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The Meaning of

Liberalism
by Edwin van de Haar

Drawing on the work of Michael Freeden,


Edwin van de Haar argues that supporters of
liberty only really require three labels.

Liberalism as a political idea has become far too complicated. It


appears there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals. To name
just a few: libertarianism, classical liberalism, bleeding heart
liberalism, economic liberalism, political liberalism, social liberalism,
high liberalism, minarchism, objectivism, anarcho-capitalism, and of
course neoliberalism. In international relations theory you can also
find neoliberal institutionalism, liberal internationalism or embedded
liberalism, while no doubt additional liberalisms can be found in other
academic subjects. Clearly this all amounts to an incomprehensible
liberal mess, which needs to be sorted out.

Getting a decent grasp of liberal political thought does not have to be


this complicated. As a rule of thumb you only need to keep in mind
one of the perennial questions in political philosophy: what is the just
relation between the individual and the state? Roughly, there are three
liberal answers: the state should have (almost) no role in individual
life, the state should have a limited role, or the state should have a
fairly large role. The liberal variants that are associated with these
answers are libertarianism, classical liberalism and social liberalism,
respectively. To be sure, these three are not fully mutually exclusive,
and the thinkers associated with the variants do not always neatly fit
the categorization, certainly not over their whole writing careers. Still,
this divide into three is much better than the alternatives, including the
grouping of classical liberalism and libertarianism under one
libertarian label, which is unfortunately also the case at this great
website!

Conceptual Approach
The divide-into-three rule of thumb mentioned above remains valid
after more elaborate analyses of liberalism, based on the writings of
the British political theorist Michael Freeden. Put briefly, Freeden
argues that every political ideology should be seen as a framework
composed of a number of political concepts. These concepts vary in
importance while their meaning is contested within the ideology. It is
possible to distinguish core, adjacent and peripheral concepts, which
together make a unique set of political ideas. While some of the
individual concepts overlap, there is significant variation between the
frameworks. This enables the distinction between different liberal
variants, which are still part of the larger liberal family.
For example, the concept of liberty is key to all liberal variants, but
liberty has different meanings. Isaiah Berlins famous divide between
positive and negative liberty is relevant here. The latter can be defined
as the freedom from interference by others, the first the freedom to
fully enjoy ones rights and liberties, which often demands some
support of the state. Classical liberalism is associated with the
negative conception and social liberalism with the positive meaning.
Yet the meaning of negative liberty may be further contested. The
protection from interference by others may be taken as absolute,
which is far more stringent than the classical liberal interpretation,
which does allow for compulsory taxation of individuals to pay for
public services. Now we are entering the libertarian domain, which is
in itself divided into those who hold an absolute idea of negative
liberty (the anarcho-capitalists), and those who permit a minimal
infringement of property rights to pay for police, external defense and
the judiciary (the minarchists). This is also why conservatism is not as
closely related to the liberal family as sometimes thought. For
conservatives, individual liberty is not a core concept at all. Much
more can be said about this, but the example shows that political
concepts are core to political ideas, but that these concepts never just
have one uncontested meaning. Analysis at a deeper level is a
prerequisite for the understanding of political ideology.

In this context it is disappointing that Freeden concentrates on


domestic politics (as has academic political theory traditionally done)
while it is as important to include ideas about international affairs.
After all, foreign affairs are an important driver of political policies,
and also of domestic change. The differences between liberal ideas in
domestic politics are also clearly visible and ideologically consistent
in their view on international affairs. For example in the role of the
nation in individual life and in global politics, the perennial question
in liberal debate whether free trade fosters international peace, or the
alleged usefulness of international governmental organizations.

