Pursuing Freedom to the ‘Four Corners of Liberalism’: An Interview With Nonprofit CEO Emily Chamlee-Wright
‘There’s an error, just an error, in thinking that the project to generate greater freedom has nothing to do with institutions’
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Welcome to Reimagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. Reimagining Liberty is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political and economic freedom. I’m your host,.
This is a podcast about liberalism, but liberalism is a bit of a contested term, slippery, evolving and claimed by lots of people with rather diverse views about what it means. My guest offers a helpful framework for clarifying what liberalism is by dividing it into what she calls the four corners of liberalism—related and overlapping, but still distinct approaches to the liberal idea.
Emily Chamlee-Wright, the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, has made a career defending the liberal tradition. Her insights in our conversation help clarify what liberalism is and how we should approach and respond to those who would seek to overturn it.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: You have made the case that there are actually four kinds of liberalism—or four approaches, or four corners, as you describe it. Let’s talk through those, because I think this is a really interesting framework for approaching questions of liberalism, the tension within liberalism and the ways that people who are not themselves liberals think about this whole liberal project. So what are they?
Emily Chamlee-Wright: Yes, so let me say first that what I have in mind is that it’s a single liberalism, a single liberal project, but that it has four dimensions to it. The four dimensions are political liberalism, economic liberalism, intellectual liberalism and cultural liberalism. In the broadest brush strokes, the political liberalism project is what’s captured within Founding-era documents: the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, constitutional separations of powers, constrained government that is intended to secure our rights and secure individual liberties. That’s the political liberalism project that most Americans are familiar with from their K-12 civics education. That’s what’s most familiar to us when we think about the liberal project.
The next corner would be economic liberalism. This is the piece that classical liberals want to focus in on: that political liberalism and political freedom is, of course, incredibly important and so is economic freedom. It is the elbow room that allows us to try things out, to innovate, to also feel the consequences of bad decisions. In the process of that economic openness, we learn as individuals, but we also learn as a society as well. That’s perhaps something we can tap into a little bit.
The third corner is intellectual liberalism. This is the approach to inquiry that says openness is the best way for us to gain an understanding of truth. It allows us to discover new things. It allows us to rid ourselves of false beliefs. It allows us to open up our best ideas to scrutiny and improve them—sort of the John Stuart Mill project. It captures well the epistemic or intellectual liberalism piece.
And the fourth corner is cultural liberalism, that sense of openness, that default toward openness—that so long as you and I are respecting one another’s rights and the rights of other people, we can let one another pursue the project on our own to discover what the good life means and what that means for us, recognizing that in many cases, we won’t come to the same conclusions, but that as long as we’re respecting one another’s individual liberties, we should have a sense of openness and experimentation. We should have a default sense of toleration that allows for this cultural experimentation and growth and change, recognizing that your choices along these lines don’t harm me.
The stronger upside version of cultural liberalism is that in that process that begins with a kind of perhaps cold toleration, we come to learn that we can live and coexist side by side, and in fact, we can engage in trade relationships, neighborly interactions. We can be with one another within civil society, and all is well. That toleration can then eventually emerge into a healthy pluralism.
Aaron: Let me start by asking, then—because there’s a lot to unpack in all of that—about political liberalism, and the relationship within political liberalism between ends and institutional means, because I think we have seen this come up in the last several years in the way that more mainstream liberals talk about and defend liberalism and push back on some of the critiques of it. I’ll give a version, like an encapsulation of, the crux of this tension. I remember when the Jan. 6 riot, insurrection, was happening. I was online, as many of us were, and I was on Twitter, as many of us were, following all of this. I found it this shocking and appalling action—this assault on, and attempt to overthrow, the liberal order and so on.
But then there were a lot of people who typically see themselves as advocates of robust freedom who were like: “Actually, this is just fine, because what they’re doing is like—Congress does all sorts of bad things. We’ve wanted to reform it. We’ve wanted to radically change government in pro-freedom ways, and so why are you defending this calcified institution in the first place?”
So there’s that tension: Is our commitment as political liberals to the ends of—in the way that you put it in one of the articles talking about this—individuals having the room to pursue their preferences and plans? Or is it to maintaining the institutions that we have said are representative of political liberalism? And specifically, how do we resolve the tension of those institutions’ being broadly liberal but then having significant problems that push in an illiberal direction, so that robust critique of them can get read as a danger to the system itself?
