Where does liberalism fit?

It just occurred to me that there are three general pictures of liberal democracy that get assumed, and each feels fairly plausible to me, even though it doesn’t seem like they can all be right.

Liberalism’s defender (somewhere around the centre-right of the ideological spectrum) will claim that liberalism is the best form of politics so far discovered (if perhaps not without some flaws). Liberalism means political power broadly distributed and moderated by checks and balances, it means rights for everyone, always respected, and it means economic growth and technological progress. So long as we don’t stray from this path, things will just keep getting better. Any other option is just regressive.

The anti-liberal leftist sees liberalism as embryonic fascism. Liberalism is oppression and deception and greed and violence and bigotry. Stay on this path and it will surely lead us back to the 1930s.

And for the anti-liberal rightwinger (and some optimistic leftists), liberalism is nascent communism. Liberalism reduces everything to dollar signs, suppresses greatness, traps everyone in a stupor of entertainments, makes ugliness out of beauty, and encourages identity politics in an endless and futile quest for perfect equality. Stay on this path and you’d better prepare for full-blown Maoism.

I’ve never noticed this before. It’s astonishing to me that such wildly incompatible interpretations could exist for a phenomenon that is, in a way, so familiar to all of us.

Liberalism’s self understanding is at once most attractive to me and also most unconvincing. Reckless economic and technological evolution is inherently dynamic, unstable, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It does seem to me that liberalism as we know it is by nature a transitional reality, not a final destination.

But then, where does it lead? I can see either of the other stories proving to be true. Neither seems assured. Maybe there’s an element of choice involved.

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