What Is Liberal Democracy?

What Is Liberal Democracy?

There was a period during the Trump presidency when it was defensible to believe he was too incompetent and too narrowly self-interested to be any more dangerous than a typical president, even if few would argue he was a typical president. The events of 2020 shattered that optimism, as Trump discouraged his followers from taking the pandemic seriously, on the one hand, and treated pandemic response as part of a political spoils system, on the other. While state governments struggled to find the right response, he took to Twitter, screaming for those states to be “liberated.” The governor of one of those states would eventually be the intended target of a kidnapping plot. Then, after months of publicly and repeatedly declaring his loss in a fair and free election to be a fraud and privately exerting pressure on election officials, local legislators, and Georgia’s Secretary of State to undo those results, Trump incited a mob which went on to storm the Capitol, interrupting the ceremony to affirm the results of that election and resulting in deaths and hospitalizations.

Four years ago, the populist victories of 2016 made some of us quite nervous about the fate of liberal democracy, and we launched Liberal Currents in part as a response to that. I am tremendously proud of what we have accomplished here, but there have been moments when I wondered whether that initial reaction to Trump was overblown. Even the most grotesque cruelty, like the child separation policy, is really not all that discontinuous with twenty years of immigration enforcement tactics that completely flout accountability or the rule of law, nor was immigration enforcement kind and gentle before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The craven corruption conducted out in the open, a small fraction of which he was impeached but not removed for, appeared to me to be a problem in terms of the long-term erosion of institutions, but not necessarily an imminent threat, especially if he could be defeated in November.

It’s now clear that those who feared Trump as an institution-smasher were correct from the beginning, and that the danger is now imminent, not long-term. Trump has whipped up a large component of the population into believing that the presidential election was illegitimate, and the events of January 6 have shown how far some of them are willing to take it. Propaganda by deed is a powerful thing; it is very likely that others will be emboldened by this brazen act. Even after Trump is gone, liberal democracy in America will be a great deal more fragile than when he arrived.

There are some who celebrate this fact. The so-called “post-liberals,” men like Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, and Adrian Vermeuele, who leapt into the breach after 2016 with promises of liberal democracy’s demise, come to mind. These men have made many bold claims about the inevitability of liberalism’s death and root it in imprecise, overly abstract narratives. Meanwhile, we have seen a slow but steady stream of apologists for the Chinese government, the most well-resourced despotism in the world. In April, The Atlantic published a defense of the Chinese approach to Internet censorship. This very month, The New York Times published a defense of the Chinese “version of freedom,” citing their more effective response to the pandemic which therefore allows people more freedom of movement than in locked down western democracies. The very day that that article was published, the Chinese government used the newly implemented security law to throw pro-democracy activists and officials in Hong Kong in jail. China has been escalating its intervention into Hong Kong for two years now, all while perpetrating atrocities on a mass scale in Xinjiang and against the Uyghur minority anywhere in the country.

The stakes for a defense of liberal democracy have hardly been higher. At Liberal Currents, we are confident that it will meet the challenges of our moment, as it has proven itself capable of doing in many crises over its history. But to make that case, we will strive to always be specific. In Paul Crider’s exploration of our principles back when we launched and in the many subsequent articles ranging from criminal justice reform to political philosophy to foreign policy, we will not be evasive, or hide behind excessive abstraction. We will lay out a vision of liberalism as we see it and as it should be, in general and in specific applications.

For I find it very hard to believe that most of these “post-liberals” or the other critics of liberalism who are lately fashionable would actually much enjoy life in a nation where the features of liberal democracy that we take for granted are absent. It is easy to be opposed to liberalism when you are unclear about what you mean. It is equally easy to defend liberalism without laying out its many thorny tensions and seeming contradictions. We are not afraid to discuss these tensions, and the many difficulties and shortcomings of liberal democracies. Nor will we ever hesitate to defend it as the best social and political order humanity has yet produced.

So what, exactly, are we seeking to defend? What is the character of a liberal democracy? What does it mean for a society to be liberal, rather than for a person to subscribe to liberal principles, such as the ones Paul laid out almost four years ago?

