The Good Old Liberal Consensus
by Daniel A. Kaufman
The editors have invited us to “examine a single philosopher or school, maybe a movement,” so that we might “consider how what passed for wisdom then may or may not help us now.”† Undoubtedly, there are many areas in which we have surpassed the wisdom of our predecessors, but one in which we decidedly have not is in the conduct of our political lives. We would do well, then, to reacquaint ourselves with – and recommit ourselves to – the wisdom underlying what I will call “the liberal consensus,” distilled largely from two great classics of English political philosophy: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Indeed, so dire has the current political situation become in the United States that I am convinced that should the liberal consensus finally disintegrate, as its current trajectory suggests it may very well do, we will find ourselves in a political environment more hostile, more divided, and more unstable than that of the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the myriad forces comprising the counterculture clashed with Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the (then nascent) political Right.
In a recent interview with Richard Marshall, over at 3:16AM, I described the liberal consensus as follows:
(1) That the main purpose of the state is to make it possible for people to pursue their respective conceptions of the good; (2) that people should be able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens, constrained only by a narrowly and concretely defined harm principle; (3) that we should err on the side of unconstrained speech and association, especially for those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove; and (4) that our engagement with those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove should remain in the realm of discourse and should never involve attacks on their reputations or livelihoods.
That we should expect people to have clashing interests and aims and that the purpose of the state is to provide a neutral referee for the inevitable conflicts that will arise is one of the central themes of the Second Treatise of Government, and the idea that in pursuing their conceptions of the good, people should be left largely unmolested, unless their pursuits concretely and negatively impact the capacity of others to do the same is, of course, the primary thread running throughout On Liberty. The reasons for my enthusiastic promotion of the liberal consensus, beyond the quality of the philosophical work from which it is derived (which is substantial, though certainly open to criticism, as we will see in a moment), are ultimately prudential and can be distilled down to two basic considerations: (a) In a large, modern, heterogeneous country, we must accept that people are never going to agree upon a single conception of the good (an understanding that led John Rawls, in the 1970’s, to seek a conception of justice that does not presuppose any such common conception); and (b) in a large, modern, heterogeneous country, one can never count on one’s political allies – those who share one’s conception of the good – to gain political power or if in power, to retain it in perpetuity. At some point, those whose values you do not share are going to come into power, and how you treated them while you were in power is going to have a profound effect on how they treat you, when the tables are turned.
Locke and Mill thought that one could count on peoples’ (natural) rational self-interest to secure and sustain the liberal consensus, and in this regard, perhaps, they were too optimistic about us, which brings us to the current day, in which the liberal consensus is being abandoned with gusto, by people from every side of the political spectrum. The dismantlement that we are witnessing today is an entirely non-partisan affair, pursued by the Left and Right alike, which means that regardless of party or persuasion, our political class and citizenry currently suffer a catastrophic deficit of political wisdom, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.
On the Right, the call to abandon the liberal consensus is manifested most clearly in the writings of Sorab Ahmari, currently the op-ed editor of the New York Post, who has said explicitly that the Right should work to impose a Catholic conception of the good on the nation; that the aim of conservative politics should be “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” as Ahmari put it in a now-infamous essay for the magazine, First Things, entitled “Against David Frenchism.” The title refers to David French, a columnist for National Review and one of the few lonely souls on the contemporary American Right who continue to believe in and advocate for the liberal consensus and who confronted Ahmari, recently, in a memorable debate. Ahmari, unsurprisingly, is a fan of Donald Trump, who wears his contempt for liberalism on his sleeve, while French is one of a handful of “never-Trumpers” on the Right who have been consistent in their refusal to abandon the liberal consensus for the short-term political gains promised by a Trump presidency.
On the Left, the abandonment of the liberal consensus can be seen most clearly in the movement’s “social justice” wing, the members of which seem especially eager to control how others speak and with whom they associate, and where no-platforming, purity rituals and purges, character and career assassination, and so-called “cancellation” are employed alongside all other manner of dirty tricks, not reluctantly but with glee. It is telling that these tactics routinely involve abuse of the harm principle, to the point that claims of harm are applied to whatever one’s political opponents have said or done that one dislikes. Worryingly, there appears to be a generational dimension to this mounting illiberalism on the Left, with multiple surveys indicating that the largely progressive younger generations are less committed to both liberalism and democracy than any generation before, at least for as long as generational attitudes have been measured.
I don’t want to suggest that there are no earnest, principled, non-dictatorially inclined anti-liberals or that there are no good arguments against liberalism. One of the better ones that I have heard came from my friend and dedicated feminist, the philosopher Jane Clare Jones, who suggested to me in a recent discussion on BloggingHeads.TV that there can be no politics without some operating conception of the good; more specifically, that one cannot even articulate a harm principle without presupposing that something is fundamentally good. And indeed, many on the social justice Left will argue for their expansion of the harm principle to include non-inciteful or libelous speech on the grounds that not being made to feel bad is as valuable as not being materially injured; that psychic well-being is as significant and fundamental a good as material well-being is.
The trouble is that even if this is true, it runs aground in purely practical terms. The harm principle is too powerful an instrument and justifies too serious a curtailment of peoples’ liberties to be engaged based on nothing but the claim that one has been harmed. It is too easy to abuse, and the cost of its abuse is worse than the cost of some genuine incidences of harm slipping between the proverbial cracks. (There is a parallel, also ultimately prudential idea that we apply in the criminal law, where we have deemed the cost of erroneously imprisoning innocents greater than the cost of some criminals getting off, which is why there remains such a strict standard of proof for demonstrating guilt in criminal court.)
Jane’s first point is also intellectually sound. My account of the liberal consensus does presuppose a conception of the good, namely, the good of people being “able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens.” But I don’t think this provides any real ammunition for the anti-liberal. The good presupposed here is formal or procedural, rather than substantive: it is the good of allowing people to pursue their substantive conceptions of the good, without interference. And it is the one idea of the good that I think we can reasonably expect others to accept, precisely because it is so formal, so minimal and so prudential. I should mention that in our conversation, Dr. Jones indicated that as a practical guide for day to day life in a liberal democracy, she too is inclined to embrace the liberal consensus, which demonstrates that participating in it need not commit a person wholly to a liberal political philosophy.
In the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill remarked that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” and I think in much the same way about the liberalism I’ve described here. Philosophically it is somewhat thin. The kind of citizen it imagines is likely doomed to remain an abstraction. The politics it offers is rather un-inspirational. It begs any number of difficult questions. And yet, it is the only politics that render it even possible for a large, modern, heterogeneous society to exist and function in a relatively peaceful state. In a sense, the liberal consensus is an expression of maturity in politics, in that it recognizes and is respectful of the limitations of the political enterprise, which are a function of the limitations of human generosity. And to the extent that the more strident forms of anti-liberalism refuse to recognize or accept these limits – to the extent that an anti-liberal thinks that he can persuade everyone to accept his values or that his side can win and remain in power forever – I think it is fair to characterize him as at least temperamentally juvenile, such attitudes being reminiscent of the romantic utopianism and black and white thinking that we typically associate with the adolescent disposition and which, for its imprudence, we commonly deem the opposite of wisdom.
†This essay first appeared in The Philosopher’s Magazine, Issue 87 (Winter 2019)