Liberalism:

a few bits of recapping about the idea of ideology....

Ideology denotes a set of social and political ideas which are a) critical of other social and political ideas, systems, and values AND b) make prescriptions about how society and its values should be organised – offer a positive vision of the ‘good’ (a prescription of an ideal form of) society.

 

Situating Liberal arguments amongst other ideologies

 A particular ideology, (eg.  liberalism,) often criticises other viewpoints (eg. socialism, conservatism, Marxism, fascism) by starting with its own BASIC VALUE(s) and seeing whether other views incorporate that basic value AND accept it as basic rather than secondary. If they don’t, then the other view is not good enough. Of course, you then start arguing whether that particular ideology’s basic value is itself justified as being basic.

For instance:  One of LIBERALISM’s basic values or fundamental beliefs is that society should aim to maximise individual freedom. Thus LIBERALS will use this value as the test for the VALIDITY of other social and political ideologies. If they can show that, say, SOCIALISM or CONSERVATISM do not protect sufficiently, individual freedom, they will reject them.

 But the SOCIALIST or the CONSERVATIVE will argue against the LIBERAL by saying that individual freedom may be important, but it is not the most important value i.e. not absolutely basic, thus it is not the only test of the other competing ideologies and political ideas.

 A socialist may agree with the liberal on some things, eg. that individual freedom is good in promoting creativity and artistic expression – (we do not want to be obliged to listen to only one kind of music – variety is the spice of life)…

 BUT if individual freedom leads to a greedy me, me, me society of nobody caring for the poor or the elderly, then that is a bad society. The socialist would argue that the interests of the whole of society must be considered prior to the question of how much individual freedom there should be. Thus for the socialist, the welfare of society as a whole is more basic as a value than the liberal’s individual freedom.

 The liberal and the socialist have different starting-points (primary or basic values) and thus from these will want different kinds of ‘good’ societies and politics using different policies.

Thus we can see that ideologies differ in terms of basic beliefs – this is what makes them ultimately INCOMPATIBLE.

I may share your basic belief, only I do not think it is basic – I do not value it as highly as you do, I therefore differ from you over this.

We may agree exactly on what are relevant beliefs (the range of beliefs) but differ in our valuation of each of them, and thus hold very different conceptions of what society should look like.

 

Liberalism: said to emerge from 18th century ‘enlightenment’ thinking in France, Germany, and Scotland. Places emphasis upon the ideas that social and political structures are to be arranged so that they do not interfere with, and indeed should promote, the development of individual freedom and flourishing.

Suspicious of the State which, the liberal says, has historically tended to curtail or oppress freedom, thus liberalism is moderately anti-statist.

Liberals have no great respect for tradition and doing things in a certain way because that is the way these things have always been done (thus anti-conservative).

Argues that we should do things and have goals and purposes in the light of what reason tells us – what our intellect dictates, not what society may irrationally demand. Thus the preference for reason over tradition,

and against mob-culture (populism) and against class collectivism (marxism/socialism)

The liberal is forward-looking (a modern chap), like to improve things in line with bright ideas of reasoning. For him all individuals are of equal value, thus tends to be unsympathetic to class or elites.

A bit of an intellectual and thus seen as being part of the intellectual ‘liberal’ elite. i.e. not one of the workers. Tends to idle around as a university lecturer.

 

If one takes liberalism to breaking point we end up with the ideologies of

a) libertarianism and b) anarchism...but those are for another day.

 

We need to identify several strands of liberal thought.

as such, we should start from what is the unifying concept that warrants the use of the term 'liberal' ..

AND remember that it is not just a concept as an intellectual abstraction but a felt 'existential' notion that drives and inspires people's actions

 

and for the Liberal....

it is an idea of freedom but one that it is argued requires a mediating, albeit somewhat residual, state so as to balance the maximisation of the freedom of persons to self-flourish with the stability of the state institutions that make that ensure that prior maximisation.

 

That a state is accepted, indeed required, by the liberal keeps it from anarchism or libertarianism...and...that the state is circumscribed by maximisation of individuals' rights to enable self-determination and self-flourishing is what keeps it out of the way of more top down systems such as socialism and marxism.

 

You may notice that I have drawn a distinction between self-determination and self-flourishing. I think this matters as it also seems to draw a distinction between negative and positive liberty that has been at the root of much historical debate about the character of liberalism and indeed of political theory as a whole.

 

To be free - to have liberty is it key to

a) be unimpeded by a (political) force i.e. to be free is to be free from interference - negative liberty = free from

OR

b) to be enabled to carry out my form of life as I wish  (self-realisation/self-flourishing) - positive liberty = free to be/do

both a and b are underlain by the rider that my freedom does not interfere with the equal freedom of others.

(otherwise I would be taking an egoist position associated with the german 19th C thinker, Max Stirner - see his 'The Ego and its Own - itself providing the intellectual basis for a strand of late 19th C american individualist anarchism.)

 

(a) is often regarded as the basic theory of liberty of the strand of liberal thought usually called classical liberalism that is associated with the great 17th C philosopher John Locke, and, perhaps most prominently with, the mid-19th C thinker and all-round utilitarian intellectual, John Stuart Mill - whose 1859 pamphlet Essay on Liberty is perhaps the finest statement of classical liberal ideas. But between Locke and Mill is not only a matter of two centuries but of two different concerns.

Locke in his famous 2nd treatise on government - primarily a supplementing of his attack in his 1st treatise on the divine right of kings doctrine with an account of the origins of political authority in terms of natural law, natural rights, and social contract theory -is offering us an account of the limits of government - of were it begins and ends as well as how it may rightfully begin and end, and the degree to which the individual has a right of resistance.

