Elements of Liberalism

April 21, 2014

A quick post differentiating some of the different elements of liberalism. Worth doing because both critiques and defences of liberalism often blur quite a lot of different things together.

The following is an excellent starting point: Charles Mills’ 2012 Stony Brook lecture on ‘Liberalism and Racial Justice’.

Mills starts his talk by distinguishing five different things that people can mean by ‘liberalism’. These are:

a) a set of value commitments: moral equality; freedom; self-realisation of individual; etc.
b) a social ontology: atomic individualism
c) a conceptual cartography: the distinction between the private and the public realm
d) a theory of history: Whig progressivism
e) a particular schedule of rights, protections and freedoms.

These are all worthy of long discussion, but I’m going to basically focus on just (a) and (e). That is I’m interested in the political ideals of liberalism, rather than its contributions to our framework for analysing social reality, etc.

Ok – if we’re just interested in liberal political ideals: what are those ideals? Here are five different elements of those ideals:

In the first box – the ideal of liberty. The principal ideal of liberalism is to maximise, or at least give high priority to, the liberty of the individual.

But what does this mean? I think it’s worth distinguishing three different concepts of liberty:

1) Negative liberty, in the good old John Stuart Mill / Isaiah Berlin sense. That is to say – freedom from coercion. Liberalism aims to create a sphere of personal freedom for each individual within which the individual is free from the coercive actions of others. Obviously there’s a lot of different ways of understanding the scope of that sphere, and the scenarios in which this entitlement to freedom from coercion can be lost or withdrawn. Still.

This ideal gives us a role for legitimate force (probably wielded by the state): coercion is legitimate (only?) if it prevents people from infringing on others’ freedom.

Ok – that’s negative liberty. That’s a pretty slim-line concept of liberty.

2) Liberty in the sense of capacity. That is – the concept of liberty associated with, for example, Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Here the idea is that you are only free to do something if you have the capacity to do it – so poverty is a form of unfreedom, because it restricts one’s range of action; disability is a form of unfreedom without a social context that accommodates the disability, etc. Prejudice and informal social sanction generate unfreedom, because they restrict the range of action of their targets, etc. etc.

This is a much more capacious sense of freedom. Indeed, a lot of political goals that are often articulated under the banner of egalitarianism (where the ideal of equality is often treated as distinct from and even incompatible with the ideal of freedom) can be captured under this category. And I think that’s a good way to understand these goals: increasing the freedom-as-capability of people across society seems like a more concretely impactful and less arbitrarily relational political goal than equality in the abstract. (Not that these should be conflated.)

Next up:

3) Positive liberty, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. That is to say, more or less, grounding others’ power over us in our own choices, in some sense.

Putting it crassly: if negative liberty (1) is about the creation of a sphere of freedom from coercion; and capabilities liberty (2) is the creation of the ability to actually act as we might wish within that sphere; positive liberty (3) is about who gets to coerce us at the limits of that sphere, and the source of their ability to do so.

Obviously things can get a bit dicier here, as Berlin among many others points out: grounding the ability to coerce people in those people’s own purported self-determination is a reliable recipe for sophistical justifications for unjustified violence. Still, it doesn’t seem absurd to draw distinctions between more and less legitimate governance apparatuses, and to ground that legitimacy in the choices of the governed. How one goes about doing that will fork our concept of positive liberty in many different directions (different forms of democracy, different authoritarianisms grounded in different understandings of the will of the people), and that can’t be covered here. But this is clearly another important sense of liberty.

Ok – that’s three ideals of liberty we’ve got going. Now, moving away from the ideal of liberty, but staying with the governance apparatus:

4) Checks and balances on the exercise of power.

This isn’t really a political ideal – more an institution-building principle – but it’s another very important element of liberalism. The idea (obviously) is that whatever governance system you’ve got, it’s likely to be abused by those who wield its power – so checks and balances on power is essential to preserving whatever other forms of liberty you’ve got going on. You need to design your governance institutions in such a way that untrammeled power is difficult to exercise – a separate point from how you actually understand liberty.

