Our friends at the Niskanen Center have launched a new program on “Revitalizing Liberalism” amidst the current crisis, led by our former guest-blogger and one of the earliest “liberaltarians” (back before “bleeding-heart libertarians” was a glimmer of a name in Matt Zwolinski’s eye) Will Wilkinson.
As Wilkinson puts it:
If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. This may be inevitable because no statement of an ideal that is likely to sway men’s minds can be complete: it must be adapted to a given climate of opinion, presuppose much that is accepted by all men of the time, and illustrate general principles in terms of issues with which they are concerned.
Hayek is saying that his big book restating some “old truths” was necessary in 1959 because making the case for liberalism is a Sisyphean task. If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance. The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And the liberal, open society will again face a crisis of faith…
That’s why we at the Niskanen Center are digging in our heels and putting our backs into the restatement, revitalization, and defense of the ideals and institutions of the open, liberal, democratic, cosmopolitan, commercial society in the age of Brexit and Trump. This means we’ll be weighing in a lot more on the tent-pole principles of liberalism—the rule of law, freedom of conscience, toleration and mutual accommodation, limited government, economic freedom, separation of powers, free speech, the value of truth, etc.
As far as I’m concerned this is both true and urgently important.
I would connect all of this with the relative underdevelopment of political science (including political theory) in the broad humane-science approach to liberal social orders. Intellectual investments in that approach have been overwhelmingly in economics, followed by law and philosophy, probably in that order. Compared to commercial markets, the interpretation of the US Constitution, the economics of private law, or rights theory and the meaning of justice, there has simply been very much less work on political and constitutional institutions, norms, rules, and practices. The sources and stability of liberal political culture, the durability of the institutions that house a free social order, and the fragility or robustness of constitutional government have to be central topics of liberal social theory.
We thus need restatements of core principles as well as thought about adaptation to contemporary challenges, and scholarship that builds over the long term toward more sophisticated understanding of all these questions. I think the Niskanen project is a promising way to start making progress, and so I’ll be contributing to it. My first post, the inaugural one of the project, is now up: “Authoritarianism and Post-Truth Politics.”