To answer this question I will discuss five broad topics that make up the core of liberal democracy: liberty, democracy, rule of law, capability, and virtue. Liberty is often called “negative liberty” to emphasize that it is freedom from interference, but I think it is most usefully thought of as the specific freedoms—such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and property rights—which give a liberal order its dynamism. Democracy under liberalism consists of using electoral systems and mass voting as tools for accountability rather than direct governance. Rule of law is a complicated topic but in practice often boils down to the existence, for ordinary citizens, of legal remedies and actions which will by and large be honored, especially by actors in the government. Finally, a liberal society—an actual liberal democracy in which voter sovereignty is given pride of place alongside other liberal characteristics—cannot survive unless liberal values are broadly held by the electorate. The tendency to live by these values on a relatively consistent basis entails what some have referred to as “liberal virtues.”


The chief feature of liberty is that it is exercised through the agreement of at least one other person. In order for an individual to exercise their freedom of association, they must persuade at least one other individual to associate with them. Though the dissenter tradition in English history exhibits some forms of freedom of speech (or freedom of shouting)  that are fairly one-sided, in general for speech to matter you need to persuade some audience to listen to you. Property is an ancient institution that developed largely in response to the problems of traditional agrarian societies, but liberals from the beginning have focused on its role in facilitating commerce. Commerce, by its nature, involves at least one buyer and at least one seller. Vibrant and energetic commerce is one of the consistent features of liberal democracies across the world. 

The “negative liberty” framing concedes too much; all of these liberties are regulated in some way by statutes, courts, and regulator rules. This is not merely a talking point by advocates of the welfare state; the 18th century liberals who advocated for strong property rights were also active in outlawing the practices of primogeniture (in which the eldest son inherited the largest share of his father’s property) and entail (in which an estate was passed down to a single male heir). This is because from the very beginning, liberals have been concerned with inequalities of power produced through property and association, especially when that property or those associations have accumulated power and influence over generations. Moreover, the 18th and 19th century liberals were comfortable with much stronger civil penalties for various forms of defamation, something that we would today consider a constraint on freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, I must concede that there is something to “negative liberty” as a characterization. Ultimately, the basic idea is that, while the rules of the game are set by legislatures, courts, and regulators, the organization of society is largely left to how people persuade one another and are persuaded to associate, transact, contract, and so on. Specific, defined relationships—that is, who, exactly, owns this piece of land, or has a right to demand a reduction in noise from this neighbor—may need to be revisited in court or elsewhere. But the social and economic character of liberal democracies is overwhelmingly determined by how people exercise their freedom of association and their property, and what they can be talked into doing through the exercise of freedom of speech.

Liberty, so understood, is a central pillar of a liberal society. Arguably it is the central pillar of liberalism per se. A nation cannot be a liberal democracy without elected leaders, but there have been liberal monarchies. Liberty is the beating heart of the dynamism of liberal societies; a commitment to liberty simply is a commitment to dynamism over the conceit of a nation built around a singular and unchanging image, however attractive. When Ahmari says, with horror, that “The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all,” this is what he is attempting to describe.

At the same time, liberals are not indifferent to the character of the society that emerges. They have always found some degree of state regulation of these liberties justifiable on the grounds that it encourages a more liberal order. The practice of banning parties that are sufficiently illiberal or undemocratic, while not one I would personally recommend, is nevertheless defensible—the same line I would take on hate speech laws. Even America’s contemporary First Amendment case law, the strongest freedom of speech regime in the world, carves out whole classes of exceptions. I do not think these and similar restrictions render a nation illiberal, as they still allow for a large, dynamic arena for association, speech, and commerce to take place.


There are illiberal parties and policies that gain wide popularity or a substantial base with voters, and there are nations that hold elections regularly that are toothless and largely propaganda for an undemocratic regime. How, then, should liberals think about democracy? What role should elections play?

The second half of “liberal democracy” is in no way subordinate to the first. Deneen, from his comfortable perch at Notre Dame, may have the luxury to disparage it with statements like “democracy would increasingly produce workers and consumers, not citizens.” By contrast, consider Ari Berman’s characterization, in Give Us the Ballot, of the consequences of McCain v. Lybrand:

“The change in the method of election had a tremendous impact on everything, on all walks of life,” said the council’s chairman, Willie Bright, who served for twenty-two years. “We showed we could run the government and do it effectively and fairly. We paved roads for the first time in black communities, improved garbage collection, changed road signs, got blacks in every office in the court house, changed the land fill, got a black magistrate, and started a rural fire department. We made a lot of changes and it was all new.”

