Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Previous: Has liberalism triumphed?
Next: A plethora of particular liberalisms

The seductiveness of liberalism

There is something about liberalism that many people find very attractive. Although liberalism falls short of the final universalism attributed to it by Fukuyama, a large number of political philosophers nonetheless regard it as a noble vision of social and political life that should be extended to all. Failing even that, liberalism is a widely revered set of ideas, at least in the Western world—though, as we shall see, it is also deplored both by radicals and by conservatives. Moreover, liberal practices on the ground have institutional consequences, and those consequences are woven into a grand—and sometimes self-congratulatory—historical tapestry. Many of those practices are contained in the phrase ‘liberal democracy’. As a principle of good government, liberal democracy has firm roots in numerous countries and is an aspirational goal in others. It has a clear message: democracy, if by that we mean the rule of the people, is all well and good, but winning elections and popular government on their own are merely a minimum kit. That kit is necessary but insufficient for a political system to be called ‘liberal’. Liberals maintain that democracy must display additional characteristics for it to be considered a worthy system of government. Democracy needs to be fair, tolerant, inclusive, restrained, and self-critical, not simply the pursuit of majority rule. Liberal democracy involves not just elections, but free elections. It involves not just representative government, but accountable and constrained government. It involves not just the right to vote, but the equal and unsupervised right to vote. And it involves attention to the well-being of all the members of a society, a principle that requires some governmental activity but may be open to different interpretations. The qualities liberals demand are extensive and varied: it is a lot easier to preach liberalism than to realize it.

Liberal practices affect constitutions, the degree of openness permitted in political debate, and the basket of rights that societies are willing to distribute among their members. Often, too, they involve ambitious schemes of redistributing wealth to increase the life chances of all, although some commentators, usually from a conservative or libertarian perspective, might deplore that as a form of socialism. And, as usually is the case with any ideology, a gap may open up between declared principles and effective practice. Liberal principles may be breached even by those subscribing to them, and some societies reject them out of hand. In that case, we may have to decide whether liberal principles or liberal practices bring us closer to identifying what is typical of liberalism. Assessing liberalism is not an armchair intellectual activity—though there is nothing wrong with that. It relates rather to what kind of politics a society engages in at the coalface.

But there also are liberal frames of mind, liberal patterns of thinking that operate in the world of political discourse, language, and disputation. Philosophers, political theorists, historians of ideas, practising politicians, and political parties all weigh in with their disparate models, objectives, critiques, and certainties. As a set of guiding principles for leading the good life, liberalism is frequently understood by philosophers and ethicists to be a binding set of virtues and precepts that deserves universal standing. So while Fukuyama regarded liberalism as a universal ideology, which it plainly is not, a number of political theorists nonetheless hold that liberalism is a philosophical and ethical imperative that ought to be universal: the highest expression of norms of social morality and justice. For them it exists as a general set of ideals appropriate for all right-thinking individuals, regardless of whether or not it is realized in actuality. In sum, for many, liberalism is a label keenly pursued and, when attained, staunchly defended. Its supporters bask in the light of the term; its detractors pour scorn on its unworldliness or hypocrisy.

Previous: Has liberalism triumphed?
Next: A plethora of particular liberalisms