Five Years of Liberal Currents

Five Years of Liberal Currents

It has been five years since Liberal Currents launched with seven essays at the ready. Many more have been published since; as of this writing we expect to hit our 300th essay within six or seven months. After spending our first three years as an all-volunteer effort, we launched a Patreon and began compensating all the good work that our writers were doing. With the support of our patrons we were able to increase our fee last year, and I am hopeful we’ll be able to raise it again in the near future. Becoming a paying publication has helped us draw nearly eighty writers to our project, many of whom have built an ongoing relationship with our little community.

The shock of Trump’s electoral victory, foremost on our minds at launch, seems almost quaint now, in comparison to the many terrible events that have happened since, and indeed are still playing out to this day. And yet many of those events vindicated those early fears. The incompetence and the narcissism of that reality TV star turned president were on full display when the COVID-19 pandemic, a generational crisis, arose. In our fractured information environment, it is hard to say if the anti-suppression, anti-masking, anti-vaccination culture on the right would have arisen in the absence of Trump, but there can be no question that he encouraged it, and encouraged the conservative media ecosystem which feeds on it to this day. And his efforts to resist the results of the election in 2020, culminating in the chaos of January 6 2021, are without precedent.

But Liberal Currents is not about Trump or even about the Trumpist right, though these matters have been discussed by various authors here. The Liberal Currents project is an effort to build a community across the many different intellectual and political branches of the liberal tradition—to emphasize that those branches grow out from the same tree. 

In our first month of operation I called for “mere liberal” writers. Of course, there is no such thing; one is not merely liberal, they are a liberal of some particular kind, with some particular combination of intellectual and political commitments. There are “right-wing liberals,” as Matthew McManus has put it, who favor strong property rights without further interference in the outcomes of the exercise of those rights, and “left-wing liberals” who believe in employing state power to reduce private power imbalances. Both of these are statist to some degree, and can therefore be further distinguished from a strong anti-statist tradition within liberalism—within which we can again draw similar right- and left-wing distinctions. These are just two of several dimensions along which liberalisms can be distinguished.

While one cannot be merely liberal as a personal matter, it is possible to be a mere liberal publication, and community. It may be that, in the politics of our day, a liberal of one kind finds themselves consistently on the opposite side of policy debates from a liberal of another kind. It is our belief that these individuals nevertheless have much of value to say to one another. Associate Editor and co-founder Paul Crider distilled some of the basic liberal principles when we first launched, but it is easy to lose sight of how important this common ground is.

At the very moment we saw the need to recommit to basic liberal values and rethink their application, a genuinely illiberal intellectual movement emerged in the hopes of seizing an opportunity. In the pages of The Atlantic we see Adrian Vermeule suggesting that semantic ambiguity in the law as written provides the opportunity for unelected judges and administrators to impose a conservative-communitarian interpretation. The openly theocratic Sohrab Ahmari was recently interviewed at The New York Times. Political theorist Patrick Deneen has been boasting of liberalism’s failure for years, while cozying up to figures such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Claims made by this group range from the empirical argument that liberal regimes consistently “fail” in specific ways, to the theoretical argument that individualism per se is incoherent or impossible because of man’s social nature. No one who calls themselves a liberal needs to accept these questionable premises. Whether you want more robust environmental regulation or less, whether you believe in universal government benefits or targeted ones; whatever the specific dispute within the liberal house, we all agree that the point is to help build a better world for individuals to live in. We needn’t adopt the reactionary’s caricature of the liberal individual in a social vacuum; the liberal tradition offers more than enough resources to answer that false characterization. Meanwhile, the absurdity of claiming that institutional liberalism has “failed” when it has produced the most prosperous, creative, and powerful nations in the world cannot be overstated.

This is not to give in to “triumphalism” or misguided notions of liberal inevitability. We cannot and should not take our successes for granted, settle for what we have accomplished to date, or assume that liberal ideas are intrinsically persuasive or logically airtight. Our empirical record and the arguments and ideas we promote all require close scrutiny. That is precisely the value of a mere liberal publication: a place for the many different perspectives who generally share the same basic liberal commitments to engage in a constructive project of internal criticism.

But it is also important to recognize the strength of the foundations we stand on. Liberals ought to have some confidence in the incredible accomplishments achieved within the liberal political order and the great merit of liberal values.

A confident liberalism but not a complacent one—that is what we have sought to foster in the first five years of Liberal Currents. Thank you to those of you who have joined us for part or all of that time, as readers, writers, and patrons. We will continue to work hard to meet your expectations, to grow our mere liberal community, and publish challenging and interesting work.

Featured Image is A Centennial of Independence, by Henri Rousseau