This voting rights victory did not take place in the 1960s or 1970s; the case was ruled on in 1984. And they “paved the roads for the first time in black communities” in Edgefield County, South Carolina, entirely as a result of this victory. The vote is not something to be trifled with, not something to be treated as frivolously as post-liberal academics like Deneen have done.

Let us do better than that. I contend that the function of elections in a liberal order is not to express the “will of the people” or the “general will,” or to merely aggregate the preferences of voters. Rather, elections exist to ensure that professional politicians must take the interests and values of citizens into account. A truly universal franchise, in an electoral system that is actually responsive to even very small minorities, will involve many people with little knowledge of the particulars of governance or the impact of particular policies and institutional decisions. But they know their own life experiences, the specific problems they face. If the police and other government agents are abusing or extorting them in some way, or if regulations or fees or licensing schemes set up in perfectly good faith hurt them or their community disproportionately, the vote is one tool among many in a liberal democracy for getting someone in the government to take an interest in these problems.

The people whose feet are in the fire are professional politicians. Contrary to some democratic theories, the professional part is important. The myth of the citizen-official has resulted in a great deal of dysfunction where it has had influence; America’s chronically underfunded state and municipal legislatures are extremely vulnerable to capture from narrow, better funded interests. The ideal arrangement is to have well staffed professionals who are members of strong, formal political party organizations in an actually competitive party system. Parties have longer time horizons than individual politicians, but in an uncompetitive system this simply means they are better at locking in a status quo narrowly beneficial to the party leadership. 

In the party list systems implemented in a large proportion of the world’s democracies, a swing by a voting block that makes up ten to fifteen percent of the electorate can mean people actually losing seats; even smaller blocks can have a similar impact under the right conditions. Their votes truly have teeth. Even if they end up voting for parties who aren’t in the majority coalition, just having people at the center whose job depends upon their support is half the battle. Critics of multiparty systems frequently point to the strong bargaining position of relatively small parties in places like Israel. This has more to do with the specifics of Israel’s political situation than with multiparty systems in general, but regardless it is only a problem if one subscribes to a “will of the people” type theory of democracy.

In truth, no governing coalitions—in two party or multiparty systems, in parliamentary or presidential ones—are majoritarian in the sense of fulfilling the mandate sanctioned by a majority. Popular mandates are a fiction, a clever piece of marketing for politicians and parties that have recently won elections soundly. Majorities rarely “want” something in any meaningful sense; even if a large component of a majority are single-issue voters who hold the same position on that issue, there is always a messy pluralism to the motives and beliefs behind the choices made at the ballot box. What a sound victory demonstrates is that a candidate or party has substantial support, perhaps even trust, but each is only relative to the alternatives voters had to choose from. It is neither a blank check to do as they please in office, nor specific instructions to pursue some specific policy.

It is not illiberal for a minor party, which has secured the trust of some specific constituency, to be effective at negotiating concessions from a major party in exchange for joining the governing coalition. This is not “anti-majoritarian” or “unrepresentative,” given that the resulting coalition does, in fact, represent a majority constituency. It is no less “majoritarian” to acknowledge the contingency of the specific combinations of minor and major parties in multiparty systems, than it is to acknowledge the contingency of the specific combinations of voters in specific electoral majorities and minorities.

More to the point, the minority party or parties, or the people who cast their votes for the losing candidate, do not cease to matter simply because they have picked the losing side at a particular moment. The ideal liberal democracy strikes a balance between empowering elected majorities to actually govern effectively, while also baking in a degree of supermajoritarianism to mitigate against the possibility of minorities being trampled, especially if those minorities rarely find themselves in the majority coalition. In Germany, supermajority votes are required in order to make appointments to their Constitutional Courts, as well as to amend their Basic Law. Many other tools can empower parties and officials outside of the governing coalition, but again one must balance this supermajoritarianism against the risk of rendering governance excessively difficult.

