Reclaiming Liberalism. By Leslie W. Dunbar. Norton. $19.95.
When I referred to him in print some years ago as a certified idealist, Les Dunbar took mild umbrage, omplaining that the designation is ordinarily limited to accountants and lunatics.
I had intended only to indicate that he is one of those singular intellectuals who not only profess high ideals but live by them. In Reclaiming Liberalism he has amply borne out my certification. While he describes this short, compelling book as an essay in political theory, he notes that theory requires continual reference to practice. And the liberalism he seeks to reclaim is a vocation or calling—”a work to which one is summoned and cannot rightfully resist.”
Dunbar’s response to the call prompted him to waive the usual choices that come with the doctorate in political science he earned at Cornell. He might have pursued the life of the mind in an academic sanctuary or found a place in government. Instead, seeing politics as a ceaseless conflict between power and justice, he positioned himself outside the establishment but within reach of it.
“I have myself spent many years trying in a grab bag of ways to influence political decisions,” he writes. “I want to believe that I have been on the side of justice; of a certainty, I have held no power. I have been a part of that world of private organizations absorbed with issues and causes.”
The causes Dunbar served were those of America’s underdogs, blacks in particular as executive director of the Southern Regional Council, the poor in general when he moved on to the Field Foundation. This placed him on the front line in defense of what he deems to be the first principle of liberalism, the proposition that legitimate powers of government require the consent of the governed. And at every critical juncture he has seen his causes founder in the face of issues raised by defenders of the nation’s “civil religions”— manifest destiny, entrepreneurial preeminence, white supremacy, and anticommunism.
This has prompted his search for a bedrock principle that addresses liberalism’s failure to offset breaches in the version of the social contract presumably embodied in the nation’s founding documents. Although the concept of inalienable human rights based on natural law goes back to Aristotle as interpreted by Aquinas, it was divorced from divine provenance in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet the most critical issues of our time have been raised by those who, in the name of God or His secular equivalent, invoke the state’s right to limit the freedom of the individual.
In political combat this tends to disarm the liberal, who is by definition a skeptic. As a nation, Dunbar concedes, “we cannot, if we would, unwrap ourselves from Christianity. It has become us: ego for the strongest, superego for more, id for all of us non-Jews of the West, and maybe even for them.” A liberal may love Christianity’s aspects of beauty and kindness. “What he cannot do, as he is a liberal, is attach himself to the certainties of that or any faith, whether religious, political, or even philosophical.”
Unable to embrace Marxist dogma, and aware that the roots of liberalism and private property rights are inextricably entangled, liberals have generally avoided challenging the country’s basic economic system. On current hot-button issues—abortion, affirmative action, anything having to do with the schools—Dunbar finds it inevitable that they should mirror the disagreements of the larger society: “They may give service to their communities and hold hopes for its cohesion; but their primary loyalty is to the individual, not the community.”
Experience, he contends, has demonstrated that a constitution, even in a democracy, cannot be relied upon to protect the individual: “Constitutionalism is a set of principles built on reason. Liberalism, with its roots in the social contract, has within itself a romantic seeking for loftier qualities than mere reason can grasp.”
Thus, while he sees constitutional limited politics as one of the noblest achievements of mankind, it is not enough. The American Constitution has been friend, companion, and guardian of the individualism liberals cherish, but it is chiefly valuable as “the passageway for moral judgment into politics.”
When justice requires institutional change, the moral force must come from the outside, for any system of laws is the guardian of status, the protector and reinforcer of the society as it is, and of its strongest members and interests. Dunbar cites the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies as an example of how the governmental structure can be altered under the kind of moral pressure generated by Martin Luther King and his disfranchised followers.
Since liberalism is shot through with compromise at the level of political action, it is constantly in need of moral grounding. Reclaiming Liberalism’s examination of the principles set forth in the classic texts, as illuminated by the author’s own experience, is a closely reasoned effort to provide just that. He offers an interpretation of the social contract which contends that people cannot be supposed to have willed their own injury, and asserts that the premise is violated by public acceptance of killing by political decision:
Social contract theory extends legitimacy to political power by its sources in the people’s consent and by the end it serves. The right to live seems to me the only fully sufficient end for a political order to serve; the only end that is the political expression of goodness, and is the nearest political institutions and processes can come to serving moral good . . . .
The right to live is the most radical of all political values. If it now lies beyond our practical reach, and I think it does, it is not beyond our sense of what ought to be; nor is it beyond us to understand how adherence to other national purposes may violate it.
The italics are the author’s, and underscore his contention that this simply stated doctrine is broad enough to cover the most blatant injustices of contemporary society, and can do so without invalidating the liberal’s concern with individual freedom. It does not, for example, require support of the right to life as the anti-abortionists define it, for their demand is based on state action, not its denial. Abortion is one of a category of moral issues Dunbar concedes are open to debate by all those who are not bound by absolute convictions.
The only absolutism he allows himself involves capital punishment: “I simply regard any and all state administered killing as wrong.” His convictions about war, on the other hand, are equivocal enough “to press me into qualifications a pacifist would not need to think about.”
He does, however, believe that his formulation could support the elimination of war as a guarantee of security— and, indeed, might demonstrate that the nation state is obsolete: “National security is not the stuff of the social contract. Personal security is.” And it would require concentration on the economic issues liberals tend to avoid. He regards poverty as militarism’s twin: “The present tasks of liberals and the present meaning of liberalism are to oppose militarism and to measure every public policy against the question: What does this mean for the poor?”
Dunbar completed his work before a new wave of uninhibited chauvinism swept the country as the Bush administration orchestrated the war in the Persian Gulf, and this may have reduced the number of dispirited liberals who would be willing to accept the cogent arguments that lead to his conclusion:
. . . liberalism must learn that though it may be possible to improve government endlessly, making it ever more competent, fair, just, and compassionate, even this is a losing endeavor and false progress as long as government can kill at its discretion. The right to live must be the liberal’s commanding cause.
But surely Reclaiming Liberalism deserves the attention, not only of those who share the author’s vocation, but of anyone who seriously considers the human condition as it is being shaped in an age of unprecedented materialism.