Although it is difficult to define, liberalism is now the dominant political philosophy.
By James Fodor
In this piece I want to discuss the political philosophy of liberalism, outlining its key tenets, the historical context in which it has arisen and developed, and discuss its relationship to various rival ideologies in the political landscape.
Although I consider myself to be a liberal, and therefore cannot claim to be unbiased, my purpose here is not to convince others to adopt liberal ideology, but rather to explain and clarify a number of terms and concepts which are endemic to our political discourse, but which are nevertheless widely misunderstood or misused.
To begin, I must first address the thorny question of terminology. In this essay I will use ideological terms in a manner which I think is most consistent with insightful political theory, and which best facilitates the purpose of historical analysis and comparison of competing positions.
This means that the way I use terms will not always align with how those terms are used in the political discourse, where terms are frequently appropriated, discarded, or projected upon others for the purpose of point-scoring rather than conceptual clarity.
Perhaps no word has more commonly been subject to this misuse and confusion as the term liberal, which can mean anything from left-wing, to centrist, to right-wing, depending on the context.
In Australia, a “Liberal” is generally understood to be a member or supporter of the Liberal Party of Australia. This is emphatically not how I am using the term liberal in this piece.
In the United States, by contrast, the term liberal is used to refer to what in Australia we might call progressives, or even socialists. This is also not how I use the word.
The British usage of the term, for example with reference to their Liberal Democrats, is closest to the traditional meaning of the term in political philosophy, and thus most closely aligns with my usage in this essay.
Modern liberalism arose, roughly, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily as a challenge to the existing autocratic, traditional monarchies in Europe. Liberals challenged these political institutions on a number of fronts, generally appealing to Enlightenment ideals of reason and the possibility for human progress. Outlining the key tenets of liberalism is always a problematic endeavour, because the ideology has been deeply contested and divided almost since its inception. Nevertheless, several key ideals and perspectives lie at the core of liberalism, all of which have been widely supported by prominent proponents of liberalism over the centuries:
● Individualism: liberals regard the individual as being the primary social and political actor. It is individuals who make decisions, take actions, have preferences, possess rights, and exercise freedoms. While not denying the power and importance of social groupings, liberals hold that the most basic and important political relationship is that between a state and its individual citizens. The state exists to protect the rights of individuals, to promote equality between individuals, and to promote individual freedom.
● Freedom: central to liberalism is the notion that people should be free. Freedom takes many forms, including political freedom, religious freedom, economic freedom, and freedom of speech. Liberals often express this support of freedom in the form of the no-harm principle: people should be free to do whatever they wish, so long as this does not harm others. Of course, what constitutes “harming others” is deeply contested, but nonetheless this overarching principle is central to liberal thought.
● Equality: liberals have always affirmed two key beliefs about equality. First, that all people everywhere are born fundamentally equal; second, that the state should treat all its citizens, equally. Exactly what these two statements mean has been subject to constant and bitter dispute amongst liberals for centuries. Today differing notions of what constitutes “equality”, some focusing on “quality of treatment” and others on “quality of outcome”, continue to form the fault lines along which political boundaries are often drawn. Nevertheless, the deep commitment to equality is distinctive of and fundamental to liberal ideology.
● Rule of law: this principle is derived from the commitments to equality and individualism. By it, liberals affirm that the state should establish transparent, just laws that apply equally to everyone. Law and politics should be conducted in accordance with these rules, not according to the whims of individuals or arbitrary traditions. Regular, free democratic elections are one of the most important manifestations of this commitment in a liberal state.
Liberalism’s Dominance and its Critics
Some readers may perhaps be thinking that the positions I have outlined above are mostly a matter of common sense. After all, who could disagree with freedom, equality, and the rule of law?
In fact, many people have and still do disagree with various aspects of these liberal positions, rejecting them in whole or in part. The reason they may perhaps seem so self-evident and unchallengeable is because liberalism has become the dominant ideology of our time. Most people living in Western countries today are liberals, even if they would not describe themselves as such. Similarly, nearly all major political parties in democratic countries today have substantively (though not completely) liberal ideologies. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this even applies to most political parties that describe themselves as conservative or socialist. In large part this is because the very political system which we inhabit in today’s world is built substantively upon a liberal framework, and parties which reject this framework typically aim to overturn the current political order. Under normal conditions, such parties are marginalised and have limited electoral appeal.
However dominant liberalism may now be, there nevertheless exist major competing ideologies which, at different times in history, have provided very substantial opposition to liberalism. In particular, both socialism and fascism (discussed below) were widely popular alternatives to liberalism during the crisis period of the Great Depression. As is the case for liberalism itself, much diversity exists within each of these ideological traditions, and generalisations can only be made with caution. Furthermore, many attempts have been made to synthesise various aspects of these traditions, and other political approaches exist outside the four main ones which I discuss. Nevertheless, I do think it is still helpful to talk about these traditions as each possessing a core set of beliefs which are distinctive and generally consist across their various incarnations. I think that an understanding of these approaches to politics, and where they differ, can cast considerable light on political discourse, and clarify many disputes which may otherwise remain mysterious.
