John Holbo, responding to Stanley Fish, wrote the following last week:

I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism.

Of course, liberalism need not devolve into a celebration of all philosophical systems, all world-views. It’s reasonable to expect that, given liberalism’s attention to the individual, aspects of any philosophy or belief that limits individual action would come under criticism. Certainly liberalism would not seek to become self-defeating. However, Mr. Holbo wants to believe that liberalism is itself intolerant of intolerance, that the compromises made in the midst of political discourse does not undermine the philosophical foundations of liberalism.

Is liberalism intolerant of intolerance? I find it hard to swallow. In practice, liberalism reveals itself as a different beast from its self-image. The history of its application reveals difficulties in accepting completely open political discourse. Liberal political parties started by introducing voting qualification or making elections indirect. Later compromises followed. (I could launch into another long exposition about Jacobins or the Kulturkampf, but I’ve decided not to write about them for the next few months.)

There are two problems: how liberalism constructs its legitimacy, and the makeup of liberalism itself. Tolerance is but one idea that liberals employ to set themselves off against other groups; the dichotomy between tolerance and intolerance is meant to empower the former at the expense of the latter. In the broader sense, liberalism tends to a singular vision of truth which only with difficulty allows plurality in the public sphere. Indeed the pattern of liberal politics, according to Pierre Rosanvallon, has been to introduce “counter-democratic” institutions in the attempt to limit the individual’s free use of political rights.

Liberalism itself is a problematic concept. Some historians have stopped approaching it as a philosophy. Instead they look at the constellation of political, social and economic interests that come to embody liberal politics. In an upcoming book, L’Empire du moindre mal, Jean-Claude Michéa argues that liberalism was primarily an economic phenomenon that developed a complimentary philosophical tradition. Market economy and democratic politics were two aspects–two “translations”–of liberalism, though the former imposed itself on the latter more forcefully. Defending property and economic rights became more central to their programs, and in nations where they were weak, liberals compromised ideals.

Unfortunately, practice must be taken seriously in understanding liberalism. The liberal critique of traditional institutions provided a powerful tool in political reform, even when applied by non-liberal groups. Liberalism itself has had a shakier history.

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