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

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The standards of public life

Another theme in contemporary philosophical liberalism diverts it from realizing the long-standing ideological core of liberalism in its various guises. The emphasis switches to developing practices that give politics a good name and that reverse the often dubious reputation with which politics as a whole has been saddled. Liberalism is consequently repackaged as providing strong and specific standards that guide the proper ways those active in the public domain should conduct themselves. Foremost among those public guidelines are the need to display transparency and accountability, to counter corruption and complacency, and to justify public policy in a manner that can reach out to all members of society. All those address liberal core ideas in an oblique manner. The American political theorist Gerald Gaus has identified this as the requirement for public reason that ensures a ‘genuinely liberal political life’, and the British philosopher Bernard Williams as a ‘basic legitimacy demand’—one that insists that the state offer a justification of its power to each subject, although that itself is an impossibly idealist prerequisite. The high premium apportioned by many political theorists to fostering articulate deliberation as the bedrock of democratic practice, and to encouraging public accessibility to conversations among political elites, upholds those approaches. They exhibit a palpable shift from a liberalism whose aim it is to protect the virtues of the private sphere to one whose aim it is to vitalize the public sphere, continuing a process that began well over a century ago but playing down other established liberal ends.

The liberal core concepts of the general interest, of rationality and of limited power still underpin this philosophical dialogue, but more as indicators of decent and civilized conduct than as the distillation of substantive values that direct liberal policy. Notably, as Gaus puts it, the view he represents regards politics as the ‘continuation of ethics by other means’. The problem with this view is that it undermines politics as an autonomous area of human thought and action, and raises expectations of the political sphere as an impartial adjudicating arena of morality and virtue, one that liberalism simply cannot deliver. A more realistically grounded and flexible liberalism, a liberalism both principled and sceptical, might question that. Liberalism, to repeat, has throughout its history actively promoted certain choices and has regarded some features of public life as non-negotiable, dependent neither on consensus nor on adjudication. The bottom line is that no ideology, liberalism included, can forego the self-assumed responsibility of introducing its certainties into political life. Politics always includes that drive to finality on an ideology’s own terms, even when it is doomed to failure or to partial realization.

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