for a restored monarchy or a socialist commonwealth. There may be a few critics seeking these goals, but, as far as I can tell, the majority of such critics, myself included, value highly what some call liberal democracy but which I prefer to call constitutional democracy.

To be sure, our contemporary democratic institutions do owe something to the ideology of liberalism, with its contractarian account of the origins of civil government, but the smooth functioning of a democratic constitution is not dependent on this account. In fact, as the late Sir Bernard Crick pointed out half a century ago, democracy itself, if liberated from constitutional constraints, can become antipolitical in the sense that it hinders the chief political task of peacefully conciliating diversity.

My proposal is that, before the debate over liberalism continues, the two sides clarify what they mean by liberalism so as to avoid the misunderstandings that have beset the conversation up to now.

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