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

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Layer three

The third layer of liberalism involved a conceptual and ideological breakthrough in liberal semantics. Though not inimical to free trade, it switched liberal priorities once again and adumbrated a fork in the road that seemed to detach virtue from intimations of greed. The notions of unlocking human potential and encouraging individual development, of which John Stuart Mill was the most able advocate, would be enabled through freedom of speech and education as the invaluable pathways to beneficial human expression and interaction. While Mill was a powerful advocate of protecting private spaces around individuals, he was equally concerned with what individuals did within those spaces and outside them—an issue that was not obvious in liberalism’s first layer. Doing nothing, let alone degenerating, was not an acceptable option—although it could be discouraged only through opprobrium, not force or legislation. Liberalism now took on board the fostering of a maturing and progressing individual whose will was not to be identified at a point in time but was exercised through an unfolding continuum of points over time. That is the real significance of Mill’s crucial phrase ‘the free development of individuality’: the creation of a social, political, and cultural environment in which liberty would be assigned new substance. Individualism may have been a statement about the fixed uniqueness of persons as separate parts of society; individuality was the detection of a dynamic process at the core of being human. Temporal development and flow were superimposed on the constitutional stasis of the first layer. Temporality here refers not to the obvious changes over historical time that liberalism exhibits, but to the introduction of the notion of time itself into liberal thought.

3. The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England in the late 19th century. Manchester was a pre-eminent hub of free trade, whose doctrines were often referred to as the ‘Manchester School’.

We can put that differently. First layer liberalism focused on demarcating a safe area of individual space. It was predominantly a ‘let me be and do’ liberalism, better known by the French term ‘laissez-faire’—reflected also in second layer liberalism. Third layer liberalism focused on the forward-looking enlargement of human capacity: a ‘let me grow’ liberalism. The rise of that time-oriented but open-ended liberalism, which regarded human growth as a gradual process complementing human autonomy and independence, signalled a new stage in its history. This third sheet concealed those areas of the second sheet that over-emphasized individual competitiveness. Instead, it relocated liberal concerns from commercial exchange relationships to investing in the capacity of people to express themselves. Individual diversity and eccentricity were the prime engines of social progress. But the area of the groundsheet that entrenched constitutional arrangements for securing independent and, broadly speaking, uninterrupted individual activity still shone through.

It needs re-emphasizing, however, that there is no clear-cut chronological sequence between those layers. John Milton, for example, had expressed liberal ideas avant la lettre in his Areopagitica, the carefully crafted plea against censorship of the press: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’ It was not liberty of movement within defined boundaries, or the liberty to follow one’s will, that exercised him, but the liberty to give vent to the vigour and liveliness of the human spirit. That absence of limits was an early instance of the third layer, commending not just physical space but the spiritual and intellectual scope for human development.

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