If we are too critical of the institutions on the grounds that they push potentially in illiberal directions, we risk delegitimizing the system, lowering social trust in ways that are going to promote not more freedom, not more liberalism in the way that you and I understand it, but less. It’s an almost “keep your criticisms to yourself” argument. I frequently think about that tension of basically calling out the problems— I think there are genuine problems—but not then giving fuel to the people who just want to tear the whole system down to replace it with something worse.
Emily: Yes. I think that there’s an error, just an error, in thinking that the project to generate greater freedom has nothing to do with institutions. I think that that’s an error in one’s analysis of the way the world works. Institutions are bound up with what kind of social order emerges. So there may be, in some of these critiques, a kind of wishful thinking that they want maximal freedom, but without having to think through the very hard question of what institutional rules of the game and institutional structures need to be in place to secure those freedoms.
That’s where the liberal project becomes an intellectual project, as well as a kind of civic project, of, “How do we work it all out?” I just don’t quite know how to correct the error if someone’s point of view is that institutions don’t matter. I think the burden of proof would be on them.
If we start from the place that says institutions do matter, what are the rules of the game that are going to allow us to govern ourselves as free people? Then we are in the game that [economist] James Buchanan is in, which is to understand the rules of the game and to understand how they can work toward liberal ends and toward generating a greater level of social peace and prosperity—and also the ways in which those very same institutions can degrade. That is, I think, a way to hone where we’re sitting in the conversation.
So to criticize the way in which political institutions are operating on the ground is not to suggest, “Let’s tear the whole system down.” It’s to critique the ways in which people have co-opted their access to power or the power that they hold in a way that is actually counterproductive if our goal is social peace and prosperity and maximal liberty for all individuals. That’s the place I would begin, but I want to pause here to see if that is a productive direction to start taking the conversation.
Aaron: Yes. I think that gets to, or addresses, this critique that I see. I think the broader issue is that—as you rightly point out, liberalism is like an ongoing project, and it’s one of dynamism. It is one that embraces a constant progress through change, and that change comes about through economic dynamism. It comes about through cultural dynamism. It comes about through—the epistemic liberalism is basically a knowledge dynamism where we’re in this ongoing, constant project to refine, expand our knowledge, which means being willing to toss away things that we thought at one time were true but now no longer appear to be, and so on.
So there’s a willingness to embrace change. But when it comes to political liberalism, particularly in the Trump era—because Trumpism seemed so focused on tearing down and hobbling the institutions of our society, which was, in many ways, broadly liberal, but also had illiberal aspects to it and so on—there was this reaction against basically critiquing institutions along liberal grounds, and so you end up with the weird thing of suddenly Democrats defending the FBI and the CIA, which in the past they had seen as tools of an illiberal society that was doing all sorts of awful things. So it’s that particular critique that basically in a time of threats to liberty, don’t rock the boat in terms of critiquing the existing institutions, but instead merely defend them against the people who would replace them with something worse.
I wonder about that in terms of the underlying real dynamism of liberalism, which says we ultimately have to embrace change. How do we embrace that dynamism without risking hurting the wildly imperfect institutions that are enabling whatever level of liberalism we already have?
Emily: I think that it might be helpful to bring in here a point I like to make about the broader liberal sensibility: That especially in political liberalism, a significant emphasis on institutional rules of the game and institutional structures like an independent judiciary, like a free press, like equality before the law, like the constraints on government so that it does not overreach—those institutional rules of the game are matched with norms that uphold them. So it certainly is reasonable for a political leader to challenge a journalist who is circulating factually incorrect journalism that is critical of the government—it is, I think, fair game for an elected official to push back against that. There’s a difference between pushing back against a particular piece while still recognizing what the point of a free press is and undermining the credibility of a free press altogether, or calling for sanctions that would punish journalists for criticizing the government.
These are two totally different things. I think we just have to be mature enough—this is part of what the responsibility is to being self-governing citizens: We have to know the difference between those two things. I think that there’s a similar role to play, or similar move we can make, when we criticize a particular Supreme Court decision, for example, without tearing down the institution of the independent judiciary. That line of distinction is one where it’s up to us as citizens of a liberal democratic order to understand that difference.
