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

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Disconnected and overlapping histories

Liberals and students of liberalism have frequently regarded their cluster of ideas as a unity developing smoothly through time. That view reflects their cardinal belief in a linear progression of humanity towards higher and more civilized ends. But liberalism itself has done no such thing. That evolutionary self-image, wedded to theories of progress and cherished by so many liberals, is not borne out by liberalism’s own history. Instead, liberalism has undergone fits and bursts of change resulting both in convergences and separations of its key tenets. That is a consequence of liberal ideas having originated at different times, from diverse sources, and with varying aims in mind.

Accordingly, it is more helpful to approach liberalism as an ideology with complex, interacting layers in a constant state of mutual rearrangement. Crucially, those layers do not constitute a neat sequential chain. They are a composite of accumulated, discarded, and retrieved strata in continuously fluctuating combinations. As will presently be shown, the so-called liberal tradition is a mixture of at least five different historical layers linked, if at all, in ill-fitting and patchy continuities. One reason why the five layers do not add up into a unified whole is because they too often pull in irreconcilable directions. Some do indeed succeed others, but others exist in parallel, and others still disappear and then re-emerge. Liberalism’s newer layers often obscure and conceal, as well as expand, the gathered meanings it contains and transmits.

Conceptual historians like to use the phrase ‘the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’—an expression coined by the doyen of that school, Reinhart Koselleck. Applied to liberalism it implies that our current understandings always include new ways of looking at earlier, past understandings of that ideology, as if those understandings live only in the present. Thus, if liberalism once concentrated on non-intervention in individual lives, liberals may now regard the unremitting application of that time-honoured practice both inadequate and occasionally undesirable. Although it still appears in many liberal versions, non-intervention may be accompanied by appeals for measured intervention to mitigate human misery. All those stratified understandings combine to form a rich tapestry of the liberalism we now experience and contemplate.

Inasmuch as no layer can capture the intricacy of liberalism on its own, liberalism cannot be understood without acknowledging their interplay. In the course of those intersections, we may find one major layer (say, the defence of economic markets) thickening and becoming more marked, while another layer (say, the securing of social rights) is present in less noticeable form. But in another instance that interrelationship may be inverted—the previously major theme shrinks, while the minor one exhibits prominence. Indeed, any given version of liberalism may deliberately exclude or debase segments of other layers in the liberal tradition if it deems them incompatible with its own: liberals can be as selective in doctoring their stories as the rest of us!

That constant interplay of layers throws light on the range of existing interpretations of what it means to be a liberal and provides the tools through which to chart the intricacies the term invokes. To do justice to the complexity of liberalism means to attempt to reconstruct a rather messy interrelationship of phases, trends, hiatuses, and sub-plots. An idealized optimal liberalism would include the features of all five layers as they have presented themselves over the past few hundred years. However, that is logically and substantively impossible because some features of liberalism are simply incompatible with others. Accordingly, no actual variant of liberalism exhibits all five layers. All known liberalisms are therefore at most only sub-optimal, ‘second-best’ approximations of the over-arching ideational resources that liberal ideology can host, and has hosted.

How, then, do the layers interact? Imagine a sheaf of five sheets of paper, one on top of the other, each of which contains different messages liberalism has imparted. The surface of each sheet has a mixture of transparent and semi-opaque holes cut into it, the latter covered with wax paper. That means that through the top sheet you can clearly read some areas of the lower sheets, but other parts of those lower sheets are rendered fuzzy. And of course, where no holes have been cut, the areas underneath are concealed entirely. In addition, liberals are prone to re-arrange the order of the sheets, except for the bottom one, which they leave in place. That early, bottom sheet extols the importance of liberty and rights, and that message can be seen through all the sheets stacked above it. But the view of other inscriptions on the lower sheets will depend on how the cut-outs are positioned on each of the sheets placed higher up. Moreover, as the sequence of the sheets is shuffled from time to time and from place to place, the view through the holes changes continuously. Thus, messages concerning competition may be seen in one arrangement of the layers but veiled in another. Sometimes, too, liberals simply crunch up and throw away one or more of the sheets, leaving a much thinner version of the combined liberal tradition.

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