The oldest opponent to liberalism I loosely call “conservatism”, a term that is nearly as confusing as the word liberal. Conservatives are typically defined by their desire to preserve some existing status quo, but what exactly that status quo consists of can vary dramatically depending on the context.
For example, in August of 1991 a group of hard-line communists attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and halt his liberalising reforms of the Soviet Union. In any other context these conspirators would most probably be described as elements of the far left, but because they were attempting to preserve the existing set of political institutions, they were characterised as “conservative”.
Likewise, much of the language of American conservatism, with its veneration of the United States constitution, the Bill of Rights, individual liberty, and freedom of speech, is conservative only in the sense that it wishes to preserve what are nevertheless fundamentally liberal institutions.
Notwithstanding their usage in current political discourse, the American founding fathers were by no means considered conservatives during their lifetimes; in fact many of them were vital early contributors to the liberal intellectual tradition. In my use of the term conservative, therefore, I do not simply mean anyone trying to preserve the political status quo. Rather, I am referring to adherents to a certain set of conservative ideological positions, as developed by European intellectuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in reaction to perceived excesses of liberals, which was thought to offer a partial defence of existing social and political institutions against liberal calls for widespread reform.
Conservative ideology differs from liberalism in a number of key ways. Critically important is that conservatives are much less likely to accept the individualist approach to politics taken by liberals. Instead, conservatives typically emphasise the importance of social institutions, particularly the family and the church, as vital social and political actors in their own right. Individualism is replaced by communitarianism, which holds that society is not merely an aggregate of isolated individuals, but consists of overlapping communities in which persons are inextricably embedded.
Conservatives are likely to see the role of the state as supporting and promoting these institutions, as well as in upholding traditional social values, all of which they see as important for promoting social harmony and continuity. Conservatives typically value tradition and social stability, arguing that any reforms should be slow and cautious so as to avoid misguided attempts to overturn longstanding social customs that have proved their value by standing the test of time.
This emphasis on tradition often brings conservatives into conflict with liberals who argue that such policies can inhibit efforts to promote freedom and equality. Conservatives, for their part, are likely to reject various aspects of the liberal notion of the equality of all persons. Traditionally, this was manifested in a very explicit belief that nobles were in some real sense “better people” than common folk; it was reflected in the widespread pre-modern practice of applying different laws and penalties according to one’s social rank.
Modern-day conservatives are unlikely to explicitly endorse such practices; however, they are typically more suspicious of what they see as the overly idealistic liberal notion that all individuals are fundamentally equal, or should be treated as such in all contexts. Conservatives are more likely to think that individuals vary greatly in abilities, temperament, and disposition, and that as a result hierarchy is, at least to some degree, a natural and necessary component of human societies.
In emphasising social stability and tradition, conservatives are more likely to favour rule by accepted customary practice rather than by explicitly defined, rationally developed, and universally applied laws favoured by liberals. Conservatives often regard such overly rationalistic legal frameworks as doomed to failure if they ignore the accumulated wisdom of customary legal traditions.
While conservatism was the primary opponent of liberalism in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century a new, very different ideological opponent developed. For my purposes here I will refer to this broad set of ideologies as “socialism”, though others might argue that communism or even anarchism would be more appropriate.
The many distinctions that have been made between socialism, communism, anarchism, and the many variants of each do not interest me here. Instead, what I want to focus on are the core commonalities that characterise this approach to politics and how they challenge and contrast with liberalism.
Socialism developed as a distinctive and self-conscious opposition to liberalism. While joining liberals in opposing traditional forms of political oppression and hierarchy, socialists argue that liberals fail to recognise the overwhelming social harms wrought by the economic system of capitalism. Socialists believe that a wide range of social ills are caused directly or indirectly by exploitation of the working class by profit-seeking capitalists, and as a result they argue that, in order to truly achieve the ends of human equality and empowerment, capitalism must be abolished and replaced with a fundamentally different economic system.
Although they differ in exactly how they wish to bring this about, and what such a system would look like, socialists are united in the core belief that the means of production (factories, land, etc.) should be collectively owned, and that many or all forms of private properly abolished.
This key distinguishing feature of socialism is very important to understand, because many people who describe themselves as socialists do not, in fact, count as socialists under this definition. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, while describing himself as a socialist, does not support socialisation of the means of production, and therefore is more properly classified as a social democrat.
In championing the socialisation of the means of production and abolition of private property, socialists adopt quite a strong understanding of equality, in which persons cannot be said to be equal unless they have access to comparable material resources. Thus, legal equality and social welfare programs championed by many liberals are judged as insufficient to achieve what socialists regard as true equality between people.
Similarly, socialists reject the liberal notion of freedom, with its focus on being free from being harmed by others or the state, and instead champion a more positive conception of liberty, which emphasises the importance of empowering people with the ability to achieve their desired ends.