And this is where education matters. This is things like civic education around what the liberal political order is supposed to do. Then recognizing that the whole point of the thinking of James Madison—the whole point of needing these rules in place—is because we are imperfect human beings. If we were angels, we wouldn’t need government.
The challenge is, How do we establish rules of the game? How do we establish political institutions that are designed to protect our liberties, though that also means putting power in the hands of a particular group of people? How do we make sure that that’s constrained appropriately? That’s never going to be a perfect system; that’s just not the nature of the beast. Understanding the variations of imperfection is an important piece of what it means to be a citizenry that’s educated for the freedom that we have.
Aaron: I think that’s a really important point and one that I’m curious to dig into a bit in terms of rising illiberalism. I have sometimes remarked there’s that show that some of our listeners may remember called The West Wing, which was about a Democratic president and his administration and—
Emily: President Bartlet, I believe.
Aaron: President Bartlet, yes. I had remarked at one point that you couldn’t have a radically classical liberal West Wing, or a radically libertarian West Wing, because it would be a really boring show. Every episode would be Bartlet’s in his office, someone comes in and is like, “Here’s a problem I’ve identified in society, the economy,” and Bartlet would say: “Well, we’re not going to do anything. We’re going to, like—government’s going to stay out of this, and then through emergent processes, things are going to solve.” So there wouldn’t be a show.
That gets to that kind of imperfection, I think, that you’re talking about, which is core to really embracing a liberal society: saying, there are going to be things in the world that you wish were different; you wish society looked like this, or you wish that the economy wasn’t shifting in a way that was putting these people out of work, or you wish that culture wasn’t going in a direction that you don’t like, or you wish that these particular social problems were solved now instead of tomorrow or a decade from now or so on—but for all of these reasons, you need to put up with it. You need to wait. You need to accept the imperfection in your mind—and I say “in your mind” because it might be that the “imperfections” you’ve identified aren’t actually imperfections. They might just be your own personal preferences that others don’t share. You need to just accept that.
It seems to me that a lot of the illiberalism that we’re seeing today is people rejecting that liberal refusal to use these powerful tools that the government has to immediately effect the kind of change that they want. Sometimes it’s good to just say: “The change you want is bad. There’s a good reason we don’t want you to do it; the change you want is bad.”
You don’t like that gay people have more social freedoms than they used to; you want to change that. It’s that your ends are wrong in that regard. There are other times when there’s actually poverty, or there’s actually profound inequalities, or there are actually people who are hurting right now. We are telling them, “Yes, this person is saying they can use the tools of the state to give you a solution right now, but in the long run, or even in the short run, that’s bad, because it cuts against liberalism. Getting what you want isn’t worth it, basically.”
How do we as liberals—as people who advocate for, want to promote, want to maintain a liberal society—make the case for liberalism in that context? Make the case to people who are actually genuinely hurting from the imperfections? Say to them, “No, it’s not worth it to use this tool that’s sitting there right in front of you and is calling to you; that power could be wielded, but you shouldn’t wield it”?
Emily: Yes, this is where the political economy project is important for us to see the wholeness of it. It’s the problem of sitting in one corner of the liberal project and not seeing and recognizing the other three corners. We could maybe draw parallels to intellectual and cultural liberalism here, but for a second, let’s talk about the connection between political liberalism and economic liberalism.
The project of economic liberalism is ultimately a project that if we had one defining virtue that we could ascribe to it, when it’s at its best, is humility. I spent a lot of time thinking about, “What are the virtues of the liberal order?” and winnowing them down, so that it’s not just, well, “What’s the laundry list of things that Emily likes and wishes the world could look like this? That’s the world I want to live in!”—and then insist that they’re all essential pieces of the liberal project. In that discipline of winnowing down to what are core virtues of the liberal order, humility has stood the test in my mind.
The political apparatus of the liberal order can identify ends that many of us—perhaps not all of us, but many of us—would say, yes, that would be a good end to shoot for. So assuming we’re all in agreement on the end that we want to achieve, now we have to talk about the means of achieving that end: What’s the how behind it? What’s the likelihood that in exercising the means that we have at our disposal, we’ll actually achieve the end that we’re all focused on? A lot of times the fight amongst liberals themselves, and amongst critics of liberalism and liberals, is not a fight about the end. It’s more about, “How are we going to pursue it?”
