The Present Meaning of Liberalism

The Present Meaning of Liberalism. An estimate of the meaning of liberalism and its present position in political theory must take account of the fact that the word is used, with some consistency, in two senses, the one more restricted and the other more general.


This usage, however, is not arbitrary, for there are valid historical reasons for both. In a narrower sense liberalism is used to mean a political position midway between conservatism and socialism, and one that is favorable to reform but opposed to radicalism.

In this sense it is thought of as congenial with the outlook of a middle class rather than of an aristocracy with a vested interest in the status quo or of a working class with a policy of regulating or even supplanting business enterprise.

This restricted meaning of liberalism is perhaps more characteristic of Continental than of recent Anglo American usage; Marxists regularly describe liberalism as a capitalist. political theory aiming at economic laissez faire, or at least at the closest practicable approximation to laissez faire.

In a more extended meaning liberalism has come to be used as nearly equivalent to what is popularly called democracy, in contrast with either communism or fascism. On a political level this sense of liberalism implies the preservation of popular institutions of government, like the suffrage, representative assemblies, and executives responsible to the electorate, but it means more generally political institutions that acknowledge certain broad principles of social philosophy or of political morality, by whatever methods these may be realized.

In this extended sense liberalism cannot, of course, be identified with the ideology of any social class or with any restricted program of political reform; it may be spoken of as the culmination of the whole Western political tradition or the secular form of Western civilization. Far apart as these two meanings of liberalism are, both are related naturally to the history of liberalism in modern politics.

In its early history English liberalism was quite literally a middle class political movement which reflected the effort of a rising industrial class to gain a political position consonant with its increasing importance in an economy rapidly becoming more industrialized. Its policy was directed largely toward abolishing obsolete restrictions on industry and trade, and its opponent was a landowning class with a vested interest in retaining these restrictions.

Laissez faire was a not unnatural slogan for a liberal program. It is not unfair to say that this early liberalism was doctrinaire in its theory and sometimes reckless in its policy. It was doctrinaire especially in holding a psychology which was largely a stereotype of behavior in a competitive market, but which it imagined to be a scientific account of human nature at large.

It was reckless especially in overlooking the social destructiveness of unregulated capitalism and in merely taking for granted a backlog of security and stability without which its own program of political and economic liberty would have been impossible.

By exaggerating the fact that law always limits freedom, it minimized the more important fact -which it tacitly assumed-that freedom without law is impossible. Nevertheless, after all these criticisms have been given full value, it is a gross exaggeration to say that even early liberalism was motivated solely by the interests of a single social class; to imply, for example, that the long-run benefits of Bentham’s legal reforms accrued only to middle-class Englishmen.

Moreover, even when laissez faire was a dogma of liberal philosophy, it never covered the whole program of liberal legislation. Labor legislation in England is usually dated from 1802, and though it went slower than it should, by the end of the nineteenth century liberal legislation meant social legislation more typically than it meant legislation to enforce economic competition.

From John Stuart Mill on, no important liberal thinker except Herbert Spencer defended a theory that even approximated laissez faire. To identify liberalism with a purely negative theory of the relationship between government and the economy is a tendentious exaggeration, not worth discussing.

A reasonable discussion of this relationship might be addressed to the question at what point would the regulation of business enterprise become a hazard for political liberalism? For a liberal may reasonably doubt whether a totally planned economy can be made compatible with political freedom.

The period between about 1850 and 1914 was extraordinarily stable compared with what either preceded or followed. Party differences which then seemed large covered in fact a considerable degree of substantial agreement. It is no truer to call liberalism the philosophy of an industrial middle class than to call conservatism the philosophy of a landed gentry, yet neither thought of their differences in terms of a Marxian class struggle.

English conservatives Opposed liberal reforms, but few of them had any hope, or any serious wish, to reverse them, and it was in fact a conservative government that in 1867 enfranchised the English working class. At the opposite end of the political spectrum the Communist Manifesto was indeed the program of a revolutionary working-class movement, yet Marxism never had more than a marginal effect on either the theory or the practice of English trade unionism.

In Germany, where socialism was in theory both Marxian and revolutionary, and where the socialist party gained considerable voting strength, its successes were gained through legislation; by the end of the century revolution had ceased to be a serious part of its policy.

