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the scope of that sphere, and the scenarios in which this entitlement to freedom from coercion can be lost or withdrawn.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.