If the end is to eliminate poverty, the problem is so big, so complex, that the political impulse in a lot of us is to say, “Well, let’s have an engineered solution from the top down.” The economic liberal says: “Whoa, wait a minute. First of all, how are you going to do that without violating the political liberties that you say that you’re in favor of?” That’s one critique and challenge. Another one is that in exercising the uncontested power and authority that you will have to exercise to achieve some global end like this, you’re assuming that you’ve got the machinery that is going to allow you to achieve that end as if you knew better than the alternative system. The alternative system is an open marketplace that allows for lots and lots of experimentation, entrepreneurship, pursuit of opportunities, many of which fail; then people learn out of that trial-and-error process, and they revise their plans. They try again, and it’s through that tugging and pulling of the market process that there emerges the massive system of cooperation and coordination that tends to, over time, be the only thing that lifts people out of poverty.
If we are going to override and crush the very system that generates prosperity, you’re not going to achieve the end that we all agreed was a good end—if the mechanism that you’re going to deploy is to eradicate the very discovery process that generates growth and prosperity in the first place.
That’s what I mean by there is within the liberal political economy an embedded humility. It’s that understanding that we are very limited in our ability to achieve ends from the standpoint of a Zeus, from the standpoint of an all-knowing, all-powerful deity that stands up and apart from society.
First of all, let’s assume that that doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t. Then we’ve got to recognize that the political actors are not sitting up on Mount Olympus. They’re right here on the ground with the rest of us. They don’t have either omniscience or omnipotence. They’re very limited in what they can know. They’re limited, even given the power that they have, in the power to control for all the unintended consequences that come from the public policy that they would pursue. They can’t wrestle those down to the ground and tame the forces of those unintended consequences.
This is an example of how the four corners of the liberal project work as a system with each other. In other words, you can have liberal political rules of the game and have democratic processes, but if you don’t have economic liberalism, you’re not going to get the outcomes of social peace and prosperity that the liberal project is promising to generate. These two corners work both in tandem with one another and also in tension with one another, but in a positive way.
Aaron: What role does, specifically, cultural liberalism play in this? Going back to the way that you talked about political liberalism, you say that the goal there is that we have the ability to pursue our plans and preferences, and that’s squarely within, like what cultural liberalism is. Cultural liberalism is simply a system where everyone is free to pursue their preferences and plans even if it’s different, even if it’s wildly diverse and it’s not at all the same set of preferences as the guy down the street or the guy across the country.
It seems like a lot of the illiberalism that we are facing right now isn’t about people wanting to scale back economic liberalism specifically. It’s not really about the political institutions. The rejection of those and even the rejection of epistemic liberalism—those all seem to be downstream effects of ultimately a rejection of cultural liberalism, or a sense that cultural dynamism has gone either too far, or it hasn’t gone far enough.
On the cultural reactionary right, the rejection of political liberalism and the rejection of economic liberalism are because they are enabling the “wokification” of culture, the sudden tolerance of lifestyles that I find distasteful, the tearing apart of certain traditional ways of living that were preferences. We need to attack these things as causes of that.
On the left, it seems like a lot of the illiberalism is that the tolerance that comes with dynamism—the acceptance of all of these alternate ways of living—isn’t happening fast enough, or that there are people out there who have not themselves accepted it. So we need to now attack political liberalism and economic liberalism in order to punish them or force faster change. We need the institutions of the state to compel people to have a certain set of beliefs or to keep certain sets of beliefs out of the conversational sphere. Or the bake shop owner who’s not going to bake a cake for a gay wedding: We need to rein in his political or his economic liberalism, his economic freedom in order to compel him to go along with the cultural dynamism.
So I’m curious about why it seems like cultural liberalism is suddenly the main driver of so much of this, whereas in the past what we saw was the old left, the socialist communist movements, were about, “Economic liberalism is bad, because it’s not producing for the working class,” or, “Political liberalism is bad, because it’s enabling certain kinds of economic systems that we don’t like.” But suddenly, it seems to be cultural. Am I misreading that? And if I’m not, what’s going on now in that regard?
Emily: That’s a good question. I want to get to it, but I want to flag something you said early on and challenge a bit and see if we’re in agreement or disagreement, because it might be an answer to your question.
