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

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Layer one

The first and earliest liberal layer—the bottom sheet—is the most durable of them all. Its origins lie in pre-democratic times, long before the term ‘liberal’ became prevalent politically and ideologically. The seeds of that liberalism sprouted, as noted in , as an uncoordinated, but strongly felt, ‘contra tyranny’ movement. It stimulated a restraining doctrine, curbing the rulers’ capacity for arbitrary conduct and distancing them from the ruled. That first layer was—and still is—a liberalism of simultaneous release and constraint, one in which spaces are cleared around individuals in order for them to have the freedom to express themselves, to be counted as part of the body politic, and to act without fear or favour. But it is also a restricted freedom, because for any individual to have such freedom acknowledged requires that others be accorded it as well. And because one person’s liberty may clash with another’s, liberty cannot be unlimited for all. In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he significantly distinguished liberty from licence, liberty being not for ‘every Man to do what he lists’ but to ‘dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own’. First layer liberalism is fundamentally constitutional, relating to a Rechtsstaat, a state based on the rule of law. In Finland, for instance, this has remained the heart of liberalism; in many other societies, it is only the foundation for the further growth of liberal ideas.

In that first layer, some rights were presented as natural and inalienable human attributes, with which people were born. Nonetheless, they were fragile attributes, often under dire threat, and therefore their safeguarding became the express purpose of establishing governments. The initial association of liberalism with rights, and of the political sphere with serving those rights and thereby preserving essential human liberties, was as a doctrine of limitation both of individuals and of governments, in which the idea of a social contract was preeminent. That limitation was cast in the shape of physical and legal curbs. Special over-riding reasons had to be brought into play for endorsing intervention in a person’s space without his or her consent, such as committing a crime or an act of war. It is worth registering those principles, for some later liberal layers partially obscured those messages on that groundsheet.

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