Humane Studies Review

Volume 7, Number 1 Winter 1991/92


Classical Liberalism and Modern Political Thought

Two recent books on modern political thought, both by writers hostile to classical liberalism, are worth attention for their extended treatment of classical liberal ideas.

The first, Will Kymlicka' s Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), contains a lengthy discussion of libertarianism. Kymlicka discusses both the work of Robert Nozick and of more "economistic" classical liberals, such as Buchanan, Gauthier, and Narveson. Kymlicka raises a variety of problems concerning such views, blending arguments of his own with points drawn from a large range of recent work. His discussion will give classical liberal scholars a good picture of what -- in the view of someone hostile to these ideas -- is the current state of the argument. His discussion will thus form a useful point of reference for scholars wishing to enter this discussion, whether in term papers or journal articles. Those considering a response to the arguments as he presents them, however, might well think in terms of criticizing his assumptions. A good place to begin is Kymlicka' s presentation of the state of the argument between classical liberals and their opponents.

The second book, Raymond Plant' s Modern Political Thought (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), strikingly integrates a treatment of classical liberal writers with a more general discussion of current issues in contemporary political philosophy. Thus, rather than their appearing -- as in Kymlicka -- in a ghetto of their own, Plant' s discussions of Hayek, the earlier John Gray, and Narveson, can be found alongside issues raised by such people as Dworkin, Rawls, Raz and Gewirth. This offers a useful opportunity for the classical liberal scholar to engage in contemporary debate without necessarily appearing in a self-conscious way as a spokesman for one or another form of classical liberal views. Plant himself has a wide range of interests, and his treatment of classical liberal writers is interesting not only for his criticisms, but also for what he appreciates. Classical liberal scholars who are interested in how to bring their interests to bear upon more mainstream work in moral and political philosophy might look to Plant' s discussion for some useful indications of how this can be done.

Liberty, Values, and Virtue

While William Galston is not himself a classical liberal, his latest book should be worthwhile to anyone interested in the defense of liberty. Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) is useful to those with an interest in classical liberalism for three reasons. First, it offers an interesting engagement, by an intelligent writer, with much of the best of contemporary American political philosophy. By reading Galston' s text, and by following up his copious references, the reader will receive an introduction to many of the more important current debates. (One notable -- and telling -- exception is a complete absence of references to the literature on public choice; on this, the reader might usefully consult Dennis C. Mueller' s Public Choice II [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

Second, Galston, while a modern American liberal rather than a classical liberal, advances some good criticisms of contemporary forms of illiberalism, including those of Sandel, MacIntyre, and Unger. Galston also, in a way that is both stimulating and challenging, criticizes the widespread identification of liberalism with the ideal of neutrality. He here takes issue with a range of important writers, from the political philosophy of Charles Larmore, Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, to the pragmatic relativism of Richard Rorty. Galston also offers an alternative to the moral non-cognitivism and relativism which has played such a large role in recent accounts of liberalism, and claims that we can have (limited) moral knowledge, and that liberalism is best understood in terms of such a moderate "perfectionism." However, his argument would have been strengthened had he engaged here more directly with writers such as Buchanan, Gauthier and Narveson who disagree with him on this point. The merits of Galston' s case on these philosophical issues, however, must be balanced against his willingness to marry these ideas with the view that it is legitimate for the state to use its coercive powers for such projects as forcing everyone to contribute to a public system of health care. (His liberalism reasserts itself, in that he thinks that people should not be forced to use it, so long as they still pay!)

Third, Galston raises the interesting issue of liberal virtue: the problem of the cultivation of the dispositions, on the part of citizens, needed to sustain a liberal society. He also has some interesting things to say about the tensions between liberalism and traditional religion in the United States. Galston poses these problems in forms which classical liberals will find unacceptable, by virtue of what he packs into his account of liberalism. But his discussion raises interesting issues for classical liberals, too. For example, parents in a free society will be able to educate their children as they see fit. But the ideas into which those children are educated may not themselves be supportive of the ideals of a free society. If a classical liberal society is a cultural achievement, what can be said about the problems of sustaining that culture in a free society?

One final reason for commending Galston' s book is that it includes a discussion of Stephen Macedo' s Liberal Virtues (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). This discussion emerged from a seminar on Macedo' s work at the Institute for Humane Studies.

Championing Modernity

One very widespread theme in contemporary social thought is the critique of modernity. Modern society, often identified explicitly with liberal capitalism, is portrayed as atomistic, destructive and futile. It is contrasted with the "organic" society of the pre-modern age, to the great advantage of the pre-modern. (See, for example, James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976].) Such ideas are found in many parts of the political spectrum: they are a central part of much feminist and environmentalist argument, but also have a prominent role in conservative thought, as for example in the works of the late Richard Weaver.