I do not mean to suggest that anything short of parliamentary party list proportional voting is illiberal, or, on the other side of my argument, that ballot initiatives and other systems rooted in theories of the “will of the people” are illiberal. The equal value and dignity of each individual person regardless of their station is a fundamental principle of liberalism; giving ordinary people a voice by any means is therefore a fundamentally liberal impulse. Ballot initiatives, as well as the Westminster system and presidential systems, do provide mechanisms for ordinary people to protect their interests and values. The empirical debate over the strengths and weaknesses of these various alternatives—on the grounds of their democratic as well as other liberal merits—I will leave to the political scientists. 

I have drawn on the example of proportional, party list, and multiparty parliamentary systems because my understanding of them provides an easy illustration of the principles I wish to highlight here: that governance must be done by professionals, that these professionals ought to have the resources to do their jobs and the institutional means to organize themselves, and that the vote and elections ought to be seen as tools for ordinary people to hold those professionals accountable rather than to govern directly.


The typical discussion of rule of law runs through a list like the one that Lon Fuller offers in The Morality of Law, where he argues that “the attempt to create and maintain a system of legal rules may miscarry in at least eight ways,”

The first and most obvious lies in a failure to achieve rules at all, so that every issue must be decided on an ad hoc basis. The other routes are: (2) a failure to publicize or at least to make available to the affected party, the rules he is expected to observe; (3) the abuse of retroactive legislation, which not only cannot itself guide action, but undercuts the integrity of rules prospective in effect, since it puts them under the threat of retrospective change; (4) a failure to make rules understandable; (5) the enactment of contradictory rules or (6) rules that require conduct beyond the powers of the affected party; (7) introducing such frequent changes in the rules that the subject cannot orient his action by them; and, finally, 8) a failure of congruence between the rules as announced and their actual administration.

Rule of law, rather than rule of arbitrary individual authorities, is government by:

  • General rules rather than ad hoc, case by case decisions
  • Public rather than secret rules
  • Prospective rather than retrospective rules
  • Rules that can be understood by those to whom they apply rather than specialists alone
  • Consistent rather than contradictory rules
  • Rules that it is possible to comply with
  • Rules that are stable rather than in flux
  • Rules that are implemented in a way that is consistent with how they are written

This list is fairly representative of what most theorists have in mind, though they might add or remove an item or two. Fuller goes so far as to argue that “A total failure in any one of these eight directions does not simply result in a bad system of law; it results in something that is not properly called a legal system at all,” though one imagines the “total” in “total failure” is carrying rather a lot of the burden of this statement. 

A problem arises at this stage: no nation on Earth fulfills these conditions. The final condition is the most fatal, for it undermines many of the others; implementation of the law by necessity is case by case, and in practice the way it is implemented is more often than not ad hoc, inconsistent, and mercurial. Even crooked timber makes for straighter walls than the warbling, almost formless morass that human institutions look like the closer you examine their operation.

The contemporary legal realist Hanoch Dagan offers a more promising endorsement of “the felt predictability” of legal doctrine “at a given time and place,” arguing that “the practice of law provides insiders with determinate answers” to questions of interpretation. This is a much more modest characterization, especially with the duration of the “given time” or the size of the given place left ambiguous. Indeed, under some specifications, it becomes too modest to matter: is this “felt predictability” due to the behavior of a specific court, or even a set of specific judges with whom “insiders” regularly interact? Are the “determinate answers” determined on a similar basis?

I do not think that even Fuller’s ambitious list should be discarded, but I think some serious level-setting must be done before it can be brought down from the atmosphere. Back in March I wrote about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation kicked off the Arab Spring. Though his desperate act got characterized as being aimed at the country’s dictatorship, the authorities who abused Bouazizi on a regular basis were entirely municipal in nature, and the democratic revolution which occurred did nothing to alter matters at that level. The economist Hernando de Soto, whose work beyond this episode provides precisely the sort of level-setting legal scholars could use, investigated the particulars.

For years, Bouazizi had endured harassment at the hands of deeply corrupt petty officials — most notably, the municipal police officers and inspectors who lived off street vendors and other small-scale extralegal business-people. The police officers helped themselves to the vendors’ fruit whenever they felt like it or arbitrarily fined them for running their carts without a permit. Bouazizi complained about the greed of local officers for years. He hated paying bribes.

