Toward a Liberal Liberalism

I am a big, big fan of this post of Will Wilkinson’s, which does a great job of spelling out a more committedly pluralist alternative to the “illiberal liberalism” that Noah (and Ross) recently discerned in Damon Linker, and which I’ve lately been aiming some fire at as well. Here’s Will, who is decidedly not being hyperbolic (I can just see him down there on the mat):

… I’m a committed liberal pluralist, and I think freedom of conscience and state neutrality are bedrock virtues of a just society. At the same time, I think that a politics that takes the fact of pluralism seriously is perfectly consistent with vigorous culture war. Indeed, I think pluralist democracies demand culture war (call it “public reason” if you want to be fanciful). I think crazy conservative talk radio is a healthy part of pluralist culture war, and I think the attempt to whittle away the cultural prestige of people with crazy religion-saturated politics is also a healthy part of healthy pluralist culture war. I will go to the mat to defend the freedom of Pentecostals and John Birchers to do their things. And I will go to the mat to defend the idea that ours would be a better society if individuals come to be so embarrassed by Pentecostalism and John Birchism — by the ideas — that these communities of belief die peaceful natural deaths.

These deaths are decidedly not, however, to be achieved by the laying down of some predefined standard of “neutrality” to which any acceptable public argument is required to conform; indeed, Will seems to think that any such standard is bound to be an illiberal sham:

Cultures become what they are through a process of selection, and this is a process we help along by arguing with one another. The reason there are so many meta-arguments about what we are going to count as good arguments–as good reasons, as considerations worth taking seriously–is that once we come to a broad social consensus on standards, some factions in the culture wars are left defenseless and end up an impotent doomed remnant.

This pretty much gets it right, right? Recalling the Millman Desiderata, what we get is a liberalism that is at once more self-confident (because it’s willing to wait for its own commitments – to such things as “reason, science, the utility of the extended liberal order, and the authority of the liberal moral sentiments”, to use Will’s list – to prevail in a no-holds-barred battle) and much more humble (because it doesn’t claim the authority to let anything other than small-d democratic consensus choose the victor or set the terms of the fight). We just let things evolve, baby, and trust that selection will do its work. Or as Ron Bailey put it a while back in response to the Vatican’s claim that the Church has the “right to intervene” in matters pertaining to the sacredness of human life:

Intervene? The church as the right to try to intervene, and others have the right to prevent its intervention.

Or at least they have the right to try.