Now, in her new work In Defense Of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), Rose Lamb Coser mounts a strong defence of modernity which most classical liberals should find highly congenial. Her central thesis, derived from Erving Goffman, is that true individual flourishing requires role differentiation, i.e. the division of one' s life into separate areas, in each of which one plays a different role. Such differentiation leads to a much more varied life experience and both the possibility and the need for greater choice-making by individuals. Consequently, the identities and life paths of individuals are much more a matter of personal choice and self-determination than in a "traditional" society, where they are determined at birth by one' s social status, occupation, and so forth. The "rootlessness" of modernity so reviled by its critics is for Coser the main source of autonomy. She argues that the traditional community or "Gemeinschaft" is a "greedy" institution which seeks to tie all areas of life into one whole, thus preventing autonomous action.

The feminist element in the work is Coser' s argument that the traditional family is also a "greedy" institution, a hangover from the pre-modern, and that women benefit less from modernity than men because of their traditional family role. The conclusion of her thesis is that capitalist modernity is a liberating force which has undermined the restrictive structures of traditional society. Women are in a worse position than men because they are less involved in modernity. The corrollary, of course, is that it is modern market society which is the liberating force for women. Coser herself remarks that her argument is unusual coming from a "leftist" position, making it yet another sign of the quiet intellectual revolution now going on.

Liberalism in the Humane Sciences

Another work which casts light on modernity and its intellectual history is Woodruff D. Smith, Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany 1840-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Smith' s concern is the emergence in early nineteenth century Germany of the "cultural sciences" such as anthropology, sociology, economics, and literary studies, and the relation between these academic disciplines and political/philosophical systems. When the cultural sciences first appeared they were closely associated with liberalism and in particular with one of the great works of nineteenth century liberalism, the Staatslexikon. The underlying assumptions of the cultural sciences at that time were those of the liberalism of the Staatslexikon and its editors, Karl Rotteck and Karl Theodor Welker. These were: rational individualism, i.e. assuming a trans-historical human reason and human nature as well as methodological individualism; what Smith confusingly calls the nomological mode of analysis, i.e. the natural law tradition; and a perception of history as a dialectic of change and equilibrium, leading to a notion of historical development.

After about 1862, German liberalism entered a period of crisis and decline and, simultaneously, the cultural sciences fragmented and became dominated by theories which were profoundly anti-liberal, such as relativism, collectivism, historicism and, above all, nationalism. This in turn directed German public argument and discourse into an essentially anti-liberal pattern. Significantly, these are the normative assumptions of much contemporary social and cultural science. There is much else that is useful in this work, including perceptive accounts of the social and historical theories of German classical liberalism and a shrewd analysis of the disastrous impact of Darwinism on liberal ways of thinking. Altogether a book to strongly recommend.

Classical Liberalism and the New City

A book that has received a lot of attention recently is Joel Garreau' s Edge City: Life on The New Frontier (New York: Doubleday, 1991). This is a journalistic work, but is very well researched and written. It is of great interest to classical liberals, both for its content and for what it shows about the changing intellectual climate. Garreau' s subject, "edge cities," are the new urban developments, combining offices, housing and malls, which have sprung up on the periphery of older metropolitan areas, usually on major freeways. The book lists the features of an "edge city": office space; retail space; a population that increases during working hours; a mixture of uses (entertainment, work, residence, and shopping); and novelty (twenty or thirty years ago it did not exist). Garreau studies examples of these in nine regions of the United States; particular instances discussed are Walnut Creek near Oakland, the Galleria in Houston, and perhaps the best known "edge city," Tysons Corner in Virginia. As Garreau points out, cities in the West and Southwest such as Phoenix, Houston, and Los Angeles no longer have a recognizable, old-style downtown. Instead, they are clusters of "edge cities," linked together by freeways.

Unlike most commentators, Garreau does not bewail this trend. His assumption is "that Americans are pretty smart cookies who generally know what they' re doing." For Garreau, "edge cities" are the urbanism of the future, and are a rational and humane solution to the problems and circumstances of late twentieth-century life. They are unplanned, undirected phenomena which, however, give order and structure to the modern city -- a classic example of spontaneous order.

One of the most interesting features of the book is his account of how developers, motivated by strictly economic concerns and signals, have wrought a major social transformation -- one which Garreau regards as generally beneficial. He points out that the "edge cities" not only provide clean, safe, and convenient working and living space, they also promote diversity and help both individuals pursuing personal projects and varied ethnic and lifestyle groups to live together harmoniously.

For classical liberals, an important aspect of the book is Garreau' s discussion of what he calls "shadow governments." These are the private institutions such as covenant committees, neighborhood associations, and development corporations which have come to provide most of the functions we traditionally associate with government, from infrastructure to policing. The book is interesting in giving a snapshot of profound social change, change which is both an example of a relatively free society at work and which is also promoting and enhancing classical liberal values. Important applications of these insights into spontaneous order can also be made in the area of urban history. (See Donald Boudreaux and Randall Holcombe, "Government by Contract," in the Public Finance Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 [July 1989], and David Beito, "Voluntary Association and the Life of the City," in Humane Studies Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 [Fall 1988].)

Copyright 1992 by the Institute for Humane Studies.

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