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Some Issues In Liberal Theory And Practice

Liberalism has deep internal tensions primarily between the claims of equality and those of liberty arising from its equal commitment to both these principles. The tensions are held by some thinkers who are not well-disposed towards liberalism to be contradictions that prevent liberalism from living up to its own principles. Some of these issues are discussed briefly below together with some important distinctions between types of liberalism.

Liberalism and cultural difference.

Liberalism prides itself on its toleration of cultural and other differences. Some cultural groups, however, are internally illiberal. They do not treat their members as free and equal autonomous individuals with rights but as having identities defined by their membership in and place within the group, and by relation to the group's values. They are communal selves rather than individual ones. People so identifying themselves cannot easily flourish in liberal society by taking advantage of its freedoms. Hence, it is said that liberalism cannot treat such minority cultures fairly in accordance with its own principles.

Liberalism can tolerate such groups provided that they do not harm others and provided that their members are free to leave without suffering unjust discrimination. The problem is whether persons formed in such groups are really free to leave unless they have had a liberal education that enables them to think of themselves as individuals with the power and right of choice. But if they do think of themselves in this way, they will no longer be the communal selves they were. The liberal education of its members would undermine the group's illiberal identity and force it to reconstitute itself in liberal terms. It is clear also that illiberal groups could not be specially represented in the political realm without turning that realm from a principled association into what would be at best a pragmatic compromise between conflicting groups. There is no reasonable compromise between liberalism and illiberalism. In the end one must seek to show the superiority of a liberal society by appealing to some foundational principle and by reiterating that there is no possible social scheme compatible with a principled order that is more tolerant of difference than liberalism.

A more modest claim for the special recognition of cultural difference would be that of cultural minorities whose values are not incompatible with liberalism but whose members are disadvantaged relative to the majority in terms of their ability to compete on fair terms to obtain the benefits of liberal society. The demand would be in part for the preferential treatment of the members of such groups so that they could enjoy fair equality of opportunity. But this would not be to give special recognition to the culture as such but to its members as disadvantaged individuals. Some cultural minorities might also reasonably claim to be given symbolic public recognition as distinct and loyal members of the polity in public ceremonies celebrating the history of the nation and the contributions of its various citizens.

Liberalism and women's difference.

In the beginning, feminism was just the application of liberal principles to women. Women were conceived as having fundamentally the same nature and interests as men and thereby entitled to the same rights.

Radical feminists from the 1970s, however, opposed the liberal assimilation of women's claims on the grounds that the liberal conception of the person did not reflect women's nature. This nature had been obscured by millennia of patriarchal rule and needed liberation from patriarchal society before its true content could be revealed. But whatever it turned out to be, the radical feminists were certain that it would not be a liberal individual. They held that whereas the liberal individual was based on impersonal rationality and abstraction, women's ethical life was rooted in her body and its emotions.

Insofar as women's difference amounts to an illiberal nature opposed to liberal man, the same issues are raised as those that occur in the cultural case, although compounded by the fact that men and women would seem to have to live together in the private realm if the race is to be satisfactorily continued. Women cannot be treated as a self-reproducing cultural group. Nevertheless, illiberal women could be specially represented in the public sphere. Yet, this would turn it once again into a reasonable compromise between the representatives of conflicting values.

Women could, of course, be seen as a disadvantaged group whose members need preferential treatment in order to achieve fair equality of opportunity. But this is not incompatible with liberalism. Some contemporary women writers claim that it is incompatible on the grounds that if women are given special treatment because of their difference, for example, their maternal being, then liberalism's claim to treat all persons equally without respect for gender will be breached. Nevertheless, because the ground for special treatment is to achieve fair equality of opportunity for different individuals in regard to their different circumstances, this argument seems invalid.

The radical feminists belief in a special women's nature was subverted by the postmodernist feminists, who reject the idea of essential selves. Identities are socially produced and always subject to challenge and change. This view would seem to make it impossible to claim that women as such are oppressed in patriarchal or liberal society because there is no such thing as women as such. Nevertheless, postmodern feminists believe that it is still possible within particular discourses to resist established conventions and develop alternative discourses regarding women. But to what end is unclear.

Economic liberalism.

Economic liberalism is the view that the best economic order is a free market. This view may be justified by utilitarian considerations, as in those of Bentham, or by a combination of natural rights and utilitarian consequences, as in the theory of Adam Smith.

Fundamental to Smith's view is the idea of a natural order. This is the social order that develops when individuals are allowed to pursue their interests through specialization and exchange of goods and services. It is an expression of human beings' natural right to liberty. But it is also the best way for a society to promote the accumulation of wealth and national power.

Individuals are motivated in the natural order by the desire to improve their material condition, and given a suitable economic environment competition among them will normally produce beneficial consequences. Such an environment requires the free movement of labor, capital, and goods; many buyers and sellers; sound information among buyers and sellers; security of person and property; and the abolition of monopolies, tariffs, and government regulation of production and consumption. Yet Smith acknowledges that there exists a class of public goods that it is the function of government to provide, including the administration of justice, defense, and education.