Earlier in this thread, you said that it doesn’t seem like the real challenge around liberalism is about economic liberalism or political liberalism. I would push back on that. If, for example, there is a set of norms that suggest that no matter what I might have thought about the last election, if I didn’t win the vote, once I exhaust all of my formal opportunities to challenge the outcome, it’s expected of me to be in a position that defers to the peaceful transition of power, and that I play that ceremonial role no matter how much I might not like to (that doesn’t matter). It’s a liberal default. It’s a liberal sensibility that one respects the outcome of free elections. This being undermined, I think, is a real challenge to political liberalism.
Economic liberalism, I think, is also under a significant challenge with a push towards economic nationalism. It’s very difficult to distinguish between far-left and far-right economic nationalism except for the players that they would leave in control of the levers of the state apparatus to control big swaths of the economy. I do think that there is a real threat—but I am wondering, like you, whether or not there is a link, then, to the cultural illiberalism that we’re seeing.
Aaron: Right. Let me clarify real quick, because I think, yes, I phrased what I was saying poorly. I wasn’t making the case that there aren’t genuine threats to political liberalism or economic liberalism, and I wasn’t making the case or claiming that people have not become increasingly skeptical of political and economic liberalism.
Rather, what I was saying is it seems like the reason that they are rejecting political liberalism and the reason that they’re turning against economic liberalism—the American right conservatives’ increasing turn against free markets—it seems like the core motivating factor behind those is an objection to cultural liberalism. So Trumpism, which led to the election denialism and so on, was largely an anti-cultural liberalism movement, and it continues to be. DeSantis is this hero to the right because he is using the tools of the state to push back on cultural liberalism and assaulting political liberalism and economic liberalism as a way to accomplish that. It seems like, of the four liberalisms, three of them are being rejected now because people are so motivated by either rejecting cultural liberalism or wanting it to happen faster than it is.
Emily: Yes. I think we’re talking ourselves into an answer to our own question, which is perhaps and I think this—I’ll throw it out there, but then see what you think, and we should challenge it—is that if what I want to do is to galvanize a movement on either end, either extreme, of the political spectrum, it’s so much easier to tap into people’s tribalism than to tap into an economic critique about the way in which global patterns of economic trade play out in the American workforce. That’s hard. That’s hard to make that argument; it’s not likely that people are going to have this bandwidth and attention to take it up and to really wrestle with it and then internalize it.
But if you can just tap into the tribal, “This group over here represents an existential threat to you and your kind,” that taps into something that’s primordial. It taps into a sort of preliberal tribal ethos that’s frankly just easier. That’s the lowest hanging fruit, and in a sense, then, what you get is this dynamic where in the cultural liberalism terrain, as opposed to, say, economic liberalism—like I said, in economic liberalism, both extremes look really, really similar in what they’re advocating—within the cultural terrain, it looks as if they’re advocating the extremes on the far left and the far right; it looks as though they’re advocating something quite different, because they’re championing different groups—who’s been the most victimized, et cetera. The key, though, is that they are still grasping for the same solution, which is more power, to whichever group they’re identifying as in need of remediation the most.
Then the challenge is that once you adopt power as your means for remediation, the elites of either group are going to be the ones who are going to seize power. The outcomes are not going to be what you intended, in all likelihood. In that process, you get this sort of co-creation: Extremism on one side co-creates extremism and response on the other side. So we have a spiraling out effect. With cultural tribalism moving within these various social movements, you have a spinning out of control, and it saps the liberal—I don’t want to say “middle” as if it’s unprincipled—but a middle common ground of a liberal ethos (it might be right of center, it might be left of center, but broadly speaking, in line with the liberal project). It has a tugging and pulling away from that common ground of the liberal project.
What do you think? Is that the right analysis? That the cultural illiberalism that we’re seeing is just simply a tool of the elites that is used in a cynical way?
Aaron: Yes, but I don’t think it explains all of it. I think that it wouldn’t function as an effective tool if there weren’t already serious worries about cultural liberalism among the people the elites are seeking money and votes from. If everyone were mostly cool with cultural liberalism, then the demagogue trying to stir people up over, “There’s cultural change! Things are different than the way they used to be—your group is no longer as dominant!” and so on, wouldn’t find as much purchase.
