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Sunstein on Liberalism

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 24, 2024, ported here January 6, 2024

Cass Sunstein has written a long and excellent article on liberalism for the New York Times (via Tyler Cowen). I wrote an essay for a book, "Reclaiming Liberalism," so I'm already on board with Sunstein's general approach.

Sunstein writes, "Liberals believe in six things: freedom, human rights, pluralism, security, the rule of law and democracy." I think that individualism (properly understood) underlies each of these elements. In my recent notes, I write:

The essence of liberalism, as I see it, is individualism—the view that each individual person matters and may not be sacrificed to the interests of others. The normal political manifestation of liberalism is rights-respecting republican democracy, the purpose of which is to protect the rights and well-being of the individuals within the society.

Individualism implies that the freedom and rights of each individual matter; that people have the right to live life as they choose, consistent with the rights of others, leading to a pluralistic society; that the security of people and their communities matters; that to flourish people need the rule of just law and a government responsive to the people.

Sunstein numbers his points, and starting at point 14 some liberals will start to grow nervous. Point 14 promotes moral pluralism, the idea that many different intellectual traditions lead to or at least support liberalism, including Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and various religious traditions. Objectivists, for instance, will bristle, first that they are left out, and second that Kant is listed as a potential pillar of liberalism. (Kant's view "that people should be treated with respect and as ends," as Sunstein summarizes, is good by itself but not the essence of Kantianism.) My view is that the philosophic views that Sunstein mentions here are wrong, but some versions are more wrong than others. I'm happy to have political/cultural liberal allies who are religious (for example), but I also think that people should reject religion in favor of a rational philosophy.

A bit later Sunstein talks about the "overlapping consensus" for liberalism among different traditions that creates a "wide tent"; I do think there's something to that. For example, Aaron Ross Powell argues that Buddhism, with its emphasis on doing no harm, is broadly compatible with classical liberalism.

I love Sunstein's 15th point, which will drive both authoritarian conservatives and Progressives crazy: "Liberals prize free markets."

With his points 16, 17, 22, and 27, Sunstein indicates the major disagreements between "left" and "right" liberals (or "progressive" and free-market liberals):

Liberals believe in the right to private property. But nothing in liberalism forbids a progressive income tax or is inconsistent with large-scale redistribution from rich to poor. Liberals can and do disagree about the progressive income tax and on whether and when redistribution is a good idea. Many liberals admire Lyndon Johnson's Great Society; many liberals do not. . . .

Many liberals are enthusiastic about the contemporary administrative state; many liberals reject it. Within liberalism, there are vigorous debates on that question. . . .

Liberals have divergent views about negative liberty (the right to be free from government intrusion) and positive liberty (the right to receive government help) and about whether there is a meaningful difference between them.

Libertarians would argue that there's nothing "liberal" (liberty-oriented) about a government that takes large amounts of wealth from people, on pain of imprisonment. But "we" (I now tentatively place myself in this group, or at least sympathize with its position) are in the minority. Welfare states are ubiquitous. I think there's something to be said, even if you personally oppose the welfare state, in trying to get the welfare state to be relatively efficient and effective. A welfare state that discourages work and encourages single parenting is a disaster.

I quite like Sunstein's closing:

Liberals look forward as well as backward. They like to think that the arc of history bends toward justice. William F. Buckley Jr. said that his preferred form of conservatism "stands athwart history, yelling, Stop." Liberals ask history to explain its plans, and they are prepared to whisper, "Go."

Cochrane Weighs In

John Cochrane has a nice reflection on Sunstein's piece. He starts off by explaining how in the U.S. most people came to understand the term "liberal" as meaning economically left-wing (or pro-state):

[B]y the 1970s, the labels had flipped. "Liberals" were advocates of big-state interventionism, in a big tent that included communists and marxists. It became a synonym of "left." "Conservatives" became a strange alliance of free market economics and social conservatism. The word "classical liberal" or "libertarian" started to be used to refer to heirs of the enlightenment "liberal" tradition, broadly emphasizing individual liberty and limited rule of law government in both economic and social spheres.

But broadly, "liberal" came to mean more government intervention and Democrat, while "conservative" came to mean less state intervention and Republican, at least in rhetoric.

Cochrane points out that the increasingly illiberal left (not the entire left!) means that we can't sensibly use "liberal" to describe "the left" any longer (if we ever could).

Also, I would add, that much of American conservatism has been taken over by "alt-right" religious-racial-nationalism and the Cult of Trump means that genuinely liberal liberarians and "classical liberals" can no longer find a home in the "conservative" momement.

So, as I read him, part of what Sunstein is doing is declaring a new alliance between liberal-liberarians, old-fashioned liberty-oriented conservatives, and what we might call the "center-left," basically the left that wants a robust welfare state and a big regulatory state but that is still dominantly pro-capitalist and pro-America. The world is now the Liberals versus the Anti-Liberals, and I am firmly on Team Liberal.

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