At home and abroad, 2021 has been an annus horribilis for classical liberalism.
The classical liberal order has a paradox at its heart. It provides everyone the liberty to pursue their own happiness. Yet it needs enough public spiritedness and virtue to maintain the order that permits the pursuit of liberty. Many internal institutions in the liberal state try to address this paradox, including the Constitution, but external factors play a role as well and one of the most important is the presence of children.
One problem for the liberal order is that individuals and groups so often consult their own interest rather than the public interest in the public sphere. At the federal level, the mild supermajority rule created by tricameralism (the two houses and the President) and stronger supermajority rule for constitutional amendments try to address this by making enactments hard to repeal. This legislative stickiness creates something of a veil of ignorance. People are not as sure where they will be in the future and thus are more likely to consider the public interest rather than their private interest in deciding whether to approve them. Children help thicken the veil of ignorance. The position of one’s children is even more uncertain than one’s own.
Classical liberal democracies also have an innate tendency to overspend and over borrow. Special interests get the benefits today and the costs are sloughed off the future. Politicians are often not held accountable, because voters are rationally ignorant and because by the time the worst effects are realized politicians have left office. Children can help here as well. Those worried about deficits have a powerful card to play by appealing to the need not to overburden the next generation. People are genuinely concerned about their own children and those of their relatives and friends and this provides a counterweight to democratic and special interest excess.
More generally, children extend the time horizon of politics, curbing its innate short-termism. Moreover, they temper one of liberalism’s greatest problems. The great discovery of the Enlightenment was that the pursuit of self-interest could lead to public welfare though the market economy. But to sustain the market economy one needs rules whose creation and enforcement depends on more than self-interest. Children naturally extend and refine the scope of the sentiments that make such creation and enforcement possible.
These thoughts about children and their place in the liberal order are abstract and tentative. But they are sparked by a concrete event that requires greater confidence. My daughter and first born, Miranda Macey McGinnis, arrived yesterday. For her to enjoy a brave new world in the sense that the first Miranda meant those words, the classical liberal order must endure.