The age was one in which men could flatter themselves that evolution had replaced revolution, and could believe, with a show of reason, that some kind of representative institutions, or at least some kind of popular government, would gradually inherit the political world. For the time being all parties within the range of practical politics were content to keep their aims within limits that could be approached by these methods, and conversely, movements that transgressed these limits remained for practical purposes marginal.

A philosopher like Nietzsche, who denounced the whole period as a triumph of complacent stupidity, could be dismissed as an eccentric literary man. Across this era of good feeling the war of 1914-1918, with its aftermath of communism and fascism, drew a line as sharp as that which the French Revolution drew across the eighteenth century.

Both communism and fascism were avowed, even blatant, enemies of liberalism in deserting the practices of liberal politics and in claiming to possess new philosophical principles. Both claimed to be the exponents of true democracy and branded liberalism as sham democracy, yet both overrode the civil liberties that democratic constitutions had been designed mainly to protect and destroyed the political liberties that had been the supports of democratic government.

Both denied that the protection of rights and liberties is a primary purpose of government, and also that the individual human being is a competent judge either of his own ultimate interests or of the policies and practices which governments ought to follow in order to protect a general or social interest.

Both set up a collective entity the race in the case of fascism and society or the community in the case of communism-as the possessor of a higher value than the individual and described human beings as agents or organs of the collectivity. Both, therefore, described politics as a mystery above the grasp of ordinary men and conceived it as the function of an elite endowed with a special capacity or faculty.

Fascism represented this  capacity as instinct or intuition or genius beyond the range of ordinary intelligence. And communism represented it as a higher type of science and therefore the prerogative of experts trained to recognize the necessary course that historical progress must follow.

These claims were obviously incompatible not only with the policy and the program of liberal governments but with the philosophy an which liberalism was built. The claim that politics was the prerogative of geniuses or supermen violated the liberal assumption that problems which arise in the political and social relations between people must be solved by intelligence and good will, simply because human beings possess no faculties higher than these for solving any kind of problems.

The claims of the fascist leader to higher powers seemed to the liberal to be nothing better than the claims of a charlatan, which in fact they turned out to be. The communist claim to a higher form of scientific knowledge was in form a rational claim but it violated another principle fundamental to liberalism. For social relations between human beings had always been taken by liberals to be moral relations and therefore to be settled in the last resort by moral judgments, which by their nature could not be merely matters of scientific knowledge.

From the standpoint of a liberal the concept of a moral expert was, as Kant had said, a contradiction in terms. That there is in politics a necessary place for experts was not only a principle of liberalism; on good historical grounds it might even be claimed as a discovery of liberalism.

But liberal politics had always believed that the political expert was ancillary to the policy maker, whose final decision was not simply an estimate of causes or a calculation of chances, but a judgment of fair play or justice or long-run interest or general well-being hence in the last resort an ethical judgment about what ought to happen rather than a factual judgment about what will happen.

To a liberal, therefore, the communist idea that moral judgments can be geared to the course of history, that the concept of progress could be made to do duty for the concept of right, seemed to be a roundabout way of saying that anything Is right If it succeeds.

Because political decisions are ultimately moral choices, it had seemed to liberals that they ought to be reached by a free interchange of ideas and an open airing of differences, in what Justice Holmes called a free market of ideas. For human experience has revealed no better way of arriving at a reasonable consensus.

Analysis of these claims seems to show that liberal political philosophies have depended on two postulates, assumptions, or axioms whatever is the proper expression. One may be called individualism,  in contrast with any form of collectivism, though the word has been used in too many senses to be self-explanatory. The other-for which there is no obvious name-is that the relationships between individuals in a community are irreducibly moral relations.

To these should perhaps be added a third postulate, namely, that the first two are not mutually contradictory, or as Green said, that the nature of a human individual is such that he is intrinsically a social being. While these postulates were in fact generally made in modern ethical philosophy, so that they do in fact represent the Western political tradition, there is not and has never been a standard or generally accepted way of stating them.

Individualism in some form or other has usually been regarded by liberals as an axiom of any theory of value. For liberals who stood in the Christian tradition it would perhaps have seemed as well stated by Jesus as by any philosophical system when He said, The Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. In modern ethical philosophy it was stated in two different ways, according as the theory leaned toward an ethics of the good or toward an ethics of obligation or duty.

The first might be represented by Bentham’s statement, Individual interests are the only real interests, and the second by Kant’s principle that respect for persons, treating them as ends rather than as means, is the essence of morality.

