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The reclamation of liberalism

What conservative Fareed Zakaria and democratic-socialist James Luther Adams have in common.
By John Weston
September/October 2003 9.1.03

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It was the uncompromisingly anti-communist Richard Nixon who opened the United States and then-Communist China to one another. It may yet be the hawkish Ariel Sharon, backed by the obdurate George W. Bush, who will bring something like peace between Israel and a Palestinian state. And the reclamation of liberalism—as a concept and as a respectable political position—whose work will that be? Very possibly the Reaganesque conservative Fareed Zakaria. If he succeeds, he will do so while sounding astonishingly similar to the late Unitarian Universalist theologian, ethicist, and democratic socialist James Luther Adams (1901–1994).

Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, became an inescapable voice in international affairs with his Newsweek essay in response to the events of 9/11, “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” Not that he had been inaudible before. A member of one of Calcutta’s power families, with degrees from Yale and Harvard, he was Foreign Affairs’ youngest editor ever. And he is a conservative, as this account of himself in his recent book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad makes clear:

People often say, “How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?” Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things people don’t understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed.

The second is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of pre-industrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask.

Contrast Zakaria’s marker experiences—the socialist corruption of Calcutta and stifling village life—with Adams’s. Nourished as well as confined in his early years by what one commentator describes as the “intense, disciplined community” of the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren, Adams embraced humanism as a young man in response. In 1927 he was ordained a Unitarian minister. And then, in a year of study in the fascist Germany of 1935–36, he encountered as stifling a national community as has ever been. He returned to the United States convinced that liberalism—in religion and in politics—needed vigorous renewal, especially in its institutional forms, in order to combat the growth of anti-liberal forces.

Adams’s legacy, and his leftward-leaning social thought, permeates Unitarian Universalism today. A magnetic teacher, from 1936 to 1968 he taught successively at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Federated Theological Faculties of the University of Chicago (of which Meadville Lombard was then a member institution), and Harvard Divinity School. After retiring from Harvard in 1968, he taught at Andover-Newton Theological School. His students, and students of his students, pervade the Unitarian Universalist ministry. (The present reviewer, one of the latter, is indebted to Professor J. Ronald Engel of Meadville Lombard, one of the former, for a clarifying recent conversation about Adams.)

Throughout his long career, Adams sought to describe and to create the necessary conditions for a community in which individuals—all individuals—could thrive, a community in which both freedom and power were distributed so dynamically that those without freedom and power could gain their legitimate share, while those with a surplus could be relieved of it. Adams was no stranger to confrontation, in theory or in practice.

Time and again Adams returned to the root theme: If the market on freedom and power is not to be cornered by one group or class, there must be vigorous intermediate institutions. It is not freedom of speech but freedom of association that is essential. Only if individuals are free to associate will they be able to create (or resist) change, rather than merely talk about it. The existence of a multitude of free churches and other “voluntary associations” is thus an essential condition, in Adams’s view, to an increase in freedom and its broader distribution.

In the first of several anthologies of his work, On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society (second edition, 1976), Adams explains that freedom involves more than freedom of choice:

Many people entertain attitudes in favor of freedom, but socially effective freedom requires participation in associations that define or redefine freedom and that attempt to articulate or implement that freedom in a specific social milieu.

By participating freely in groups—or, as Adams liked to put it, through “the organization of power and the power of organization”—people embody their freedom. He called this freedom of association “voluntaryism”:

Voluntaryism is an associational institutional concept. It refers to a principal way in which the individual through association with others “gets a piece of the action.” In its actual articulation it involves an exercise of power through organization. It is the means whereby the individual participates in the process of making social decisions. The process, particularly when it affects public policy, requires struggle, for in some fashion it generally entails a reshaping, and perhaps even a redistribution, of power.

Adams also distilled this idea into a simple maxim: “By their groups ye shall know them.”

An accessible introduction to Adams’s writings is George Kimmich Beach’s collection, The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses. In it, Adams explains that the voluntary association “is a means of dispersing power, in the sense that power is the capacity to participate in making social decisions. It is the training ground of the skills that are required for viable social existence in a democracy.”

It should not be surprising to hear a Reaganite advocate for the same ends: Conservatives are supposed to hold freedom and democracy among their dearest values. But when the darling of internationalist conservatives advocates means to those ends similar to those espoused by one of the leading lights among Unitarian Universalist social thinkers, attention must be paid.

According to Zakaria, the crucial problem currently presenting itself in many corners of the world, including the United States, is the growth of “illiberal democracy.” Letting people vote, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily make them free. “Recall that in the fourth century B.C. in Athens, where Greek democracy is said to have found its truest expression, the popular assembly—by democratic vote—put to death the greatest philosopher of the age because of his teachings,” he writes. “The execution of Socrates was democratic but not liberal.” Majorities are notoriously dismissive of the rights of minorities. So the question of the day is, What does it take to create not just democracies, but constitutional democracies? What does it take to create not simply nations in which the government is elected by popular ballot, but nations marked by the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of such basic liberties as speech, assembly, religion, and property? What does it take to create specifically liberal democracies?

From around the world and from Washington, D.C., the answer comes back: free and fair elections. Not so! Zakaria responds. Unregulated democracy is about as likely to be successful as unregulated capitalism. Although he wrote The Future of Freedom months before the U.S. war with Iraq, Zakaria’s views of the next steps in that country’s governance seem implicit in his comments on East Timor and Afghanistan: “In general, a five-year period of transition, political reform, and institutional development should precede national multiparty elections.” And what should happen during the protectorate? Intermediate institutions must be created, capable of sustaining the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties during and following national elections—precisely the same class of institutions as those advocated by Adams.

What are such institutions? On Adams’s list would appear political parties, labor unions, the ACLU, and congregations. Zakaria would point to political parties, the Federal Reserve (a private entity), professional associations, and the World Trade Organization. Both would recall Montesquieu and Madison, who favored systems of checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of power and abuse of office, and de Tocqueville, who first observed in the 1830s the essential role voluntary associations have played as thickening agents of U.S. democracy. And both would identify, in the gradual thinning out of voluntary associations, the tilt of the United States, too, toward increasingly illiberal democracy. Zakaria writes:

America’s problems are different from—and much smaller than—those that face Third World countries. But they are related. In America, laws and rights are firmly established. The less-formal constraints, however, that are the inner stuffing of liberal democracy are disappearing. Many of these social and political institutions—political parties, professions, clubs, and associations—are undemocratic in their structure. They are all threatened by a democratic ideology that judges the value of every idea and institution by one simple test: Is power as widely dispersed as it can be? Are they, in other words, as democratic as they can be?

The other common thread in the thought of Adams the democratic socialist and Zakaria the Reaganesque conservative is its dialectical nature: not democracy or institutions, but democracy and institutions. Not A or B, but more A and more B. If political liberalism has been marginalized and increasingly de-legitimated over the past thirty-five years or so, it is due in no small part to liberals’ simplistic emphasis on direct democracy (as it was called in the 1970s) to the exclusion of the thickening agents of institutionalization, representation, and delegation. What a wonder if, thanks to Zakaria’s work, social and political liberalism reclaims the position it once occupied as a nuanced and muscular strain in American thought.


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