Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Missing Liberal Canon

Why don't liberals have a canon, a list of thinkers and books that liberals can go to, to learn all about liberalism?  That's what liberals like Beverly Gage have been asking lately.  And conservatives have been eager to help them out.

Actually, liberals do too have a canon.  That is what Jonah Goldberg discovered when he wrote Liberal Fascism.  He wanted to know what liberals believed and where they got it from.  His journey led him to the Progressives, people like Herbert Croly and The Promise of American Life back at the turn of the 20th century.

But the worriers have a point.  Sensible liberals don't have a set of books that every liberal is supposed to read.  Unless you call out the wilder shores of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.  The reason is simple.  You don't need a canon, you don't need to study political philosophy when you are the ruling class.  Knowledge begins with a problem: why is the world so unjust?  But liberals are the ruling class. They sit in the catbird seat.  They don't have a problem, except the instrumental problem of how to pass the next comprehensive and mandatory social program.

Conservatives on the other hand do have a problem.  We cannot stand the current liberal welfare state that wants to make everyone into a compliant and obedient ward of the state.  We want something different.  So we delve into the books to find out what went wrong.  We want to know why Americans just sit there and take the welfare state without doing anything about it.  We want to know how we could change the political system so that the instrumental domination of big government bureaucracy could be changed to something less oppressive and less unjust.

So we read up on Edmund Burke.  We check out the marginal economists of 1870.  We read von Mises and Hayek.  We delve into Thomas Sowell and Michael Novak.  We check out Milton Friedman.  We read Roger Scruton, Charles Murray, George Gilder, Rodney Stark, Frederick Turner, F.S.C. Northrop.

For myself, I've deliberately looked to the left to find conservative themes.  Some lefties get that there is a problem.  There are Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and their critique of instrumental reason.  There is Juergen Habermas and his attempt at solving the instrumental reason problem with the lifeworld and communicative action.  There is James C. Scott and Seeing Like a State,  my current enthusiasm.  There is even useful stuff to be learned from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and their wild lefty trilogy, Empire and Multitude and Commonwealth. 

Meanwhile, our liberal friends find themselves in a nasty spot, trying desperately to plug the leaks in their rusty ship.  They don't have time to read philosophical tomes.  They need to man the pumps and keep the welfare state and their power and their sinecures going for one more election cycle.

I wouldn't want to be a liberal.  Not in 2012.

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