The two forms of statement are by no means interchangeable but they have a common core in both being individualist. The idea behind Bentham’s statement was that if anything has value at all, the value must accrue to someone, somewhere, in the form of an actual human experience. His greatest happiness principle was little more than a corollary of the axiom, and his pleasure-pain psychology was an elaborate, and quite irrelevant, effort to underwrite it with a pseudo-scientific theory of behavior.

Kant’s ethics, different as it was from the ethics of the Utilitarians, was still at one with them in being individualist in the sense here in question. For Kant’s principle meant that human personality is uniquely valuable; if the worth of a social practice, an institution, or a form of government were in question, its effect on people taken as individual persons would have to provide the standard of measure.

The self-realization principle of idealist ethics was Kantian at least as much as it was Hegelian, and apart from Bentham’s pleasure-pain calculate, there was ho reason why Green’s political philosophy might not have been said to accept a greatest happiness principle as its standard of public well-being.

Like Bentham’s jurisprudence, English idealism based its analysis of any political question on a presumption in favor of individual liberty, or put the burden of proof on the side of restraint or coercion, assuming that coercion had to justify itself by a net gain in freedom when everybody’s interests are counted. In substance this was an individualist theory of political value, in that it took any requirement to be means, relative to its effects on human individuals as ends.

Some such assumption was very deeply embedded in the tradition of modern political theory, and it had been expressed in a variety of philosophical idioms. The most forthright expression of it had been the theory of natural rights, with its assertion that men are created equal and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

When this mythological or allegorical mode of expression became offensive to Bentham’s common sense, he did not really clarify liberal theory by substituting the standard of utility. For utility is a relative standard it means setting the largest result with the least expenditure of energy, and Mill was probably right when he said that the early liberals were more interested in efficiency than in liberty.

The authentic liberalism of Bentham’s jurisprudence depended on the vitality of the natural rights tradition long after it had become an old-fashioned political idiom. Mill’s introduction of qualitative differences between pleasures and pains was an attempt to rectify the relativism of utility and was logically required to keep Bentham’s theory unambiguously liberal, even though Mill’s reasoning on this point was never very clear.

The attempt of the Oxford Idealists to adapt Hegel’s philosophy to the support of liberalism was in reality more questionable, for in important respects Hegel’s social philosophy was not liberal. His blunt assertion that human beings are expendable in the interest of their nations is in fact more in the spirit of Marx’s equally blunt assertion that they are personifications of economic categories.

Because of the nature of English politics the Idealists could close their eyes to the authoritarian aspects of German Hegelianism, but even so, the differences that developed among Green’s students showed that the alliance with Hegel was not altogether an easy one. At the same time Hegel’s philosophy was a very powerful and important analysis of society, stressing its institutional nature, which English social philosophy had never adequately appreciated.

It served temporarily as a corrective which the idealists could profitably use, even though it was not a stopping point for a liberal political philosophy. Apparently such a philosophy must postulate the human individual as uniquely the source of value, and by whatever name it is called, this postulate serves the same purpose as a natural right. Presumably this is the reason why liberal philosophies have again and again reverted to some type of natural rights theory, even though they have never agreed on the best way of stating it.

The second postulate mentioned-that the relations between human beings in a community are irreducibly moral relations-means that a community exists because the people in it do more or less recognize each other as ends or sources of value, and therefore as beings having rights and with a moral claim on the obligations that mutual rights impose.

In Kant’s language a community is a Kingdom of ends. A political problem in the last resort is therefore a problem in human relations to be solved with a mutual recognition of rights and obligations, with self-restraint on both sides but equally with determination on both sides to stand on one’s rights. Within such a relationship issues and disagreements will evidently be perennial, set by the problem of finding a livable footing on which to conduct the innumerable transactions that constitute a human community.

The liberal presumption is that their solution can be found by discussion, by interchange of claims and proposals, by negotiation, adjustment, compromise, always on the presumption that both sides honestly recognize rights and perform obligations in good faith. And the institutions of such a community are thought of as primarily providing the means by which discussion can end in a meeting of minds that reduces sheer coercion to an unavoidable minimum.

They exert authority, but it is still a kind of loose-fitting authority which is only rarely burdensome and on the whole is largely self-applied by the people concerned. For a community with its settled practices is as natural as the private notions of the people in it. They are born in it, adjusted to it, and more inclined to feel at home in it than to find it oppressive.

