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

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The permeable boundaries between ideologies

Any analysis of liberalism would be incomplete without looking at its structure. That will help us to determine how liberalism’s durable, as well as its more transient, features can identify it as a member of a distinctive ideological family. In so doing this chapter complements the approach offered in . We can observe the growth, changes, and diseases of a tree over a long period, and we can study its enduring biochemical properties and shape. Both tell us different things about the same plant. By thus doubling our perspective on liberalism we can attain a fuller understanding of what it encompasses.

The morphological approach examines the detailed structure of an ideology in order to ascertain the typical patterns of argumentation it contains. Specifically, it investigates the minutiae, the micro-components, of the ideology in question with an eye to detecting the configurations of the political concepts it employs. All ideologies, liberalism included, appeal to central ideas and concepts they wish to promote or defend, but each ideology orders its ideas and concepts in a different, and distinctly identifiable, pattern. If, as suggested in , the layers of liberalism are disjointed and patchily linked rather than seamlessly continuous, the morphological approach explores which features of liberalism compose a recognizable conceptual profile. It helps to validate the claim that the various liberalisms that can be historically and empirically observed are nonetheless part of a broad liberal family that displays considerable continuity. After all, the label ‘liberal’ applied to various instances of political thinking suggests a common or overlapping denominator, unless—as will be argued in —liberal features are deliberately misdescribed. If there are common components, all cases of liberal thinking will display them. If they do not display them then, whatever label they may be given, they do not belong to the ideology that has come to be termed ‘liberalism’.

We can now elaborate on what was suggested in . The morphological continuity of liberalism takes into account numerous permutations and decontestations within the liberal family. They allow for considerable internal flexibility among liberalisms and consequently for the durability and adaptability of that ideology as a whole. That flexibility is attained through two features that the morphological approach reveals. First, the spatial arrangements that obtain among the concepts assembled in an ideology allow for many combinations and variants. Ideologies arrange their main ideas in close proximity so that they are mutually reinforcing. For example, liberty, progress, and democracy have been closely bound together in liberal thought since the middle of the 19th century, ensuring that it is difficult to argue for the one without the others. At the same time, different variants of the same ideology also create distance between their favoured concepts and other concepts they regard as harmful to the views they wish to promote. Thus in many cases liberals have disassociated economic liberty and human welfare from each other, especially in layer four liberalism and—with contrasting consequences—in rival ideological offshoots such as neoliberalism and libertarianism.

Second, the variable weighting of the ideational components of an ideology elevates the significance of one of its concepts in relation to another. For example, though all liberals heavily emphasize personal choice and liberty as central characteristics of liberalism, one version of liberalism wishes to bestow greater importance on human sociability and mutual responsibility, while another insists that the end-product of liberalism is a legitimate and consensual constitutional order. So while two instances of liberal thinking may contain similar ideas, the order of priority and import of those ideas can be reshuffled.

All that does not overrule the evidence of liberalism’s historical diversity and the partial manifestations of different liberalisms, but it offers a key to decoding political discourses. In doing that it becomes easier to allocate the worldviews and the meanings that political debates carry to a distinct ideological grouping. Of course, there are hybrid and truncated instances of such discourses that may straddle the boundaries between liberal and non-liberal patterns. Liberals will share some elements of their thinking with extensive neighbouring ideological families such as conservatism, socialism, or anarchism—though not necessarily the same ones. Both conservatives and liberals value social stability. Socialists share with liberals a commitment to increasing the life chances of the members of a society, but they do not go about it in the same way, often preferring to change radically the divisions between social classes or even to annihilate them, and they have a dim view of excessive private property. The liberal concern for well-being, individual development, and equality of opportunity is not easily distinguishable from a social democratic attachment to those values. Anarchists have a very strong conception of human liberty but they do not share liberals’ ideas about constitutional government.

The boundaries between ideologies are not rigid but permeable and it is up to us as students of liberalism to decide on whether the movement of ideas across those boundaries is eroding the difference between any two proximate ideologies, or whether the migration is limited, so that sufficiently clear differences are retained. In most cases it is possible to say of a belief system or a set of political discourses that they either occupy space within the liberal domain or they do not. If one can discern a durable use of the term ‘liberal’, there is a prima facie case for checking it for continuities, however mindful we should be of allowing leeway for newer variants as well as the discarding of older ones. By analogy, dwellings across our planet contain kitchens of very different kinds, but they are still recognizably kitchens. Kitchens may have changed considerably over the centuries but they still share the common elements of food preparation sites attached to sources of heat and water. Liberalisms, too, share common components even though they have been adapted to greatly changed circumstances and priorities.

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