(Updated November 25, 2015, and edited slightly on January 19, 2020.)
No word is more loaded and distorted than the word “liberal”.
No word is more crucial, especially right now. Deprived of language, the very concept of liberalism is slipping away. Liberalism is losing its place in polical discourse, precisely when it is most needed. Each ideology sees liberals as unwitting dupes of its enemy, and happily shoots through liberals to fire on its foes, and tallies fallen liberals into its kill count.
But liberalism differs more from illiberal ideology than strains of illiberalism differ from from one another. Far from being the midpoint, average or muddling of purer ideologies, liberalism represents the cleanest and most radical departure from all ideological extremes, and our best hope for transcending them.
For this reason the word “liberal” needs clarification and revitalization.
For the last several decades the word “liberal” has been casually associated with “left”. And among the right, liberal has also been connected with Political Correctness.
The PC-liberal association, especially, makes it impossible to discuss what liberalism really is, because what makes PC objectionable to those who reject it is not liberalism, but illiberalism: an aggressive prioritization of the interests of particular collectives over individual freedom of speech, with the goal of manually re-balancing the scales of justice to compensate for generations-old collective imbalance.
Of course, this sort of collective oppression is exactly what liberals accuse conservatives of attempting. Some conservatives cheerfully admit to this, because they believe their institutions are backed by some absolute super-human authority. But the libertarian faction of conservatism balks at this. Libertarians want to maximize all liberty — social and economic — and will not tolerate any authoritarian interference in the private sphere, even if the authority claims to be underwritten by God Himself. This commitment to liberty is what makes libertarians true liberals (and why they have been correctly called “classical liberals”).
In theory, left-leaning liberals are sympathetic to the libertarian goal of maximizing social and economic liberty — but they are deeply skeptical of the libertarian favored means of acheiving it, deregulation. They suspect that those who favor deregulation (and reduction or elimination of the welfare state) are invested primarily in the interests of those Americans who benefit directly from deregulation and shrinking of the state, and that all talk of the Invisible Hand of the market and Trickle Down is justificatory myth.
I am not interested at this point in the merits of the left and right forms of liberalism. Instead I want to point out the important fact that liberals agree on the end — liberty — and disagree primarily on means of acheiving it. My belief is that alliances founded on ends, where the means are contested, make far more sense than alliances founded on means used to pursue divergent ends.
When liberalism is secure, the disagreement between left or right liberal strategies can seem enormous — even the key difference between friend and an adversary. At times when liberalism itself is threatened (and it seems we are approaching that point), liberals of all kinds must close ranks and redraw battle-lines. To join ranks with lesser-of-evil illiberal forces allows liberalism to be divided and conquered.
For this purpose, I am proposing a framework to help liberals of all kinds understand our shared political ideals and to frame discussion of our disagreements.
The strategy hinges on separating the idea of left versus right from liberal versus illiberal.
The left-right continuum is one of equality. The further left you go, the more importance you assign to actual, achieved equality. The further right you go, the more you believe that some people (for whatever reason) ought to have more power or wealth than others, and that this achievement of inequality is good. In the middle region (where I think most liberals stand) is belief in equality of potential, with the left-middle emphasizing mobility of status and the right-middle emphasizing stability of status.
The liberal-illiberal continuum is one of individual versus collective purpose. At the far end of liberalism is complete disregard for collective purposes. For a pure liberal, collectivities exist solely for the sake of individual purposes. At the far end of illiberalism is the belief that the collectivity is the only thing that gives an individual life purpose. Toward the middle is the belief that individual and collective purposes are at least potentially mutually reinforcing. Those who lean liberal will emphasize the value of individual experience of participation in collective purpose, while those who lean illiberal will emphasize the enduring greatness of institutions while acknowledging the importance of winning the loyalty and faith of those who contribute to its preservation and flourishing.
Having worked far too long in consulting, I’ve made a nice 2×2, so we can link up our understanding to the awesome power of the human mind’s hypertrophied visual intelligence.
Here’s the catch — there is a theory embedded in this diagram, and it is what distinguishes this model from similar frameworks.
In the middle of the diagram is a gray triangle, a region I call the “political gamut“. What falls inside the political gamut is a coherent and practical position. What falls outside of it is impracticable, or requires inconsistency in practice.
According to this model it is impossible to be extreme left or extreme right and also liberal. I think a great many hard-left liberals and hard-right libertarians look at each other and see the impracticability of the other’s position without seeing the impracticability of their own. But this model claims that liberalism is required to be centrist with regard to the left-right spectrum. Or, to put it differently, extreme liberalism requires extreme left-right centrism. I call this position “ambiliberalism“.
Have at it. I’m trying to be a good designer and user testing this conceptual model. Please respond here or on Facebook.