Morphological Framework
The liberal ideological framework of concepts (or morphological
framework in the words of Freeden) is presented below. For the sake
of clarity, the international aspects are presented separately, also
because they are less clearly recognized as proper concepts as of yet.
A comparison with conservatism is added because the differences
between liberalism and conservatism are sometimes erroneously seen
as negligible. Surely, some of the concepts and their distribution over
the liberal variants and conservatism will raise questions. These
cannot all be answered here; most are addressed in my book Degrees
of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology. However, a
number of short clarifying comments are given below the tables.
Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and
Conservatism
Classical Social Libertarianism Conservatism
Liberalism Liberalism

Core Negative freedom, Positive freedom, Negative freedom, Realistic view of


concepts realistic view of human positive view of realistic view of human nature,
nature, spontaneous human nature, human nature, organic change,
order, limited state social justice as spontaneous order, human order with
self- natural law extra-human
development, including strict origins, counter
extended state defense of movement
property rights

Adjacent concepts Natural law, rule of Modern human Minarchism: Groups/family,


law/constitutionalism rights, rule of law minimal state, rule hierarchy, active
and neutral state, of law state, sometimes:
social contract spontaneous order
(Mill:
utilitarianism)

Peripheral concepts Social justice, strict Property rights, Social justice Individual
defense of property spontaneous (property) rights,
rights, democracy, order freedom
utilitarianism

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political


Philosophy and Ideology(Transaction Publishers, 2015).
Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism and
International Relations
Classical Social Libertarianism Conservatism
Liberalism Liberalism

Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes

State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes

International governmental No Yes No No


institutions/regimes

Can war be eliminated? No Yes Yes No

Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political


Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Classical Liberalism
Classical liberalism originates from the eighteenth century Scottish
Enlightenment, especially in the writings of David Hume and Adam
Smith. It is also associated with thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises,
Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. Classical
liberalism has a realistic view of human nature, which means that man
is seen a mix of rationality and emotion, so humans are not guided by
reason alone. Individual freedom is the main classical liberal goal and
it is best preserved by protecting classical human rights, the rule of
law, and reliance on spontaneous ordering processes in society, such as
the free market. The classical liberal state is limited, which means it
has to perform or arrange for a number of important public tasks and
services. Besides defense, police, and judiciary, this includes a
minimal amount of welfare arrangements, some environmental
regulation, or other public goods that cannot be dealt with through
markets. Classical liberals have thus far been unable to be define their
limited state with precision, although it is clear is significantly smaller
than those of the social liberals. In international affairs, classical
liberals see the world as a society of nation states. The nation is the
outer limit of meaningful human sympathy. World peace is
untenable and free trade, while desirable for many reasons, cannot
change that. Consequently, international relations has to deal with the
inevitable occurrence of war and conflict, with the balance of power
as the spontaneous ordering mechanism in the international realm.
International governmental organizations are often just as bad as big
states are in the domestic situation.

