Is Liberal Civilization a ‘Somewhere’?
By Alberto Mingardi
Dan Klein continues his gallant battle to recover the word “liberal” for classical liberals. His last effort is “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Call Leftists ‘Liberal’.”
I have to confess that I am ambivalent about some of the arguments Dan makes here. He concludes his piece by writing that:
In The Lion King, the spirit of Mufasa tells Simba: Remember who you are.
You are not an “anywhere,” but a “somewhere”: a son or daughter of liberal civilization.
This is consistent with the way in which he frames his message—and publishing it with the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute—perhaps most evident in Reason #8:
Liberalism 1.0 [Dan’s term for Smithian liberalism] is what American conservatives like William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, George Will, Peggy Noonan, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Jonah Goldberg wish to conserve. By calling leftists ‘liberal,’ we obscure what the best American conservatives wish to conserve.
Dan says that “Liberalism 1.0 is the soul of Western civilization,” and those who want to “conserve” that soul should not acquiesce to the use of the word “liberal” to mean something very different.
Dan knows well that “Western civilization”, at least in terms of political thinking, has been many things, including the distortion of the word liberal, including Marxism, including the modern state against whose power classical liberalism is in part a reaction, and indeed including the French Revolution (perhaps the political event with more momentous consequences, in the world of ideas too). Yet in the piece (reason #7) he writes that accepting the narrative that underpins the current use of the word “liberal” is tantamount to accepting a narrative by which liberalism has been imported from France into England, while it can be argued that it was especially a product of the Anglo-Saxon world. There are many “Wests” indeed.
Dan leaves me with the impression that he equates the West with classical liberalism, and that he does so because he is searching for something which he considers peculiar to the West: a set of institutions that allowed for a certain degree of individual freedom. There are Western political cultures that are indifferent, or inimical, to individual liberty – but they are not peculiar to the West. What matters is that the West has also allowed for something notably different, and that such freedom allowed for the blossoming of our “civilization.”
Not every liberal (in the classical sense) would agree with that. Indeed, many point out the universality and ubiquity of liberal values. I just don’t know enough of non-Western political culture to have an opinion on that.
Still, I’m not sure that what Russell Kirk wanted to conserve was Liberalism 1.0. Some of it for sure, but perhaps also some conflicting values. What’s the place of “tradition”, for example, in classical liberalism? What’s the place for “community”? Most conservative tends to like the state to be strong and very active to provide “order” in a disordered world: how do we balance that with the sanctity of the private sphere, a legacy of classical liberalism? I agree that the conservatives Dan mentions want to save a political order whose foundations were influenced by Liberalism 1.0, but I am not sure this means they are partisans of liberal ideas as such.
Political identities are far more complex than political labels are, and are shaped by relationships, friendships, tastes, novels, movies, and so on. Political identities cannot be reduced to “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice,” and “the liberal system” of free enterprise: people may like some of that but be afraid of economic change at the same time, or worship their national heritage as something which they consider more important than liberal public policy. It is for this reason that words in politics are often ambiguous. Contradictions may be meaningful and even inevitable.
I have to say I am a bit uneasy with Dan’s use of the distinction between those who are an “anywhere” and those who are a “somewhere.” The distinction is borrowed from a successful book by David Goodhart, who uses it to explain the conflicts behind Brexit: somewheres are rooted in a particular locale, anywheres are comfortable and functional in any Starbucks coffee around the globe. I am not sure this is a sufficient explanation of today’s major political cleavages, but I think that self-identifying with “Western civilisation” would already mean being an “anywhere” of sorts. We’re talking of something way bigger than national boundaries and local communities. Moreover, we are talking of something whose borders are invisible and continuously changing (is Venezuela within Western civilisation? Israel? Hong Kong? Singapore?). I suspect that people who think of themselves as “somewheres” would have little sympathy for imagining “liberal civilization” as a “somewhere,” as for the idea, common to Liberalism 1.0, that human liberty pertains to individuals because they are human beings, and not because they are the by-product of a certain community. This is not to say that you can’t feel at the same time a son of Western civilization, an American, a Christian, a Virginian and perhaps a little else too, like a Star Wars fan or a bullfight aficionado. But this would mean recognising that identity can be plural: a concept that implies a certain degree of anywhereness.