All of human civilization has been a process of leaving a more barbarous state of affairs for a set of relationships that better enables people to live richly and peaceably together. There have been many moments where people backslid, and the civilization that had been achieved was lost again to the chaos of the universe.
We should not confuse ourselves into believing that our civilization has reached a steady plateau from which it cannot fall. Nor should we assume we have achieved the highest, best state yet (or that we will simply by staying on the present course). Civilization is a super(!) complex set of processes that interact with the external natural world, while the processes within alter each other, and thus are both constraining and constrained.
One of the essential elements we see today for maintaining a space for human creativity to flourish is governmental systems that mostly provide for this flourishing — acting against behaviors and processes that threaten the higher values of society (and those that threaten the continuing function of the society and its governmental systems).
Democracy — rule by majority under a set of widely respected legal formulations — seems to be the best we can do so far. But, as public choice theory can mathematically demonstrate, there is no reason to believe that democracy always maximizes for the values that most people would agree that it ought to. In this sense, democracy cannot be said to be rule by majority. In fact, it is easy to demonstrate how many democratic actions actively harm the people living within the democratic system. Democracy is necessarily a second best solution.
On the other hand, we have what we call “the market”, the concatenate coordination, the “invisible hand” — the disembodied aggregate of our economic actions. This is the unspeakable construction that seems to dovetail self-interested behaviors to the betterment of all. There is no scientific way to say, but as far as we know the limits of the market are most likely the limits of mankind.
It is important to understand clearly how these systems interact together, because doing so gives us the best hope of understanding how we might create the conditions for the next upward swing of humanity (or at least to prevent degradation). Our understanding of these systems is a part of our knowledge processes, and is driven by what we might term “meta-ideologies” — the constituent thought elements and structures that undergird our reasoning and work with our emotions to drive us toward better answers and greater creativity.
English majors and most Marxists understand the role of ideology in story-telling and personal motivation. Individuals do not exist atomically and select ideology off a grocery store shelf like a box of cereal. Ideology is individual, but it is also systematic and it interacts with the governmental and market systems.
Thus, we come to the point of this essay…
Our democracy has the power to destroy us and to destroy itself because of essential flaws that cannot be institutionally overcome. There is no design available that will keep well-intentioned but ultimately misled people from voting to jump off a cliff together. The market exists in the ether and cannot be said to be a solid bulwhark against it.
The only tool we might have to preserve civilization and to possibly advance it to the next level is by developing and growing a better ideology. That ideology could provide a springboard (development lab?) for the meta-ideologies that support the creativity that will be required of individuals to think productively at particular moments, to see the danger and leap out of it, with so many of their friends, colleagues, and enemies, safely nestled in their protective arms.
Liberalism is the ideology I am describing.
Liberalism is a product of mankind’s evolution: a set of ideas whose basic rules require protection of individuals’ life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Liberalism requires each of us to protect them. It is a duty and a motivation.
The subtle brilliance of liberalism is that by specifying a few “rules” — only our duties to each other, and our rights for ourselves — it leaves completely open the specification of one’s own personal goals, one’s own highest morality. By holding the individual inviolate, it also protects from all governmental systems, the mind and spirit that drive the goodness in the world.
Liberalism is the system, which because of its own market-like structure is the only ideology suited for a people that would like to find the limits of their decency, justice, peacefulness, wealth, and personal morality.
The great sadness in our society now is that we seem to be losing the ideology of liberalism to lesser ideologies, which probably do not have the power to support our civilization. In America today, “liberalism” is just another word for socialism. Rather than evolving a better liberalism, the owners of brand Liberalism in the early 20th century choose to adulterate their product, and their political opponents were happy to assist. The ensuing confusion has led to the creation of several lesser ideologies: libertarianism, conservatism, and progressivism.
But, there is much to be said for having the right word for the philosophical construct that we are trying to describe and understand. That word is Liberalism.
Liberalism needs work. Free Liberal wants to adopt this lost ism, rehabilitate it, and make it proud again.