Ok – then the final element:

5) The appropriate sphere of application of the concepts above.

That is to say, more or less: who gets to count as a political subject who can enjoy these ideals? Who are the citizens of the liberal political entity? And who falls outside it? To whom do these ideals not apply?

As Mills – and Losurdo, and many others – point out, liberalism has historically drawn that line between the citizen and the non-citizen – and, more broadly, the human and the not-quite-really-fully-human – in many different places. John Stuart Mill moves from outlining the ideals of liberty, in one paragraph, to explaining why they don’t apply to the brutes in the colonies he made his living administering, in the next. Liberalism, historically, has been built on a hierarchy of the human. At the top of that hierarchy are the full humans who deserve the full realisation of the ideals of liberalism; at the bottom are those animals or barely-more-than-animals who can and must be coerced – for whom violent coercion is the only possible route to any kind of freedom. And between these two extremes is a vast scale of greater and lesser humanity, that warrants the differential realisation of greater or fewer ideals of liberalism, as circumstances require.

Now throw all these elements of liberalism up in the air, and see where they come down: which among these one chooses to emphasise, and how one understands its application, will determine what kind of actually-existing-liberalism you get. Though, of course, in reality it is more often on-the-ground practice that determines which ideals get emphasised.

I think this is a useful way of breaking down liberalism, though I obviously don’t claim that these categories are anything close to exhaustive. Still – something to keep thinking about.

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6 Responses to “Elements of Liberalism”


  1. Hi, Duncan: I look forward to the continuation of our “Embodied Norms” discussion, but meantime here is a quick response on Liberalism.

    One of the great problems with the Liberal tradition, starting with Locke, is that it does not make sufficient distinction between my body and my property. To call something “mine”, as one does with one’s money, chattels, real estate, etc., is to call upon others to treat it as such under the laws of property, and, in doing so, I implicitly endorse and consent to those laws as they happen to be at the time, so that, if those laws require me to pay tax on my income, I cannot object to the tax on the ground that the state is taking “my” money, because “my” money counts as “mine” only so long as it is what the law recognises as “mine”.

    But my body is “mine” in a quite different sense, and the tendency in liberal thinking has been to treat the bodies of persons as if they could be regarded as belonging to those persons on the same kind of conventional basis as their property, and this has led to the assumption that persons can be required to surrender their bodies to the state for certain purposes, e.g., punishment, on the same implicitly consensual basis as that on which they can be required to pay tax.

  2. duncan Says:

    Yes – the generalisation of the relationships of private property ownership and transfer as the paradigmatic relationships of all social life: rights as rights of ownership; political legitimacy grounded in contract law as myth. One of the ways in which the emergence of liberalism and the development of capitalism are linked…


  3. Your reply expertly assigns the subject I was addressing to its place in the index of political theory, but thereby, I think, turns its implicit point, which is that what you speak of under the general heading of “coercion” is not as simple as it looks. Locke, Mill and Rawls are all vigorous advocates for compulsory punishment, and my suspicion is that retributive/punitive rhetoric is the Trojan Horse of Fascism within the walls of Liberalism. Liberal Democracy can exist without that rhetoric, but fascism cannot, because fascism is based on terror, so I am anxious that, when we speak of “coercion”, we should be as clear as possible about what we mean, otherwise we shall find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dick Cheney and the justifiers of “enhanced interrogation”.

  4. duncan Says:

    Yes – I don’t have a clear set of criteria for differentiating fascism from other forms of authoritarian exterminationist violence directed at out-group members – a political practice probably needs to join the latter to a romanticist conception of group membership bound by common will, to count as fascist, I think – but then I’m at a loss as to explain why Rousseau doesn’t count as fascist (for example) – if indeed he doesn’t. This is very much a work in progress; I’ve got lots more reading and thinking to do.

