Liberalism: What it is and what it’s not

Following is a presentation I gave at a two-day symposium, “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” at The Central European University on March 28, 2017. The day the symposium began the University was informed of government-sponsored legislation that, if adopted, would effectively shut down CEU. The legislation passed yesterday, April 4, and is currently pending signature by Hungary’s president. For background, see New law imperils Central European University’s future in Hungary,Inside Higher Education, April 5, 2017.


When I read that title for our symposium would be “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” it struck me that participants were likely to have different understandings of what “liberal” and “liberalism” meant, which would make it difficult to collectively rethink the “liberal agenda.” So I thought I would take to take the opportunity to discuss “liberalism” as a concept, and clarify, at least for myself, what I mean by the term. I also thought it would be useful to consider how liberalism – again as I understand it – relates to other key concepts, including the obvious one, democracy, but also others such as Popper’s notion of the open society, neo-liberalism, the liberal international order, globalization, and multiculturalism.

To that end, I asked a Berkeley PhD candidate in political science, Melissa Samarin, to do a literature review for me and put together a sample of treatments of the concept by authoritative authors, as well as a smaller sample of definitions of those other related terms, which I’ll put up on blog as a PDF if anyone is interested. [Link: Samarin: Liberalism and related concepts.]

So let me start with a few general points about liberalism the concept.First, there has been much less intellectual heavy lifting done on it than many other key concepts in the social sciences, despite the fact that, however one defines it, it’s had an enormous impact on Western institutions. By way of comparison, there’s a huge literature not just on “democracy” but on types of democracies, including “hybrid” or “illiberal” democracies.

Second, like most core concepts in the social sciences, influential writers can mean very different things by it. To my mind, the purpose of concept analyses is to highlight those differences and clarify how one uses a term oneself, not to come up with some “correct” definition or essence that others will invariably ignore.

Third, liberalism emerged gradually as a normative project, and unlike Marxism, for example, it had no great founder or clear cannon. It’s also less deductive than Marxism, again regardless of how one defines it. To quote Michael Doyle, it’s really “a family portrait of principles and institutions.”

Fourth, the term, albeit not necessarily the thing itself (at least as I define it), has been out of fashion in recent decades. Part of the reason is that something called “liberalism” has been under attack from both the right and left more or less since it first came into use. In the U.S., “liberals” and “liberalism” have been terms of contempt since at least the Reagan era, and as a result the term of choice these days for most of those to the left of center is “progressive,” not “liberal.” In Europe, explicitly liberal parties are few and far between.

Fifth, and relatedly, I would be wary of definitions or understandings of a political ideology or normative project offered up by its enemies. It’s much more useful to try to understand Marxism, in its various forms, through the eyes of self-described Marxists, and the same is true of liberalism. Almost invariably opponents of an ideology “straw man” it, often in ways that are unrecognizable to its adherents.

Finally, as no doubt everyone here is well aware, the full connotation of the term as typically understood by Europeans and Americans is different. They share some things in common, but a liberal in Europe is understood as center right, while a liberal in the U.S. is understood as center left, and not just because where the center is is different. In the U.S., The Economist is a conservative magazine; in Europe, and for The Economist itself, it’s a liberal one. European liberals are rather more Adam Smith, American liberals rather more John Locke, Montesquieu, the American framers, and John Stuart Mill.

So a few words about the emergence of liberalism as an ideology.

Where one starts of course has an arbitrary quality to it, but I don’t think many would dispute that the key moment was the 17th and especially 18th century in Western Europe, particularly but not only in Britain, when political practitioners and theorists were trying find ways to end centuries of bloodshed over religious differences and prevent what was understood as tyrannical government.

The solutions, worked out over a long period, in part through disputation and in part through practice, were mechanisms of governance that would tie the hands not just of the king, the aristocracy, and the clergy, but of everyone else as well. That is to say, the early liberals, including notably the American framers, wanted to construct institutional barriers not only to tyranny from above but to “tyranny of the majority” and “mob rule” from below. That is to say, they were suspicious of democracy, and particularly of unrestrained or direct democracy. Most would doubtless have agreed with Churchill’s famous quip that “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In short, liberalism’s primary project was to construct a system of governance that would restrain concentrated power, especially but not only concentrated political power, and promote tolerance in the interest of civil peace, especially but not only tolerance of religious differences. At the core of that system was the rule of law, supplemented by other institutions such as the division of powers, checks and balances, legal guarantees of civil liberties, measured representative democracy, and – eventually – a regulatory state directed at tempering economic and social power to ensure prosperity and promoting equality of opportunity.

Importantly, then, liberals weren’t, and aren’t, anarchists. They assumed, and assume, that the state is necessary for all manner of things, including but not only the functions of the so-called “night watchman” state. Indeed the state is viewed as the key enabler – indeed a necessary condition – for individual and collective liberties. Early liberals held, after Hobbes, that life in a state of nature was “short, nasty, and brutish,” and that a well-ordered state was a mark of civilization. By definition, a well-ordered state was a sovereign one – the state as enforcer of law and sole claimant to the legitimate use of force within a particular territory, to paraphrase Weber. Moreover, the state would be sovereign not just within a particular territory but over the particular community that resided in that territory.

What liberalism did not do, then or now, is specify the boundaries of that territory or community, other than implicitly by suggesting that all societies would be better off with liberal institutions. That is, liberalism is silent, or agnostic, on state territory and size, as well as on the composition of the community. If anything, the implicit argument is that tolerance and liberal institutions are more likely where the community is made up of people who share norms of tolerance. Even less is there anything inherent in liberalism that assumes that liberal societies should impose liberalism on other societies by force of arms.

