It is a slow day, rainy down here in bigotland, so I thought I would try to respond to Chris's question about liberalism. Let me begin by reminding everyone that forty-eight years ago I published a little book called The Poverty of Liberalism. This has been on my mind for a while.
Liberalism as a political doctrine started life as a rationale for capitalism, and it has never wavered in its pursuit of that project. In the early nineteenth century there were three responses to the dramatic, revolutionary, transformative impact on Europe of the newly burgeoning capitalism. The Conservatives decried capitalism's ruthless destruction of traditional social, economic, political, and religious arrangements, pining for the good old days, inventing the myth of Merrie Olde England, or simply viewing with despair and alarm the death of all that they considered good in the social world. The Liberals celebrated the new order, which they considered the apotheosis of rationality and the ultimate demystification of social reality. They were well aware of the evils attendant upon the development of capitalism -- the slums, the poverty, the frequent economic booms and busts -- but they considered them the growing pains of the new order and were confident that the perfection of free markets would in short order overcome those imperfections. The socialists, like the liberals, considered capitalism a massive advance over the previous feudal order, but were convinced that its evils were structural, not ephemeral, and could only be overcome by replacing capitalism with a truly rational social order, socialism.
For a while laisser-faire capitalism flourished, but the Great Depression created an intellectual as well as an economic and political crisis, in response to which the ideological justification for capitalism split. One wing, which arrogated to itself the term "Liberal," embraced Keynesian teachings, and concluded that to keep the engine of exploitation going it would be necessary both to accept some measure of state interference with the actions of the capitalists and to make accommodations with the demands of the workers, in the form of unions, social services, and some amelioration of the condition of the working class. The other wing, which took over the title of "conservative," resisted the accommodation with the workers and the intrusion of the state into the affairs of corporations. Meanwhile traditional Conservatism, which was of course hostile to the spirit of capitalism, took up residence in the Catholic Church, which had never got over its disdain for capitalism as a Johnny-come-lately, or else, rather like Saruman and Grima Wormtongue, retreated to the Op Ed pages of the New York TIMES, where it now finds expression in the maunderings of Ross Douthat. [Ayn Rand, by the way, is to Liberalism roughly what Smerdyakov is to Ivan -- a bastard who takes seriously every nonsensical utterance that her legitimate sibling utters with a certain ironic detachment.]
Since the end of World War Two, which is roughly when I began to notice the larger world, American politics has been a struggle between the two descendants of traditional Liberalism, made a great deal more complex by America's assumption in the late 1940's of the world-historical role of Imperial Hegemon, replacing the British, French, and German empires and competing, ultimately successfully, against the Russian empire. Every president for the past 80 years [and more, but never mind] has been completely committed to the defense of capitalism in one or another of these fashions.
When I decided, on April 21, 1961, that I was "not a Liberal," I had little or no understanding of what I have here written. I knew only that Jack Kennedy was a Liberal [he had graduated from Harvard and his wife spoke French, for heaven's sake], and that therefore, whatever he was, I was not.
Bernie Sanders describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, even though the fateful words, "collective ownership of the means of production" never pass his lips. Sufficient unto the day. First, it was Occupy Wall Street and "the one percent." Now it is Democratic Socialism and "the billionaire class." Major social change is like a landslide, not like brain surgery. Bernie is a boulder rushing down the correct side of the mountain. I am content to be a pebble slipping and tumbling in his wake.