During our research we found hundreds of small enterprises like Bouazizi’s, run by Tunisians with no legal identity, no legal address, and no legal right to their shack or market stall. Without legal documents, their ability to make the most of their assets is limited, and they live in constant fear of being evicted or harassed by local officials. According to our research, around half of the entire Tunisian workforce is employed by extralegal businesses of this kind. Around the region, the number is far larger — over 100 million Arabs.

Several of the sources I consulted that were written at the time were unclear if Bouazizi would have even needed a permit, an uncertainty that speaks to a total failure to meet Fuller’s second condition concerning the publicness of law. Say what you will about how burdensome American law is, we do incorporate businesses and nonprofits, issue licenses and permits for businesses and professionals, execute contracts between parties, transfer ownership, and just generally go about our lives in a more or less above board matter. By contrast:

Bouazizi might have tried legalizing his business by establishing a small sole proprietorship. But that’s easier said than done. We calculated that doing that would have required 55 administrative steps totaling 142 days and fees amounting to some $3,233 (about 12 times Bouazizi’s monthly net income, not including maintenance and exit costs).

And even leaping over this insurmountable hurdle would’ve provided few real legal protections. In the town of Sidi Bouzid, there are no real legal actions an impoverished fruit vendor like Bouazizi could take to deter the predations and abuses of “municipal police officers and inspectors,” and that is precisely the point.

One need only read the official reports that came out of Ferguson to know that such situations are not unheard of in America. But it would be foolish to conclude that our overall legal system looks like the one faced by the residents of Sidi Bouzid and other Tunisian towns to this day. The difficulty of drawing an overall characterization out of the blooming, buzzing confusion of particulars tempts one to jump to categorical assessments, to claim either that America meets Fuller’s standards or that the impossibility of such standards precludes any possible difference between American and Tunisian law. One needs to be realistic, but also to have a proper comparative sense.

Being realistic does not mean being fatalistic. Lists like Fuller’s provide good starting points for thinking about how to improve a legal system as it exists today. Perhaps we can make our statutory laws more coherent and consistent if we better fund legislative staffing and import practices from countries with long Civil Law traditions. Perhaps we can develop accountability mechanisms to encourage more consistency across courts. The point is that there is always work to be done, even in the countries that look the best among some or most of these margins.

I could not talk about law in liberal societies without speaking of written constitutions. Constitutions serve two purposes: first, when they are ratified, they are instruments for coordinating large scale change in political institutions within a preexisting society (contra constitutional theories that take their framing from social contract philosophies). Second, they serve as instruments for making credible commitments by having amendment procedures that are significantly more difficult than updating a statute. This is only really liberal if the commitments are liberal commitments, of course, though the hoped-for stability that such a rarely-amended framework provides does help where rule of law is concerned. In practice, constitutional law is only as stable as judicial interpretation is, and that is far less stable than many fans of the American arrangement would like to believe. The ideal arrangement is for the amendment process to be supermajoritarian, but not so high a hurdle that it is left to judges to fudge over aspects of the constitution that become difficult to square with the challenges a society faces. A two-way relationship between judicial review and constitutional amendment is far healthier than what we Americans are currently stuck with.

Finally, even under the most ideal, liberal, rule of law-respecting arrangement possible in the real world, we ought never to forget that the law always rests on violence and vulnerability, however implicit. This cannot be eradicated, but seeking to make this aspect as transparent and humane as possible are important liberal ends. Unfortunately, America has quite possibly the worst track record among wealthy liberal democracies on this score.


At this point, I have repeatedly noted that liberals cannot afford to be indifferent to the character of the society that develops out of the way people use their liberties. Consider that people could use their freedom of association to form a community in which teaching children how to read is banned. This would significantly restrict the possibilities for those children in adulthood. How should liberals think about scenarios like this, along with less extreme cases?

What, exactly, is lost without literacy? Obviously one cannot enjoy the various arts and entertainments that require reading: novels, short stories, poems, graphic novels. These are ends in themselves, things put out of reach without literacy. But in the modern world, there’s a very low ceiling on the income one can expect to have through jobs one can perform while illiterate. It also limits one’s ability to learn about any topic, whether or not one wants to put that learning to use for making a living. Becoming literate—learning a specific skill, the skill of reading in a particular language—is tied to specific things one wishes to become capable of doing. Capability is tied in an ambiguous way to the potential for doing something. In theory, of course, one is potentially capable of reading a novel before becoming literate, it’s just that … well, the first step is to become literate!