A few words now about the definitional issue. Melissa informs me that among the sample of definitions she collected, the one that is probably cited most often is David Held’s in Models of Democracy, which reads as follows:

While it is a controversial concept, and its meaning has shifted historically, [liberalism] is used here to signify the attempt to uphold the values of freedom of choice, reason and toleration in the face of tyranny, the absolutist system and religious intolerance.

Although less parsimonious, the definition that I like best, however, is Stephen Holmes’s in his The Anatomy of Antiliberalism:

Very briefly, liberalism is a political theory and program that flourished from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century….the core practices of a liberal political order are religious toleration, freedom of discussion, restrictions on police behavior, free elections, constitutional government based on separation of powers, publically inspectable state budgets to inhibit corruption, and economic policy committed to sustained growth on the basis of private ownership and freedom of contract. Liberalism’s four core norms or values are personal security (the monopolization of legitimate violence by agents of the state who are themselves monitored and regulated by the law), impartiality (a single system of law applied equally to all), individual liberty (a broad sphere of freedom from collective or governmental supervision, including freedom of conscience, the right to be different, the right to pursue ideals one’s neighbors think wrong, the freedom to travel and emigrate and so forth), and democracy or the right to participate in lawmaking by means of elections and public discussion through a free press. That public disagreement is a creative force may have been the most novel and radical principle of liberal politics.

In short, for me a liberal regime (the regime being the institutional expression of the ideology) is one that institutionalizes formal constraints on power in both the state and society in an effort to promote tolerance and civil peace, ward off tyranny and abuses of power, and promote equality of opportunity. Dispositionally, it implies a certain , albeit vague, burden-of-proof stance with regard to the state – to one degree or another, liberals hold that the burden of proof should rest with those who advocate state constraints on personal choice.

By that definition, both mainstream Western conservatives as well as mainstream progressives qualify as liberal defenders of liberal democracy, even as they disagree on the proper size and role of the state, and even if conservatives have a higher burden-of-proof standard for the state than progressives. Nonethless, both the mainstream right and the mainstream left agree that the state is a necessary enabler of civil liberties and rights, as well as of markets as well, which can’t function well, if at all, without property, contract, and other laws. Indeed, they agree that the state need to provide so-called goods, to one degree or another, and has a role in mitigating market externalities through regulation – the fact is that there are few genuine libertarians or “private-property anarchists” in the United States, and none, not even Rand Paul, in Congress.

What liberalism does not entail, at least for me, is a defense of individual liberty by reference to “natural law”; a cult of the individual or claims about the primacy of individuals over communities or society; any assumption that minorities are to be valorized over majorities, or vice versa; any particular stance on micro- or macro-economics, let alone market fundamentalism or “neoliberalism”; or a commitment to unrestricted free trade.

Most importantly, it is agnostic about diversity – the objective is tolerance of diversity, however defined, not diversity as such. That is, it does not insist that a very diverse place such as Berkeley, which I love and am proud to part of – is to be celebrated over less diverse places like Iowa – as long, that is, as Iowa follows the basic rules of tolerance.

That brings me to the question of how liberalism relates to other core concepts, such as democracy, the liberal international order, globalization, and multiculturalism.

One way to think about this is to imagine a series of Venn diagrams in which liberalism is subsumed by, subsumes, overlaps with, or is entirely separate from the others. Another is to consider whether liberalism is a necessary condition for the others, or vice-versa, or if there is causal relationship in one direction or the other.

I obviously don’t have time to consider all these questions, other than to note that there is a growing social science literature on the relationship between liberalism and democracy, and on so-called illiberal democracy in particular.

What I will do in my remaining time is focus on what I think is the key question in this era of illiberal populism, which is the relationship between liberalism on the one hand, and globalization and multiculturalism on the other. To put the problem bluntly, do globalization, and the multiculturalism that results, willy nilly, from immigration and relatively open borders, threaten liberalism, including the liberal welfare state?

That question was highlighted, at least in part, in the Dutch elections in earlier this month. Much of Geert Wilders’s campaign rhetoric was illiberal, intolerant, and Islamophobic, but it is also true that he argued for an end to Muslim immigration on the grounds that it threatened Holland’s liberal values and welfare state. There is, of course, a big dog-whistle risk here, but his message might have come across as rather less offensive had he directed his attacks not at Muslims per se, but at illiberal immigrants regardless of religion or origin.

At any rate, while there are of course many challenges confronting Western liberal democracies these days, including what appears to be mostly structurally-driven low growth and rising inequality, in my view the most pressing question is whether liberal societies are reaching their capacity limits with regard to the extent and pace of cultural change and rapid increases in diversity.

This basic problem can be posed variously.

  • Are there limits to how many immigrants, or refugees, liberal societies can take in, either in the short or not-so-short term, particularly if the immigrants are illiberal?
  • To preserve liberal institutions, should immigration, work permits, or naturalization be conditioned upon a demonstrated willingness to accept liberal values?
  • Are there policies that can convince recent arrivals to embrace liberal norms and assimilate politically?
  • To ward off illiberal ethno-nationalism or outright fascism, should liberals accept a measure of what might called “liberal nativism,” at least at this particular moment in history?
  • To defend the European project, should the EU recast itself less as a union of peoples and more as an effective instrument for realizing the aspirations of its various member nations?
  • Finally, as Mark Lilla argued a few months ago in The New York Times, should liberals in the United States, and implicitly the center right and left in Europe, step back from identity politics and emphasize instead traditional class or economic status issues that aren’t moored to particular identity groups?

My take is that, given the seriousness of the threat, defenders of liberalism need to think strategically and prioritize those things that matter most – above all, the rule of law, but also individual and civil rights and state policies that mitigate inequalities of opportunity. And that, I suspect, is going to require rather less open borders and a more neutral state stance on multiculturalism and diversity.

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