The True Meaning of Liberalism

Analysis of political issues across the world

The True Meaning of Liberalism

Postby Michael » 02 Dec 2013, 17:29

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a superb article on Liberalism - the political philosophy, not the degraded progressivism conservatives incorrectly denounce as Liberalism (a rule: don't let your opponents control the vocabulary)*. The authors, Gerald Gaus and Shane Courtland, provide the best definition of liberalism as a political philosophy I have ever read:

[*That is, calling them Liberals give them power because liberalism is one of the presumptions of our Western worldview (more about this below)]

A liberal is someone who believes that freedom is normatively basic.

That is, a liberal presumes that the onus is on the person who wants to restrict freedom to argue for why it is necessary.

We find it difficult to understand how fundamental this principle is to our view of the world because it has become so completely triumphant. We no longer live in the world before the English Civil Wars and the American* and French Revolutions - those worlds of ancient custom, tradition, and restriction presumed that freedom was specific, historical, and granted. No aristocrat in the time of William the Conqueror argued for his right to control his estates as he saw fit from the universal right to property - he pointed to specific grants from a king in relation to his or his ancestors' services to the Crown. Burke is one of the last men to understand and embrace this vision of things, which makes his writings often hard for modern people to understand.

[*We often forget that apart from Jefferson's high-flown rhetoric of universal human rights in the Declaration of Independence the actual grievances of the Founding Fathers and the American colonists were with new restrictions and claims by the English crown, not with old restrictions. It is the French Revolution that truly launched the idea of universal, ahistorical rights into the world, with all their consequences.]

It is the difference between a world that presumes total control and restriction on action, with freedom a thing created within its structures, versus a world that presumes total freedom, where all control and structure is the created thing (or, is treated as if it was created).

It is only when we travel outside the West to traditional societies and the Islamic world (or meet them in immigrant ghettoes within our cities) that we encounter the presumption of control again, and it seems alien and inhuman to us. Even the Communists carried out their terrible crimes and repressions by making arguments about how their actions were necessary and were aimed at creating a new, greater form of freedom than had hitherto existed.

What freedom really consists in, whether it is negative (freedom from interference) or positive (freedom to follow one's real, rational desires), is a great source of controversy, but our arguments with progressives are arguments inside the same house. We are all revolutionaries, and are holding our debates after the revolution.

In short, I recommend the article in its entirety - much good food for thought about the different varieties of liberalism and where we differ from our opponents.
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Re: The True Meaning of Liberalism

Postby Mike » 03 Dec 2013, 01:24

Thanks for the link Michael. I'm about halfway through it. It's a very hard read, but worth it!

At university (I did a year of philosophy) we were gently encouraged to admire Mill, but I've gradually come to realise that some of his ideas have had quite a pernicious effect on the modern world - perhaps not as much as Rousseau's, but consider this (quoted from that link):

Individuality is the same thing with development, and…it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings…what more can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

The essential problem with the first bolded quote here can be seen every day in the field of education. Creativity idolised at the expense of knowledge, a certain not just moral but epistemological relativism which allows wrong answers to be praised, external signs of individuality being confused with independent thought, etc., etc.

The second bolded quote, not specifically but certainly by implication, suggests that human beings are fundamentally perfectible. To my mind, this strain of thinking is only associated with the later stages of liberal thought and is its chief weakness, in that it tends to lead to the conflation of the intentions of a policy designed to improve human behaviour with the results of such a policy, not to mention the process involved, which is so often of a highly illiberal nature.

Might post some further thoughts when I've made my way through the rest...
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