Europe News Piotr Napierała: "Liberals are not moral relativists"
I realized that even very intelligent and educated people often struggle with defining liberalism and recognizing its ideology and policy. The reason for it may be the practical approach of liberals, who adopt their ideology to existing conditions and are rarely dogmatic. Liberalism is often mixed with other ideas and ideologies, which makes it even more difficult to establish what in a given political or social programme is liberal, and what is for instance democratic, libertarian, nationalistic etc.
First of all liberalism does not have much in common with democratism. Liberal ideology may be developed both in (para)democratic setting (Locke), as well as monarchistic, even in absolutist (Montesquieu, Voltaire), or constitutional (Tocqueville, Bastiat) monarchy, and other systems. Liberalism may be introduced democratically and constitutionally (Wigs, founding fathers of the US), monarchistically (liberal elements of Josephinism and policies of Frederick II or Gustav III), or even by a dictatorship (liberal elements of marquis de Pombal or Pinochet). Liberals may be monarchists (Voltaire) or democrats (Paine), elitists or egalitarians, since these are merely methods of realizing the goal, which is the freedom of an individual.
The core of liberal ideology is the emphasis on individuality, freedom of choice, independence and self-realization of an individual, helping one function in the world, freedom of individual’s inner life, conscience and personal beliefs. This is why liberalism is always against totalitarianism, social pressure on an individual, too much influence of government, family, neighbours, priests, and against forced equalizing of the society, as diversity is the freedom’s daughter.
Liberalism is usually against nationalism, as for liberals the conduct and potential of an individual is what counts, and not his nationality. It may happen though that liberals tactically refer to elements of nationalistic ideology, as it was the case of Wigs’ references to the ideal of the “true-borne Englishman” as presented by Defoe, when conservative Tories represented aristocratic cosmopolitanism, usually, however, nationalism being a mass ideology is perceived by liberals as hostile i.e. in Russia xenophobic nationalists such as Szczerbatov and Dostoyevsky represented conservatism because liberalism was perceived there as an imported fashion. Nationalism, however, matches democratism perfectly – another mass ideology. One could mention here hundreds of radical nationalist-democratic-massonry of Italian risorgimento. Nationalism and aggressive patriotism facilitate democracy promoting social solidarity, side effect of which may be xenophobia, whereas liberalism may only loose its content if too much nationalism or democracy is added to it. Liberalism is closer to elites than masses since usually they are less xenophobic and more interested in universal principles. A liberal does not ask where an immigrant comes from, but rather what is his or her approach to freedom and individualism. Although nationalism is a derivative of enlightenment patriotic upbringing, it does not make it an ally of liberalism, which is focused on an individual, and not on the masses.
The term “liberal democracy” means that in such a system punishments for criticising authorities are relatively mild. Ideological enemies of the system will rather be ridiculed than punished or forced to be silent. Liberalism is propagated more by influencing the public opinion and satire, than by force, which liberals perceive as an instance of the last resort. In the 19th century Herbert Spencer criticized heavily British Wigs/liberals for illiberal enforcement of liberal values and Tudor style controlling of citizens’ lives. Nobody says, however, that liberalism refrains from promoting its value system, which can be exemplified by “world-view neutral state”, in which an individual does not manifest ones own religious or ideological convictions.
Usually liberals perceive an ideal state as merely a “night-watcher” or “minimum state”, which (without using these terms) was mentioned by Paine, Jefferson (regionalism) and Mill, whereas conservatist such as Samuel Johnson claimed all governments were “absolute”. By the way absolutism is understood today in the Anglo-Saxon way, as king’s intrusion into citizens’ lives, especially in the matters of conscience, while it actually does not denote totality, but exclusiveness of the monarch’s power (Cardin Le Bret wrote that king’s power is “as indivisible as a geometrical point”), therefore, absolutism and absolutist monarchism are not opposing to liberalism, but to administrative and juristic privileges of nobility and to regionalism. Liberalism does not imply anti-monarchism (i.e. E. von Kuehnelt-Leddin was both a liberal and absolute monarchist at the same time), and also not necessarily “minimal state” supporters, thus libertarians are not typical liberals in this respect.
The most powerful monarchistic systems and their bureaucracy were rudimentary, and the government was often absent in the provinces (which to a high extent ruled themselves by feudal lords or city councils, while central government did not even have their representatives there as politics meant diplomacy + religion + treasury at that time). Louis XIV of France had merely 60ooo officials (with population of 20 million), and half of them were working in courts called parliaments, which often opposed the political will of Versailles, whereas in the second half of the XIX century France had already 600ooo officials (with population of ca. 39 million), while Britain retained their relatively small number which explains the fear of French bureaucracy, still liberals of that time were hardly anti-bureaucratic i.e. Spencer perceived bureaucracy as an institution liberalising society i.e. via state, lay education. Only today libertarianism (in the US today even the classical liberals are called libertarians, as opposed to social “liberals” from the Democratic Party) makes sense, when there are millions of state officials. Classical liberals such as Guy Sorman, or a little more social Dirk Verhofstadt cared about individual’s freedom, but a “minimum-state” was not their dogma, and libertarian ideas of Hans Hoppe, Robert Nozick, David Boaz or Korwin-Mikke they would call rather anarchistic. Functioning of a modern state requires bureaucracy, while anarchy is dangerous for individuals’ freedom, especially the milder and softer ones. Few liberals openly suggested supporting the strong individuals and so called “social Darwinism”, as Herbert Spencer did.
