What is liberalism?
June 18, 2010 1:31 PM   Subscribe

What books make up the liberal corpus? I'm looking for something like Kirk's Conservative Mind, but for liberalism.
posted by khaibit to Law & Government (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill?
posted by chunking express at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest John Rawls' A Theory of Justice
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 2:01 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights all contain many fundamental American liberal tenets.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Are we talking about modern American liberalism or classic liberalism?
posted by electroboy at 2:07 PM on June 18, 2010

Lots by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

The problem is that "liberalism" can be divided into two spectra: libertarianism and socialism. The problem is that today's "liberals", especially in the US, tend to be (broad generalization ahoy!) socially libertarian but more economically socialist. Check out The Political Compass-- here's one for the 2008 US Presidential election. Unfortunately there's not one for writers that I can find.
posted by supercres at 2:11 PM on June 18, 2010

Response by poster: modern American.
posted by khaibit at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2010

On Liberty while quite old, gives a pretty good philosophical underpinning to some portions of even modern liberalism. The principal of "do no harm" endorses:
* legalizing drugs
* gay marriage
* women's rights
* freedom of speech
* abolition of slavery (I said it was old)

This isn't everything that falls under the umbrella of liberalism. Many group Marxism and socialism into the same liberal category, so I suppose Das Capital, but I think Marx pretty much got it wrong historically -- worker wages rose pretty damn fast in the years after publication. I think the Marxist-Liberal association is weakening; the modern liberal position seems to prefer, ironically, the conservation of the environment, to the expense of labor. If you examine the current offshore drilling moratorium, supposedly workers are all against it. Which makes sense, as it's essentially a mandatory layoff.

Many modern conservatives appear to endorse religious tenets and seek to establish them within the legislature and courthouse, so the other major liberal theme would probably be separation of church and state. Jefferson credits Bacon, Locke and Newton as the inspiration, and you can look to the Virginia constitution and the US constitution (esp bill of rights) for his work.

Overall I don't think you'll find anyone who can write about liberalism from a set of inviolate axioms as The Conservative Mind does. Anyone who tried would likely receive critical attention.
posted by pwnguin at 2:31 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not a major work in the liberal canon, but I quite liked Justice Stephen Breyer's Active Liberty. It's a fairly short work and provides an accessible description and discussion of Breyer's view of jurisprudence, particularly as it relates to interpreting the Constitution.

Breyer's book also acts as something of an answer to Scalia's earlier book A Matter of Interpretation, which set forth Scalia's conservative views on jurisprudence.
posted by darkstar at 2:41 PM on June 18, 2010

It's not canonical, but J. Purdy's A Tolerable Anarchy argues that the founders created a space for progressive liberals in the US by setting standards they themselves couldn't live up to.

The Moynihan Report offers a good discussion of equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome, and was highly influential.

The Universal Declarartion of Human Rights.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:17 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out John Dewey (esp. Liberalism and Social Action), and the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Richard Rorty.
posted by BobbyVan at 3:37 PM on June 18, 2010

Best answer: I almost asked this exact same question awhile back, but Googled around first and came up with a course description at some college recommending Locke (Two Treatises) and Hobbes (Leviathan). I can't seem to find it now, but the syllabus and reading plan were very close to this one at Texas A&M.
posted by jquinby at 4:33 PM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I came in to nth that John Stuart Mill's stuff is actually close to modern American liberalism, despite being classical liberalism. Locke's stuff is close most of the time, but not always. Also nthing Dewey and Rorty.

Hobbes I wouldn't really consider close enough to modern American liberalism. Some of his stuff isn't even entirely in line with classical liberalism. If you decide you want to go through classical liberalism too, just for background or something, then you pretty much have to read Hobbes, but otherwise don't put yourself through it; I always thought Leviathan was really boring -- he'd drone on and on to make an argument that wasn't even very good and I kept having to reread the same sentences and paragraphs over and over. Then again, most people tend to find Hobbes easier to read than Locke, so I might be odd in that respect; I really enjoyed reading Locke because his arguments were mostly good so it kept my attention. Locke can't compare to my creepy crush on John Stuart Mill, though, and I think most people find Mill easy to read and understand; he's very concise and straightforward, whereas Locke's sentences are all a conga line of clauses.
posted by Nattie at 6:36 PM on June 18, 2010

Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor.
posted by Pamelayne at 6:41 PM on June 18, 2010

The Bible. I'm pretty sure Jesus would've been pro-health care reform.
For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink;

I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.

