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

Previous: The liberal core
Next: The precise and the fuzzy

Putting flesh on the liberal bones

These core concepts constitute merely the bare bones of the liberal anatomy. For while they are necessary features of the family of liberalisms, they are not sufficient ones. We know that every political concept is host to many conceptions. Liberty can be licence, or the absence of constraints on non-harmful conduct, or the working out of one’s own potential, or reflective choice-making, or civil autonomy. But it cannot be all of them simultaneously, because some of those conceptions of liberty are incompatible with others. Consequently, in any particular instance of liberal thinking some meanings (or conceptions) of the concepts are selected and others abandoned. Detailed examination of the morphology of ideologies shows how that decontestation happens.

As core concepts always rotate through the many meanings they can carry, a mechanism is needed to lock one of the meanings into place, however temporarily. Otherwise ideas are blurred and incoherent, and a fix on political reality—incomplete though it is—cannot be achieved. That process of decontestation, as already noted, excludes all the possible meanings a concept may hold, bar one. For example, it plumps for only one of the five meanings of liberty we have just enumerated (though there may occasionally be slight overlaps between some of them). Logically, of course, concepts will continue to have any number of conceptions, but decontestation is a way of assigning particular cultural, moral, political, or utilitarian significance to a concept, without which social and political entropy and paralysis may ensue. Put differently, decontestation simplifies vastly complex issues and provides the streamlining necessary to get to grips with the daunting intricacy of political argument. Decontestation has little to do with securing the ‘correct’ or ‘true’ meaning and everything to do with making sense of ideas, ideologies, and discourse, and with enabling decisions to be made.

Decontestation also opens an interesting window on liberalism itself. The multiple meanings that concepts carry mirror the ideational flexibility and adaptability that is one of liberalism’s hallmarks and that has secured its longevity. Tweaking and re-adjusting is something that liberal ideologies perform far better than totalitarian ones, the latter often demonstrating sclerotic rigidity that causes them to crack under strain. But there is a flip-side that liberalism does, after all, share with many other ideological families. It, too, has non-negotiable spheres and red lines it will not cross. Liberalism is intolerant of illiberal ideas and practices, such as fundamental breaches of human rights through torture. Opposition to the death penalty is another liberal constant. In other words, liberalism applies strong decontestations to the areas where its core principles are at their most robust. Louis Hartz believed he had found that feature in America: ‘Surely, then, it is a remarkable force: this fixed, dogmatic liberalism of a liberal way of life.’ He may have been wrong about America but not about the power of liberal convictions.

Liberalism is no exception to the morphological and practical need for determinacy. As with any ideology, assigning ever-greater specific meaning to a concept is chiefly assisted by the adjacent concepts assembled around it. That band of adjacent concepts enriches the connotations of the core concept and also limits it from embracing some possible meanings. Liberals may surround the core concept of liberty with the adjacent concepts of democracy, well-being, and equality understood as equal opportunities. That pattern propels the decoding of the core’s meaning in the direction of an accountable welfare state, in which liberty entails the absence of barriers to accessing crucial social goods for each member of a society—a morphological cluster at the heart of layer four liberalism. That decontestation is sometimes labelled the exercise conception of liberty, inasmuch as liberty is not only a state of being uninterfered with, but a state of actively making choices and finding expression for one’s capabilities. Freedom is then not just a passive state of being but a dynamic state of doing, employing one’s own abilities that are concurrently enabled through the support of others.

Alternatively, liberals may move the concepts of property, security, productivity, and the rule of law to a position immediately adjacent to liberty. When that pattern prevails, liberty will adopt the contours of protecting the market activities of individuals. It will do so through formalizing ownership rights and clearing paths for economic activity, a morphological cluster at the heart of layer two liberalism. Other ways of teasing out certain interpretations of core liberal concepts relate to the manner in which the core concepts interact. Thus, if we combine rationality, sociability, and limited power we associate rationality with the benefits of mutual human interdependence, whether cultural or economic. Moreover, we indicate that rationality could be stultified by the over-reliance on power in a society. The conceptual permutations seem unlimited, but they are not. In fact they generally settle into the kind of layered patterns explored in .

