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What exactly is liberalism? Any description, either by its protractors or detractors, quickly brings up the image of the four blind men and the elephant. To complicate things further, anything beyond a cursory look reveals multiple strands of liberalism, ranging from the 20th century welfarist Left-liberalism of progressivism to the laissez-faire market capitalist orientation more common among liberals of the previous century. Even more vexing is how liberals are found on both sides of the aisle – they oppose the Right promotion of “traditional” and religious values, but support their advocacy of capitalist enterprise. On taxation and welfare, liberals are as divided among themselves as “Left” and “Right.” Occasionally, liberals might find common cause with other parts of the political spectrum – such as on welfare with the Left – but for entirely different reasons and to different degrees.

What are we to make of the term then? Part of the problem is the refusal to acknowledge the evolution of the term over the last 200 years. Another part is the hegemonic position liberalism has achieved in modern political discourse, so much so that even modern conservatism and socialism share some of its principles. This overlapping of values makes it difficult to distill a set of core principles unique to liberalism. For example, liberty and tolerance could be seen as liberal values but are hardly the monopoly of liberal thought, and liberals did not always support democracy (understood as universal adult suffrage). Perhaps the central tenet of liberalism (which, now, libertarians also lay claim to) is individualism. But to put this in the appropriate context, liberalism is best understood as a zeitgeist rather than as a concrete political ideology.

Liberalism arose as an ideology of the middle class merchants. Early liberals stressed the sanctity of the individual over the aristocracy, based on birth, and the clergy, based on dubious, hand-me-down morality. As the Industrious and Industrial revolutions shifted consumption patterns and economic modalities, the new middle class strained against traditional authority. This universal appeal – the first and second estates were not so numerous – united the rich merchants as well as marginalised groups such as women, labourers, and slaves. However, as the “revolutionaries” replaced the ancien regime, women and labourers saw little change. Disadvantaged groups now used the universalist liberal principles they had argued for against monarchs to squeeze benefits from their erstwhile colleagues. This struggle for inclusion into the governing process took place along political as well as economic lines. As Robert Lowe, then only a Member of Parliament, said in 1867 on the eve of the Second Reform Act (and the beginning of the age of mass politics),

Because I am a Liberal, and know that by pure and clear intelligence alone can the cause of true progress be promoted, I regard as one of the greatest dangers a proposal to subvert the order of things, and transfer power from the hands of property and intelligence, and to place it in the hands of men whose whole life is necessarily occupied in daily struggles for existence.

Clearly, not all early liberals shared William Gladstone’s “trust in the people,” and the Second Reform Act can be seen as one of the early points of divergence among liberals. Opposed to the deification of humanity as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Ernest Renan were wont to do, classical liberals argued that (a liberal) government was one that was intelligent and disinterested, free from a craving for popular approval, religious superstition, or unnatural hierarchies; it was a practical matter of business, and franchise a mechanism for selecting the best to govern. As Lowe famously said,

I cannot blow a glass bottle because it would be my interest to do so, nor discern political truth merely because I shall suffer if I am wrong.

The fact that working men would benefit from good legislation offered no security that they could supply it.

Political participation was gradually ceded, but economic upliftment gained traction more quickly, especially as mainstream liberalism adopted concepts of redistributive economics and Karl Marx’s doctrine of Socialism sprang up to vociferously denounce laissez-faire capitalism. While it is debatable whether the redistributive impulse among liberals was inspired by a religious or a humanist urging – Gladstone was profoundly religious, arguing that the mind and soul of a man cannot be measured in shillings and pence – liberal politics undertook fundamental social reforms and began to embrace labour unions, welfare, and other egalitarian principles. Right-wingers of today might cringe at this, but in the 19th century, these reforms were essential for creating a fair and humane society – the daily horror of low-wage labour in England, be it in the cotton mills or the coal mines, was unbelievable. The Left-liberal agenda included basic reforms that are today taken for granted such as 8-hour workdays, two-day weekends, paid holidays, as well as the abolition of the Corn Laws, tariff reforms, abolition of slavery, Poor Law reform, the establishment of a public education system, and the gradual expansion of suffrage to include the non-propertied and women.

The devastation of World War I and the economic collapse precipitated by the mercantilist advocacy of protectionism a decade later shocked international business. In the widespread post-war misery, socialism seemed a safer bet to many. So powerful was the socialist message that Left-liberalism and even fascism adopted some of its principles; the Great Crash in 1929 only underscored the fragility of the capitalist system and made socialist policies look more attractive. The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes found wide acceptance in this hopeless climate. One of its powerful supporters was no less than the US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR launched a series of massive public works projects, satisfying the infrastructural needs of the vast country. This, however, was not a temporary solution to the rampant unemployment of the late 1920s and early 1930s – FDR’s State of the Union speech in 1944 enumerated “rights” for all that created vague positive obligations on everyone, very different from the liberal ideals of just a century ago. Furthermore, this “second Bill of Rights” also expanded the role of government in the economy enormously.