Still, at points, it always can be oppressive, but this is a problem of piecemeal refitting rather than a problem of pulling down the structure and rebuilding it on a new plan. Its history is an endless patching up, but one in which the continuity of the community is never broken or lost, in which it would always be less than true to say that the community is merely a means to an extraneous end, and yet in which the fate of its human material is always a primary claim. This, it may be supposed, is a simplified version of what Green meant when he called his philosophy a restatement of natural rights but also reiterated that human beings are by nature social.

Green’s version of liberalism did indeed take something from Hegel and yet it remained profoundly different from Hegel. What made Hegel’s social philosophy important for the nineteenth century was its representation of a society as a constellation of institutions. Institutional history and an institutional treatment of economics and political were relatively novel discoveries, and Hegel’s philosophy embodied the discovery.

This was an insight almost lacking in early liberalism, which virtually assumed that a society has no structure or history at all. It could therefore imagine a laissez-faire economy in which unlimited self-interest, if only it is intelligent, works out automatically to a provision for all public interests whatever. In a sense institutions are impersonal parliament can go on for centuries, subduing its members to its own settled modes of operation, even though these never exist except in the behavior of the members themselves.

Yet Hegel’s concept of a society as merely a system of forces generating change by their internal tension was as one-sided as the laissez-faire concept of a market without an institutional structure; its virtue consisted in being one-sided in the opposite way. Similarly, Marx was quite right in saying that conditions peculiar to an industrial society create a class of wage earners who in turn create labor unions that are new institutions, but this does not mean that they thereby act like personifications of economic categories.

They act like human beings with a problem, who propose to do something about it, and they can form an institution because they are able to specialize their behavior into the role of membership in an organization, which is a characteristic of human behavior. It is precisely this tendency to think of societies as combinations of personified abstractions that makes the theories both of Hegel and Marx illiberal. It is expressed in their describing all kinds of oppositions as contradictions a yes against a no.

The solution has to come by way of a struggle, between nations in the case of Hegel, between social classes in the case of Marx. For Hegel civil society was a system of mechanistic regularity without intelligence or self-direction, much as capitalism was for Marx an anarchy of production.

Nothing reduced Hegel’s civil society to humane proportions except the imposition on it of a state, just as nothing made capitalism tolerable to Marx except that it was to be destroyed and superseded by a different kind of society and a different kind of person.

Green’s insistence that human beings are naturally social was really quite different. It amounted to saying that the organization of society is no more external to people than the organization of their own characters; it exists solely in the fact that in general people do meet their obligations, play the parts their institutions require, and that they can do this solely because they are people and have personalities.

The defect of Green’s analysis was its excessive abstractness and generality, as if instead of being a matter of everyday experience, human sociability was a rare feature of human behavior that had to be superimposed by argument on human self-sufficiency. He habitually uses social in the singular number and sometimes with a capital.

The fact is, of course, that society is an abstraction, a general term for an incredible complication of interlocking groups and associations into which human beings fall, some temporary and insignificant, some, like the family for example, enormously older and humanly more important than any kind of political organization. Social groupings are no more unusual or mysterious than the biological mechanism of an individual human organism (though both are mysterious).

For every normal person is a member of innumerable such groups, or stands in a variety of relationships with other persons, withe whom he more or less identifies himself and his interests. He shifts from one such set of relations to another without a jar and usually without any elaborate or self-conscious preparation.

None absorbs him completely, and he doubtless retains a native capacity to be a member of many others that in fact he never is a member of His loyalty to one may, of course, conflict with his loyalty to another, but this is the exception rather than the rule, for usually two groupings fit together quite smoothly without friction and without unusual effort.

A family may, of course, carry on a continuous vendetta with its neighborhood, but this is hardly characteristic. The individuals in them may get split personalities by trying to belong to both, but this is not the rule. The personal or private interests of an individual may and often do conflict with his obligations or his interests as a member of a group but they are not conflicting per se; belonging to a family may be a difficult or disagreeable job, but most human beings accomplish it without a sense of irreplaceable loss.

In short, the relation between egoism and altruism, private interest and public interest, is a logical problem because these are abstractions. How one and the same human being has both kinds of interest is quite a different matter, because in fact he always does. An over-all problem about how human beings come to be social is both artificial and gratuitous; they are social simply because they are human.

The implication of this analysis for political liberalism is that society or a community is one thing and a state is a wholly different thing. Society is all-inclusive but it is also pluralistic, needing no single overarching organization or authority to hold it together, while a state is an organization but for that reason is not all-inclusive. Instead, it is one of the innumerable forms of association that people belong to, with limited functions and consequently limited powers.

