When people first used the word ‘liberal’ as generous or ample they had little idea of the mighty current liberalism was to unleash. Some indication of its future life emerged when ‘liberal’ became associated with open-mindedness and tolerance. But ever since the term ‘liberales’ was coined in Spain two hundred years ago to represent a political party, liberalism has been positioned squarely on the public stage: as a rallying cry for individuals desiring space to be free from unjustifiable limitations, and as a set of fundamental institutional arrangements meant to legitimate and civilize the practices of politics. Above all it has become indicative of ideas and policies intended to reform, to emancipate, and to open up possibilities for individuals wishing to live their lives according to their own understandings. Like all ideologies and collectively held belief systems, liberalism competes over public recognition and implementation, and like all of them it has also been decried from numerous quarters.
Yet the problem is this: There is no single, unambiguous thing called liberalism. All the liberalisms that have existed, and that exist, select—deliberately or unconsciously—certain items from an accumulated and crowded liberal repertoire and leave others out, both because some elements are incompatible with others and because intellectual fashions and practices change. As a consequence, a host of belief systems and theories nest under the heading liberalism, none of which can contain all the possibilities—the ideas and the political arrangements—that the term in its maximal but hypothetical fullness can encompass, or that liberal political practices have encompassed over time and across space. Consider for example phrases such as classical liberalism, social liberalism, or neoliberalism: three versions that are still current today. Classical liberalism revolved around individual liberty (the close etymological relation of liberalism), human independence, and the rule of law, and it importantly restricted what states and governments were entitled to do to individuals. Social liberalism—and the new liberalism that emerged in Britain just over a century ago, in tandem with some of its Scandinavian social-democratic counterparts—explored the conditions for individual development and growth, sustained by networks of mutual assistance and interdependence. From that branch of liberalism arose the modern welfare state. However, in a particularly confusing way, ‘neo’ and ‘new’ pull in very different directions. Neoliberalism—a product mainly of the second half of the 20th century—emphasizes the beneficial consequences of competitive markets and personal advancement far more than the general nourishing of human well-being. Its liberal credentials are highly contentious, as will be argued in . Those who think that liberalism is largely about unrestrained private activity and those who believe liberalism is about the reasonable development of individuals in a mutually supporting and project-sharing society do not have too much in common.
No less strikingly, there is often disagreement over which of liberalism’s features is the most important, a disagreement evident among both liberals and their critics. Is liberalism about the increase of individual liberty or about treating everyone with equal respect? Is it about limiting harm to others or about enabling human flourishing? Is it about being more humane or more productive? Is there one true liberalism surrounded by shadowy imitations? Have other ideologies pecked away at liberalism like vultures, carrying off some of its choice parts but leaving the rest to shrivel? The challenge for the student of liberalism is to make sense of these different understandings rather than to express a rigid preference for one of them. It may therefore be more accurate to talk about liberalisms in the plural, all part of a broad family exhibiting both similarities and differences (). Many members of the liberal family overlap in their characteristics, but some are hardly on speaking terms.
1. This word cloud represents some of the diversity and internal complexity of the ideas comprising liberalism and from which different liberalisms may be fashioned. Even then, it does not include privacy and property, which many believe are also integral to liberalism.