The very idea of natural law and rights makes liberty a condition of existence such that mankind chooses the form of government rather than it being imposed by some prior entitlement by an existing monarch appointed by God -the divine right of Kings theory defended by Filmer and Hooker who were directly attacked by Locke's treatises.

 

In s.22, Locke writes:

"The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under another legislative power, but that established by consent, in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what the legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it."

 

Note the distinction Locke uses between a) natural and b) social (e.g. civic) liberty AND also note the implication of a right of resistance in the last phrase. i.e. if the trust between government and people is abrogated by the government then the government falls/can be overthrown and a new contract can be made between people qua individuals to agree to a new government.

It is man's reason that causes him to assent or forbear from assenting, to a regime; and equally it is his reason that  will assent to the regime of laws that come from government. One can work out - can see - what is right -that life is preferable to death ad that we should aim to preserve life etc./ In other words unlike his utlitarian19thC successors Locke held an objective rational morality that saw that laws were a realisation of human reason and thus would preserve rather than hinder freedom. As such then for Lock a balance of natural rights, laws and good government would be the guarator of freedom for all individuals....

JS Mill's liberalism as captured in his Essay on Liberty is not really about the limits of government and political authority but about the limits of populist democracy and freedom of speech. But it raises the question of where government ought to step in to ban certain things from being said and discussed on behalf of 'decent' society/public opinion. Mill's liberalism rooted in a subjectivist assessment of right and wrong according to a perception of the excess (utlity) of advantage over the disadvantage of an action locates judgment not in laws of nature that all will consent to, but in personal (subjective) evaluation of outcomes. His limits to authority lie in the equal freedom principle that so long as I do not encroach on anybody else's sphere of action or force them to do something they would no otherwise do, then I am free to act. As against Locke this make a theory of the origin of government a bit of a problem as, if our judgment are rooted in our subjective perceptions of the moment what are the chances that we would come together to institute a system of authority and laws that protect the freedoms of everybody?

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. (Mill)

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign....

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation.(Mill)

 

 

(b) is often regarded as the basis for what is called Social Liberalism - a form of liberalism that emerged in Britain at the end of the 19th century as a reaction against what was seen as the harshness of 'social darwinist' survival of the fittest - the individual utility maximisers - of a crude version of Mill's classical liberalism.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a group of British thinkers, known as the New Liberals, made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and argued in favor of state intervention in social, economic, and cultural life. The New Liberals, which included intellectuals like T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favorable social and economic circumstances. In their view, the poverty, squalor, and ignorance in which many people lived made it impossible for freedom and individuality to flourish. New Liberals believed that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong, welfare-oriented, and interventionist state.

Inspired by the ideas of Plato and of Hegel, philosophers such as TH Green, largely from Balliol College, Oxford under the tutorship of its Master, Benjamin Jowett envisioned an organic ethical state whose duty it was to maximise the capacities of persons to become choice making self-transformative agents. It is out of this idea of self-realisation that social work settlements were created by Oxford sponsorship at the end of the 19th c (e.g. Canon Barnett)

Green believed that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals will have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. But the state must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby stifling the moral development of the individual.

 

This was an age in which public do-gooding by the social elites was at its height as well as a development of civic liberalism whereby powers to local government to provide and manage public amenities was emerging.

All this improvement of the conditions of everyday life was aimed to make for a better life for the worst off and enable tem to have opportunities to realise themselves with the provision of public libraries and art galleries as well as those provided by the big industrialists of the day. It also chimed in with an intellectual and cultural liberalism of key writers such as the great victorian poet and literary critic, Matthew Arnold (see pp. 14-16 of this set of extracts) who argued that the availability of literature and art can transform the spiritual welfare of all individuals as moral agents that has been corrupted by the vicious pursuit of untamed industrial capitalism...and thus even the menial worker can become a free-thinking critic!...well perhaps not..but it was a noble vision.

 

At this point liberalism expands its remit out of a purely political commitment to rationalist individualism as the basis on which state power can emerge i.e. contract theory a la Locke - and thereby the necessary connection between persons, the democratic state, accountability, and participation, into a positive promotion of the socio-cultural character of the self aided by some measures of state intervention or by noblesse oblige/largessse of private wealth...and this kind of liberalism has influenced politicians such as Blair and his pushing of the idea of equality of opportunity, not so much as an economic situation (the expensive option) but as promoting strategies of reducing discrimination so that people can flourish and make of themselves what they choose...if they make the effort.

Of course this rather point us in the direction of how liberalism links to capitalism -not because there is a natural link - but because under a liberal scheme of things what reasons could we adduce from stopping people from exchanging goods? But surely not in an uncontrolled way - lest we have say a 5 year old giving away some valuable good in exchange for a small but desired in-the-moment toy to an adult...but a defence of economic liberalism a.k.a. the free market which since the3 mid-1970 was re-fashioned as neo-liberalism is perhaps a topic to be covered under the terms of Conservatism as this form of 'liberalism, which may well have appalled Locke and Mill, was closely linked to an intellectual and then to a policy led assault on welfare liberalism of the last quarter of the 20th century by Mrs Thatcher and some of her political mentors such as Sir Keith Joseph and John Biffen influenced from the Chicago economist Milton Friedman and the Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek.

 

 

Questions on Liberalism:

 

 

1)  Why is liberalism an ideology of modernity - i.e. opposed to an appeal to tradition?

 

 

2) Should reason and reflection always be the basis for political judgment..or does feeling and culture count for something?

 

 

3) Distinguish between political and social liberalism.

 

 

4) Should freedom of speech trump the claims against giving offence?