A Modern Liberal on Great, Classical-Liberal Literature


I give this professor a great deal of credit for his genuine attempt to understand the Right instead of demonize it.

Q. What is different between conservative and liberal literature?

A. One striking difference is that the iconic conservative works are about ideology. By contrast, the most influential liberal books of the era are about policy issues. Those works are Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Other America by Michael Harrington (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965), which helped launch the environmental, anti-poverty, feminist, and consumer movements, respectively. Some prominent liberal books of the time were about ideology — such as The Vital Center by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1949) and The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958) — but these are exceptions to the rule.

Q. Why the lack of symmetry?

A. Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don’t. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left. Maybe, in part, it is because a central tenet of liberalism is that ideology should be eschewed in favor of the supposedly enlightened, pragmatic approach of making ad hoc judgments about issues. But on this conservatives are more realistic. Ideology is inevitable; we all have an ideology, whether we are aware of it or not. First of all, ideology is about values, and we can’t decide how we wish to solve policy issues without having a firm grasp on the values we are seeking to advance. Second, the world is too complex for us to make informed judgments about all of the issues that confront us. We need a philosophy to serve as a north star. One way I’ve been enriched by reading the great works of conservatism is that I’ve come better to appreciate how central ideology is to thinking about matters of governance and public policy.

Q. After having completed an extensive program of reading great conservative works, how can you still be a liberal?

A. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, what separates us at the most fundamental level may be our different conceptions of liberty. Conservatives value above all else what Berlin called the negative vision of liberty, namely, freedom from coercion. Liberals are more willing to balance that against the positive vision of liberty — that is, having a reasonable opportunity to realize one’s potential. The negative vision focuses conservatives on restricting the government’s ability to interfere in people’s lives. The positive vision leads liberals to believe that government has a role in guaranteeing baseline minimums in education, medical care, and healthy communities. Most of us probably accept both visions to some extent, but how we balance the two may be built into our DNA. It is not to be expected, therefore, that a liberal will be converted by reading the great works of conservatism, or vice versa. But there are rewards to be gained from doing so nonetheless. Often, we get a better understanding of what we believe by reading about a philosophy with which we have disagreements than by reading congenial literature. More important, reading its great works helps us better understand — and respect — the other side. That, at least, has been my experience.

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