Two answers to the question ‘What is liberalism?’

Edwin van de Haar’s Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology and Michael Freeden’s Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction both set out to answer the question ‘What is liberalism?’ They share a methodology for reaching a conclusion. But they leave readers with quite different impressions of contemporary liberal thought.

In classifying political beliefs, both books use Michael Freeden’s work on ideology. Borrowing a term from linguistics, Freeden argues that ideologies have ‘morphologies’. By this he means that ideologies share common clusters of concepts. These concepts can vary in their meaning and weight, but similar cluster content puts intellectuals, activists and parties into the same ideology. Peripheral or adjacent concepts can exist alongside the base cluster of concepts.

For Freeden, liberalism’s conceptual core consists of liberty, rationality, individuality, progress, sociability, the general interest and limited and accountable power. Edwin van de Haar doesn’t list his core liberal concepts in a way clearly intended to be comprehensive, but on my reading it includes freedom, individualism, tolerance, classical natural rights, belief in spontaneous order, a realistic view of human nature, constitutionalism, and limited government.

These lists contain ideas that serve different purposes within an ideology. Some – liberty, tolerance, constitutionalism, limited government, individuality and the institutions of spontaneous order – are liberalism’s political agenda. Other concepts are assumptions or theories about people and social organisation, such as rationality, sociability, and the feasibility of spontaneous order. Others still provide high-level normative justifications for liberalism: the value of individuality, progress, the general interest, and natural rights.

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