What Is Liberalism?
Today marks the publication of my new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, which you will be hearing more about in the coming days. It is published in North America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and available on Amazon; it was published in the United Kingdom by Profile Books in late March and has been available since then on the Amazon UK website. Over the coming weeks and months it will be published in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, South Korea, and many other countries.
This book is an expansion of an article of the same title that I wrote to launch American Purpose, an online journal dedicated to the defense of classical liberalism. My UK publisher Andrew Franklin read the article and encouraged me to turn it into a short book, whose results you’re seeing now.
I want to begin by defining the sense in which I am using the term “liberalism.” There are many different uses of this word, several of which are different from my usage of it.
I am not using “liberalism” in the American sense of left-of-center progressive politics. In the hands of progressives, classical liberalism has evolved into something that is often anti-liberal.
I am not using “liberalism” in the European sense of a center-right politics that is pro-free market and socially progressive, exemplified by the Free Democratic Party in Germany.
I am not using “liberalism,” or the term “classical liberalism,” as a synonym for libertarianism, that is, a peculiarly American viewpoint that is hostile to government as such, both in the economic realm and in social policy. I believe that a true liberal society needs a capable state to enforce laws and deliver necessary services.
My use of the term “classical liberalism” is best summed up by the political theorist John Gray, who describes it in the following terms:
Common to all variants of the liberal tradition is a definite conception, distinctively modern in character, of man and society.… It is individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity; egalitarian, inasmuch as it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal or political order of differences in moral worth among human beings; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms; and meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.
I would further define classical liberalism in terms of the institutions with which it is closely associated, and without which it has no real effect. The most important is a rule of law that imposes constraints on the exercise of state power and protects a sphere of individual autonomy. Most successful liberal societies have constitutions that create checks on executive authority like separation of powers, federalism, and press freedoms.
Classical liberalism is further associated with a certain mode of cognition, the scientific method, which postulates an objective world independent of subjective human consciousness, which can nonetheless be perceived and manipulated through the experimental method. This cognitive mode makes possible the technological world that is the enabler of modern economic growth.
Classical liberalism as I have defined it is different from democracy, yet closely related to it. It is possible to have liberal autocracy, like Germany in the late 19th century or perhaps Singapore today. These are or were countries with a strong rule of law, but which do not hold regular free and fair elections.
It is also possible to have illiberal democracies that do hold regular elections, but do not observe liberal constraints on state power. This characterizes Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and is the aspiration of populist politicians from Recep Tayyip Erodoğan in Turkey to Narendra Modi in India to Donald Trump in the United States.
That being said, liberalism and democracy are closely associated with one another historically in something we properly label “liberal democracy” that combines a strong rule of law with free and fair elections. Liberalism by itself often produces a high degree of economic inequality, and, if unconstrained by a democratic state through regulation and effective social policy, liberalism becomes hard to sustain. I consider social democratic countries like Sweden and Denmark to be fundamentally liberal societies despite the fact that they have expansive welfare states, because they also have a strong rule of law and protect individual rights.
Similarly, democracy without liberal rule-of-law constraints often becomes undemocratic, as legitimately elected leaders scheme over time to keep themselves in power regardless of popular will. This has been going on in Hungary, where Orbán’s Fidesz party has been gerrymandering the electoral system to make it hard for the opposition to win power. Something similar is happening in the United States as Republican state legislatures seek to manipulate the way that votes will be counted in future elections.
Liberalism and Its Discontents is a defense of liberalism rather than democracy in the first instance because it is liberalism that has been most immediately challenged in the present-day world. Vladimir Putin, in a well-publicized 2019 interview with the Financial Times, asserted that liberalism had become an obsolete doctrine. Democracy by contrast continues to be an almost universally legitimated principle, even if not put into practice; both Russia and China claim that they are in fact more genuine democracies than countries that hold regular elections.
If you want to read more about why liberalism has been attacked from both the right and left in recent years, please purchase and read Liberalism and Its Discontents.
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