Libertarians perceive themselves as the only descendants of the liberal tradition of the West and exclusive defenders of free market and property right, as well as obligatory taxation, which is the heritage of both liberalism and anarcho-individualism. Unfortunately, politics is not performed in a vacuum and various ideas, such as Hoppe’s, resulting in a peculiar local government rule, are unlikely to result in a peaceful co-existence. Libertarian country would probably be rich, but weak and vulnerable to attacks from outside and from within, whereas first illegal trade union would swipe it and reinstall socialist ruling.
Conservatives ponder what should be conserved and what reinstated, whereas liberals think how to give power to an individual, thus educational policy may look different here – should parents or ministry decide about the school programme, do children belong exclusively to their parents, or maybe a little to the society and state as well, or maybe to nobody, is establishing religious schools acceptable? In such case, it is crucial what does the society look like: is it atheistic like in the Czech Republic or Catholic like in Poland, and how much is it patriarchal/individualistic, as nobody has said liberals have no right to promote their virtues. Again ideas do not dwell in a vacuum. Libertarians would love to abolish state schools, but it is highly probable that private schools would not produce people sharing their views, therefore, libertarian educational idea is a utopia, as well as other ideas of theirs.
Liberals believe in certain unchangeable values: press/assembly/religious freedom, personal independence, as well as derivatives of individualism: innovation and diversity, thus they ARE NOT moral relativists, which conservatives accuse them of being. They reject (Melanie Philips) fragmenting society by religious schools and educating children exclusively within their own cultural framework. They reject favouring faith, which divides, over constitution, which is supposed to unite (Ayaan Hirshi Ali); they reject making truth relative by fashionable philosophers such as Derrida (Neil Postman); as well as treating liberal values as a Western idea – freedom is universal, and not Western (Dirk Verhofstadt) thus suitable for everybody, as it is not merely a value, but a state.
Liberalism fights mainly against an institutional or – as Hitchens put it - organized religion, whereas private faith, practised at home, does not displease liberals. Religious institutions have to be excluded from schools and offices (the US), or partially subordinated (Josephinism, France). State religions, if they stay away from education and individual privacy, may be tolerated (Great Britain, Denmark). Therefore, liberalism is close to rationalism and humanism, since they limit religion in the name of reason (fighting – as Pierre Manent put it - “the political power of a religion”), although it existed even before modern rationalism emerged i.e. in the form of Medieval British individualism. Similarly to democratism, which refers to ratio and human needs, but existed already with the Vikings.
Liberalism implies diversity and innovation being anti-conservative values, although in the highly liberal, modern world one could speak about the liberal “end of history” (Fukuyama actually copied E. Burke’s views that there is a certain level of freedom that can possibly be reached and cannot be crossed, however, what Burke meant was the year of 1688 and the “glorious revolution” - this remark we owe to the marvellous work by Hitchens about Thomas Paine).
On the other hand some speak about revolutionary conservatism, which is a bigot reaction against liberal Western values. We should also remember conservative Lampedusa’s statement that “something must change in order everything to remain unchanged”. Liberalism supports change and avoids revolutions (La Fayette – yes, Robespierre – no).
The greatest confusion is the result of reducing liberalism to free market. The free market is not a liberal dogma, although a rejection of constant intervention could be perceived this way. Liberals see no problem in start-up grants (Palikot), or even rising economical levels using quasi-mercantile methods, as long as the rod and not the fish is involved. Conservative bigots or anti-democratic sceptics (called conservative liberals), highlighted this single element of the liberal programme – the free market – and made it an absolute dogma, forgetting completely about the social dimension of liberalism, which is decidedly more significant as economic freedom is – despite Marxist claims – a derivative of the shape and freedoms within society. They forget about strong anti-aristocratic opinions of Adam Smith, and that aristocratic liberalism existed as well (Montesqueiu, Tocqueville), fighting both king’s absolutism (d’Argenson, Voltaire) and democratic (Paine, Locke). Montesquieu defended aristocratic and parliamentary privileges as a stoppage for royal authority’s demand thus treating noble privileges in the liberal, and not traditionalist terms (differently to i.e. Boulaivillieres, who was actually against equalling rights of administrative – Montesquieu’s - with sword nobility).
Liberalism demands society open to a social promotion (Kołłątaj, Popper).
Liberalism may be grassroots, but it can also be introduced top-down. Kant and Krasicki were happy about overhead Frederick’s reforms, while conservative Hegel, merely pretending to be a liberal, decided that Prussia allegedly embodied freedom which was supposed to pacify those, who demanded an open society, which in turn resulted in Popper’s criticism. Founding fathers of liberalism were: Locke (private sphere), Voltaire (conviction freedom), and Kant (“behave as if your behaviour was supposed to become the law”). Liberalism can function within any system, unless it is extreme racism or heavy nationalism, theocracy or one limiting individual freedom (monopoly, tribal systems, inability of promotion). What now will liberals do in face of sharia law? Will they “liberally” (in the pacifist, non-intervening understanding of Spencer) comply to islamist propaganda, or illiberally stand up for liberalism. We’ll see.