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Irving Kristol on Liberalism
Who defines what the "common good" is?
Irving Kristol believed in the American tradition of classical liberalism. In Two Cheers for Capitalism, he defends one of the most controversial features of classical liberalism: market capitalism. In this quotation from the book, he articulates one of the primary arguments classical liberals make about the common good.
“A liberal society is one that is based on a weak consensus. There is nothing like near unanimity on what the ‘common good’ is, who contributes to it, or how…the liberty of a liberal society derives from a prevalent skepticism as to anyone’s ability to know the ‘common good’ with certainty, and from the conviction that the authorities should not try to define this ‘common good’ in any but a minimal way. That minimal definition, in a liberal society, will naturally tend to emphasize the improvement of the material conditions of life—something that very few people are actually against.”
-Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p. 178
Here, Kristol uses the word “liberal” (e.g., “liberal capitalism”) to refer to Enlightenment liberalism (individual liberty, natural rights, the rule of law, free markets, the American Founding, etc.). Elsewhere, he uses the term “liberal” to mean “left-wing” or “progressive,” when referring to his ideological opponents. (This may partially be due to the fact that Two Cheers for Capitalism is a collection of articles he published in The Wall Street Journal and Public Interest over several years.)
However, Kristol was not under any impression that the two uses of the word “liberal” should be conflated. He was a conservative, not a left-winger, and he defended classical liberalism, not progressivism. In some of the quotations in my review, I have replaced “liberal society” with “free society,” and “liberal capitalism” with “capitalism,” in order to avoid confusion.
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