The evolution of liberalism

In a modern European history or modern world history course, it’s inevitable that you get to the “ideologies lecture” that covers the emergence of ideologies in 19th-century Europe: conservatism (defending the traditional order before the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars), liberalism (advocacy of Enlightenment values of a free political system and free markets), socialism (creating a cooperative society and collective ownership), and nationalism (the right of a people to have statehood).  These ideologies, of course, have had great influence around the world as well.

Of course, there’s some confusion that can result, especially since 19th-century liberals can sound a lot like contemporary conservatives.  What I usually say is that both of our major political parties have grown out of liberalism.  Conservatives tend to want to conserve 18th and 19th century liberalism, and liberals believe that events since then have demanded a more powerful state that can mitigate the problems of industrial society.

In the future, I think that I will draw from Walter Russell Mead’s model, which I found quite perceptive.  He distinguishes between 4 types of liberalism, “Liberalism 1.0” through “4.0.”  He believes that they all have a common core:

Uniting all four liberal versions is a belief in the individual conscience and a drive to find a creative compromise between the individual’s drive for self-expression and free action and the need for a stable society.  There is a belief that an open, dynamic society will lead to a better life for all and that promoting ordered liberty is the morally obligatory as well as the pragmatically desirable thing to do.  All four versions were grounded in the history, philosophy, literature and culture of the western world – while progressively opening to new ideas and perceptions from within and beyond the west.  All four versions were pragmatic, developing their visions and ordering their priorities based on an understanding of what their society’s abilities and limits were.

The first three stages are described as follows:

  • Liberalism 1.0: support for a constitutional monarchy and Bill of Rights in England culminating in the Glorious Revolution
  • Liberalism 2.0: support for an American “republic expressly founded on natural rights and the sovereignty of the people” and with separation of church and state (at least at the federal level).  An interesting comment that Mead makes about this: “In 1688, if you supported the Glorious Revolution you were a Whig and a liberal.  In 1776 if you supported those same principles against the Declaration of Independence, you were a Tory conservative.”
  • Liberalism 3.0 (or “Manchester Liberalism”) : “3.0 liberals had much more confidence in the common sense reasoning power of ordinary people than earlier generations; their programs included once unthinkable ideas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, an end to state-enforced monopoly corporations, limited government, free markets at home and free trade abroad.  3.0 liberals tended to support strong, personal and emotional religious belief; they were much more likely to be evangelical than either 1.0 or 2.0 liberals.  Like earlier liberals, 3.0 liberals believed that capitalism, individual rights and a culture of virtue supported by a tolerant, non-fanatical Protestant Christianity could provide ordered liberty to countries like the US and the UK.”

Mead spends the most time with Liberalism 4.0, contemporary liberalism or progressivism that arose in America with urbanization, industrialization, and immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  Although he doesn’t talk about it, something similar happened in western Europe too.

Their problems were extremely complex and posed some challenging questions about the basic premises of liberal thought.  Classically, liberals considered an unholy alliance of church and state as the prime enemy of freedom.  In the late nineteenth century, the rise of huge industrial corporations created yet another force that threatened to crush individual liberty; 4.0 liberals began to think about the state as a possible ally to defend individuals from unaccountable private power….The progressives and liberals who created liberalism 4.0 did their best to address these and similar problems in ways that they hoped would preserve as much as possible of the old liberal heritage in a new and more difficult world.  The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests – and split into classes with most industrial and agricultural workers subject to very low wages, long hours and poor working conditions.  At the same time the challenges of modernization and urbanization (public health, food safety, provision of newly necessary services like electricity and gas) could best be met through public services and, in some cases, heavily regulated private monopolies.  The professional and managerial classes were not just middle classes in the sense of standing between the rich and the poor in income and status; they were mediating classes who sought through the state, the universities and the learned professions to impose a balance between the interests of the wealthy and the workers.

On religion, 4.0 liberals were better than their predecessors at understanding the ways in which growing numbers of American Catholics and Jews could support rather than undermine the culture of faith and virtue on which civil liberty ultimately depends.  Partly to create a neutral public space in which Catholics and Jews could join Protestants on equal terms in debate, 4.0 liberals tended to favor the secularization of public life.

Mead also highlights this version’s progress on racial equality and in offering a liberal alternative to socialism, such that an openly socialist movement has never been viable in the US.

Mead hopes that a 5th version will emerge as he believes that the “blue model” erected by the fourth wave has become obsolete.

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7 comments

  1. Mead wrote: “In 1688, if you supported the Glorious Revolution you were a Whig and a liberal. In 1776 if you supported those same principles against the Declaration of Independence, you were a Tory conservative.

    Could you explain that to me? What were the principles that supported the Glorious Revolution but opposed the Declaration of Independence?

