How do you define the concept of a liberal society?


Most people seem happy to assent to the idea of free, liberal democracy in the West. Very few people have any problem defining democracy; everyone assenting to the idea that, on some level, the will of the people ought to prevail. This is usually within the realm of politics and typically borne out in some form of representative election. So far, so agreeable.

Where we seem to struggle more is the principle of liberalism. This is hardly surprising given that – between fields of study – liberalism means very different things. For example, theological liberalism does not have any particular bearing on political liberalism. That is, one can be theologically conservative and yet a political liberal and vice versa.

Even within politics alone, liberalism can be used differently depending on your country. For an American, the term liberal is typically an antonym for conservative. Liberalism is deemed of the left, whilst conservatism of the right. In the UK, given most political parties – and certainly all mainline parties – hold to the post-war liberal consensus, the opposite of liberalism is not so much conservatism but authoritarianism. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat party exists as a conglomeration of right-leaning economic liberals (or, orange book liberals) and the more left-leaning social liberals who joined under the amalgamation of the Social Democratic Party to the Liberals back in the 80s. What, theoretically, unites them is the emphasis on personal autonomy and choice, with each wing choosing to emphasise either economic freedom or social autonomy as is their disposition.

A further problem arises in how the term has come to be used. There are now different forms and types of liberalism. One may hear differentiation between classical liberalism (concerned mainly with individual freedom), neo-liberalism (primarily an economic liberalism), social liberalism (concerned with balancing individual freedom and state intervention) and modern liberalism, or what some have come to term progressivism (leans towards state intervention more readily). All of these are lumped under the banner liberalism yet each of them espouse wildly divergent social and economic views.

The post-war liberal consensus in the UK does not refer primarily to neo-liberalism, which took root during the Reagan/Thatcher era and was continued under Tony Blair who advocated the Third Way. Nor does it refer primarily to progressivism, which has been kicked against in both the left of the Labour Party and the right of the Conservative Party. It is typically a Social Liberal consensus drawn from, but not tied to, classical liberalism. It is an acceptance of a market, or at least mixed, economy, the defence of civil liberties but simultaneously advocating government intervention within certain spheres such as education and healthcare amongst others. This liberal consensus is demonstrated clearly enough by this interview between the left-wing columnist Owen Jones and the right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens (who write for The Guardian and Mail on Sunday respectively). Both advocate individual freedom and both are happy with government involvement in particular sectors. The discussion revolves around what freedoms extend to each individual, do particular groups demands special rights and where is government intervention appropriate.

Why bother determining what we mean when we talk about liberal society? I was prompted to do so having linked to this article regarding the recent Church of England primates conference. The argument advanced in the post, in summary, is that a truly liberal society would tolerate the Church of England’s teaching on homosexuality. Clearly the definition of liberalism being advocated in the article is one where individuals are given freedom of choice to believe and say things outside of mainstream opinion. A view that would fall happily under classical liberalism or social liberalism. The Church may teach and believe what it wishes whilst others my freely tell them what they think of their views.

Some, however, take exception to the teaching of the Church of England on homosexuality. Indeed, that is their right not to like it nor to subscribe to it. However, their position is not simply that they disagree with the Church and want the right to be able to say so (classical and/or social liberalism) but that the Church should not be permitted to teach or believe such things at all (modern liberalism/progressivism). That is, they want the Church of England to adhere to their views of right and wrong and are not beyond calling for intervention in order to make it conform.

There is a clear illiberalism to modern liberal progressivism that seeks to own the label liberal. With the exception of progressivism, liberals of all stripes tend to argue – along with that thing attributed to Voltaire that we know he never said – I disapprove of what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it. Progressives, by contrast, disapprove of what you say and work jolly hard to lobby for your dismissal and ultimately stop you from having any right to say it at all. It is anything but liberal to refuse to allow people to hold views we do not like and to say things with which we do not agree. Though the modern liberal may make the right noises on this issue, and may be prepared to let you hold views they don’t share but which they don’t care that deeply about, when the rubber hits the road and you dissent from a progressive shibboleth (which is, in fact, the only time it matters) censorship and banning are never far from their lips.

As someone who considers themselves of the left, I tend to shy away from the label liberalism because of all that has come to be associated with it. I am, perhaps, more economically interventionist/authoritarian than the label might perhaps allow but it also seems I am now too socially freedom-permitting for the label to carry any great value either. I would prefer the term Socialist (without wishing to differentiate any and every kind thereof). I hold to the Religious Socialism that was borne from religious principles and activism of both Scottish Presbyterianism and Welsh Methodism. I am all in favour of granting individuals social freedoms to think and believe what they will (see here). What I am not so keen on doing in stopping people thinking, believing and saying what they will, no matter how repugnant I find their views. I should hope, if being liberal means anything at all to those who claim the label, that would be reciprocated. The true test of liberalism is not how much you advocate for the rights of those most agree ought to have more, it is how far you advocate for the rights of those (whether in the ascendancy or not) to think, say and believe what you do not even when it does not accord with mainstream opinion.

The test is not how much you detest the BNP, it is whether you can put that aside to let them say the things you hate. It is not how far you will go counter homophobia, it is whether you can permit those who hold those views to state them before you begin to address why you think them wrong. It is not how much you despise the teachings of the Church of England, it is the extent to which you will permit them to voice their teachings even as you disagree with them. None of that is to say you cannot address the views, offer counter-arguments and disagree vehemently. The issue is whether you will allow those views to be voiced and opinions to be heard before you counter them or whether you wish to shoot at straw men and ban those views you dislike altogether. If liberalism means anything at all, it is surely to stand against even the censorship and prohibition of views we find utterly detestable.

To paraphrase Matthew 5:46f: If you only let speak those who agree with you, what reward do you have? Do not even the racists in the BNP and National Front do that? And if you refuse to censor only your fellow political members, what more are you doing than others? Do not even authoritarian regimes do the same?