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

Previous: The permeable boundaries between ideologies
Next: Putting flesh on the liberal bones

The liberal core

What, then, are the liberal commonalities? What are the ideas to be found in all liberalisms, irrespective of their spatial position or their relative weight within each manifestation of liberalism? As suggested in , ideologies are composed of core concepts that have considerable durability. That means, first, that their persistence can be empirically ascertained by examining different instances of a given ideology and, second, that deprived of such a core concept, that ideology would not be recognizable, or mutate into a member of a different family. We can illustrate that with the concept of liberty, or freedom. Unsurprisingly, liberty is a valued core feature of liberalism that runs through its multiple versions. Unsurprisingly, if we were to remove the idea of liberty from any such version, liberalism would forfeit an absolutely crucial distinguishing element. It is simply unimaginable to entertain, and empirically impossible to find, a variant of liberalism that dispenses with the concept of liberty. But nor is it the case that any ideology that refers to liberty is ipso facto liberal.

Of course, to state that the concept of liberty is indispensable to liberalism is only the beginning of a long story. To announce ‘I am free’ is an incomplete statement that hangs in the air. All it does is to suggest that I am not being constrained by someone else or something. It immediately draws in a further question: ‘by whom?’ or ‘by what?’ Are other people the potential constraint? Do laws constitute a major constraint on individuals? Are there additional constraints that prevent me from being free? Perhaps poverty, so that I don’t have the means to realize my choices? Perchance ignorance, so that I cannot make informed choices? Maybe preventable ill-health, which renders me too unwell to act on my free desires? Possibly the lack of meaningful work, so that I cannot exercise my abilities? Or discrimination on grounds of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity, so that I am barred by social prejudice from living a good life? All those, too, act as constraints on my liberty and we have noted them when discussing layer four liberalism.

Because all those meanings of liberty are conceivable interpretations of what liberty means, we have here an instance of an essentially contested concept, namely, a concept for which there will always be more than one plausible meaning. That happens because there is no objective or final way of ranking preferences among values, such as: is it better to be free from discrimination or free from poverty? However, different streams within liberalism do express preference for some or others of those meanings, and policy decisions, all said and done, have to be made. Consequently, one of the functions of all ideologies, liberalism included, is to decontest the concepts they employ—to remove all their major concepts from contest by attempting to assign them a clear meaning. And because the liberal family is extensive, liberty can attract different decontestations in the numerous variants of that family. Broadly speaking, the meaning of liberty will stretch between securing an area of harmless activity, or even passive existence, unimpeded by physical or state initiated intrusions (layer one liberalism) and enabling the exercise of human potential through actively removing any hindrances that could seriously dehumanize human beings (layers three and four). The decision on which of those hindrances deserve to be removed itself reflects continuous changes in the cultural environment of liberalism. Thus, some emotional deprivations are now acknowledged to be as serious as physical violence, or forms of patriarchy are no longer appropriate in a culture of gender equality.

But liberty is not the only concept endowed with core status in liberalism’s morphology. It is one of seven core concepts, and we enumerate the others in no particular sequence.

Rationality is a persistent core liberal concept. Liberalism presupposes the capacity of people to make reasonable choices; to reflect on their ends and ways of life; and to behave towards others in a considered, intelligible, and respectful manner. Some philosophers employ the notions of autonomous and purposive agency in identifying what is rational about members of a liberal society. By that they mean the capacity to plan, to anticipate, to seek the optimal options for themselves, to be entrusted to make sensible decisions for themselves, and often also to live harmoniously with their fellow women and men. Derivative from that idea of universally held rationality is an argument for equal rights and opportunities for every person to express that rationality. For many of the early proto-liberals, rationality was God-given or natural, and that contention can still be heard today among philosophers and moralists. Rationality directs human beings towards a good life for themselves, and towards regard for the preferences of others in their own search for the good life.

A very different reading of rationality is the calculated attainment of ends through the most cost-efficient means. It enters liberalism through economic and utilitarian theories that endorse a self-centred and usually competitive maximizing of benefits and advantages. Currently, that is most evident in some neoliberal approaches that flit around the edges of the liberal family. True, liberal theory has now increasingly come to terms with the importance of emotion and of cultural inclinations in our preferences and decisions, and true also that students of ideology recognize that many decisions are unintentional and unplanned. Yet human reason, and rational communication, still serve as liberal lodestars.

Individuality is a third core concept. It is often confused with individualism, which is a view of social structure that prioritizes the role of individuals and regards them as the only unit of society—self-contained and self-sufficient. Individualism rejects approaches that identify groups, or even society as a whole, as distinctive entities. That is not the case with individuality. Individuality sees people as endowed with a qualitative uniqueness. They are regarded as capable of self-expression and flourishing, and they require those attributes in order to realize their full potential. Individuality possesses spiritual and moral elements of character and will that may be nourished by individuals themselves, but it also depends on fostering the educational, economic, cultural, and health environments that provide the necessary opportunities for that nourishment. Liberal social arrangements are thus evaluated in relation to attaining those ends.

