The Four Corners of Liberalism: Mapping Out a Common Ground

Liberalism, Adam Gopnik tells us in A Thousand Small Sanities, “suffers from being a practice before it is an ideology, a temperament and a tone and a way of managing the world more than a fixed set of beliefs.”

While I mostly agree with Gopnik’s characterization, I disagree that liberalism suffers for it. The liberal temperament and default practices for managing the world transcend the partisan political spectrum. Yes, this transcendence can lead to confusion. George Will’s “conservative sensibility,” for example, is essentially a liberal one. But the liberal temperament and way of managing the world also reveal significant common ground on which we can rebuild and reassert the liberal project, the project that was perhaps best articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

With illiberalism on the rise at both political extremes, that project is under threat. In this moment, it’s essential that we map out the common ground on which left-of-center liberals, classical liberals, and small-government conservatives stand, so that we can more effectively resist these threats.

But in the absence of a pre-scripted, closed ideological system, how do we map out this common ground? How do we avoid characterizing liberalism so fuzzily that it means nothing; or, as Ezra Klein challenged Gopnik on a Vox podcast episode, how can we ensure that liberal doesn’t mean “just somebody Adam Gopnik likes”?

I suggest we map out the common ground of liberalism by first recognizing what I call the “Four Corners of Liberalism”: political liberalism, economic liberalism, epistemic liberalism, and cultural liberalism. Each corner is rooted in a default respect for all human beings. Each corner both reinforces and is in tension with each of the other corners. In each, the practice of liberalism manifests differently and is oriented toward different priorities. For these reasons, thinkers who huddle at one corner often fail to recognize thinkers who huddle at a different corner as fellow liberals. The Four Corners mapping gives us a way out of this problem by allowing us to see our liberal fellows at the other edge of shared liberal terrain.

Political Liberalism

Political liberalism is what most of us encounter in K–12 civics lessons. It rests upon general rules—institutional rules that protect individual rights. Its priority is constraining government power and keeping authoritarian populist impulses in check so that individuals have room to pursue their preferences and plans. The political liberal’s respect for equal human dignity motivates her to seek rules of the social game that are fair, neutral, and clear, and apply equally to all people.

It is political liberalism that underlies the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the principle of equal treatment under the law. It’s in this corner that George Will stands when he says early liberals “espoused the exercise of natural rights within a spacious zone of personal sovereignty guaranteed by governments instituted to serve as guarantors of those rights.” Political liberalism secures our right to speak without being silenced, the right to make choices without being coerced, and the right to participate in the project of self-governance. It empowers the individual and checks the power of the state and the tyranny of the majority. 

Economic Liberalism

Economic liberalism concerns itself with people’s freedom to innovate, produce, and exchange with each other. Just as political liberalism aims to constrain government interference in individuals’ private lives, economic liberalism aims to constrain undue interference in the market. It’s in this corner that Adam Smith stands when he complains that Louis XIV’s minister tried to regulate his country’s industry and commerce “upon the same model as the departments of a public office; and instead of allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice, he bestowed upon certain branches of industry extraordinary privileges, while he laid others under as extraordinary restraints.” The economic liberal’s respect for equal human dignity motivates him to seek economic equality of opportunity for all persons, without cronyism or barriers to entry.

As Deirdre McCloskey observes, economic liberalism is the mother of the 3,000% increase in material abundance the world has experienced over the last 250 years. Giving people elbow room to innovate and cooperate with each other drives transformative quality-of-life improvements that could never be centrally orchestrated. Economic liberalism taps people’s creativity and makes spontaneous, global collaboration possible in the invention and production of goods and services people need to live longer and fuller lives. And it’s economic liberalism that allows each of us to materially benefit from knowledge and skills we do not possess ourselves but are instead dispersed across countless market participants we will never meet, in a far-flung system of cooperation. 

Epistemic Liberalism

Epistemic liberalism demands rules and norms that invite the open, respectful exchange of ideas in the collaborative process of seeking truth. It’s in this corner that Jonathan Rauch stands when he defends “the Constitution of Knowledge” upon which any reality-based community depends in order to turn disagreements into knowledge. The epistemic liberal’s respect for equal human dignity makes her cognizant that knowledge can come from any individual and that no one person has a sovereign claim to truth. Epistemic liberalism calls for intellectual humility, honesty, academic freedom, and critical thinking. It demands that we abide by recognized standards of evidence and subject our arguments to the scrutiny of others. 

