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What is a liberal?

July 29, 2013

What a strangely abused word liberal is. It has a bewildering variety of different meanings, but the most commonly used meanings these days are negative; it’s often used simply to label tendencies of which the speaker disapproves. In America, for instance, it refers to ‘left-wing’ or ‘progressive’ ideas, and is used as a term of abuse by right-wingers far more than as a rallying call for left-wingers. It’s interesting to note that this meaning is virtually the antithesis of what liberal is, or was, supposed to mean. A few years ago I saw an interview on Newsnight with a right-wing American Republican who was railing against ‘liberal’ ideology because (she claimed) it interfered with the lives of ordinary people. The interviewer quite rightly reminded her that this is the opposite of what liberal ideology is supposed to entail, and quoted to her from Mill’s On Liberty, which is probably the foundational liberal text:”the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of one of their number is self-protection… the only purpose for which power can rightfullybe exercised over a member of a civilised community, is to prevent harm to others’. In a bold defiance of intellectual history, the Republican woman replied: “If he said that, he’s not a liberal, he’s a conservative.”

In Britain, by contrast, liberal often seems to have the opposite connotation – a liberal is a wishy-washy, well-meaning but ineffectual person who never interferes with anything for fear of causing offence. But this is also a travesty of the word’s original sense – it certainly does not describe John Stuart Mill.

An article in the Independent a couple of years ago by John Kampfner argued that free speech was an important virtue for socialists – one didn’t have to be a liberal to subscribe to it. Why the need to distance himself from liberals? Why not just say, “I’m with the liberals on this one”? Because really, one does have to be a liberal to believe in free speech. At least, I cannot think of any compelling non-liberal reasons for insisting that people should be allowed to say and publish what they choose, irrespective of how little the rest of us may like it.

In similar vein, George Galloway once trumpeted in a newspaper interview: ‘Never confuse me with a liberal’. Why, George, I wanted to say? Is it because a liberal is a decent fair-minded person who thinks everyone should have equal rights, and you’re not?

These thoughts are occasioned by a piece in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday by DJ Taylor, in which he argued that it’s very difficult to be a liberal these days, and defined a liberal as ‘the kind of person who believes in individual autonomy, in freedom of expression and the ability of ordinary people to live their lives according to their consciences and with as little state interference as possible’. I’d broadly agree both with that characterisation of liberalism and with those principles; but of course it’s not quite as simple as that.

In contemporary political philosophy there are two main, conflicting versions of liberalism: political liberalism and perfectionist liberalism.

The political liberal holds that the state must be entirely neutral on the kinds of lives its citizens lead (provided they don’t harm anyone else). It shouldn’t pass laws to encourage what it takes to be worthwhile lives or discourage what it takes to be worthless ones. This kind of liberal opposes paternalistic legislation, and would be, for instance, against subsidies for museums, art galleries or opera houses on the grounds that it’s not the state’s business to use our taxes to fund things it thinks we ought to like, if in fact we don’t like them in sufficient numbers for them to pay for themselves. A political liberal would be inclined to be against laws which ban recreational drugs, too. And they don’t care if people live autonomous lives or not. That’s just not the state’s business. The patron saint of political liberals is of course John Rawls.

The liberal perfectionist, on the other hand, thinks there is a comprehensive view of the kind of life that it’s best for people to lead – in most versions of perfectionism that means an autonomous life – and it’s the business of the state to encourage people to lead it. Thus policies or institutions which lead to people living more autonomous lives are favoured. Perfectionist liberalism is implicitly paternalistic. It’s still recognisably liberal, in that it thinks people should have lots of choices (and should not be allowed to restrict each other’s choices). But they do have to be good choices. Joseph Raz, the patron saint of perfectionist liberals, argues that there’s no point having autonomy if one chooses ‘evil or empty’ lifestyles. Autonomy is only valuable when the choices on offer are worthwhile ones.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this recently for my PhD thesis: “Should a liberal state ban the burqa?” I’m fairly sure that I’m some kind of liberal, but haven’t decided which kind yet. Of course I’m going to have to do so, as it will affect my answer to the question. 

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