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What Liberalism Needs Now
Patient, foundational defense.
1. What’s Going On Here?
My Substack focuses on liberalism: its varieties, defense, and fiercest enemies. I think online discussion of these matters is too impatient. I prefer to think more carefully, more, well, tortoisean, for lack of a real word.
I’ll also pursue balance. Liberals will find respectful engagement with anti-liberal thought. Anti-liberals will find a liberal who takes them seriously. While I am a liberal sort, I want to add value for everyone who engages with liberal thought.
I will publish 2-3 essays a month for a year. I start in July 2023 and will end in June 2024. I limit my Substack for two reasons. First, it will include essays tied to my forthcoming book, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism (Oxford UP 2023). [official launch soon!]Books have half-lives. Second, products often have more value when creators and consumers know when it ends. I will publish 25-30 essays over twelve months. We now have shared expectations.
2. Who Am I?
I’m Kevin Vallier (pronounced: val-YAY), a political philosopher trained in the analytic tradition. I’m an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. I’ve worked on liberal theory for fifteen years in philosophy and political economy (I’ve written a few books on these matters). While I’ve done some blogging, most of my writing aims at other academics working in the liberal tradition. That is changing.
Why? My Christian faith centers my identity. And I view liberalism discussions through a Christian lens. That’s a bit odd. Most political philosophers are secular, and most Christian philosophers avoid political philosophy. So, I often find myself as an extreme outlier, even in sub-communities within my profession. But for now, I want to reach out to more people who think more like me: young Christians grappling with the liberal tradition.
My new book does just that. All the Kingdoms of The World explores faith-infused anti-liberalisms, but I focus on Catholic anti-liberalism, the system of thought often called integralism. (Some “integralists” call themselves “postliberals.” Some of them have a related Substack, Postliberal Order.)
So, from your perspective, who am I? I’m a Christian, liberal political philosopher trying to address people, especially young people, concerned about liberalism.
Of course, this raises some preliminary questions. What is liberalism? And what is liberal order?
3. What Is Liberalism?
I see liberalism as a tradition of political thought. The tradition contains a host of political philosophies and political ideologies. They differ in many respects, but their principles and policies have a family resemblance.
Political principles serve to justify the character of political order. They tell us what the state should and should not do. Liberalism usually contains four principles: liberty, equality, toleration, and social harmony. These principles tell governments to:
Liberty: Respect the individual by protecting a range of personal freedoms.
Equality: Treat everyone equally through equal treatment before the law.
Toleration: Tolerate a diversity of religious and moral opinions. Avoid using coercion to privilege controversial and sectarian doctrines over others.
Harmony of Interests: Create social conditions where diverse groups can work together. Make social interactions mutually advantageous. States should lessen conflicts where they can.
In short, liberalism says that the state should treat all as free and equal, tolerate diverse beliefs and forms of life, and reduce conflicts created by that diversity.
In my view, liberalism is not a form of life. Or not chiefly that. The liberal tradition is downstream of our personal moral values but upstream of public policy and institutions. These secondary principles justify institutions and public policies, but not by appealing to a comprehensive picture of the good life.
4. What Is Liberal Order?
A liberal order is a set of institutions. These institutions stably and effectively honor liberal principles. They respect freedom and equality and promote tolerance and social harmony. Accordingly, ideal liberal orders have five features:
Constitutional Rights and Liberties: Everyone has effective rights of speech, press, religion, due process, etc.
The Rule of Law: Everyone is accountable to the legal system. This system's laws are publicly recognized, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated.
Democratic Governance: Everyone has an equal right to select their leaders. Elected leaders have parallel rights to choose laws and policies.
The Market Economy: Everyone has a right to own property, including capital goods. Citizens may use their property as they wish and exchange goods and services with one another.
The Welfare State: Markets need a degree of correction, chiefly through safety nets. Safety nets and smart regulations protect the weak from excess risk, severe poverty, and workplace domination.
Some self-described liberals reject democracy, the market, or the welfare state. These departures make their liberalism defective or at least non-standard.
5. What Does Liberalism Need?
The liberal tradition is, in my view, around two hundred and fifty years old. As we will see in future posts, I see John Locke as a proto-liberal. He is, first and foremost, a radical Protestant thinker concerned with working out the social implications of his theology. Liberalism as a coherent doctrine developed fifty to one hundred years later in 18th-century Europe.
Since that time, the liberal tradition has issued a profusion of liberalisms. New social challenges produce new variations. The most well-known cleavage is between classical liberals and revisionist liberals. Classical liberals favor the extensive use of markets and limited use of the state, whereas revisionist or progressive liberals favor a large state and more restricted markets.
Liberals differ in many other respects too. But I think liberalism must now take on new forms. I began this Substack because I believe we stand at the beginning of another era of ideological evolution.
Presently, liberalism faces left-wing and right-wing challengers, though the challengers are not as powerful as those in the inter-war period. Fascism and communism pose no danger. But we face subtler forms of left- and right-authoritarianism.
Why? The post-war liberal consensus has, by and large, collapsed. People no longer take liberal principles for granted (even if most feel stuck with liberal order). Liberalism is no longer the stage for our political contests. It is now on stage as a contender.
Further, the US has troubling low trust/high polarization social dynamics. Those dynamics have produced a new skeptical political mindset. Aspiring intellectuals no longer take the justifiability of their inherited institutions for granted. They want to think politically from the ground up.
What liberalism needs today is adherents willing to rethink liberalism from the ground up. Liberalism is a flexible tradition, having evolved and adapted to many threats. It has hybridized with other ideologies to survive in several cases. In my view, liberalism must adjust again. And I want to help.
Helping requires better theory, as we have seen throughout liberal history. Each era must recombine and reinterpret liberal principles.
I’ve already tried to make a tiny contribution to this reshaping. My first book argued that liberalism must shed its secular bias. My next two books provided a trust-based defense of liberal order. I claim liberal orders can sustain social and political trust and contain damaging political polarization.
My liberalism is one of peace and reconciliation. It seeks to preserve liberal order in response to those who would overthrow it. In this way, my liberalism is also one of conservation and reform.
6. If you like what you see, subscribe!
Please subscribe for the 25-30 essays to come. It is free. You’ll also want to subscribe if you find my new book of interest (more soon!).
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