Living with Liberalism (part one)
Living with Liberalism (part one)

Living with Liberalism (part one)

It's here, it's not all bad, but it's bad enough. It won't, however, last forever.

Liberalism is the most decisive historical given in North American society, and editor Gideon Strauss assesses its pros and cons, today in Comment.

December 15 th 2006

It's everywhere!

Francis Fukuyama published his essay "The end of history?" in the journal of public opinion The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In a year of revolution that swept central and eastern Europe that brought down communist regimes and the Berlin Wall later that November, Fukuyama announced that the struggle between conflicting modern ideologies had come to an end. Over the course of the 20th century, liberal, democratic capitalism triumphed over fascism, nationalism, and socialism (including communism)—the only significant contenders for the lead position among modern ideologies. While much of the world was not yet liberal, Fukuyama predicted that it was merely a matter of time before liberalism would have won the world. Fukuyama declared that it was no longer contentious to declare that liberalism had proven that among the modern ideologies on offer it most effectively fulfilled the needs embedded in human nature that can be met politically and economically.

Fukuyama wrote in the year that was the beginning of the end for communism, and the year that apartheid came to an end in South Africa. The victory of liberalism seemed certain against both socialism and nationalism in their then most virulent forms. A decade and a half later, the perception of an emerging and eventually inevitable world-wide liberal consensus seems short-sighted and foolish. The rise of Islam as a viable, international option in the shaping of political-economic life, the uncertain development of formerly communist countries, and the continuing internal cultural conflicts of countries with liberal regimes continue to cast doubt on liberalism as the only eventually viable global option.

Nonetheless, liberalism does decisively shape the political and economic matrix within which everyone in North America lives, and it continues to offer an ideal that motivates many cultural leaders around the world. In Canada and America, liberalism is pervasive. It is nourished by centuries of political dialogue, entrenched in the primary economic and political institutions and practices of the English-speaking world, and symbolically celebrated in the founding and leading statements of both the American and the Canadian systems of government—including the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and U. S. Constitution (1787/1789) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982/1983).

What I mean by liberalism is the modern ideology committed to individual freedom above all else. While it has taken many forms it has always come down to the individual person given as much freedom as possible (read David Koyzis's Political Visions and Illusions for a critical history of the twists and turns taken by liberals in their interpretation of the meaning of "liberalism"). How much freedom is possible has been contentious, as has the question of how the freedoms of some are to be protected against the freedoms of others (John Stuart Mill's "harm principle"). That individual freedom is the ultimate purpose of politics and economics continues to be the basic conviction of liberalism.

Ever since I first encountered the ideas of Francis Schaeffer, Hans Rookmaaker, Herman Dooyeweerd and Abraham Kuyper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I have been persuaded that Christians should work for cultural transformation. But as of not very much later than those early encounters, I began learning that cultural transformation is not something that happens quickly or easily. As John Stackhouse of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, has said, cultural engagement is "slow, hard, subtle work." The kind of cultural renewal that will move North American culture beyond the liberal hegemony is the work of more than one or two generations. With this in mind, and without giving up the long-term dream of transforming the culture, Christians must learn how to live with the reality of a liberal cultural hegemony—with authenticity and integrity, but at the same time with prudence and patience, courtesy and civility.

Christians have responded variously to the idea that we live in postmodern times—some with regret for the losses that would be involved, some with enthusiasm for a shaking up that may allow more room in society for Christianity. But as I have written before:

I am at turns amused and frustrated by my academic colleagues who continue to insist that we live in postmodern times. The suggestion that somehow the spiritual force of modernity has been exhausted and replaced by something altogether different simply does not ring true to what I experience in my own daily work, nor to the cultural forces I see at work in the world ("What is to be done . . . to understand our moment?" Comment, October 10, 2005).

We continue to live under a liberal cultural hegemony, and we are liable to respond mistakenly to our cultural context if we imagine otherwise.