It is epistemic liberalism that makes intellectual progress possible. It gives us the tools to collaborate and debate with each other in the joint project of self-governance. In epistemic liberalism there are no witch hunts, dissent is encouraged, and people are intellectually open and curious.

Cultural Liberalism

Cultural liberalism asks us to respect the choices of others as long as they don’t violate anyone else’s rights. The cultural liberal’s respect for equal human dignity motivates him to be tolerant of people who lead lives different from his own. It dampens down fear and disdain for people who come from a different place, speak a different language, or practice a different faith. That toleration allows a healthy pluralism to flourish in which people with different cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles openly coexist and benefit from each other. 

It’s in this corner that civil rights activist Bayard Rustin stands when he observes, “If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom.”

Cultural liberalism encourages us to experiment with different ways of living. It allows us to learn that peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society is possible. And it helps to ensure that minority communities are considered full-fledged participants in the social order.   

The Systemic Nature of the Four Corners

Each of the four corners of the liberal project is distinct from the others, prioritizing some values and policy concerns over others. But each of the corners is connected in ways that both reinforce and tug against the others. Cultural liberalism is made possible, in many cases, by political liberalism; and likewise, changes in liberal political arrangements may be motivated by cultural liberalization. Marriage equality, a politically liberal arrangement, expanded access to a core social institution to those who had previously been denied the same rights as other Americans. Whether political liberalization was the result of changing attitudes—cultural liberalization—or vice-versa is hard to say. Jonathan Rauch, for his part, says the legalization of gay marriage would not have happened without free speech, which drove cultural progress. But that cultural progress arguably accelerated change that favored a politically liberal outcome.

Similarly, epistemic and economic liberalism work together to make innovation and scientific discovery possible. Being able to build on each other’s knowledge in a meaningful, collaborative way is an essential precursor to developing fruitful economic relationships. Cultural liberalism also feeds both epistemic and economic liberalism by encouraging people to learn from and trade with people from different traditions and beliefs. 

But the four corners can also be in tension with one another. Economic, epistemic, and cultural openness, for example, can be socially disruptive, and such disruption can make it tempting to use the levers of government control to protect ourselves and our group—our town, our industry, or our demographic—against the effects of these changes. If our priority is cultural liberalism and we believe certain speech creates a hostile environment where pluralism cannot flourish, we may be tempted to curtail civil liberties associated with political liberalism. If our priority is epistemic liberalism and we believe certain platforms or industries are factories for misinformation, we might be tempted to support regulations that are anathema to the economic liberal. 

The dangers inherent in these tensions, especially the impulse to default toward top-down solutions, are real. As I have written elsewhere, political rules that attempt to arrest cultural and economic change, or rig the game in favor of a politically privileged group, are among the forces that push against the liberal project. Liberalism’s critics point to tensions within the liberal order as signs of incoherence and weakness—signs that liberalism is the author of its own destruction. 

Acknowledging that with these tensions come dangers, on balance, I view them as productive. Like the productive tensions of a suspension bridge, the tensions among the four corners lend liberalism structural integrity; they make it a workable system. The values associated with cultural liberalism, for example, act as an internal governor, tempering the unrestrained impulses of Hyde Park speech freedoms. Economic liberalism provides a reality check on utopian visionaries. Through social critique, epistemic liberalism helps to check cultural, economic, and political power. 

Once we see the reinforcing effects of and creative tensions among each of the four corners, we also see that the liberal project needs each of those corners. And though we may be focused on our preferred corner, we can cast our gaze to the other corners and recognize common ground with other liberals. In fact, it is by exploring these tensions that we can effectively collaborate in advancing the liberal project. The Four Corners framework invites an open conversation among the diverse cohort of liberal thinkers who see themselves in any or all of the corners. When we recognize each other as engaged in the practice of liberalism—even, or especially, if there are points of significant disagreement—we can establish the common ground beneath our feet.

