Brett Williams's Reviews > Liberals on Liberalism

Liberals on Liberalism by Alfonso J. Damico
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The Success of Liberalism is its Demise

This is a book of essays on liberal theory - i.e. "liberalism" born from the Enlightenment, employed by America's Founders and mutated in modernity. A fine text for fundamental understanding of the issues with some soundly written entries, and a few so obtuse as to be of interest to but a handful of specialists. It is a book of strengths, weaknesses, assaults and defense of this social / political perspective that changed humanity's trajectory, becoming the basis of modern Western Civilization and its ascendancy. From the assault category, we find that errors in the theory took almost 300 years to be fully realized. The success of liberalism has folded back to destabilize itself. The cause of this imbalance seems to be what was liberated - the individual and their "rights" (social, legal, economic). What was discarded over time was true community, tradition, participation, belonging, and a general dismissal of religion as an integral part of all these. That is, humane connections replaced by the primacy of free choice, and urge that so often motivates it. Rights justification dominates any concern for their practice. (We didn't get a Bill Of Rights And Responsibilities.) What we find is that aspects of Western life we cherish came with an enormous cost and a hazardous future.

So, what is liberalism? To paraphrase Terchek's essay, A language of rights that seeks to justify and ensure moral autonomy of individuals, expanding their range of choice in ways that do not interfere with the legitimate choices of others. (Similar to Adam Smith's definition of proper economic systems, there's no mention of community.) However, Locke, Smith, and Mill (liberalism's early developers) maintained that rights were necessary for the good life, but by themselves did not produce it. Liberty was seen intimately tied to virtue. Part and parcel of liberalism is the notion of government neutrality as it should not dictate the good life for citizens. This did not mean moral neutrality among the people as is now accepted. The very absence of a moral standard, Terchek notes, has come back to haunt liberalism when rights conflict with others in a congestion of rights with no hierarchy. (Chalk one up for the faithful and their desires for moral instruction.) Institutional supports to tame narrow individualism (family, church, community) have been or are being lost with nothing to replace them. And "special interest" group politics, says Terchek, only makes this all worse, where the group with the most muscle wins. Along similar lines, Spragen's essay argues that liberal society cannot be neutral to the character of its citizenry, as an absence of public spirit, self-restraint, and intelligence bodes poorly for self-governance. That States not impose a particular morality, coupled with recognition that citizen character is critical to its survival are conflicting notions to Spragen. Galston's offering - one of the best - is a wonderful history from Locke to the present. Sparing no disgust, the great upheaval in liberal theory commencing in the mid-20th century blisters off the page. Galston concludes that, "Every contemporary theory that begins by promising to do without a substantive theory of the good ends by betraying that promise." Including the much lauded moral neutrality now prevalent - which turns out not to be neutral.

In De Lue's essay we see the struggle liberalism has in rectifying its problems. De Lue sites the criticism that liberalism views people (atoms) as detached from social constructs constitutive of their identity (true communities), then he sets out to fix it by making it worse. Beginning with the ideal that "Attainment of self-respect is the chief good that all free individuals seek as a consequence of their need for autonomy", these "atoms" nonetheless need family through which children find others exist to nurture their autonomy. (Really? Not to nurture human connectedness? Survival? Love? Belonging?) "Enlarged thinking" of others over self will fix individualistic selfishness. The "difference-principle" will allow the well-off to have their privileges so long as they use them to enhance lives of the worse-off. (Defined and implemented by who, over those autonomous citizens?) In such a "well ordered" society we find others honor their "roles and obligations" (i.e. those things lost once true communities were killed with this version of liberalism, and another violation of autonomy). Like John Rawls, De Lue fabricates a mechanical society built on individualism opposed to it, imposing direction where individualism rejects it - which might work perfectly well on paper in the classroom. Even utopian arguments like this uncover core problems with underpinnings of our society. This book helps to clarify why we seem so self-contradictory so often. Part of the answer is found to be that self-contradiction is woven into the fiber of our very system and the psyche it creates.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 6, 2014 – Shelved
May 3, 2014 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)
November 16, 2016 – Started Reading (Paperback Edition)
December 18, 2016 – Finished Reading (Paperback Edition)

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