It's how we vote

One of the things that continues to confuse me as an immigrant to North America from South Africa is the way in which liberalism is used in ordinary conversations to indicate only those positions taken by Democrats in America and (capital L) Liberals in Canada. If liberalism is the ideology of individual freedom, then it is the ideology as much of Republicans as of Democrats in America, and as much of (capital C) Conservatives as of Liberals in Canada. The North American Right and Left are equally liberal.

While the Right may at present emphasize the economic freedoms of the individual more than the Left, and the left emphasize the social freedoms of the individual, and while neither Democrats and Liberals nor Republicans and Conservatives take as extreme a position on the scope of individual freedom as do libertarians, they all are basically liberal.

Not only are most political parties and elected political representatives ideologically liberal, so are the majority of think tanks, lobby groups, advocacy organizations, political pundits, news reporters, and university professors—whether they perceive themselves to be on the Right or the Left. And beyond that, the very system of political life within we live is liberal: from the founding documents to the constitutional regimes in both Canada and America, from the electoral systems to the courts of law, and from the internal arrangements of political parties to the administration of municipal regulations.

One implication of the pervasive structural presence of liberalism is that no one living in Canada and America can live outside of liberalism. The range of options available to us when we consider how to behave politically is constrained within limits set by liberalism. When we vote we are on most occasions limited to a choice between different strains of liberalism. When we join political parties we are usually obliged to select the most congenial liberal platform from among two, and on the off occasion three, options. When we lobby for particular policies or actions by governments, even successful efforts are given effect within a broader constitutional context that may, because of its fundamentally liberal character, in the long run bring our intentions to have results quite different from what we had imagined and hoped might be the case.

It's how we shop

Liberalism not only decisively influences how we vote every few years, or how we may otherwise participate in political life, or how we are governed. It also decisively influences how we shop. Economic life in North America is structured in terms of the premises of liberalism—that the basic reality in society is the individual person, and that every kind of relationship, including economic relationships, are relationships of exchange between individuals. Liberalism presumes that these relationships of exchange are governed and limited by preceding agreements and promises—contracts of one or another kind. But these contracts are subject to renegotiation whenever the balance between costs and benefits arising out of the relationship of exchange changes.

It is easy to imagine that the way we do business in North America is just the way the world is. But even just a week of tourism or volunteer work in some other—in particular, poorer—part of the world will teach an observant person that this is not the case, as will a couple of hours of reading history. The market economy within which we live is an historical rarity, and the individualistic form that it takes in our time has its roots in practices and theories that have taken the lead in shaping business life no more recently than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By this I do not mean to deny the immense influence of the liberal economy. Liberal presuppositions shape nearly every aspect of the relationships between buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, employers and employees, owners and tenants—and nearly every feature of the economic aspect of all our other relationships, such as those between city and country, between governments and citizens, between church leaders and the attendees at church services, between teachers and students, and to an ever increasing extent between marriage partners, and between parents and children.

Liberal presuppositions are neither simply true to nature nor perennial—they are historical constructs of relatively recent provenance.

We've got rights

The pervasive presence of liberalism in modern life in the English-speaking life is not all bad. While constitutional democracy and the rule of law has other roots in addition to that of liberalism, it must be said that liberalism has been the leading force behind the promotion of human and civil rights in the modern world. We must recognize and admit the good that liberalism has done in its insistence that the state cannot ride roughshod over the rights of citizens, and that citizens have certain rights not at the whim of the state but as human beings, prior to and more basic than the rights recognized or allowed in the laws made by governments.

When we make moral judgments in any area of life, it is important to be able to tell the difference between various shades of grey, and not to see everything simply in stark black and white. Another way of thinking about this is to think about moral judgment as requiring not only an ON/OFF switch, but also a volume control knob. It is not accurate, for example, to suggest some kind of moral equivalency between liberal democracy and fascist corporatism, given that both are expressions of secular modernity. In the years since 9/11 I have often cringed when anti-war activists crudely portrayed the American government as somehow similar to the Nazi regime in the Germany of the 1930s. Such rash pronouncements indicate a disconcerting lack of judgment.

