Steelmanning Liberalism (I)

I’ve loved the term “steelmanning” ever since I first read it, somewhere in Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander seems to have used the term many, many times and I don’t know exactly in which piece I first saw it, but credit where credit is due.

I was reminded of it again a few days ago when the estimable Geoffrey Miller pointed out that Conor Frieders… okay, I don’t want to get into that, or him. Let’s just leave it that the tweet inspired me to at last begin a post I’ve been contemplating for some time:

Steelmanning Liberalism

As to what liberalism is, what it is exactly that we’re steelmanning here, let’s refer to La Wik, for its universalism (heh):

Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality and international cooperation

I’m sure that my target demographic here experiences a certain distaste, perhaps even physical revulsion to “Liberalism” because for the discerning, the term conjures up images like this:

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Or perhaps this:slt

These are the seeming fruits of liberalism, and by their fruits ye shall know them; all of us experiencing sanity feel a natural and healthy revulsion at such things. But let’s be honest. These are the strawmen of liberalism, or, perhaps one could say, merely the products of mental illness. What are the very best arguments for liberalism? What are the Steelmen?

I identify four, in descending order of importance:

  1. Liberalism prevents or makes very unlikely destructive war between nation-states
  2. Liberalism prevents or makes very unlikely civil war within nation-states
  3. Liberalism in general prohibits and discourages the killing of individual humans
  4. Liberalism provides the maximum opportunity for individual humans to develop their “human potential”

Today, we focus on (1). Obviously if this were true,  it would be a powerful argument that everyone, everywhere should adopt a liberal political system. War does not further good “reactionary” values like strong families with a committed father and mother in their complementary roles, like subsidiarity, like voluntarism and local control and craftsmanship. War produces single moms and orphans, national emergency governments running roughshod over all forms of local outlook and control, the involuntary military draft and mass production of material that is not for construction and admiration but for the express purpose of destruction and dealing death.

The notion that “Democracies don’t fight each other” was expressed by George W. Bush in 2004 and by his almost equally liberal predecessor Bill Clinton in 1994, but as helpfully pointed out by the BBC:

Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, [was] published in 1795. Kant’s theory is that democratic leaders are restrained by the resistance of their people to bearing the costs and deaths of war. And a democratic culture of negotiation and conciliation, plus the hurdles to taking swift action, favours peace.

For simplicity we here use “democracy” and “liberalism” interchangeably. In Current Year, all significant “liberal” regimes are democracies, whether parliamentary or American-style, and all actual “democratic” systems (those with voting and a regular, peaceful transfer of state power) are considered “liberal” under the definition above. The fact that a number ill-liberal nations hold sham elections is, in itself, significant. The fact that many “democracies” still have (powerless) monarchies is irrelevant. Luxembourg is as cute as a button; we will discuss it no further, unless it goes to war.

Now, it’s possible to dispute whether, in fact, liberal regimes or democracies have never, ever, gone to war with each other; the Guardian provides a helpful summary of possible exceptions. The best the good Professor could come up with was the (maybe, possibly) the War of 1812 and the Peloponnesian War.

Athens’s attack on Syracuse refutes the hypothesis, yet it is questionable whether the Athenians knew that Syracuse possessed a democratic polity or whether the rule of democratic peace applies to ancient warlike republics.

Color me unconvinced. One could argue that the US-Mexican War of 1846-8 qualifies, but the Mexican government in 1846 wasn’t liberal, or indeed outside of Mexico City much of anything but a mess. So I’m not buying. Some fools try to claim that Hitler was “elected” (he was appointed Chancellor). Germany was a democracy in 1933. Anyone want to make the case that it was still in 1939?

The American Civil War of 1861-5 belongs to Part II.

Liberalism has, arguably, been around as an important idea since Locke and other thinkers of the 17th century (see Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for a great fictional treatment of the era). Modern liberal political regimes have been around since 1776. They have steadily increased in numbers since then, and they’ve not gone to war with each other. If all nation-states were liberal in construction, war would be extinct, or very, very rare.

This is the most important fruit of liberalism.

Consider it Steelmanned, Part I.

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