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In Praise of ‘Wishy-Washy’ Liberalism

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Political liberals – and there is a growing band of them around the world – very often get on your nerves. And it makes them so very easy to mock.

For instance, liberals find it very difficult to handle the problem or the reality of evil. When they see evil in action they have to find some sociological explanation for it. For instance, if you are watching a movie or a television story put together by liberals, you will notice that every evil character has either been abused as a child or has endured poverty.  And you wonder, what about all those who went through those unfortunate experiences and still turned out to be upstanding members of society?

Liberals also have difficulties coming to terms with the reality of violence and propensities to violence. Confronted with violence they are often perplexed. They wonder aloud: Why can’t we all simply get along? Someone punches a liberal in the nose and he asks: ‘You seem upset about something; do you want to talk about it?’

I exaggerate for effect but you can see why you have the popular caricature of the arugula eating, latte drinking, hybrid-car-driving liberal…a somewhat effete and ludicrous character.

There is a serious philosophical issue at the basis of all this, of course. Conservative political philosophers take a hard, unsparing view of fundamental human nature. They assume selfishness, greed, generosity only within a narrow circle of concern, and difficulties mustering the consistent self-command that makes the practice of virtue, any virtue, possible…as Adam Smith famously taught us in his seminal work: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Liberal political philosophers, on the other hand, tend to  have a sunnier view of human nature. Which is why liberals love Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

What is more, liberals are eternal optimists. There is no single human problem they do not believe that they can fix. They are meliorists: they believe that the world can always be made better by human effort. They believe that, on the whole, with good will and determined effort, human life will get better, more civilized, and more generous. That is why they believe in activist government and activism generally. Liberals hurl themselves at the problems of their societies and of the world with gusto.  They are always ready to roll, often ignoring difficult context-specific political realities. Sometimes, they are so naïve you wonder….and you wonder what’s up with them.

Now, I can say all this because I speak from within the camp. I am a political liberal of a deep dye. For instance, I don’t see liberal political philosophy as a Western imposition. It is a Western invention but, in my view, it speaks to universal human needs. Liberal constitutionalism is the best way of organizing political community in a way that protects liberty and respects individual autonomy that I know of, and I am absolutely committed to it. But, yes, modern liberalism has a naïve and sentimental variety that is often deeply annoying.

I have no problems, however, defending political liberalism against one of the charges often levelled against it.  Now, in both the organization of political community and the management of global affairs, liberalism insists on sensible rules and norms that create a space that respects pluralism and diversity. It is accommodative of difference; it says live-and-let-live. It insists on the due process of law. It urges moderation and compromise. It discourages resorts to violence. Opponents often attack this stance as weak, ineffectual, and, to be blunt, wishy-washy. 

That attack usually comes from two sources. First, there are those who would press the claims of their religion or sect against all others, and are determined to seize the state and use its powers to enforce their views about how life ought to be lived. If you don’t agree, well, tough. Second, there are those who press the claims of the community, the tribe, the ethnic group, the nation and are willing to break all rules, sunder all treaties, disregard norms, rights, whatever in the pursuit of these claims.

Think about it. The preponderance of the troubles in human history, of all the bloodletting of centuries past and present, has occurred mainly because certain players and groups are willing to ruthlessly pursue these totalizing, exclusivist claims.

I’d take ‘wishy-washy’ liberalism any day.


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Submitted by Jaime Alvarez on

Sir, you portay a very "wishy-washy" view of classical liberalism which is the philosophy of freedom, and from where interventionists stole the term liberal. Classical liberalism ("everything that's peaceful") promotes what you attibute to modern liberalism. It is hard to open holes on a mosquito net so I would focus just in one point of your post: WAR. The big wars you mention have not been initiated by classical liberals, small government types, but by interventionists of all sorts. National Socialism (to name just one case) was not exactly the Libertarian Party. When classical liberals ruled, or to me more precise when the philosophy ruled, there was peace.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Sina, a fantastic post as always. I confess as well, to being a liberal. The precepts of liberalism are essential, almost natural to me. Pluralism, diversity, due process, compromise -- yes, yes, yes & yes. But as an ideology under attack on many fronts - fundamentalist movements, the radical left, libertarianism, biopolitics -- can it be saved through itself? In the US, for example, where I am from: Can a diversity which includes the Koch brothers and the compromise which takes us ever closer to a libertarian, cult of the self-society prevail? If they can't, how can liberals save what they love without resorting to means they reject?

Thanks for the comment. I think political liberalism will endure. Liberals have to keep the faith, but they need to be tougher and more politically astute. A politically smart and robust political liberalism will endure.

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