On Liberalism

by Elias Blum

I’ve been thinking more this morning about the meaning of ‘liberalism’. What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?

I can think of at least 7 definitions:

1. Philosophical liberalism: a philosophical tradition with its roots in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, emphasising the centrality of the individual as a pre-political bearer of natural rights, and state and society as artificial constructs based on consent.

2. Pluralist Liberalism: a belief in tolerance of difference, an open and plural society, the right of people to be themselves and make their own choices in matters of personal concern.

3. Economic (neo-)liberalism: a belief in the ‘free market’, and a set of policy preferences centered on privatisation, tax cuts for the rich, extending property rights and market mechanisms into areas where they did not previously exist (e.g. education, healthcare), reductions in social spending, and corporate-led globalisation.

4. Left-Liberalism / Social Liberalism: a political belief that combines elements of liberalism and elements of socialism, favouring a more active and redistributive state in order to maximise genuine freedom; freedom is understood not as absence of state interference but as the maximisation of opportunities to flourish.

5. Progressive Liberalism: a political belief that emphasizes ‘progressive’ and ‘permissive’ stances on issues such as family structures, gender identity, human reproductive ethnics etc; frequently combined with multi-culturalist or anti-religious views.

6. Partisan Liberalism: adherence to the historical Liberal party and its successors (SDP-Liberal Alliance, Liberal Democrats).

7. Constitutional Liberalism: a belief in constitutional democratic government, civil liberties, judicially enforced rights, checks and balances.

No one holds all these positions simultaneously. Obviously there’s some overlap in these definitions, especially in how they relate to Philosophical Liberalism and Constitutional Liberalism. But there are also difficult tensions: for example, Economic (Neo-)Liberalism and Left-Liberalism are in almost direct opposition to one another on economic, fiscal and regulatory matters. Likewise Pluralist Liberalism and Progressive Liberalism are, or can be, opposed on a range of issues surrounding rights of minorities.

According to these definitions, I’m a Left-Liberal and a Constitutional Liberal, and to some extent a Pluralist Liberal. My guess is that Tim Farron is a Philosophical Liberal, a Pluralist Liberal, a Left-Liberal, a Partisan Liberal, and maybe a Constitutional Liberal.

But it seems the only types of Liberalism that are really permitted and accepted these days are Economic (Neo-) Liberalism on the right and Progressive Liberalism on the left.

Often, these fuse into a sort of Capitalist Progressivism, that, on the one hand, cannot see beyond everyone who refuses to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of same-sex marriage is an ‘evil bigot’, but on the other hand doesn’t mind so much if people are forced by necessity into relying on food banks.