It does seem like something in the culture and polity has shifted to enable the demagogues to better, I guess, catalyze this tool into something that they can use to promote illiberalism. Yes, I think you’re one hundred percent right in saying it is harder to stir people up on international trade and so on. I see sometimes people on the far progressive left get very upset when they say, like, “The working class is voting against its own interests when it embraces certain things,” and it’s like, well, that’s because, for them, their purely economic gain is not their only interest. There are other things that can trump it, if particularly triggered or fired up or so on.
I wonder in the longer term—because you are the leader of an organization that exists not to just keep genuinely liberal ideas alive, but to attempt to make them more and more central to our society and help to bring our society and our politics and our economy more in line with those core principles. That’s a long-term project. It would be nice if we could win that tomorrow, but we’re not going to; that’s a long-term project. It does seem like something has changed in the last 10, however many, years to make those ideas—all four of the kinds of liberalism that you talk about—more under threat than it feels like they have been in a while.
I don’t want to say this—I should clarify. This doesn’t mean that we had a utopia of liberalism before, and I don’t want to be one of those people who makes the case the 19th century was the high-water mark of freedom because the government was small and wasn’t involved in the economy—and then, obviously, there were lots of things going on in the 19th century, where lots of people were radically unfree. We don’t want to dismiss that, or we don’t want to dismiss the experience of people even in the last 20 years who were really—there was real oppression on them, but they get overlooked because they’re marginalized groups. That’s really important to acknowledge that.
But it does seem like something has changed and the trajectory we were on has shifted in an illiberal direction. Given everything that we have talked about in the last 40 minutes, what do you see that has changed, and what can we as liberals do about it?
Emily: What’s changed? I want to begin with just that acknowledgment that the ground has shifted, or maybe the metaphor is the common ground. It used to be in the course of my lifetime, and growing up in the United States—what was the default that everyone was trying to get to? What was the default assumption? The default assumption was that some version of the liberal order was what “good” looked like.
It served as a common framework for how we knew where we were going. It wasn’t as though, as you point out, that we had achieved the promise that the liberal project puts out in front of us. It wasn’t that we had achieved it; it was instead that there was a sense that when we got up in the morning and our feet met the ground, what they were meeting was a kind of common ground of basic liberal principles, and that that wasn’t in contestation. It wasn’t contested ground. It was just the assumed thing that was going to keep you upright.
What’s changed is that there is a kind of erosion of that common ground, and that erosion has come from both extremes of the ideological spectrum and at the same time, where I think the majority of Americans—the majority, I think, of people who pay attention to circumstances in the world and what a better world would look like—most people are liberals. And if you were to say, “Should there broadly be political liberties? Should people be secure in their body and possessions against the predation of their fellow citizens and from the state?,” I think that you would get most people saying, “Yes, that sounds like a pretty good plan.”
The extremes of illiberalism that we’re seeing, I don’t think is a majority of human beings. But I think that there is a loud shrillness and a volume that has a corrosive effect, despite the fact that it’s not the majority. And so the corrosive effect comes in the form, I think, of people putting out their version of the better world, whatever that may be—it might be some very illiberal view of the world on the right or on the left— and their willingness to suspend liberal principles: to say, “Liberalism, in this case, I’m willing to do away with it, because it’s far better to achieve these ends, and I’m willing to use power and authority and top-down control to achieve those ends.” There was a time when intellectual figures, political figures making that move were pariahs, and we could point to them and say: “That’s a dictator. That’s someone who we would want to resist.” There was a common understanding that that power principle would be something to resist.
That’s shifted. Now, I think that there’s a sense in which to be sophisticated is to say, “Oh, but wait a minute, you’re just making a case for liberalism for me, but not for thee.” There’s a sophistication turn there that makes use of the power principle, an authoritarian principle, as acceptable and okay. That’s seen on both the left and the right, and that’s what’s concerning.
There’s a way in which the use of power—look, it’s like you say, it’s always been there, but from the standpoint of sitting in a generally liberal democratic society, there was once a standpoint where you could be the umpire and say: “No, that’s out of bounds, because that’s using an authoritarian power to undermine individual liberties, to undermine the functioning of a liberal democratic society. That’s out of bounds.” That rule of the game—that “out-of-bounds-ness” of that call—that’s what’s crumbled. It’s crumbled, as I said, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, and that’s what’s troubling.