Reasserting Liberalism

Despite the widespread well-being it has unlocked over the last two and a half centuries, liberalism is now the subject of deep skepticism and criticism. To Sohrab Ahmari, “the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison” in which corporations “maximize efficiency, regardless of the impact on families and communities.” Ahmari’s fellow Catholic integralists at The Josias warn that liberalism and modernism have “harmed the Church and tied her hands in the struggle to advance the social reign of Christ,” and insist that the liberal political order should be rejected in favor of a politics that aims to support the “eternal end” of religious salvation. Patrick Deneen tells us that liberalism is shaping people into “increasingly separate, autonomous, non-relational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” Adrian Vermeule encourages a political order of “illiberal legalism” which favors “a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy” that would promote the common good “even when doing so requires overriding the selfish claims of individuals to private ‘rights.’” Positioning himself as a “post-liberal,” Rod Dreher urges Americans to take Hungary’s model of illiberal democracy seriously and denounces “degenerate liberalism” for allowing “drag queens [to] preach gender fluidity in public libraries.” He says, “If being a classical liberal means having to surrender to the cultural forces destroying the lives of children and families with these lies, then to hell with classical liberalism.” 

These attacks on liberalism come from the Right; but we’re seeing attacks from the Left, too—the most potent of them aimed at epistemic liberalism. College students have shouted down campus speakers and argued that “[t]he idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.” Professor Ibram X. Kendi dismisses “[g]athering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives” as “the amusement of the leisured elite.” Professor Phoebe Cohen says that “[t]his idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” For Robin DiAngelo, “the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology” is a “logic of Whiteness.” This line of thinking informed the short-lived graphic posted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture describing an emphasis on scientific thinking—including “objective, rational linear thinking”—as an aspect of whiteness and white dominance. 

Underlying each of these critiques is the belief that a commitment to the open exchange of ideas, as a means of eliminating error and expanding knowledge, is at best morally suspect, at worst part of a system of racial dominance. The growing leftist disdain for epistemic liberalism has reached such a pitch that Elizabeth Bruenig, who is herself an outspoken critic of economic liberalism, recently lamented to Yascha Mounk that “[economic] liberalism is doing just fine, while the freedom of expression and free inquiry part of liberalism is sort of crumbling.” In Bruenig’s view, “People have decided to go nuts on completely the wrong part of liberalism.”

The certainty in illiberal pronouncements from the Right and Left is, for anyone frustrated with the dynamism of the modern world, a temptation in itself. Illiberalism attracts adherents, in part, because it imagines it has the answers to difficult and ultimate questions like, “What is the nature of the good life?” and “What should our highest values and commitments be?” Illiberalism, in its various forms, proposes to bypass the hard work each of us must do to discover how we want to be in the world, what errors we have made in our thinking, what role we should carve out for ourselves with respect to work, family, and civil society. Where liberalism is more temperament and tone—and offers openness and discovery as a way of managing the world—illiberalism is a closed system of commands.

These illiberal, anti-liberal, and post-liberal strands of thought take aim at each of the Four Corners: liberal democratic institutions, economic openness and the abundance it creates, the open exchange of ideas, and a peaceful and pluralistic society. It seeks to close that which liberalism has opened, to erect borders around nations and cultures, and to use the heavy hand of government to impose order on the whirling dynamism of human interaction.

That’s why it’s essential that liberals recognize our fellow liberals in the common ground the Four Corners map out for us. We need to work with one another to reassert the liberal temperament—an attitude of openness, humility, and optimism—and liberal practices that favor experimentation and discovery.

We need to name and reclaim liberalism. In the face of illiberal, anti-liberal, and post-liberal scholarship, we need to call scholarly attention back to the liberal project to work through its tensions and move toward its ideal: a pluralistic, peaceful society in which individuals and communities thrive in a context of openness, widespread prosperity, and mutual respect.

Emily Chamlee-Wright
Emily Chamlee-Wright
Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, which supports and partners with scholars working within the classical liberal tradition to advance higher education’s core purpose of intellectual discovery and human progress. From 2012 to 2016 she served as provost and dean at Washington College and was previously the Elbert H. Neese Professor of Economics and associate dean at Beloit College. Emily earned her PhD in economics from George Mason University. She has six books to her credit, including Liberal Learning and the Art of Self-Governance and The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery.
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