Three ways of defining liberalism have come down to us. One emphasizes substance, the second procedure, and the third temperament.
The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take. Expressed in this form, liberalism, as in the days of John Locke, is committed both to liberty and to equality. The question is what those terms mean under the conditions of modern political life.
With respect to liberty, liberals want for the person what Thomas Jefferson wanted for his country: independence. Dependency, for liberals, cripples. Human beings have minds and bodies, and both, liberals believe, should be free to exercise their full capacities: minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect, and bodies, through societies that guarantee sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life. When we have no choice but to accept someone else’s power over us, we fail to think for ourselves, are confined to conditions of existence resembling an endless struggle for survival, are unable to plan for the future, and cannot possess elementary human dignity. The autonomous life is therefore the best life. We have the potential, and are therefore responsible for realizing it, to be masters of our own destiny. This is why liberals insist on the importance of rights, including the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit, to speak for and assemble around causes in which they believe, and to possess a significant degree of control over their personal livelihood. Take away such individual rights—imagine a world in which religion (or irreligion) is coerced, freedom of speech curtailed, economic activity directed and controlled by the state, and no one allowed to organize and bargain collectively to improve their economic condition—and you have a political system that can only be called illiberal, whether it leans backward toward absolute monarchy or forward to some alleged socialist utopia.
Liberalism’s core commitment to individual autonomy does not mean that it refuses to accept the existence of authority, including authority that derives from supernatural forces or governmental power. (…) Much like conservatives, liberals believe that individuals live within an ordered world that necessarily constrains the ability of people to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. For liberals, however, such constraints are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control or shaped by traditions they cannot influence; they are established instead by people themselves through some form of consent or social contract. Independence cannot exist without interdependence. Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society.
This insistence on the importance of the social is frequently overlooked, but it cannot and should not be. “Men are not born free; they become free by means of Society and the State, which, while limiting the claims of individuals, in reality bestow upon these claims an effectual recognition and sanction, and elevate them from precarious facts to rights whose fulfillment can be confidently demanded,” wrote Guido De Ruggiero, an Italian historian of European liberalism, in 1927. “That is the real gain which the individual makes when he exchanges the uncertainty of natural liberty for civil liberty.” Or, as James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, put the point in more of an American context:
Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.
Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal. Liberals are not satisfied when only some people (…) have the chance to determine how they will live. Liberals believe in equality, but not as an end in itself; radical egalitarianism is more associated with the socialist tradition than with the liberal one. Liberals, rather, believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective; if independence is good for the few, it ought to be good for the many. How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.
One frequently hears that liberalism’s commitments to liberty and equality contradict each other. I certainly do whenever I address conservative audiences: Which liberalism are you talking about, they immediately want to know, the “classical” form or the “modern” one? Classical liberalism, in this rendition, is all about respecting private property and allowing individuals to pursue what they determine to be in their own self-interest without the coercive hand of government interfering in their decisions. Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist who published The Wealth of Nations in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, is the philosopher par excellence of classical liberalism; were he alive today, many of his followers insist, he would be a champion of Thatcher or Reagan, leaders who are called conservatives but are better described as libertarians, or advocates of the free market. Libertarians, to rely upon a distinction associated with the twentieth-century British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, are advocates of “negative” liberty, the key principles of which are not difficult to grasp: one is that freedom consists in the fact that no one can tell me what to do; and the other holds that when I am free to make my own decisions, my success is due to my own efforts and my failures are my own responsibility.
For those who think this way, classical liberalism, because it puts freedom first, is worlds apart from the form liberalism has taken in the twentieth century, which asserts the primacy of equality. Modern liberalism promises equality through what Berlin calls a “positive” conception of liberty: it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few. Positive conceptions of liberty hold that human beings ought not to be reduced to their passions or even their interests. They live for some higher sense of purpose than getting and spending and ought to be able to realize those ideals in the here-andnow through their own collective efforts.
Yet classical and modern liberalism are not nearly as distinct as those who insist on dividing them maintain. One, in fact, follows, if not logically, then certainly sociologically, from the other. Liberalism’s substantive commitments have to be understood in their historical context. In the eighteenth century, dependency was fostered by legacies of feudalism that made individuals subservient to their presumed superiors and, given the fixed status categories of the old regime, simultaneously created conditions that made it all but impossible for those in the lower orders to overcome their dependency. Under such conditions, autonomy and equality could both be furthered through the operations of a free market, for markets would provide opportunities for individuals to escape from the ties to which they were bound as well as give them a chance to improve their condition.
In more recent times, by way of contrast, dependency happens when people are too poor or too much the objects of invidious discrimination to develop sufficient autonomy. The eighteenth-century idea that people’s fates were intertwined because of the existence of society was transformed, during the twentieth century, into the conviction that government had to be called upon when necessary to make concrete the idea of the social; no more effective means existed by which those who already led independent lives could fulfill an obligation to offer assistance to those who did not. This was a solution not without its problems, for reliance on government, as I will argue later in this book, put a crimp into the consistency of all modern political worldviews. But the liberal proposition, tested by long experience, is that whatever dependencies result from using public policy to address modern inequalities, the resulting gains in individual mobility, development of physical and mental capacity, and racial and gender equality far outweigh them. This is why Smith, writing in the eighteenth century in opposition to the regulation of business by government, and Keynes, writing in the twentieth century in support of it, were, substantively speaking, both liberals. Their disagreements were over the means by which large numbers of individuals could achieve control over their lives, not over whether they should.