Consider the potential for someone to do something as a nested hierarchy. At the top is the very abstract possibility: “Bob could read a novel because he is an animal capable of learning a language.” At the bottom it becomes a mere matter of volition: “Bob could read the novel he is holding in his hands right now because it is written in a language in which he is literate.” At the most basic level, welfare policy seeks to push necessities like food, clothing and housing down this hierarchy of potential; that is, to put a limit on how high the hurdles are for even the most vulnerable people in a country to obtain necessities.

Returning to our initial example of the parents who do not teach their children to read, we can see that while compulsory education laws are not traditionally considered part of welfare, they do aim to enhance children’s capabilities in precisely the sense discussed here.

In liberal societies, social, scientific, commercial, and political experimentation expands our capabilities. To give one example, in another place I discussed how technological advancement and business model experimentation have expanded the capability of the average person to obtain an audience.

Liberal democracies expand and promote capabilities through a combination of state action and private coordination. In terms of the latter, consider the criticism aimed at the tech industry, which stems from a perception (merited or not) that the lion’s share of investments and news coverage goes to fairly trivial developments, developments which do not meaningfully expand the capabilities of ordinary people. Such criticisms could result in directing resources towards an impactful innovation. In short, the ability to exercise freedom of speech to criticize specific uses of property and freedom of association, in order to suggest alternatives, is part of what makes freedom of speech so valuable!

None of this should imply that poor countries are illiberal due to falling much shorter in terms of enabling capabilities than rich ones with robust safety nets. The enterprise of seeking to develop these capabilities, and to bring them within reach to not only the masses but specifically to the poorest and most vulnerable—that is the crucial trait in a liberal character, so far as this topic is concerned.


A liberal state staffed by people uncommitted to liberalism or to the institutions they serve will not remain a liberal state for long. And a liberal democracy in which liberal values are not broadly shared by the electorate is unlikely to remain a liberal democracy for long, nor to retain its democracy much longer than that.

On the former, Joseph Heath notes:

[T]he state of India has a very extensive primary school system, but has enormous difficulty getting its teachers to actually teach. On any given day, it is estimated that a quarter of all teachers do not show up for work, and even among those who do, only a fraction perform their classroom duties. Here it is clear that the central challenge faced by the educational bureaucracy involves getting people to do what they are being told to do, or what they are being paid to do. The example also helps to show how many of the virtues associated with organizational hierarchy are simply taken for granted in many societies—in most developed countries, for instance, the idea that one might take a job as a public school teacher, and then simply not show up for work (perhaps paying off the school principal in order to avoid trouble) would simply never occur to most people.

On the importance of such virtues in general, Deirdre McCloskey adds:

The economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson report on an attempt to curb absenteeism among hospital nurses in India by introducing the institution of time clocks. The economists in charge of the experiment were sure that the bare incentives of the “right institutions” would work. They didn’t. The nurses conspired with their bosses in the hospitals to continue not showing up for work. Acemoglu and Robinson draw the moral that “the institutional structure that creates market failures” is what went wrong. But the continuing absenteeism was not about institutions or incentives or market failures. New institutions with the right, unfailing incentives had been confidently applied by the economists out of the tool kit of World-Bank orthodoxy, and went wrong. The wrongness was rather about a lack of an ethic of self-respecting professionalism among the nurses, of a sort that, say, Filipino nurses do have, which is why they are in demand worldwide.

These two examples are picking on India, but there are plenty of examples one could draw upon from other nations that, as Heath puts it, “suffer from various forms of systematic corruption,” and all nations who do better along these lines today once suffered just as extensively—especially America, where we perhaps still do worse than many of our European peers. McCloskey also notes that the Italians, though as rich as the administratively disciplined New Zealanders, are essentially ungovernable, lacking Heath’s “virtues” to the same extent as many much poorer nations. 

