After nearly one month and over a dozen articles, Liberal Currents is off to the races. But some people have asked where we are coming from, something that we tried to address in The New Liberal. The following will pick up where that piece left off, focusing specifically on who we would love to hear more from and who we are hoping to reach.
One impression we hoped to avoid with our talk of “the new liberal” was the idea that we represent some kind of true liberalism. When libertarians refer to themselves as “classical liberals” as if they were the sole inheritors of the original tradition, they underestimate the community of thought to which they undeniably belong just as much as modern liberals (progressives) who have inherited the term. But liberalism cannot be reduced to a single voice or valence. There is a reason we are called Liberal Currents, plural. All traditions of any scope or value are polyvalent and pluralistic; made up of multiple currents.
We strive to be a home for mere liberalism, a place where liberals of all kinds feel at ease with one another as liberals, whatever our energetic disagreements. That doesn’t mean we lack a specific editorial perspective. But we hope to publish liberals of many stripes—from progressives, to neoliberals, libertarians, and even those who are sympathetic to liberal causes but aren’t quite sure if they are liberals themselves. Part of what we’d like to do is focus on the important discussions that take place across these internecine divides. An important point to emphasize is that they are internecine—all of these broad currents are part of the same intellectual family. What we’d like is for the people who hold these perspectives to see themselves as part of the same community. And we hope that the people we publish and our readers will help us to promote that outcome.
Ideally, we’d like to get beyond these particular divisions, which reflect debates that played out endlessly in the 20th century. Not that we think perfect unity is possible or desirable; our vision of new liberals is just as pluralistic as the old set. But it’s high time we learn what is left to be learned from these debates and move on to new ones.
The editorial team believes that the progressive, libertarian, and neoliberal subcommunities have made valuable contributions to the liberal tradition, though all are lacking in crucial ways. The thoughtful partisans of each school realize they have much to gain from talking with and learning from one another even as they remain steadfast in their ideological commitments. The thoughtful libertarian, for instance, believes they can learn from other liberals how to improve libertarianism (mutatis mutandis progressivism and neoliberalism). Meanwhile we should resist the temptations of vulgar versions of our ideologies, those tending to reduce complex problems to bumper sticker-ready solutions.
We believe that the solutions favored by different liberal factions typically carry their own unique dangers. Liberal institutions and law ought to balance liberal aims and provide bulwarks against the worst outcomes, but there is no one, best way of striking that balance. Call us liberals of fear or liberals of tragedy, but as we see it every power created to check abuse can be abused, every attempt to protect vulnerabilities creates vulnerability, every bulwark against coercion is coercive, and all available means for preventing cruelty can be cruelly used.
But we are not liberals of despair—there is real work to be done, and we want to open Liberal Currents to those who are ready to engage. The history of liberalism is the history of using imperfect means to achieve real human improvement. There have been terrible mistakes made along the way. While liberals hardly bear total responsibility for the explosion in incarceration in America since the early 90s, they bear quite a lot. It happened in the heyday of neoliberalism, under a neoliberal President, and under the influence of a libertarian economist’s theory of law enforcement. And progressives are hardly without sin: FDR, arguably the canonical progressive president of the 20th century, used the expanded powers of his government to put Japanese-Americans into camps and pursue a brutal and total war.
But we can also speak of Milton Friedman’s contribution to ending the draft, or Lyndon Johnson wielding his clout to get the Civil Rights Act passed, or the opportunities that Bill Clinton opened up for Americans but especially poor Mexicans by pushing NAFTA through. The bag is mixed, but all traditions of sufficient longevity are necessarily mixed. On the whole, the growth of liberalism has been a gain for humanity.
What should the liberal community focus on now? What delicate balances most urgently need readjustment? We want to publish liberals of every stripe who have answers to these questions. We want to attract liberal readers who are interested in asking these questions, and who will tell us what other questions we ought to be asking.
There are certainly perspectives that we will not publish. The argument that all taxation is theft, and therefore no government action is ever legitimate, will not find a place here. The argument that all profit is theft will be treated similarly. Narrow, categorical condemnations of massive spheres of modern life—be they commerce, governance, cities, suburbs, or family—will not be found here. However, we welcome critical analyses of any or all of these.
Liberals of all stripes are therefore encouraged to pitch their critical analyses, their answers to the pressing questions of our times, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image is An Old Scholar, by Koninck Salomon.