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Original text: Liberalism

Summarized: 4 minute read

Liberalism is more than one thing. In this entry, we will contrast three interpretations of liberalism’s core commitment to liberty, and ask whether liberalism is a comprehensive or a political doctrine.

1. The Debate About Liberty

1.1 The Presumption in Favor of Liberty

A liberal believes in liberty and believes that political authority and law must be justified. If citizens are obliged to exercise self-restraint, and especially if they are obliged to defer to someone else’s authority, there must be a reason why.

Hobbes is generally treated as one of the first and greatest social contract thinkers, and he is also seen as an advocate of absolute sovereignty. Yet, Hobbes’s model of government is sharply limited in this most important way.

1.2 Negative Liberty

For Berlin, liberty is the absence of coercion by other agents, and the liberal state’s commitment to protecting liberty is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without compelling justification.

1.3 Positive Liberty

Many liberals have been attracted to more ‘positive’ conceptions of liberty, such as Rousseau’s, but Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet claimed that a person can be unfree in another way, a psychological rather than political way, if he is subject to an impulse or craving that cannot be controlled.

For Green, a person is free only if she is self-directed or autonomous, and this ideal of freedom as autonomy has its roots in Rousseau’s and Kant’s political theory, as well as in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

Green’s autonomy-based conception of positive freedom is often run together with a notion of ‘positive’ freedom, which is the effective power to act. This conception of positive freedom closely ties freedom to material resources.

1.4 Republican Liberty

The republican conception of liberty is distinct from both Greenian positive and negative conceptions, and is primarily focused upon “defenseless susceptibility to interference, rather than actual interference”. This view is often cashed out in terms of complex counterfactual claims, which are not adequately explicated.

2. The Debate Between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’

2.1 Classical Liberalism

Liberal political theory fractures over how to conceive of liberty, and another crucial fault line concerns the moral status of private property and the market order. Classical liberals view private property as an embodiment of freedom.

Classical liberals believe that private property protects liberty, and that no protection can be effective without private property. They believe that a free market economy based on private property protects liberty against encroachments by the state.

Classical liberalism is a spectrum of views, from near-anarchist to those that attribute a significant role to the state in economic and social policy. It was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class, women, blacks, immigrants, and so on.

2.2 The ‘New Liberalism’

New liberalism, or revisionist liberalism, challenges the connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order. It is based on the belief that a free market can’t sustain a prosperous equilibrium and that government can.

The third factor underlying the currency of the new liberalism was probably the most fundamental: a growing conviction that property rights foster an unjust inequality of power. This theme is central to what is now called ‘liberalism’ in American politics.

2.3 Liberal Theories of Social Justice

Rawls’s famous ‘difference principle’ holds that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities such that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off representative group. Many followers of Rawls have focused less on the ideal of reciprocity than on the commitment to equality.

Rawls insists that welfare-state capitalism is not a just basic structure and that a market socialist regime is more just than welfare-state capitalism. Classical liberals argue that freedom depends on a decentralized market based on private property.

Nozick argues that patterned principles can’t be continuously realized without continuous interference with people’s lives. If society achieves perfection, must it prohibit everything so as not to upset the perfect pattern? Nozick argues that weakly patterned principles are compatible with liberty, and that some may even promote liberty, depending on how they are introduced and maintained. He cites Anderson (1999), Young (1990), and Sen (1992) for work that resonates with Nozick’s dissection of the dimensions of equality that plausibly can count as liberal.

Even granting to Nozick that time-slice principles license immense, constant, intolerable interference with everyday life, there is some reason to doubt that Rawls intended to embrace any such view. Instead, Rawls meant to endorse a pattern of equal status, not a distribution of advantages.

3. The Debate About the Comprehensiveness of Liberalism

3.1 Political Liberalism

Rawls’s liberalism is not a comprehensive doctrine, but a political framework that is neutral between controversial comprehensive doctrines. It is also important to appreciate that liberalism has been associated with broader theories of ethics, value, and society.

3.2 Liberal Ethics

The liberal ethic is a perfectionist moral theory about the good life, which claims that the good life is necessarily a freely chosen one in which a person develops his unique capacities as part of a plan of life.

The main challenge to Millian perfectionism comes from moral contractualism/contractarianism, which is a view that society is best arranged when it is governed by principles that do not themselves presuppose any particular conception of the good.

The distinctively Hobbesian contractarianism supposes that individuals are self-interested and correctly perceive that a common framework of norms that structure social life and divide the fruits of social cooperation enhances the ability of each person to effectively pursue her interests.

3.3 Liberal Theories of Value

There are three main candidates for a liberal theory of value: perfectionism, pluralism and subjectivism. The pluralist argues that values are plural, that the pursuit of one end necessarily implies the foregoing of others, and that there is no way to achieve them all.

All three views of liberal ethics agree that reasonable people pursue different ways of living, but they require an additional argument linking liberal value with norms of equal liberty and the idea that other people command a certain respect simply by virtue of having values of their own.

3.4 The Metaphysics of Liberalism

Liberalism is usually associated with individualist analyses of society, but in the last years of the nineteenth century this view was increasingly subject to attack. ‘Organic’ analyses of society held sway in liberal theory, even in economics.

During and after the Second World War, the idea that liberalism was based on inherently individualist analysis of humans-in-society arose again. This was a result of the reemergence of economic analysis in liberal theory and the induction of Hobbes as a member of the liberal pantheon.

Recently, there has been a renewed interest in collectivist analyses of liberal society, and a number of critics have charged that liberalism is premised on an abstract conception of individual selves as pure choosers, whose commitments, values and concerns are possessions of the self, but never constitute the self.

4. The Debate About The Reach of Liberalism

4.1 Is Liberalism Justified in All Political Communities?

In On Liberty Mill argued that liberal political principles are not justified for all political communities, and that despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.

4.2 Is Liberalism a Cosmopolitan or a State-centered Theory?

The debate about whether liberal principles apply to all political communities is not the same as the debate about whether liberalism is a state-centered theory, or whether it is a cosmopolitan political theory for the community of all humankind.

4.3 Liberal Interaction with Non-Liberal Groups: International

Liberal political theory fractures concerning the appropriate response to groups that endorse illiberal policies and values.

Mill argues that ‘barbarians have no rights as a nation, except to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming a civilized nation’. He then develops a more sophisticated account of when a civilized state can intervene in the affairs of another.

Many liberals propose various principles of toleration which specify to what extent liberals must tolerate non-liberal peoples and cultures. Rawls argues that liberal peoples must distinguish ‘decent’ non-liberal societies from ‘outlaw’ and other states, and that liberal peoples must try to encourage decent peoples.

4.4 Liberal Interaction with Non-Liberal Groups: Domestic

The status of non-liberal groups within liberal societies has increasingly become a subject of debate, especially with respect to some citizens of faith.

In Wisconsin vs. Yoder, the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of Amish parents to avoid compulsory schooling laws and to remove their children from school at the age of 14. Some liberal theorists have argued that the state should intervene to protect children.

Rawls’s liberalism allows religious-based arguments to be used in liberal political debate, provided that the arguments are supported by public reasons. However, some liberals argue that even this is too restrictive, and that it is difficult to justify a moral prohibition on a religious citizen from voicing her view.

5. Conclusion

Liberals reject various conceptions of political right, including the overriding value of equality, the demands of belongingness trump freedom, and the liberal devotion to freedom undermines traditional values and virtues.

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