Then you get going back to that co-creation of the extremes. Extremism on one end co-creates the extremism on the other end, because, “Well, we have to respond with these highly illiberal responses because of the craziness on the other side.” And that’s the moment that we’re in, and in that process, that cedes ground to this use of power and authority. That’s what’s different in this moment compared to, say, even 10 years ago.
Aaron: What do we do about that as people committed to a robust liberalism in the political sphere, in the social sphere, in the economic sphere? Given that what you’re describing is an arms race, effectively, how do we get out of that before it ends up somewhere—I mean, things have not been great, but they could be a lot worse, and how do we stop it from getting there?
Emily: I think the first thing we need to do as advocates of liberalism is to remind ourselves frequently, over and over again, what the point is. And in very, very broad brushstrokes, the point is that we’re pursuing liberalism, the liberal project, because that is what leads to social peace and cooperation.
I would say that there’s two major prongs there. One is that as advocates of liberalism, we need to do the mental work of identifying and understanding and then articulating to all our various audiences what the institutions are that lead to social peace and cooperation, and which then, in turn, lead to widespread human flourishing and widely shared prosperity. The institutional piece is critical, and I think that that’s where the intellectual piece of the project is.
But paired with that is what I call cultivating a liberal sensibility. These are the liberal norms that we have to articulate so that we can be aware of when it’s necessary to reclaim those liberal norms. It might be in political spaces; like we talked about, the peaceful transition of power is not just an institutional question, it’s also a norm question, norms of toleration and cultural spaces. It’s those baseline norms, but also the far more expansive norms that liberal institutions make possible, because that’s where we create spaces for civil society. We create spaces for an expansive notion of cultural liberalism, where we have a radical commitment that we are one another’s dignified equals.
It’s not just that we have a political system that supports human dignity; we want that, of course. In addition to that, we need to be also articulating a vision—what James Buchanan called a vision—for the liberal project, which includes, when we’re thinking about human dignity, not just the rules of the game, but also how we treat each other and how we talk to each other.
I think then, finally, the thing that we need to do as advocates of liberalism is that we need to be wrestling with complex challenges, where the stakes are really high, the challenge may be new to us and the answers are not obvious. We need to be willing to go into that terrain where we may not feel completely comfortable because we don’t know what the solution is, but be willing to enter into those spaces with humility, good faith and intellectual openness.
I would say that our job as liberals is that when we hear our friends, our co-workers and our political representatives, because of the complexity and because of the bigness of the challenge, defaulting towards power and authority, we need to be the ones who say: “Stop, wait. Let’s remind ourselves that it’s better to start with the default of liberty, as opposed to a default of power.” Because then the search party goes searching for solutions that will respect individual liberty, that will respect the principles that underlie the liberal project, because we’re starting with the default that liberty is better than power.
If we can find the liberty-based, freedom-enhancing solution, that’s what we want to go for. We need to start with the right default: that liberty is a better place to end up if we can get there in our project of governing a complex world together as self-governing citizens. We start with that default of liberty over power. That, I think, is a principal role of an advocate of true liberalism, as you and I have been talking about.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reimagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. Reimagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
James Buchanan was an illiberal masquerading as a liberal. His big idea was that government regulation of industry or of society is inevitably going to be captured by industry or by interest groups, so there's no point in any regulation. He was a Southerner who wanted to keep the South segregated. Basically a lot of educated segregationists like Buchanan and the Kochs fastened on to libertarianism as an intellectual way of opposing any of the substantive changes that the civil rights movement was calling for. No doubt industry does capture the regulatory framework, but it is not inevitable. But it's interesting how the Koch family, who owned the largest private oil company in the U.S. were bankrolling the re-publication of many classical libertarian tracts and it doesn't seem a coincidence that many libertarians of my aquaintance were also global-warming deniers. Rather than seeing government overreach as the problem here, it seems that certain industries, like the fossil fuel industry have succeeded in capturing a huge part of the American legislative branch, ie. the Republican party. Trump's exiting the global agreement on climate change was one of many egregious examples.
What speaks loudest-clearest to me from this (wonderfully) elevated discussion is the sense of loss. The loss of several things, of which the loss of common ground is the most painful, and perhaps the most difficult to compensate for. Or is there hope of such?
(Thanks, Emily, from a former Beloit colleague.)