Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 16 2009 7:01 AM

Seven Habits of Truly Liberal People

Alan Wolfe's persuasive portrait of liberalism.

The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe.

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.