    As you summarize well in a later post, “Mead uses the term “liberalism” broadly to refer to the Anglo-American political tradition that began with resistance to absolutism“. I find that confusing and I think it leads Mead to subtly conflate:

    (1) the fluid senses and principles which people have associated with “liberal” at different times,

    (2) some fixed principles which somehow ties all denotations of “liberalism” together, and,

    (3) the entire American political flow.

    Mead seems to be using a progressive vs. conservative model where all (in hindsight positive?) change is, by definition, progressive (and “liberal”). But that tautological model of politics never really made sense to me since it lacks a principled foundation.

    Where I see a conflict of ideologies creating syncretic, patchwork solutions bearing marks of each, Mead seems to see the application of a single evolving liberal ideology (which we actually select in hindsight). Where he sees a versioned progression where every road leads to liberalism, I see a pushing and pulling and spiraling nearer or farer from principles such as liberty.

    Mead does make good points throughout and I like most of his overviews, but my reasoning feels muddled when I try to embrace his frame of reference. Perhaps it will become clearer as he actually defines his v5.0 rather than setting the stage that it is a natural next step.

  2. For the Glorious Rev. vs. American Rev., I think that the biggest would be monarchy vs. republic as well as the Glorious Rev’s support for a very limited group of voters as opposed to the slightly more open American Rev. The consent of the governed that was important to both was a significantly broader group for American Revolutionaries, especially for someone like Thomas Jefferson.

    Something that Mead probably misses there is that both supported the idea of “no taxation without representation.”

    I think that your comments about his use of liberalism are good. In a sense, that’s the principle critique of liberalism: since it’s anchored in the faith that human reason will lead to progress, there really isn’t a bedrock principle that can define what progress is. I think that you have a more absolute sense of what liberty is, whereas he sees liberty as being more defined by the how one responds to the threats to liberty in a certain time period. He would probably regard you as a 3.0 liberal. 🙂

    I like his model as description, but it’s not necessarily good proscription.

  3. Sorry for the long delay in responding!

    Scott wrote: “Something that Mead probably misses there is that both supported the idea of “no taxation without representation.”

    Exactly. The Glorious Rev. maintained a monarchy, but wasn’t the ultimate purpose to assert parliamentary representative power at the expense of the monarchy? Pro-representation seems like the dominant principle rather than pro-monarchy.

    If so, then Mead seems to be confusing principles with the application of those principles by implying that because they maintained a monarchy, their principles dictate that they would fight for a monarchy in other situations (e.g. in the American Rev.).

    Scott wrote: “I think that your comments about his use of liberalism are good. In a sense, that’s the principle critique of liberalism: since it’s anchored in the faith that human reason will lead to progress, there really isn’t a bedrock principle that can define what progress is.

    Yeah, the former needs the latter. I have faith that human reason will lead to progress as long as we base valid reasoning on fairly stable principles. e.g. I think much of the basic v1.0 principles logically imply the eventual advances in practical liberty, even if they could not be fully seen or readily implemented at the time. In fact, that is the primary way in which Mead’s versioning makes sense to me.

    Overall, I question the wisdom in conflating “progressive” with “liberal”, as we presently do politically. Semantically, it doesn’t make sense since “liberal” should denote the principle of liberty. Because it doesn’t, “libertarian” seems to have stepped up to meet that semantic gap. Do you know if this forking of “liberty” terminology is unique in American history?

    While it is certainly understandable, calling every change “progress” and “reform” is also flawed. What people think of as progress at the time could seem less so in the future. I suspect that is how Mead’s prescriptive v5.0 will see v4.0 in the future, rather than how he describes it now. And in that sense, perhaps I am not only more of a v3.0 liberal, but also a v5.0 or v6.0 liberal! 🙂

    Scott wrote: “I think that you have a more absolute sense of what liberty is, whereas he sees liberty as being more defined by the how one responds to the threats to liberty in a certain time period.

    Good summary. Do you think his definition of liberty is correct? Taking Social Security as an example, poverty in old age is not a threat to their liberty but a threat to their security, as the name implies. Indeed we sacrifice liberty for security in this case. Now, that may be the better option, but it is not semantically “liberal”.

    I guess we could define financial security as a sort of “positive liberty”, but that seems to dilute and conflate the distinct meanings and tensions between liberty and security and justice, etc. which is why I don’t particularly like the term.

  4. This time I’m the one who took a long time to get back. I think that I would prefer a more strict definition of liberty as freedom of choice for individuals and restriction on government. For issues like social security and other expansions of government action, perhaps :responsibility” would be the right way to think: what responsibility does government have to its citizens and what responsibility do citizens have to each other? I’m not saying that Social Security should actually be a responsibility, but I think that category (rather than positive liberty) fits better.

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