Seven Habits of Truly Liberal People

Alan Wolfe’s persuasive portrait of liberalism.

Alan Wolfe is the sort of social theorist who would rather be plausible than provocative. Eschewing the lunacies of the left and the right—avoiding even their slighter sillinesses—he hews to a sensible, if unexciting, center. We must be robust—even militarily robust—against genocide everywhere, but recognize the limits of our armies as instruments of democratization overseas. We can encourage religious engagement in the public square but insist on freedom from religious imposition and the widest workable range of religious expression. Let us also welcome immigrants in a spirit of openness while accepting that we cannot absorb all who want to come and asking those who do come to open themselves to us. Wherever there is a reasonable middle ground—as here, between nativism and multiculturalism—he finds it unerringly. And, despite the Polonius-like platitudinousness of my simplifying summaries, he is attentive to the complexities of actually bringing these thoughts to practical life. If professor Wolfe had a coat of arms, its motto would be “On the one hand, on the other.” And though he may have only two hands, they are permanently occupied: He has many balls in the air. He is, as my British uncles might have put it, impeccably sound. If liberalism were just a temperament, we could agree that he has it in spades.

But, as he argues himself in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe’s distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.

Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: “a sympathy for equality,” “an inclination to deliberate,” “a commitment to tolerance,” and “an appreciation of openness.” We’re used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It’s not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe’s sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: “a disposition to grow,” “a preference for realism,” and “a taste for governance.”

The disposition to grow is really not the best slogan for the element of the liberal tradition that Wolfe is trying to capture with this phrase. What he means to resurrect is the faith that we can remake ourselves. In the mid-18th century, Rousseau (no liberal he) argued that human beings do best without culture, that natural man is man at his best. The response of liberalism—epitomized, for Wolfe, in Kant—is that “we are not merely what God ordains us to be, but what we create through our own deliberate acts.” Far from being at our best when we follow a nature that is already given, we human beings are creatures destined to remake the world by shaping ourselves. And Kant crystallized the new spirit of Enlightenment by arguing that it was reason and knowledge that made this creation possible. His slogan, sapere aude,“daretoknow,” urges us to examine ourselves and the world in order to make both better: Liberalism comes with a commitment to science and study, a conviction that politics can lead to progress, and the belief that we have to make ourselves again every day.

It is wrong, therefore, Wolfe argues, to see the divide between liberals and conservatives as grounded in a difference in attitudes toward human nature. It is not, as Thomas Sowell has claimed, that liberals believe that people are naturally good while conservatives know that, alas, we are fundamentally bad. “The important question is not whether human nature is good or bad; it is whether human beings can do anything about it.” Since liberalism is convinced that our natures are up to be us—something made, not found—the answer here from the liberal will always be yes.

It is this conviction that explains the connection between liberalism and an optimistic commitment to politics. When Wolfe discusses the taste for governance in the penultimate chapter, he delineates liberalism’s attitude by contrasting it once more with the opinions of its enemies, who believe that politics is, at best, a necessary chore. Anti-liberals think that we should have as little government as we can get away with because the real achievements of humanity come from the self-organized activity of the economy and of private life. This conviction is to be found both to liberalism’s left—Marx, after all, hoped the state would wither away—and to its right, among those modern conservatives who believe, as Ronald Reagan put it, that government is the problem. For liberals, the problem is bad government, and there is a vast range of government that, when done well, is as creative and important as anything human beings do.

The last of Wolfe’s most original trio of temperaments—the taste for realism—can also be traced back to Kant. We have just lived through an anti-liberal administration hostile to science, one that fantasized we could load the atmosphere with carbon while keeping the Earth’s ecology in balance and asserted, against all the evidence, that urging sexual abstinence would stop the spread of AIDS. Wolfe argues that it is liberals, not conservatives, who dare to know.

Wolfe’s strategy is to explore the history of liberal ideas, institutions, and instincts; underline those he favors; and claim that they define the whole. This is the only sane way to try to give shape to a tradition so large and unwieldy. Liberalism, like a large rambunctious family, is characterized more by its long-running arguments than by its shared beliefs. It is not so much a creed as a list of things worth fighting about. And as time goes on and history teaches us fresh lessons, new options arise and old ones are discarded. Until the early 20th century, liberals kept an eye on the economic conditions of the poor, but they were often skeptical about the government’s playing a large role in the economy. They favored a “night watchman” state and free markets. Then came the Great Depression; realism required a rethinking of the government’s role in the economy.

So I found myself convinced by Wolfe’s avoidance of the philosopher’s approach, which would be to define liberalism by its respect for human individuality and human rights or a concern for the material welfare of the poor. Modern liberals have much sympathy for these ideals, but they are not liberalism’s exclusive possession. The idea that liberalism is not a set of doctrines but this distinctive and multifaceted temperament strikes me as a useful contribution.

In a final chapter on “Liberalism’s Promise,” Wolfe offers a quick sketch of the modern world with its “increased personal freedom, greater equality, religious diversity, social mobility, sustained economic growth, technological dynamism, global expansion, and an unshakeable conviction on the part of ordinary people that even if they choose not to become involved in politics, their voice ought nonetheless to be the final say on what is permissible and what is not.” Liberalism, he argues, “may not have created modernity, but liberalism is the answer for which modernity is the question.”

This book is the product of a liberal’s reflection in the age of Bush. Wolfe argues, for example, that it is the modern Republican Party’s distaste for governance that explains the stunning incompetence of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina or of its occupation of Iraq—and that it is the party’s hostility to realism that explains the unwillingness to accept scientific arguments about global warming. For each of those seven dispositions, Wolfe identifies failures of recent Republican politics that arose because conservatives have a contrary disposition. I am, let me confess, no friend of George Bush or of modern conservatism. But surely we cannot blame the failures of the former on the temperament of the latter. The Bush administration was strangely hostile to science; but much conservative argument is based on social science—contested, perhaps, but still scientific. The failures of FEMA in New Orleans look to me as much like the results of cronyism as of a bad theory. The argument against conservatism lies in what the world would look like if conservatives carried out their policies competently. On that issue, the Bush years may offer less insight than Wolfe believes.

And if George Bush is a little too present in this book, the most obvious absence in this book about liberalism’s future is any real attention to the politics of Barack Obama. (Blame the slow pace of most book publishing.) If liberalism has a future in America, it is surely, for the moment, in the new president’s hands. Still, if Wolfe is right, we are about to see whether the liberal temperament is indeed the ideal one for managing the modern world. Because if you look back at that checklist of seven dispositions, what is striking is how very much our new president embodies them all.