It must be admitted that among the various kinds of government that have existed historically, liberal democracies are comparatively more just than most of the alternatives. The citizens of liberal democracies have significant protections from the potential excesses of government, and their political and legal relationships with one another are almost always clearly defined in law, and carefully protected in the administration of the law. The reliability of the rule of law in most liberal democracies—especially where the hegemony of liberalism over generations has shaped a certain political and legal culture embedded as much in the habits of the citizenry as in the laws and practices of governments—has allowed for the emergence of a certain kind of civic trust. This civic trust has made possible the emergence of all kinds of market mechanisms and institutions, as well as voluntary associations, which enrich the peoples of those democracies in both economic and social terms.

Having first-hand knowledge—as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and close second-hand knowledge as an interpreter at hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission—of the consequences for citizens when a government can blithely trammel their civil and human rights, I am deeply grateful for the enforcement of due process in the administration of justice in a country like Canada. And having knowledge through the experience of family and friends in post-apartheid South Africa of the consequences for citizens when the rule of law is slack and the administration of justice inept, I am as equally deeply grateful for the solid job of law enforcement and legal administration done by police officers and judges—most of the time—in North America.

We've got food

It must also be admitted that the capitalist economies that have been built by liberals since the eighteenth century are historically unequalled in their ability to allow for the generation of wealth. A few years ago I was astonished by a graph in The Economist that suggested that wealth measured in terms of GDP per capita increased explosively as of the eighteenth century. (To experience similar astonishment, look at a graph of World GDP per Capita 1-2003 A.D., generated with information collected in Angus Maddison's "World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 AD" on the website of the Groningen Growth and Development Centre). While, again, there were other and earlier influences that made that explosion of wealth and the accompanying alleviation of poverty possible, it would be historically untruthful to deny the leading role of liberal ideas and liberal cultural leaders in the emergence of capitalism.

Capitalism, as an unprecedented economic arrangement in terms of its capacity to generate wealth, is at least in part responsible for the affluence of contemporary North Americans when compared with people in differently developed economies, and even when compared with our own ancestors. While I have many criticisms of the particular way in which capitalism has directed the development of market economies, I must admit that were it not for liberal capitalism, many of us would in all probability have been much poorer, and therefore more hungry, more often too cold or too warm, more poorly housed, and more sick.

We've got a voice

Not only do we have liberalism to thank (at least to a significant extent) for the rule of law and the alleviation of poverty, so also do we have liberalism to thank for the way in which we are able—in North America—to make our voices heard in political life. While democracy has many faults, nonetheless it is true, as Winston Churchill explained, that every other historically available form of government is worse than constitutional democracy. Liberal democracy is not the only form of democracy we can imagine, but it is the form within which we live, and if we compare our own ability as citizens to vote out scoundrels and bunglers from positions of authority to the long-suffering of peoples oppressed by presidents-for-life and other tyrants, we must surely feel some gratitude.

My beloved wife Angela can walk to a neighbourhood meeting with our city councillor, Brian McHattie, where an elderly lady can complain at length—without fear of reprisal—about the city's not fixing a lamp in the park behind her house. Opposing interest groups can robustly argue for or against various parking arrangements on streets of our neighbourhood, and for or against licensing a new public house on our street.

The civic privileges of voting, voicing our opinions in public meetings or the media, founding and joining political groups of various kinds, or serving in public office, are experienced as ordinary and even a little boring by most North Americans. They are, however, historically extraordinary, continue to be rare in our own time, and are awe-inspiring in the difference they make with regard to the establishment of public justice, especially as it is experienced by ordinary citizens.

I recall vividly my being hauled in for questioning by the South African security police in the mid-1980s because I attended meetings in the black township attached to our white city. The meetings were held by high school students, debating if they should put a higher priority on education or on protest against racial segregation and unequal opportunity.

I am reading John le Carre's The Mission Song, a novel about the Congo, and it breaks my heart to read about ordinary people subjected to the whims of brigands and the insecurities of anarchy. Freedom from tyranny and anarchy, freedom from hunger, freedom to give voice to our opinions and share in the shaping of our society—these are rare and rich gifts.

(To be continued . . .)

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


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