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

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Layer four

The fourth liberal layer continued the remarkable revolution that was taking place within the liberal family of ideologies. Its prime feature lies in rethinking the spatial relations among people. The individualism of the first layer, including Mill’s resolute defence of the inviolability of the private sphere, was appreciably curtailed, appearing semi-opaque. Social space was no longer thought of as separating individuals by constructing protective barriers around them but as interweaving them, and not only on the material dimension of market relationships. That was especially evident in the intellectual and political movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries known as the new liberalism. The new liberalism emphasized the close interdependence among members of a society, suggesting that they could not survive on their own without assistance from, and support of, others and insisting on that support not as stifling or controlling but as essential to enabling individuality and human liberty themselves.

Second, no less significantly, this layer of liberalism endorsed the earlier liberal goal of protecting people—whether individuals or society as a whole—from undue intervention in their space. But the net was cast far more widely, including the blocking of newly discovered threats to the more limited kind of individual flourishing promoted in layer three. It was now contended that hindrances to human development do not just involve inappropriate physical or legal intervention, or the pressures of public opinion. Major additional barriers existed to the working out of one’s human potential, such as the five giants of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness’—in the words of the British mid-20th century liberal reformer William Beveridge (1879–1963)—all of which required eradicating or alleviating. The removal of such barriers did not entail the kind of illiberal positive liberty that imposed a template of self-realization on individuals, ‘forcing them to be free’. Rather, it facilitated the liberty to pursue the layer three conception of self-development through positive state action. Hence, third, the democratically monitored state was enlisted to assist in that mammoth task because some important human needs, such as securing a job or health care, were in far too many cases beyond the capacity of individual initiative.

Fourth—a particular feature of the new liberalism—society was conceived of as a harmonizable, unitary entity with shared rational ends. Divisions of class, geography, and even religion were at best irrelevant, at worst pernicious, though practising liberals often fell short of that august view and, as a rule, failed to embrace sweeping gender equality. In Britain, that fourth layer pushed out the boundaries of liberalism in its integration of the individual and the social more than any other European liberalism. Its main achievement during much of the 20th century was in laying the ideological foundations of the welfare state, a thoroughly and indisputably liberal creation. The famous ‘Beveridge Report’ of 1942, with its plan for post-war reconstruction that would alleviate poverty through social insurance and children’s allowances, became a milestone in the rise of the welfare state. In typical liberal fashion it combined private endeavour with public support. The state was transformed into a major, though not sole, agent of public good and public virtue. Similar tendencies could be found in the communitarian and statist liberalism of late 19th century French solidarisme.

Last but not least, as discussed in , the most novel aspect of the fourth layer lay in its version of an organic society. The left-liberals a century ago subverted the undemocratic implications of the organic analogy. Hobhouse in particular rejected the conflict version of social Darwinism, holding instead that social evolution displayed an increasing rationality and sociability and set the stage for the emergence of intelligent cooperation. For them, the lesson of the organic analogy was the promotion of individual rights by the benevolent state. An area of individual liberty was conducive both to the individual and to the health of the collective life.

The fourth sheet of paper let in the third sheet’s notion of temporality in the form of individual growth and progress but aligned it to the broader compass of social evolution. It acknowledged the individual at the centre of the first sheet but challenged any view of impermeable barriers between person and person, welcoming instead some incursions into private space in the spirit of community, when mutual assistance was the only route to individual well-being. That is why some forms of social insurance—health and unemployment—were made compulsory, to secure a common pool of wealth to help those individuals who faltered under the normal strains of life (). The fourth sheet obscured the message of the pre-social naturalness of rights, regarding them as the consequence of social membership—an obligatory gift of society to its crucial building blocks: human beings. Indeed, the salience of liberty in the liberal groundsheet was slightly decentred as it was made to share prime billing with human welfare and flourishing. But liberalism’s second sheet—that regarded human relations above all as individual market transactions—was virtually removed from the sheaf by the left-liberals. It took almost half a century for that sheet to be re-inserted in the British liberal tradition, though it continued to be more evident in continental versions. Fourth layer liberals were prone to denounce what they termed ‘the Manchester School’ with its self-centred economic man, its lack of focus on the underprivileged, and its overlooking of the role that society plays in the creation of wealth. Though they welcomed free trade, it had to be trade emancipated from the control of financial, industrial, and military monopolies. Those monopolies may have grown out of the adulation of unlimited private enterprise but they transmogrified into exploitative imperialism.

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