    Still – liberalism has historically often been terroristic in the exterminationist-authoritarian-violence-directed-at-outsiders sense: one way to think about 20th century European fascism is as importing the practices of population ‘management’ used by the colonial powers against the colonised into the core, directing them at an internal domestic population. So I guess my impulse is to say that the Trojan horse of fascism, within liberalism, is the hierarchisation of the human that I mention in point (5) – totally explicit and unabashed in Locke and Mill – though not (I think?) in Rawls. I guess the Brandomian apparatus – to touch on our other conversation – might have some purchase against that hierarchisation, since it gives very abstract and very broadly shared criteria for sapience (and therefore could be used to rebut efforts to draw that the line of the full humanity more narrowly; that would need some unpacking though). But I’d still be anxious to differentiate those metatheoretical points from more ‘downstream’ politics, even though there’s interplay between the two.

    On coercion – you’re right that this is a very broad category. What did you have in mind re: Rawls and compulsory punishment? (It’s a long time since I’ve read him.) I can’t really imagine a liberal democracy without something like a prison system, for example – at any rate without some formal system of legally enforced coercive sanction – would you regard such a system (even in some hypothetical minimally-terroristic form) as vulnerable to the same criticisms re: coercion?

    Apologies for responding here but not in the other thread – I’m more in this thought-space so it takes less effort (& therefore time) to reply here; but I’ll get to the other thread anon.


  5. Hi, Duncan,

    (1) I used the word “fascism” in the non-precise, colloquial sense that would cover any kind of arbitrary modern government.

    (2) “Hierarchy” or the subjection of any group of “others”, however designated, to “our” will? My point is that the subjection of convicts to our will is an example of just that, and all the more dangerous for its being generally accepted (a Trojan horse within the gates) as necessary to social order. A good example would be Cameron’s saying that the idea of allowing prisoners to vote made him “physically sick”.

    (3) Yes, I do think one of Brandom’s greatest achievements is to provide us with a rational criterion of demarcation: if we treat an individual as a responsible agent by holding him responsible for his actions under the criminal law, then we cannot meaningfully deny him the authority of a participant in “our” conversation about what is to be done with him.

    (4) On coercion, prisons, social order, etc., I refer you to the following paragraphs from my comments under “Embodied Norms”:

    “Finally, you appeal to defensive action as a case where it is justifiable that “actions are taken without consent” in the sense that the assailant who threatens your children doesn’t consent to your assaulting him in their defence; but, as I interpret Brandom, an authoritative and responsible agent who attacks your children thereby implicitly endorses the claim “that one may attack another” and thereby licenses you to attack him for so long as he continues to attack you and yours. The attack implies consent to the defensive actions it provokes, which neatly illustrates the difference between a semantic and a psychologistic or naturalistic understanding of action.

    But our original difference was on the subject of torture and my point is that it is only by the most extreme abuse of language that one could speak of using acts of torture “in self-defense”, for the obvious reason that, for you to be able to torture someone, it is necessary that he be helpless and at your mercy and therefore incapable, by definition, of posing a threat to you. The same is obviously true of the death penalty: the executioner is not threatened by the convict who stands before him bound hand and foot.

    What I have said about the impossibility of consenting to be compelled entails the impossibility of justifying any kind of compulsory punishment, but this does not spell the end of social order because it allows legal penalties to be accepted by convicts as penances are by penitents, and, when those penalties are not accepted by convicts, it allows the state, in self-defence, to treat the convict as it would a p.o.w., interning him until the cessation of hostilities. In a naturalistic perspective, internment under the Geneva Convention might not seem distinguishable from imprisonment, but it is the kind of distinction for which some people, e.g., Bobby Sands, have been prepared to die.”

  6. duncan Says:

    Right, sorry – serves me right for commenting here before responding to your other post. I’ll have to delay that still, though.


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