The function of society is an absolutely meaningless combination of words, just as the function of a human being in any over-all sense is meaningless; unless the expressions are given some sort of theological meaning. The function of a state is perfectly appropriate expression. And even We state is defined as having a monopoly of legal authority, it is still not inconsistent to suppose that its authority is exercised by legal processes and within the limits of constitutional guarantees.

The framework of legal rights and obligations that a state supports within a com«unity is still a framework and not a strait jacket; it can leave an area of privacy within which an individual can do as he likes at-his own responsibility, and it can leave functions and rights to other associations and groupings of people, even if the state exercises specific regulatory powers over them.

A crucial characteristic and perhaps the most important characteristic of a liberal government is the negative quality of not being totalitarian. Historically liberalism grew up in a European community with a relatively high degree of cultural unity but also with relatively independent centers of power. It included not only states but a church or churches; it always included a great and a growing variety of corporations and voluntary associations that had a considerable range of free action and that also exercised in fact very effective disciplinary powers over their members.

The right of voluntary association was an extremely important aspect of individual freedom. The picture of a liberal political community as a mass of unattached individuals combined only by common citizenship in a state was never approximately a fact, but only a figment of a few philosophers under the stimulus of the French Revolution. Obviously, corporations other than the state can be as oppressive and as illiberal as the state, but this does not justify the idea that people would be free if they had no organization.

It is a question also whether any human community, even a very primitive one, was ever simple enough to have only one organization. Certainly no modern society can even approximate such a condition, and both fascism and national socialism demonstrated that experiments in this direction were both fictions and disasters.

If then a community is bound to include a multitude of associations that are all at least potential power centers, on what terms can it be governed? It is possible to assume, as Hegel more or less did and as Lenin definitely did, that all the directing has to be concentrated in one place, the state or the party, and that regulation and direction are practically synonymous with dictation.

The liberal assumption, on the contrary, is that government can more reasonably be made a matter of continuous consultation, discussion, and negotiation, with a frank acceptance of the fact that a state has to content itself with limited objectives and the employment of limited means.

It depends on assuming that, though a human community depends on agreement, one useful form of agreement is just agreement to differ. It depends also on assuming that, given intelligence and good will, a consensus can be reached which provides enough agreement to support collective action, and that the latter can be reasonably effective without being oppressive.

It makes the generally empirical assumption that open discussion is after all the best test of an idea, and it has therefore candidly to accept the conclusion that politics is intrinsically controversial and its procedures partisan. For entirely legitimate interests even in the most homogeneous society in fact often conflict, and again, empiricism leans toward the-position of the Common Law, that letting each side state its own case, even at the cost of bias or a degree of mendacity, is after all the best way of getting at the truth or reaching a fair decision. From this liberal point of view a government is first and foremost a set of institutions designed to regularize public reflection and discussion, and the weighing of contrary claims to the end of evolving a workable policy.

A government is undoubtedly an organization of power, and Bentham was quite right when he said that law exists to make people do what they would not do without it. But power exerted after a rational weighing of claims is morally different from naked force, and it may well be more intelligent. For human wisdom consists less in certainty than in a built-in corrigibility.

It is obvious that these presumptions of liberal government in particular cases may not be true. They posit conditions, especially moral conditions, that often do not exist. They presume on the part of a government a fair recognition that it acts on a consensus that is almost never complete, and that in acting on the will of a majority, it has still to keep a decent regard for the minorities it does not represent.

They presume that government will give to minorities the right to organize and propagandize, that minorities will observe the line between opposition and subversion, and that both sides will observe self restraint in contaminating the sources of public information.

The system requires sincere acceptance of that fact that no party’s tenure of power ought to he perpetual, that an organized opposition is a necessary part of a liberal government, and that only legitimate methods may be used to keep it out of power. It requires a set of constitutional institutions to support, and as far as possible to enforce, this kind of political morality. And above all it requires a community with a strong sense of its own solidarity and concern for the public interest, with a generally educated population, and probably with a degree of experience in working the required institutions.

Read More Related Topics :

      1. Modernized Liberalism
      2. John Stuart Mill Liberty
      3. The Principles of Social Study
      4. Herbert Spencer
      5. The Idealist Revision of Liberalism
      6. Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism
      7. The Present Meaning of Liberalism

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