NY Times Op-Ed Contributor
GOVERNMENT and markets both have their place in a decent society, President Obama suggested in his Inaugural Address, but can become a force for ill if they are without restraint. Missing from Mr. Obama’s address was only the proper name of the political philosophy, coded into the constitutional DNA of the United States, that proposes this and other balances: liberalism.
Like many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary political discourse in the United States understands why.
Just over 20 years ago, a group of leading American intellectuals, gathered by the historian Fritz Stern, placed an advertisement in this very paper trying to defend the word “liberalism” against its abuse by Ronald Reagan and others on the American right. It was in vain. Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting — to put the matter a tad frivolously — some unholy marriage of big government and fornication.
This weird usage leads, at the extreme, to book titles like “Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism.” But it infects the mainstream too. Asked during a primary debate to define “liberal,” and say if she was one, Hillary Clinton replied that a word originally associated with a belief in freedom had unfortunately come to mean favoring big government. So, she concluded, “I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning.” This implies that the meaning of “liberal” must be unreal, un-American, or possibly both.
The United States is not the only place where “liberalism” is fiercely contested. In a recent conference at Oxford, with speakers from the Americas, Europe, India, Japan and China, we explored what we deliberately called “Liberalisms.” Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as “liberalism” in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or “fiscal conservative” strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce “liberalism,” they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)
One Chinese intellectual told us that in his country, “Liberalism means everything the government doesn’t like.” The term is used in China as a political instrument to attack, in particular, advocates of further market-oriented economic reform. Standards of what counts as socially or culturally liberal also vary widely. An Indian speaker wryly observed that in India a “liberal” father is one who allows his children to choose whom they want to marry.
Faced with this worldwide conceptual cacophony, some at the conference argued that we should abandon the term, or at least dismantle it into component parts with plainer meanings. But combinations and balances belong to liberalism’s defining essence, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As the Oxford political theorist Michael Freeden observed, if just one of the necessary components — for example, the free market — dominates, then the result can be illiberalism. The vital, never-ending debate over liberalism is not just over its indispensable ingredients, but also over their form, proportion and relation to one another.
A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress. The mix of ingredients differs from place to place. Whether some distant cousin really belongs to the extended family of liberalisms is a matter of healthy dispute. But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.
This has been an American argument, some would say the American argument, for more than 200 years. In fact, the United States is still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name.
For obvious reasons, we are now witnessing worldwide criticism of a version of pure free-market liberalism, a k a neo-liberalism, charged with having led us into our current economic mess. Yet, our Chinese and European colleagues agreed that markets remain an indispensable condition of liberty. One leading Chinese economic reformer even suggested that there is less income inequality in those Chinese provinces where the market plays a larger role.
I don’t expect Mr. Obama to use that word any time soon. But those of us who believe in the universal, enduring value of liberalism are happy to see him start by vigorously restoring more of the thing. He has decisively reasserted the importance of equal liberty under the rule of law, not least by ordering the closing of Guantánamo Bay prison. Seeking a more just and efficient balance between government and markets is at the heart of his domestic agenda. He has also found ways to present the traditional liberal value of tolerance in new language that speaks to our increasingly mixed-up world.
Then, perhaps in his second term, he might even dare to rescue the word.