The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism
Pierre Manent (from MA 52 03) - 02/02/11

The other pole is society. If the state is the invention or the artifact of liberal politics, society is its discovery: society as a “commercial” or “market” society. At the same time the “vertical” state was constructed, it was noticed that men tended to produce spontaneously a “horizontal” order. It wasn’t necessary—at least it was no longer necessary— to command them from “on high.” It was enough to establish the rules that allowed them to seek their interests freely by exercising their rights. It was enough to leave them free, not only in the economic order but in all the orders of life. In Benjamin Constant’s classic formulation: let the state content itself with being just, while we (members of civil society) will take upon ourselves the task of being happy.

The state and the market, or the “market society,” are therefore the two poles of the liberal order. They need one another; they mutually condition one another. The market society needs the state to establish and enforce rules, first of all the fundamental rule, that of the equality of rights. On its side, the state needs the market in order to have at its disposal the greatest amount of power. It is by leaving men free to follow their interests, freely exercising their independence and their talents, that the greatest amount of wealth and, hence, power are produced. The enemies of liberal regimes discovered this to their great cost during the previous century.

All this is quite fi ne, you might be tempted to say, but we are in the middle of a crisis, at once economic and financial, that is shaking the very foundations of the liberal order. Isn’t liberalism itself called into question today in its fundamental arrangements, perhaps even in its very principle?

The Current Crisis

Does the current crisis radically call into question this “order of movement” that I sketched above? It is obviously impossible to answer this question with complete assurance at this point. The crisis has not fully revealed all its economic effects, and we can only conjecture about its near- or long-term political ones. This uncertainty being admitted, I will say that the crisis we are experiencing does not seem to me in and of itself to call into question the liberal revolution.

What is often designated as “the return of the state” in today’s circumstances does not contradict the original liberal formula. I myself just underscored the importance of the state’s role in the production of the conditions of what we might call “liberal life” based upon human equality and freedom. Perhaps this is a good time to observe that what passed for “liberal” in the historical period that has just ended was in fact a considerable modification of liberalism.

I would explain the point this way. We had moved—without particularly noticing— from “liberal government” to what I might call “the neo-liberalism of rules.” The latter rested upon the principles that Hayek articulated with great care and amplitude, which go under the famous phrase “spontaneous order.” The “problem” with Hayek, to put it a little disrespectfully, is not that he was “too liberal” (which is often heard), or “ultra-liberal”; it is rather something that Raymond Aron pointed out: he had a false idea of liberal regimes, of what I would call “real liberalism.” He saw liberalism’s superiority in the progressive elaboration of a set of rules that no one in particular designed or willed but which are accepted because of their great effectiveness, not only for the economic order but more generally for civilization itself. This is the “spontaneous order” of which he made himself the theoretician.

What this view neglects is the extent to which liberalism—far from being the confident, even “quietist” abandonment to a spontaneous order—initially was, and always remains, the search for and the construction of better government. To be sure, as I indicated above, this better government realizes itself by leaving men as free as possible, by granting them heretofore unprecedented latitude for action. But the government, as I also said, harvests the fruits of this freedom in increased prosperity (and, hence, growing revenues), by a more and more accurate grasp of society’s needs, and finally, by greater means and capacity for action. It would only be partially true, but illuminating in this context, to say that liberal regimes have carried the day because they govern better than their rivals.

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