Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 L - Liberalism


Liberalism: Political orientation concerned with maintaining freedom.

There are many kinds of liberalism (some are called libertarianism), and many styles and priorities in furthering it. The name originates in the early 19th Century, when it started to be used for some Englishmen who opposed Conservatism.

It is difficult to define liberals and liberalism precisely, especially if one wants to make the definition apply to liberalism in different European countries, like England, Holland, France and Germany, while the term is used rather differently in the United States. But three kinds of ideas may be distinguished that have historically fallen under the label 'liberal':

1. Political liberalism: The notion that the state should remain small and relatively powerless, and the individuals in states should be mostly free to organize themselves, free to say and write as they please, and that these freedoms should be protected by the laws, and by courts and judges who are independent of the government.

2. Economic liberalism: The notion that trade should be free, and should happen in free markets, without state interference, such as the fixing of prices by the state, or the maintenance of tariffs and import or export laws or taxes by states.

3. Pluralism: The notion that a civilization and culture benefit by a plurality of beliefs, faiths, political orientations, and kinds of men, who all deserve legal protection to believe, preach and do as they please, in so far as they do this legally.

I will say something about each of these, but start with noting two things:

First, there is and has been an enormous amount of cant and posturing involving the term 'freedom'. This is understandable in as much as almost all men desire to be free to think and do as they please, but it should be noted that given that desire the main problem is how to maintain a society where the strong, the powerful or the majority is not free to repress, persecute or murder the weak, the powerless or the minorities. Thus, 'freedom' is easy to praise, easy to abuse, easy to misconstrue, and difficult to use responsibly, and difficult to practice in any case where different individuals or groups with different or opposing interests are concerned.

Second, the above three notions historically connected with 'liberalism' are not usually equally strong in political parties that call themselves 'liberal', and may also be part of the ideals of other political orientations. Thus, political liberalism as defined is also a tenet of anarchism, though this is often also, and in addition, some kind of socialism or a revolutionary movement, which more classical liberals often have been opposed to.

1. Political liberalism:

That the state should be small and individual freedoms large, and that the powers of the state fundamentally are at variance with the freedoms of the individuals subjected to it, are all ideals and ideas I agree with it.

The same holds for the notion that the individuals in states should be mostly free to organize themselves, free to say and write as they please, and that these freedoms should be protected by the laws, and by courts and judges who are independent of the government - though it is obvious that here there are and will be many problems, in that most will be mostly free in a society only if all are not free to do certain things they might like to, and will be punished for doing so, namely for committing murder, theft, fraud, exploitation etc.

Thus while the ideal of political liberalism is fairly obvious and easy to subscribe to from an interest in one's personal freedom to do and think and say as one pleases, it comes with many problems and some paradoxes about how it is best practiced in society, and how it may be ascertained that most are mostly free, without the strong, the bold or the evil abusing these freedoms to take them from the others.

It also should be noted that there are additional arguments that support the principle of political liberalism, besides the fact that most human beings seem to desire to be able to do as they please.

One is that there is in very many cases, including those of political ideals and religious faiths, no one who can intellectually prove to the satisfaction of most that his ideas and values are the true and right ones (see fallibilism).

A related notion is that there is very strong support for the notion that most good ideas and values are worked out only over the course of many generations, and require a considerable freedom of discussion.

Another is that it seems that the freedoms of most to mostly do as they please seem in practice best served and practised by all checking and controlling the tendencies of all to aggrandize their own powers, and by taking care that no individual, no group, and no faith can achieve the power over all.

And yet another and important one is at once paradoxical and true: While all men desire to do as they please, and there is no limit to their desires, and while all men desire power over others in order to do as they please, and satisfy their desires, and be protected from those who desire likewise or whom they have hurt or harmed or repressed, and while there is no good reason to believer or assume that the majority of men is noble, good, rational or honest, or willing or able to protect or even to perceive, feel or understand the interests of others like his own, the best defense each individual has against the evil that men may do to men, and often will do to men if they think they can profit by it and not be punished for it, lies in the limitation of the powers of the state, of institutions, and of wilful, fanatic or blind majorities. Again, the only feasible way to do so is by independent courts; by public rights; by fair and public trials; and by systems of carefully reasoned and maintained checks and balances of the powers of each group, institution and individual, so that none can achieve power over all, and all have some power against each.

2. Economic liberalism:

This kind of liberalism tends to be popular among traders, dealers, industrialists, and most others who hope to profit from making or selling commodities in a market, and it often takes extreme forms, in which any restriction on practices that have turned out to be profitable are rejected as 'illiberal', 'restrictive', 'unfree', 'intolerant' and the like. The catch-words and slogans here have been 'laissez-faire' and 'laissez-aller', as if unrestricted profit-making would or could benefit all or most, and even those from whom the profits were earned, or those who were 'freely' sold into slavery for profit. ("They would do it to us if we wouldn't do it first to them" - always a nice motivation in politics and economics for those who want to serve their own interests.)

It seems to me that the case of economic liberalism is like that for political liberalism, but with a number of restrictions concerning monopolies, oligopolies, exploitation, robbery, fraud, slavery and colonialism, all of which also have been defended or practiced under the guise of 'liberalism' and/or 'free markets'.

In brief: Rather a lot can be said in praise of economic liberalism and men's private initiative to better their own lot by trading and production of commodities, but all economic liberalism seems to need some effective legal bounds and restrictions so as not to turn into abuse of the weak by the strong, or the poor by the unscrupolous rich.

Besides, there also is a fallacy involved in quite a few kinds of economic liberalism that plead for 'free markets': There are no free markets without state protection and legal rules, not within states, and not between states. Each and every free market either was maintained by the state or by a city, or else existed only because and in the times of a relative balance of power between states or cities. And most of the rhetoric of 'laissez-faire' and 'laissez-aller' is no more than dishonest cant.

3. Pluralism:

Pluralism as defined is a kind of political liberalism, but more so, with special attention to the protection and furthering of different groups, faiths, interests, and kinds of human beings in one society or city.

It seems fundamentally a good idea for those who desire a high civilization, in as much as high civilizations tend to be pluralistic ones, and not those in which there is only one kind of permissible faith, and only one kind (race, ethnic group, religious faith, political ideology) of men, for while these may be strong and stable states, they are also usually poor, except perhaps for the ruling Úlite, and not highly civilized.

The problem with pluralism is that most human beings, especially in times of crisis or poverty, tend to be rather totalitarian and in favour of their own group and kind of men, at the cost of different groups with different backgrounds, for which reason pluralistic societies, while often richer and more interesting, also often are less stable than non-pluralistic ones.

By and large, the writer of this Philosophical Dictionary is a liberal, and then notably a liberal of the classical kind: The 19th Century English philosopher John Stuart Mill seems to be much more sensible on liberty and liberalism than most who have called themselves 'liberals' in the 20th Century. He is not a member of or believer in any modern political party or movement.

Also, besides Mill, those interested in politics or reforms should read Machiavelli and Mosca, since either or both may cure them from quite a few illusions. (Especially Machiavelli's 'The Discourses'.)


Also see: Anarchism, CommunismConservatism, Fascism,  Socialism, Ethics, Morals, Politics, Politics - introductory texts, Sociology, Ordinary Men, Democracy, Parlementarism


Machiavelli, Mill, Mosca

 Original: Mar 16, 2005                                                Last edited:12 December 2011.   Top