Liberal Practice v. Liberal Theory

"On the other hand, Western critics of liberalism have also touched a nerve because people do not like seeing painful but true observations used to justify outrageous conclusions. It is very strange to watch grown adults who enjoy liberalism's blessings appear to fantasize about rejecting those blessings. And rejecting them in favor of what, exactly? Believable answers are rarely forthcoming.

Yet liberalism's critics rightly insist that such commonplace rejoinders fail to engage their real arguments. Liberalism's defenders, for their part, often feel themselves in the position of the theologian confronted with an atheist: The "liberalism" they hear attacked is one that they, too, do not believe in. Thus the parties have often been talking past each other, and not only because of an above-average amount of strawmanning on both sides. What one party sincerely regards as its clinching argument will seem a trivial observation to the other, and vice versa.

Many good-faith misunderstandings within these debates can be traced to an ambiguity in the term "liberalism." It refers, on the one hand, to a set of political practices, and on the other hand, to a political theory that purports to explain those practices. Defenders of liberalism are thinking first and foremost about liberal political practice, which they (almost all) defend by drawing selectively on liberal theory. Critics of liberalism are thinking first and foremost about liberal political theory, which they (almost all) attack by pointing selectively to liberal practice."