Public services, whose place in a liberal order was discussed in the previous section, are unlikely to be matched to the people who need them if the civil service lack the appropriate professional virtues. Of course McCloskey’s point is both that there are no institutions without ethics, and that welfare states are not the whole story of life in a liberal society. Contrary to some pluralist and Rawlsian liberals, liberal democracy is not and cannot be a thin political layer atop a society that may be otherwise illiberal and anti-democratic. A liberal nation is made up of people with a commitment to more than merely the formal characteristics of liberal democracy. A substantial majority must hold liberal values, striving for a certain openness, even if, like all imperfect beings inhabiting this world, we so often fall short. Above all, they must believe that all human beings are equal in dignity and moral worth, even if they often feel otherwise. 

Here once again, the social character produced by the exercise of liberty is not something liberals can afford to be indifferent towards. Freedom of speech must be exercised by liberals to promote a zealous advocacy of liberalism. More than disputation and opinion pieces, shows and films and novels are the main way liberal values are effectively sold, or anyway where audiences are invited to consider them.

Tolerance is another important liberal virtue, but tolerance for illiberal values and organized illiberal groups within liberal orders is not the same as wishing for them to triumph. Richard Rorty, as interpreted by William Curtis at any rate, believed in an ambitious, muscular liberalism undergirded by particularly liberal virtues. But the most important virtue to him was the one that enables the constant negotiation of what ought to be added to or removed from the overall list of liberal virtues. In Curtis’ words:

Cast in Aristotelian terms, this civic virtue is a Golden Mean between a deficiency of commitment to one’s values and beliefs (e.g., wishy-washiness, superficiality, lack of seriousness, possessing an unstable moral identity) and an excess of commitment (e.g., rigidity, close-mindedness, dogmatism, fanaticism). (. . .)It supports “critical open-mindedness”: a sense of one’s own fallibility and finitude, which can nevertheless be combined with an ability to be steadfast in one’s currently best-justified judgments. (. . .) This fallibilism, which must be clearly distinguished from a paralyzing or frivolous skepticism or nihilism, enables liberal citizens to be properly, though not absolutely, tolerant in their politics.

Where critics like Ahmari lazily characterizes liberals as “libertines” who “take the logic of maximal autonomy(. . .) to its logical terminus,” serious liberals such as Deirdre McCloskey are able to usefully cast liberal virtues in terms of the classical seven:

[T]he prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence(. . .) [T]he temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here(. . .)[T]he justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are(…)[T]he courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer.(. . .)[A] bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens(. . .)Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business.(. . .)[T]he Hope to imagine a better machine. But (…)also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, 1533 to the present.

Unlike the social virtues that characterized antiquity or the middle ages, these embrace the role of commerce in the lives of every citizen. Much of what we considered dignified work or praiseworthy venturesomeness today was once considered beneath contempt, and these differences were reflected in the character of the respective communities.

However one chooses to frame them, whatever the list one seeks to defend, it is clear that liberalism entails a family of values, and that broad support for those values is a necessary condition for the maintenance of a liberal society. Otherwise the very mechanisms of liberal democracy can very quickly be used to banish all the other characteristics discussed in this piece. It is a commonplace that the openness of liberalism is just as readily taken advantage of by its enemies as by its friends, perhaps more readily as its friends are more inclined to take it for granted.

A way of life

The critics of liberalism are correct to be skeptical of liberal philosophers promising a set of neutral institutions and policies to adjudicate a pluralist order. Liberal democracy does not persist because it has enacted a set of baseball umpires to call balls and strikes, without regard for the overall picture that results. It is a rich way of life which does enable substantial disagreement and pluralism, but which requires—and deserves—a full-throated defense. Sustaining this way of life requires broad if not universal commitment to it and to its improvement.

This I grant to the “post-liberals” and the scores of superior critics from generations past. But I, in turn, am skeptical that these critics truly desire to be an ordinary citizen in an illiberal and undemocratic society. Experiments with alternatives have not gone well for any but a thin governing elite—to put things mildly. If we are to be reassured that the “post-liberalism” on offer is superior to 1930s Europe or the Saudi Arabian variety, I would invite these would-be illiberals to be specific about what, of our liberties, our democracy, our laws, our capabilities, and our virtues they would do away with.

In the meantime, it behooves we liberals to be specific as well, about what way of life we are seeking to preserve through this turbulent moment we find ourselves in.

Featured image is Houses of Parliament (Cape Town), by PhilippN