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

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Liberal excesses and arrogance

Liberalism did not invent the rule of law but it became its champion. Within the right package of values, the rule of law is an embodiment of good procedure, of fair treatment, of rights protection, and of the predictability needed to ensure the smooth running of a political system. But if the rule of law is divorced from democratic control—as was the case with British rule in India prior to 1947, and in other British colonies—what goes under the name of liberalism ceases to be liberal. Instead it becomes a strict, often repressive, imposition of law on a dominated society, without the quality of mercy, decency, or respect. Liberal standards of culture and education condemned colonial societies to an inferior status. Attempts of local societies to express dissent, to protest against imperial laws, or to follow their own practices were often quelled harshly. The free development of individuality, so cherished by liberals at home, did not apply to many cultures abroad. The greatest advocate of that triad, Mill, thought no differently, as the following passage shows (race was a people, a cultural and ethnic entity, in his terminology):

… we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. …Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.

In addition, the expansion of capitalism and of markets under the aegis of free trade does not hide the fact that they have frequently been employed as instruments of imperial dominion and exploitation, as Hobson knew. In the cases when so-called liberal states have been guilty of such exercises of power, they have excluded themselves from the liberal family, no matter what lip-service they may have paid to liberal ideals and visions. The fact that societies that were on the whole domestically liberal pursued shockingly illiberal policies abroad may then either be seen as the failed extension of an external liberal civilizing project or, more plausibly, simply as a deviation from the core beliefs of liberalism—chiefly from the universal claims to liberty and individual development it espouses.

In domestic policy, too, liberalism has had a fraught relationship with democracy, some of it justifiable, some not. From many points of view liberalism is an elite doctrine, catering to the educated, or maybe only those educated in a certain set of Western and Northern European values that then spread with uneven success to other corners of the globe. Liberalism lacks a populist appeal and cannot be delivered in easy slogans or sound bites. There is undoubtedly a visible paternalist streak among liberals—their high-mindedness, their self-belief in a civilizing mission, and their over-emphasis on education as the key to citizenship. Reading Mill’s On Liberty, it is difficult not to assume that Mill regarded himself as a model for the free progressive individual he envisaged, remote from the experiences of the majority of people, about whose political capacities he had serious reservations. When one reads current political philosophers, the onerous requirement many of them endorse for people to reflect on and assess continuously their life-choices could only come from an intellectual’s desk. No less notably, the more liberalism relies on regulatory measures to optimize the life-chances of all the members of a society, and the more it entertains a homogeneous and unified view of society, the more its directive tendencies come into play. That is evident especially in layer four liberalism, the layer that produced the welfare state with its parallel enabling and steering practices.

Liberalism’s paternalism, with its professed benevolence of privileged classes towards the marginalized, is not of the hard kind, arrogant or overbearing by design. It is rather a soft paternalism driven by a genuine reforming urge. Nonetheless, throughout the 19th century and beyond, liberals promoted an idea of what a desirable character would look like and set preconditions for full participation in the growing democratic process. At first only property holders, then only those with minimal educational standards, were deemed fit for the full burdens of citizenship. Women fared even worse. In the UK, for example, they were excluded from full voting rights until 1928, including the years of the reforming liberal administrations between 1906 and 1914. One reason given was that they were insufficiently independent and their votes would be influenced by their fathers, brothers, and husbands—you cannot get more literally paternalist than that!

Having embraced democracy with initial reluctance, liberals sought to achieve social regeneration and establish benchmarks of what decent living would resemble, leaving many of those benchmarks to be determined by experts. Thus, individual contributions to social insurance schemes were made compulsory in order to render them financially viable. Many apparently liberal welfare policies, particularly in the USA, had punitive consequences for workers. American progressivism, too, was not exempt from paternalist traits, with Walter Lippmann extolling the importance of experts in relation to the general public in his book Public Opinion. There may be nothing wrong with putting one’s trust in experts, provided they are under public scrutiny, but liberal policy-making tended to rush ahead of such consultation. Too many people were considered to be incapable of producing the social visions that could emancipate them. When UK Liberal governments introduced compulsory social insurance schemes over a century ago, they were resisted by older style, second and third layer liberals, as ‘the newer Liberalism of Social Responsibility and …Paternal Government’. But other liberals saw that compulsion in a different light. The economist and politician L. Chiozza Money wrote:

It is not difficult to get the average man who works for his living to see that the compulsion of democratic law is not only a different thing from the economic compulsion to which he must day by day submit or starve, but that by virtue of the compulsion of law he may find mitigation of economic compulsion and even be saved from it.

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