Libertarianism
Like social liberalism, libertarianism originates from the nineteenth
century, for example in the writings of Lysander Spooner, Herbert
Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Libertarians criticize classical
liberals for allowing the state to grow too large. Instead, the strict
protection of individual natural rights to life, liberty, and property
ensures a just society. Significant traces of natural law thinking can
also be found in classical liberalism, but the classical liberals justify
more infringements of property rights. Through taxation but also
different kinds of regulation, not least the state monopoly in monetary
matters. Libertarians favor a system where free people will be able to
use their talents and cooperate in strictly voluntary ways. Some, like
Murray Rothbard or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, argue this society can
totally rely on spontaneous order for the provision of all necessary
services and therefore want to abolish the state completely. Others,
such as Ayn Rand, think there is a need to publicly organize defense,
police, and judiciary. No libertarian thinks there is a need for a
centrally organized redistribution of resources, for example to advance
ideas of social justice. Instead they rely on spontaneous forces to assist
disadvantaged people in society. There is no such thing as a stable
nation state, as secession is a rightful way for people to form new
political entities. In the international domain libertarians are
isolationists; only when people leave each other alone is international
peace fostered, just as through free trade. Of course, in a stateless
world, there is also no room for international governmental
organizations. Ayn Rand is the hawkish exception here. At the same
time, most libertarians emphasize they are not pacifist, demanding a
strong defense in case of foreign invasion.
Social Liberalism
Social liberals are liberals in the contemporary American sense. Social
liberal thought originates in the writings of John Stuart Mill and his
successors labeled the New Liberals. Since the 1970s John Rawls and
his followers have been the major sources of intellectual inspiration.
For social liberals the libertarian and classical liberal ideas allow a
world full of social injustice. Individuals need to have the capacity to
develop their talents, and should be able to learn skills and get the
right knowledge to use their natural talents in the labor market and
elsewhere. They also need to be able to fully participate in democratic
decision-making processes. Otherwise the idea of liberty is just formal
and without much practical meaning. This concern for social justice
entails the redistribution of income to ensure widely-accessible
education and a welfare system (social security, public health) that
takes care of the less fortunate. This leads to a much bigger role for
the state, and a bigger tax bill, than in the other two liberalisms. Social
liberals do not think spontaneous ordering forces suffice to bring these
requirements about. Their positive view of human nature means they
think reason can in the end overcome the emotions. This leads to a
trust in rationally constructed public arrangements, which also shows
in their views on international relations. Peace is possible because
people will be able to see that war is bad. International organizations
and international law are able to redirect violence to the negotiating
tables, ultimately leading to a peaceful world. The ideals of a
completely stateless society, or perhaps a world federation, also
figures prominently in social liberal international thought.

Liberalism and Conservatism


In an essay focusing on the liberal differences it would be silly to
present conservatism as a unified ideology. Therefore for purposes of
comparison only mainstream conservatism is presented here, as found
in the writings of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord
Acton, Roger Scrutons The Meaning of Conservatism, Robert
Nisbets Conservatism, or Russel Kirks The Conservative Mind. This
means that American neoconservatism is left aside here.

The main differences between conservatism and liberalism are that


conservatives do not value individual liberty as such. These are
peripheral concepts at best, certainly concerning non-economic or
immaterial issues. This can partly be explained by the larger influence
of religious views in conservatism, for example on issues such as
abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, et cetera. Conservatives do not
hesitate to use state power to regulate or prohibit such issues, while
these fall within the individual private sphere for all three liberal
variants. This is not to say that religion and liberalism do not go
together, only that for liberals religion should remain private, whereas
conservatives draw religious issues into the public sphere.
Conservatives tend to have the same view of human nature as classical
liberals and libertarians, and often find themselves in agreement with
them on economic issues. Conservatives are not defenders of the
status quo, but favor slow organic change, that does not suddenly
overturn the societal order which is the result of the wisdom of the
ages. This is not unlike Poppers piecemeal engineering so beloved
by Hayek, but the difference is that all liberals, classical liberals
included, are optimistic about the effects of technological change and
scientific innovation. Conservatives also tend to be a counter-
movement: when there is a left majority they lean to the right, but
also vice versa. In the latter situation conservatives will not be strong
defenders of individual property rights. Only classical liberals and
conservatives (again, note this excludes the neocons) have identical,
realistic ideas about international relations.

Conclusion
This essay is just meant to whet the appetite of the readers, rather than
to present a full picture of the differences and similarities within
liberalism, and between liberals and conservatives. It is an attempt to
show that a number of ideational divides within liberalism are real, but
this should not be made as complex as is often done. The
morphological approach shows that a divide in three liberal variants
suffices to include all main ideas and main thinkers, from the liberal
origins to the present, on domestic and international politics. It also
clarifies the differences with conservatism, or other ideologies for that
matter. The essay is a call upon liberals and other writers to keep it
simple and to stop making up all kinds of liberalisms, which are hard
to understand. This practice has not been good for the appeal of
liberalism. That is perhaps the biggest shame, as liberal ideas offer
many great choices for all people, everywhere on the globe.