The same is not true of twenty-first-century Smithians. To advocate today what Smith advocated yesterday—a free market unregulated by government—is to foster greater, rather than lesser, dependency and less, rather than more, equality. This is not always the case; in the aftermath of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a reliance on the market could and did unleash pent-up human potential in ways that contributed, at least for a time, to both greater liberty and equality. But in the highly organized and concentrated forms taken by capitalism in the contemporary world, removing government from the marketplace does not allow large numbers of people to become entrepreneurs in ways that enable them to set the terms by which their lives will be led; it instead allows firms to reduce their obligations to their employees and thereby make them more dependent on the vagaries of the market. At the same time, it increases the gap between rich and poor such that, even if the poor improve their condition, which they do not always do, they do so in ways dramatically unfair compared to the other improvements taking place around them. And by ignoring the tendency of employers or other people in authority to prefer people like themselves to those who are different, it sanctions forms of irrational prejudice that keep members of stigmatized groups from reaching their full potential. You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, exposing them to greater risk of accident, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society’s most well off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years.
Liberalism’s substantive commitments to freedom and equality represent a political position; they are meant to defend particular goals against other political positions that either oppose such goals or assign a low priority to them. In the eighteenth century, liberalism’s opponents were those who protected a caste system in which favorable birth gave a small minority advantages available to no one else. In the twenty-first century, liberalism stands in opposition to forms of conservatism that justify hierarchies of unequal opportunity; versions of libertarianism that, by giving big business too much power, give ordinary people too little; and lingering legacies of socialism that run roughshod over individual rights in their determination to achieve greater equality. Liberalism in the substantive sense of the term is partial as well as partisan; to realize their substantive goals, liberals must organize on behalf of them and influence public opinion to obtain them.
In addition to its substantive content, liberalism can also be defined according to procedural means. Liberalism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when constitution writing was all the rage, and the constitutional imperative reflected a desire to create rules that would enable competing interests within society to peacefully negotiate their differences. For liberals, proceduralism is the only realistic alternative we have to violence. In the absence of agreed-upon rules in the international arena, war is inevitable. Without adherence to procedures in domestic life, civil war threatens. Liberal thinkers have come up with a variety of terms to express this commitment to proceduralism, ranging from Locke’s social contract to such American constitutional practices as the separation of powers and checks and balances to the movements of the twentieth century to create international bodies designed to prevent war such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. What links all of them are the shadows cast by two political philosophers who called attention to the ubiquity of, and need for, force in the world of public affairs: Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance man who gave the rulers of his day strikingly coldblooded advice about how to retain their power; and Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century Englishman, and rival of John Locke, who insisted that only a powerful sovereign could prevent a return to a barbaric state of nature in which life is, in one of the most chilling phrases ever written by a political philosopher, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid such a fate, liberal proceduralists held, government must achieve sufficient neutrality between contending parties to win their trust, and that can be accomplished only through agreements to which all parties commit themselves.
Procedural liberalism, in contrast to substantive liberalism, refers to a moral ideal rather than a political goal; its goal is fairness or impartiality, the idea that anything that applies to any one person must apply to every person. Liberalism in this meaning of the term is not necessarily opposed to political conservatism, certainly not the anti-ideological conservatism of the twentieth-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott or those followers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré to the United States and inspiration for contemporary neoconservatism, who have done so much to help us appreciate the importance of the American founding. Nor does it stand in opposition to libertarianism. If anything, libertarians have been even more vigilant than liberals in the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary power. And even those forms of socialism that left behind the idea of government ownership of the means of production in favor of a less intrusive commitment to the welfare state adopted a sympathy toward liberal proceduralism. Procedural liberalism’s real opposition is to absolutism: the notion that a ruler need not be bound by rules.
Understood in a procedural sense, a liberal is anyone who supports a constitutional form of government; believes in a government of laws rather than of men; holds that exceptions to general rules should be rarely if ever granted; and accepts the principle that the party in power cannot change the rules of achieving power to benefit itself.
In addition to sharing core substantive convictions and a preference for procedural means, liberals are characterized by a distinct temperament. The first use of “liberal” in a political sense took place in 1810, when Spanish delegates to the Cortés, or parliament, meeting in Cádiz, adopted the term to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government. But the word “liberal” existed etymologically long before it existed politically. “Liberal” stems from the Latin liber, or “free.” Because it originated as an adjective whose meaning was dependent on whatever noun it was modifying, “liberal” has always had a rather capacious—dare one say liberal?—meaning; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary points out that “liberal,” besides meaning free, can also mean generous, abundant, large, gentlemanly, unstinting, lax, candid, and unprejudiced. Legacies of that broad meaning abound today: students do not study something called the conservative arts and many societies claim to be liberal democratic while none call themselves conservative democratic. In ordinary usage, “liberalism” refers not only to a substantive political program and a morality emphasizing fairness; it also possesses a connotation emphasizing an openness to the world.
The liberal temperament has more to do with psychology than with politics or morality. “Liberalism” in this meaning of the term seeks to include rather than to exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than to stigmatize, to welcome rather than reject, to be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean. Temperamentally, liberals are impatient with arguments rooted in fear and selfprotection. They tend to see the past’s improvements in the human condition as reason for anticipating continued improvement in the future. To be sure, liberals recognize that evil can lurk in the hearts of men and women and that some political systems—by definition, illiberal ones—have been evil in the extreme. But they hold that the existence of the bad does not make impossible the realization of the good. On the contrary, the fact that some societies lack liberalism’s generosity of spirit is all the more reason for liberals to insist on reform, not only in the public and political sense but in the private and human one.
As was true of liberal proceduralism, temperamental liberalism is trans-ideological. (…) Temperamentally speaking, liberalism is not defined by the positions one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.
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By Alan Wolfe from The Future of Liberalism (2010).
Emphasis in the original. I have tried to strip this quotation from criticism and superfluous examples in order to shift the focus towards the “ways of defining liberalism”.