Progress is closely associated with individuality, but is a core concept in its own right. It introduces the dynamic of positive movement and development into liberalism. That dynamic is often seen as part of liberalism’s enlightening and civilizing mission, and it includes the constant improvement of material technology and increasing standards of living through human inventiveness and effort. Above all, it focuses on an optimistic view of time as unfolding in the direction of social betterment in the broadest sense. The unfolding of liberal time is not predetermined or teleological—that is, it does not inexorably move towards a projected end, as may be the case in some socialist or utopian ideologies. Instead, it is open-ended. Human development is a continuous process that harnesses and reflects the free will of individuals embedded in and secured through the other liberal core concepts. Being neither automatic nor imposed, it is not entirely predictable.

A fifth core concept that runs through liberal discourse is sociability, though its inclusion in this list may surprise some. An initial clue to its importance lies in Locke’s proto-liberalism, specifically in his state of nature, which already is governed by two other liberal core concepts, rationality and the dispersal of power among all. But it also includes the duty of men ‘to love others than themselves’, indicating a strong interdependence of respect and affinity among people from the very beginning. Locke’s state of nature is thus pre-political but not pre-social, because of the concern of any one person for the life, property, and health of another. Out of those modest beginnings there then arose over the years within liberalism the notion of beneficial mutual interdependence, whether economic, ethical, emotional, or physical. That notion vindicated the non-solitary condition of human beings and it even made inroads into market versions of liberalism. For that reason if, as some critics of liberalism insist, individualism is interpreted as social atomism—the fundamental separateness of every person from another—that kind of individualism is not part of liberalism’s mainstream profile, though we may find it among libertarians.

Sometimes related to sociability, but conceptually distinct, is the concept of the general interest. That sixth core concept conjures up the liberal claim to include all individuals—and groups—in its purview rather than emphasizing class, race, gender, or ethnicity as points of rupture. Liberals thus appear to be impervious to those distinctions as a matter of principle. The critics of liberalism emphatically deny that liberal blindness. They point out ways in which liberals display contentious prejudices, often deluding themselves that they do not. Generally speaking, the idea of community on different levels implies the sharing of some conditions or circumstances that forge a specific identity of its members, an identity that also includes a loose pooling of perspectives, opinions, and ideas. In the liberal case, the default position of the sixth core concept is the desire to appeal to universal human interests as such, to what unites people rather than what divides them, even to some fundamental consensus. That may refer to a sense of decency, to reasonableness, to mutual respect and equality of regard, and to a wish to promote the collective good of individuals. Even among those who interpret liberalism as a market oriented and competitive ideology, there are emphatic references to the general interest. They often subscribe to a version of Bernard Mandeville’s famous ‘Fable of the Bees’, in which he contended that private vices produce public benefits: the pursuit of personal advantage could result in benefits for all. Adam Smith and Hegel, as mentioned in , had suggested that an invisible hand worked to convert the pursuit of self-interest through the division of labour and specialization into outcomes that were in the public interest.

What then, about the fifth layer of liberal pluralism and multiculturalism? Although here liberals recognize the multiplicity of communities within any society, their relationships are not wholly centrifugal. Layer five liberals simply extend the notion of the general interest to endorse the setting up of conditions under which group co-existence is not only possible but valuable. Decency, reasonableness, and mutual respect become even more imperative in societies where those parallel and interrelated communities of religion, ethnicity, and locality cohabit. The assumption here is that their humanity and pursuit of the good encourages interaction and makes it more likely that they form strong attachments to the other core liberal concepts. But as we have seen, intractable problems still obtain for liberals grappling with social pluralism. The former inattentiveness of liberals to minority identities has been attenuated by a conflicted awareness of them.

A seventh core concept is power, but in a specific sense—as limited and accountable. In a deep sense liberals are embarrassed by power: after all, the historic emergence of liberalism was chiefly in response to abuse and oppression by the powerful. In another sense they realize that governments have to be authorized to make binding decisions, and the making and implementation of decisions always involve the exercise of power. Notwithstanding, decisions in a liberal polity are hedged in and circumscribed by checks and balances, by countervailing power, by constitutional rules of justifiable and hence enforceable usages of power, and, not least, by a dispersal of power that renders it less perilous and that draws in a variety of groups into its wielding. That targeted conception of power inches its way towards greater inclusivity and is put at the service of a community, aiming at clearing the paths towards the optimal—if not perfect—realization of the comprehensive package of core liberal values.

Previous: The permeable boundaries between ideologies
Next: Putting flesh on the liberal bones