That isn’t the end of the story, however. For once we fine-tune the structure of liberalism even further, we alight on a third band of peripheral concepts. Those are normally less durable components of the ideological field of liberalism, but they are vital in linking the more general ‘inner’ concepts with the concrete political and social worlds that liberals inhabit. Peripheral here indicates two different interfaces. First, the ideas and practices on the periphery of an ideology are less crucial and more marginal in maintaining its headline ideas. Second, an ideology continuously responds to real world contexts that ‘encroach’ on it and assimilates them into its fluid and mutating discourses.

Take for example the issue of immigration into the UK, an issue that has been at the forefront of public debate for a while. The concept of ‘immigration’ impinges on liberal thinking, as it does on other ideologies, but it is not as central to liberalism as it is to some recent populist or nationalist groups. Not counting tourists and people in transit, immigration relates to the entry of foreign nationals into the country and can be categorized into refugees, asylum, job, and benefit seekers. The latter two include both those who have a legal entitlement to enter (e.g. members of European Union countries), and illegal migrants. On the whole liberals have traditionally had a tolerant attitude towards migration for two reasons: as part of the freedom of movement they value; and—in certain cases—as a consequence of humanitarian considerations intended to protect individuals from harm in the form of suffering or persecution in their places of origin. Liberals may also set great store by the economic benefits and skills migrants can bring with them, and appreciate the diversity of immigrant cultures and their contributions to the host culture. The peripheral notion of immigration is consequently channelled through the second band of adjacent liberal concepts such as welfare, humanism, pluralism, interdependence, and prosperity, as well as the core concepts of liberty and sociability. However, some liberals may draw the line at types of immigration such as ‘benefits tourism’, where non-nationals arrive for the sole purpose of making use of the welfare institutions at a society’s disposal; or they may wish to limit the entry of individuals who express extreme hostility and threaten violence towards their new host society.

The concreteness of immigration experiences lends colour and context to the more abstract ideas liberalism promotes. It is often through those ‘broker’ concepts between actual, specific situations and fundamental principles that an ideology begins to make sense and to become politically and socially relevant. Indeed, the core concepts remain vacuous and indeterminate unless they can be attached to lines of association with both adjacent and peripheral ideas. Hence another way of looking at the multiple members of the liberal family is to track the path of each liberal version as it moves from its commonly held but loosely defined core, through slightly more specific adjacent concepts, to the many different peripheries that inhabit and interact with liberalism. And then, of course, we can take the reverse path: from the idea, practice, or event at the periphery of liberalism back through some of its adjacent concepts. Finally, we can gauge their impact on the core, noting how the latter adapts and is re-interpreted in light of being at the receiving end of those selective channels.

Thus, core ideas about liberty and individuality may be diverted into market practices, once adjacent concepts about free exchange, individual initiative, entrepreneurship, and competition are marshalled into position. From there it is another journey towards the periphery of trade agreements between states, or another periphery that relates pay and social status to meritorious work. And a reverse trip from periphery to core may look like this: a medical breakthrough, such as producing a new drug to treat a major disease, might be diverted by some liberals through adjacent concepts such as welfare and public property rights towards reinforcing the core concepts of the general interest and progress. The result could be a form of socialized medicine, free on delivery and financed by the state. But on an alternative liberal path the medical discovery might be drawn into a different trajectory, through the adjacent concepts of private property rights, or pecuniary rewards for individual inventiveness. It could be routed towards a particular interpretation of the core concept of rationality as efficiency, and towards the core concept of liberty as non-intervention in non-harmful activities (in this case, presumably, the production of a safe drug by a private company, competing in a health market). The morphological permutations are legion and the patterns multiple. But they all recognizably fall within the possibilities that the liberal domain has to offer.

Previous: The liberal core
Next: The precise and the fuzzy