Then they themselves also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?"

Then He will answer them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:06 PM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a sampling of the works that I'd say have provided a philosophical groundwork for and/or explication/defense of the core tenents of modern American Liberalism, in the same way that Kirk (and Buckley, Chambers, etc.) once did for that particular brand of conservatism. I've put a * next to the works that specifically claim to answer your question "What is liberalism?"

Note that some of these are more prototypical in how they paved the way for the later development of what we'd call MA liberalism (e.g. Paine, Croly), whereas others were/are popular mission statements for a common set of beliefs within a significant part of MA liberalism (e.g. Harrington, Jones, Ehrenreich), so it's a fairly varied list. (I've sprinkled in a few less canonical works that simply capture broadly felt sentiments of modern American liberals, e.g. the Cuomo, Gore pieces.)

The Promise of American Life, by Herbert Croly
*The Vital Center, by Arthur M. Schlesinger
The Other America, by Michael Harrington
Which Side Are You On?, by Thomas Geoghegan
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Freidan
Mario Cuomo's "Tale of Two Cities" speech
The Living Law, by Louis Brandeis
The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore
*The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman AND Paul Wellstone
Anti-Intellectualism In Public Life, by Richard Hofstadter
When Work Disappears, by William Julius Wilson
Achieving Our Country, by Richard Rorty
*Reason, by Robert Reich
The Unconquerable World, by Jonathan Schell
The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by Joe Trippi
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (especially Letter From a Birmingham Jail)
Just and Unjust Wars, by Michael Walzer
The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones
The Essential Galbraith
The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben
Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
The essays of Molly Ivins

And, of course, nthing On Liberty and A Theory of Justice.

It's worth noting that the history of the world "liberal" in the US context, not to mention the general porousness of ideology in mainstream US politics, means that the self-designations of these authors is a bit of a hodge-podge, from self-described liberals to progressives to populists to communitarians to leftists to the odd democratic socialist - but all have been hugely influential to what we can call a school of modern American liberal thought. (For instance, Harrington might have been a proud democratic socialist, but his work was way more influential on what we'd now call liberalism than it was on the socialist movement in the United States.)

And some books that generally make the case for MA liberalism as a broadly unified political philosophy with a specific history, and suggest a few additions to the canon:

The Second Bill of Rights, by Cass R. Sunstein
*The Future of Liberalism, by Alan Wolfe
*Freedom's Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism, by Paul Starr
Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, by Ted Sorenson
Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein

(Insert editorializing here: I regret how white and male this whole list is, but I think that's more a poignant commentary on mainstream US liberalism, and the gatekeepers of mainstream discourse generally, than anything else.)

Finally, I think it could be worth perusing the archives of the sadly defunct Bill Moyers Journal, particularly those interviewed each week. More than any other program I can think of, the Journal was a veritable treasure trove of those who have quietly been building a modern liberal canon, shaping and defining what liberalism means now.
posted by Ash3000 at 10:13 PM on June 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide by Robert H. Frank (NYT columnist, not to be confused with the similarly named WSJ columnist).

One World by Peter Singer.

I haven't read Eric Alterman's recent Why We're Liberals, but it's clearly trying to be this kind of thing.

On the more philosophical side, I recommend chapters 12 and 13 from Thomas Nagel's Other Minds, which critique John Rawls and Robert Novick.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:00 PM on June 19, 2010

One more thing that I think you might find worthwhile as a springboard is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy's entry on Liberalism, especially the second section, "The Debate Between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’", which gives a good thumbnail sketch of the relationship between classical and modern liberalism.

It also covers ground I haven't even broached here, including crucial thinkers like Keynes, Nussbaum, Dworkin, Hobhouse, etc.
posted by Ash3000 at 12:12 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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