Liberalism and its manifestations

If you ask 3 people what they understand “liberalism” to mean, you’ll likely get three different answers. Even after name-checking some canonical figure – Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Kymlicka, etc. – we’d still be left with confusion, thanks to now being able to argue about the how “classical” liberal tenets differ from “social democrat” ones.

So, I’m not going to try define liberalism in general at all, but rather offer a few remarks on what I understand it to be, or rather what I mean when I identify as a liberal. If you want to read a good summary of the theoretical debates alluded to above, I’d recommend the political philosophy page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I’m by and large a “classical” liberal, who takes a utilitarian approach to resolving any inconsistencies that may arise, such as when trying to reconcile individual freedoms with the responsibilities of the state to care for everyone’s interests equally.

To pick a trivial example of such an inconsistency, I’m happy to be taxed higher than some other people as a way to cross-subsidise those with more material wants (which maximises equality overall), even though some might think it “unfair” to one person to pay a higher proportion of tax from their salaries than others do.

But there are more tricky examples than this, of course – liberals typically value freedom of speech, which raises the question of whether it’s consistent with liberalism (or a contradiction) for a (allegedly) liberal party such as the Democratic Alliance to eject a member for sharing positive sentiments about apartheid monsters.

I’d say it is consistent (whether or not it was the correct decision), because individual freedom to speak might sometimes be trumped by some broader conception of liberty (in other words, it’s not necessarily the case that freedom of speech be treated as an absolute, without exceptions), and for the pragmatic reasons offered in the first example.

You can be a liberal without being a free speech fundamentalist, in other words (at least on my definition – yours might differ).

A second, less controversial way of resolving this apparent contradiction would be to argue that if you voluntarily agree to a certain code of conduct, as was the case in the example in question, you can be held accountable for violations of that code even if there’s a general commitment to free speech. (Not to mention, it’s not a free speech restriction in the strict sense anyway, in that the person in question can say what she likes, just not in specific and pre-specified contexts.)

Enough preliminaries, except to note that I’m certainly not a libertarian, contrary to the impression I’d apparently inadvertently created for one student who asked me about it on Twitter the other day. I certainly think that there are occasions where freedom overall is certainly maximised by compromising individual freedoms.

Ensuring freedom from undue or unjustified interference is certainly constitutive of my understanding of liberalism – the difficulty, of course, is knowing when the interference is justified or not.

Being judged as an individual is also an essential element of liberalism. This means that a person shouldn’t be assumed to have certain views or a certain character by virtue of what race, sex, gender, nation and so forth they happen to belong to – you get to define yourself (including the freedom to define yourself into one or more of the groups I’ve just listed.)

As Mill put it in On Liberty, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” – and while I’d quibble with the “only” in that quote, I do think this one of the most accurate descriptions of what lies at the heart of liberalism.

But because others can get in the way of us pursuing our own good, we’re justified in implementing certain constraints on behaviour. Equality, for example, sees legal expression and reinforcement in concepts like the rule of law, and equality before the law.

And, even though the scope for governments explicitly telling us what to do needs to be very carefully limited, and justified by secular and universal concerns, rather than partisan ones, I’ve got no problem with governments “nudging” us (an idea I defended at length in a previous post).

While many of the points above need further defence, my objective here is to provide a starting point, laying out what strikes me as fundamental to my understanding of liberalism: freedom, equality and self-determination. I’ll hopefully unpack this more in future posts.

But to conclude, I’d like to reiterate that you’d rarely find me defending any given principle as an absolute. Instead, it seems more useful to have strong commitments to clear guiding principles, only violable with very good justification.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.