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

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The sounds of liberalism: an initial sampling

Let’s listen to some liberal voices over the past two centuries, since it became a recognizable set of political principles, as well as a powerful ideology. First there are the enthusiastic voices:

Liberalism … begins with the recognition that men, do what they will, are free; that a man’s acts are his own, spring from his own personality, and cannot be coerced. (R.G. Collingwood)
Liberals regard as sacred the right of everyone, however humble, odd, or inarticulate, to criticize the government. (Leo Strauss)
The word liberal is a word primarily of political import, but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it desires to affirm. (Lionel Trilling)
Liberalism is an all-penetrating element of the life-structure of the modern world …Liberalism is the belief that society can safely be founded on this self-directing power of personality, that it is only on this foundation that a true community can be built. (L.T. Hobhouse)

Then there are the critical voices. In one version, liberals are class-based exploiters of the advantages of the market. ‘The practice of this energetic bourgeois liberalism’, wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, referring to French and German middle class interests around the time of the French Revolution, ‘showed itself …in shameless bourgeois profit-making’. In another version, liberals transform politics into an arena of disruptive competition and discord, instead of a search for solidarity and unity. Thus the post-Marxist philosopher Chantal Mouffe wrote that ‘Liberalism simply transposes into the public realm the diversity of interests already existing in society and reduces the political moment to the process of negotiation among interests.’ Many American conservatives employ liberalism as a pejorative term, and relate it to an over-interventionist and heavily spending government, or to an exaggerated concern with the rights of minorities and the marginalized at the expense of responsible citizens, who should not have to carry the burden of other people’s failings. The American conservative writer, Russell Kirk, complained that ‘the present-day liberal, become an advocate of the tyranny of the state in every field, offers as an apology his intention of freeing the people’.

Finally we have the voices of professional political theorists and philosophers. It is within this group that liberalism is predominantly regarded as a theory of justice and public virtue. As the philosopher John Rawls expressed it: ‘The content of a liberal political conception of justice has three main elements: a list of equal basic rights and liberties, a priority for those freedoms, and an assurance that all members of society have adequate all-purpose means to make use of these rights and liberties.’ Another version is that of the scholar of jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin, who from a legal-moral perspective defined liberalism as consisting of a particular theory of equality, whereby citizens are treated as equal by insisting ‘that government must be neutral on what might be called the question of the good life’. The assumption here is that an individual is the best choice exerciser for her or his own life and that governments should steer clear of dictating moral options in the private sphere.

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