Smith is not blind to the defects of the liberal economic individual and society but thinks liberal society is still preferable to aristocratic society. In particular, he deplores the condition of the poor but believes that their only hope lies in the accumulation of wealth. Furthermore, he distrusts the capacity and interests of the poor to make political decisions in the general interest, which he identifies with the system of liberal liberty. So, like many other early liberals, he wants a liberal polity to be restricted to property owners.

Smith is the founder of classical economics, which is committed to free markets and hence economic liberalism. Another major figure in this school is David Ricardo (1772–1823), whose Principles of Political Economy and Taxation dominated the subject until the end of the nineteenth century. However, in Ricardo the subject becomes more technical and abstract and less concerned with its connections with liberal values more generally.

Economic liberalism of the Smithian kind is commonly thought to have been practiced by the British government during the nineteenth century and to a lesser extent by others. But this is far from being unqualifiedly true. The British government interfered in market outcomes during this period by regulating working conditions, trade unions, and the rates of utility companies, and by imposing an income tax and maintaining a monopoly of the money supply. The general spirit of economic liberalism is better described as a strong presumption in favor of laissez faire unless it was clear that intervention was to the general benefit.

Classical and revisionist liberalism.

Classical liberalism is the liberalism that prevailed mainly in northern Europe and North America up to the second half of the nineteenth century. It consisted of minimal government intervention in economy and society. But it was by no means politically democratic, especially in Europe where liberals were for the most part and for a long time strongly resistant to the inclusion of the propertyless in the benefits and burdens of a liberal polity. Its principles received notable political expression in the declarations of the rights of man and the citizen of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, while the extremes of the latter revolution confirmed many middle-class liberals in their hostility to democracy. Because of its economic and political association with the middle classes, classical liberalism can easily be represented as the ideology of the capitalist class, a position taken by Karl Marx (1818–1883) and other socialists. As presented in this entry, however, the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism go far wider and deeper than that claim implies. This is shown by the way the application of its principles was revised in the course of the nineteenth century to accommodate what most liberals came to accept as inevitable, namely the arrival of democracy.

The revision in practice took the form of increasing government intervention in the economy to protect the interests and promote the welfare of workers. Government resources, obtained through general taxation, are used to provide for the basic needs of the population. The revision in liberal theory that justified the change to big government involved a shift from the belief of the classical liberals that normal adult human beings would automatically have developed the capacity to exercise their freedom in their own interests to the view that this capacity needed suitable economic, educational, and social conditions for its development—a belief found in the works of Mill and especially the nineteenth-century idealists. If individuals cannot provide these conditions for themselves, then fellow citizens must do so through state action. In general the move is to a greater emphasis on the equality aspect of equal liberty, as exemplified in Rousseau's thought, a change requiring more protection for workers and the poor.

Rather than as an abrupt and radical break, this revision of classical liberalism should be considered a movement along a continuum of possible social forms, all based on the liberal principle of equal liberty. At one extreme of this continuum is libertarian anarchy with no government at all, which is followed by the minimal state as described above in Smith's theory, and increasing levels of government intervention all the way to the government ownership of the means of production at the other extreme. The latter can still be called liberal provided that individual freedom prevails in all but the economic realm and that economic socialism is understood as the best means of assuring an equal liberty. Classical liberalism shares with revisionist liberalism the belief that government intervention can be justified if it works out to the general advantage.

Liberalism and nationalism.

Liberalism and a weak form of nationalism developed together. Liberalism was a way of organizing society for the benefit of its members in a manner that promoted, better than any alternative, the society's harmony, prosperity, and power in a world of independent states. The nation here is just the collection of people organized in a state and thereby sharing common interests in their peace, prosperity, and power.

A strong form of nationalism holds that a nation is an ethnocultural group sharing a common ancestry, history, and culture and that membership in such a group is fundamental to the identity and value of the individual. Nationalism in this sense is totally antithetical to liberalism, for which individual identity is deeper than national identity.

A form of nationalism intermediate between the two is to be found in Mill and the contemporary thinker David Miller. According to this view a democratic liberal state will work better—be more harmonious and just—if the great majority share a nationality in the ethnocultural sense.

Liberalism has also been allied with imperialism. The argument here is that the rule of a liberal state over other peoples, such as the rule of Britain over India, may be justified if it serves to develop the subject peoples' capacity to become self-governing individuals and a self-governing people—in other words to develop in them the culture of liberalism. It is held by some that cultural imperialism of this kind, if not political imperialism, has been pursued by the Western powers after World War II through the United Nations program on Human Rights. Ultimately, the only justification for pursuing a liberal program domestically or internationally is that liberalism describes a better way for human beings to live together than any alternative because it better expresses and actualizes their fundamental nature and interests.



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John Charvet

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