Socialists also oppose the individualist focus of liberals, arguing similarly to conservatives that humans are not atomic individuals, but are fundamentally socially embedded. Unlike conservatives, however, they tend to emphasise as paramount the position of individuals within a particular socio-economic class, and consider the interactions between these classes as fundamental to political developments.
This collectivist approach to social and political relations is often extended by anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, and other critical theory approaches, which focus on group solidity and identity in political interactions, arguing that the excessive individualism of liberalism is both mistaken and, insomuch as it facilitates the perpetuation of unjust social systems, oppressive.
The final class of political ideologies that I want to discuss in this piece arose in the early twentieth century in simultaneous reaction opposition to conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. I will use the termfascism to describe this broad collection of anti-Communist, anti-Liberal, far-right authoritarian movements, although the label is especially problematic because few people openly identity as fascists, and as such the word should be used with considerable caution.
Fascism also tends towards anti-intellectualism, and therefore does not have nearly as well developed philosophical justifications as the three ideologies discussed so far.
Despite these difficulties, several broad generalisations can be made about fascism and related political ideologies.
First and foremost, fascism is authoritarian, rejecting the egalitarianism of liberalism and socialism in favour of the belief in the inherent superiority of some people or groups over others, and adopting the view that strong, decisive leadership is of vital importance for a nation to succeed. As a result of this belief, fascists reject parliamentary institutions and the rule of law as being harmful impediments to the orderly and efficient management of public affairs. In contrast with conservatives, fascists generally do not regard social stability or tradition as necessarily valuable, but instead often campaign for a revolutionary reshaping of social and political life in accord with some idealised end.
Fascists unite with socialists in rejecting individualism, but while socialists regard class as paramount, fascists generally consider nationality, ethnicity, or race to be the primary social groupings along which social and political life is managed. Related to this is the adoption by most fascist movements of some extreme form of nationalism, which usually involves imbuing their nation or ethnic group with a mythical origin story and grand destiny.
Fascist movements typically see their nation or people as under dire threat by internal or external opponents, and regard themselves as leading a revival movement of borderline mystical or spiritual significance. Often, but not always, this ultra-nationalism is accompanied by racism, especially anti-Semitism.
Finally, fascist movements are populist in nature, meaning that they appeal frequently to the popular will and the sentiments and fears of everyday people, while generally eschewing more academic forms of intellectual justification or appeals to complex argumentation.
One manifestation of this emphasis on popular appeal is the widespread provision of social welfare programs by fascist movements, something that was instrument to their popularity in Italy and Germany. Whilst sometimes leading to those movements being described as socialist, these programs are typically not motivated by socialist egalitarianism ideals, but primarily by a sense of national communal solidarity and unity of purpose.
Why Ideology Matters
Having an understanding of the key foundational principles of liberalism and its major ideological competitors is invaluable for being able to understand both historic and contemporary political disputes. The core foundational institutions of our current economic and political system, including electoral democracy with one vote per person, a system of laws equally applicable to all, and a largely capitalist economy with significant state intervention to promote social equality, all only really make sense within the framework of liberal ideology.
Without the belief that individuals are the fundamental political actors, that economic, political, and social freedoms are exceptionally valuable, and that all persons are fundamentally equal, these institutions would lack any justification and make little sense. Indeed, it is precisely because they reject or drastically reinterpret some or all of these core principles that some groups at the extreme ends of the political spectrum oppose liberal institutions and advocate for their abolition.
Much more common for mainstream political parties is to combine their support for these fundamentally liberal principles with elements from other ideological traditions. Typically the “left-wing” party combines liberal thought with some elements of socialism (as in the Labour Party), while the “right-wing” party instead incorporates elements of conservatism (as in the Liberal Party). Given their common commitment to core liberal ideas, the difference between major political parties in Western nations is thus typically much smaller than political rhetoric alone would lead one to believe
Many of the political debates that shape our contemporary political discourse are disputes largely internal to liberal politics. Often these relate to one of the critical tensions which is intrinsic to liberal thought: namely the tension between a desire to promote individual freedom on the one hand, and social equality on the other. Efforts to promote equality often require sacrificing freedom, while increasing freedoms can often result in increased inequality or social injustice. Different people manage this trade-off differently, and also differ in their precise interpretations of such abstract notions as “freedom” and “equality”.
Liberalism is thus not a recipe one follows to arrive at clearly defined policy positions, but rather a general ideological framework for conceptualising the proper role of the state, and its relationship to individuals in a just society.
Whether you, like me, regard liberalism as immensely valuable and a great force for good in the world, or whether you regard it as naïvely optimistic, overly individualistic, intrinsically oppressive, or dangerously degenerate (as various critics have claimed), a proper understanding of liberal ideology is nevertheless essential for engaging in informed political discourse in today’s world.
James Fodor is in his third year of a science degree at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the blog The Godless Theist.
From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 101, Winter [June] 2016: 32 – 35. Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, www.rationalist.com.au
(Posted here with permission of the author).