The anti-liberal moment
September 9, 2019 8:08 AM Subscribe
Critics on the left and right are waging war on liberalism. And liberals don’t seem to have a good defense. On the right, the anti-liberals locate the root of the problem in liberalism’s social doctrines, its emphasis on secularism and individual rights. In their view, these ideas are solvents breaking down America’s communities and, ultimately, dissolving the very social fabric the country needs to prosper. Left anti-liberals, by contrast, pinpoint liberal economic doctrine as the source of our current woes. Liberalism’s vision of the economy as a zone of individual freedom, in their view, has given rise to a deep system of exploitation that makes a mockery of liberal claims to be democratic — an oppressive system referred to as “neoliberalism.”
For a word that’s so omnipresent, liberalism is notoriously difficult to define.To challenge liberalism is thus to not merely engage in ordinary political argumentation. It is to call into question the entire operating system that defines the world’s democracies. It is, by its nature, a radical claim.
In the context of political philosophy, liberalism refers to a school of thought that takes freedom, consent, and autonomy as foundational moral values. Liberals agree that it is generally wrong to coerce people, to seize control of their bodies or force them to act against their will (though they disagree among themselves on many, many whys and hows of the matter).
Given that people will always disagree about politics, liberalism’s core aim is to create a generally acceptable mechanism for settling political disputes without undue coercion — to give everyone a say in government through fair procedures, so that citizens consent to the state’s authority even when they disagree with its decisions.
This foundational liberal vision is typically associated with a group of European and American thinkers — from John Locke in the 17th century to John Rawls in the 20th — and thus often treated as a Western political inheritance. But seeing liberalism as a product of a particular cultural tradition is a mistake.
As Amartya Sen argued in a brilliant 1997 essay, many of the core principles we identify with liberalism today — religious toleration, popular sovereignty, equal freedom for all citizens — can be found in writings from pre-modern Europe, the ancient Buddhist tradition, and a 16th-century Indian king, among a range of sources. Liberalism has taken root in diverse societies across the globe today, from Japan to Uruguay to Namibia.
Sen’s paper suggests that instead of defining liberalism by books written by dead white men, it makes more sense to treat it as a set of parts: a grouping of principles and animating ideas that, when combined, add up to an overarching framework for understanding political life.
Of these components, at least four political principles are common to the various species of liberalism (all of which relate to its core moral premise about freedom). They are familiar to most citizens in liberal regimes: democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, and equality.
These ideas — the minimalist core of liberalism — are so foundational to political life in advanced democracies that they’re simply taken for granted, with debates about public policy taking place inside liberalism’s parameters.