Despite these economic deviations from the original tenets of liberalism, Left-liberals held on to other ideas such as tolerance and anti-clericalism that were central to the liberal philosophy. This was amply demonstrated during the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the support of liberals to gender equality and LGBT rights. In the late 1960s, the famous political philosopher John Rawls rewrote the social contract of John Locke and Immanuel Kant to give it a more egalitarian outlook. However, by the end of the next decade, governments worldwide were stepping back from their flirtation with social democracy, as liberalism with socialist leanings was then called, towards the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Ironically, though neoliberalism resembles the original liberalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it has been adopted by centre-Right parties such as the Australian Labour Party, the Conservatives in the United Kingdom, and the Republican Party in the United States. Social democracy, also known as Progressivism or Left-liberalism, has taken centre-stage for liberalism in today’s political spectrum.

While “old” liberals accuse the “new” liberals of betraying the original tenets of liberal thought, Left-liberals argue that the liberal agenda of equal opportunity can only be met by appropriate restructuring of societal preferences, restraining prejudices, and a substantive redistribution of wealth – in essence, what they see as a pragmatic approach. In turn, the new liberals accuse the old liberals of failing to create equal opportunities, resistance to universal suffrage, and hesitance to include marginalised groups into the political process, only to be reminded by classical liberals that the purpose of government is not social engineering but the defence of individual liberty, leaving society to sort out the rest.

Liberals – I shall use “progressives” to designate the Left-liberals – argue that rights are relational, imply obligations, and are compossible; fundamental rights are inalienable, inherent, and create negative obligations. Liberals also distinguish between rights and needs – the former creates a claim while the latter does not. To juxtapose this with Left and Right notions of rights, it is worth noting the different priorities of collectivist ideology. The communists argue that the needs of the proletariat were a claim against the individual, while the Nazis subordinated the individual to the race. Italian and Spanish fascists and the architects of the welfare state placed society before the individual, and theocracies oppressed the individual in the name of religion. The proletariat, race, society, and religion are the personification of the state to which the sacrifice of the individual will is demanded.

Liberals put individual liberty above all else; the social contract is between the state and the individual. This does not, contrary to the straw man conservatives like to put up, restrict the individual from organising into different associations. For example, a liberal state will not interfere if every member of a gated community decides to live a communitarian lifestyle, combining chores, income, and responsibilities. Nor would it prohibit the gathering of similar-minded individuals to read, discuss, and learn the teachings of ma’at. The liberal mindset has evolved from observing the historical oppression of minorities in the name of collective identity and is hence suspicious of any form of the collective. However, it would be antithetical to common sense and the natural order to prohibit to people, a social species, collective identities and activities. The balance between ensuring the rights of the individual and the thriving of the collective is to allow each individual to voluntarily choose his or her affiliations. This couples responsibility for choice with the freedom to choose in one individual.

Many of today’s conservatives and progressives thus find themselves descendants of the liberal tradition in that conservatives support laissez-faire capitalism and progressives support the liberal rejection of religion at the governing level. However, progressivism, or what passes for liberalism today, sought to push through its agenda by means of an activist state. In the 19th century, this was understandable, for the liberal agenda was to ensure that every individual received his or her fundamental rights. Since then, however, progressives have forgotten the old Aristotelian virtue of the golden mean, and their agenda has been expanded beyond fundamental rights to need-claims. One’s natural sympathy for the less fortunate is manipulated, and a guilt tax is extorted in the name of poor relief and the actualisation of the promise of equality. However, liberalism was never truly a doctrine of equality but one of compossible equal opportunity, or, as Locke expressed, equality of authority. The liberal support of education stems from their belief that a person be able to stand on his or her own two feet and the responsibility for success or failure be his or hers alone.

Unfortunately, this progressive strategy has evoked much hostility from conservatives and liberals alike. Welfare economics, particularly with a slowing economy, has disrupted growth; fetishism made out of inclusivity has made society more unsafe, and a weak intellectual grasp of liberal political philosophy (or worse, hypocrisy) has brought progressivism (and dragged liberals along with it) to an intellectual crisis of political philosophy. Here on out, in the din of populist politics, whether it is the progressives who win or the conservatives, the liberal individual is subordinated; the only choice is between a state ideology and a state-sponsored group. In an effort to defend a philosophically flawed political position (since they insist on arguing from liberal and not socialist first principles), they may very well end up sacrificing the real liberal talisman – individual liberty.