Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

The meaning of liberalism

Liberalism has emerged as the world’s dominant ideology. Europe provides a good
example of the spread of liberal–democratic values and institutions: the 1970s saw
the transition from right-wing, military regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and
in 1989–91 the process of democratisation spread to Eastern Europe in the dramatic
overthrow of state socialism from the Baltic states to Romania. While the depth of
commitment at elite and popular levels to liberal–democratic values in the ‘emergent
democracies’ of Eastern Europe is a matter of much debate among political scientists,
all these states subscribe to a liberal ideology. The accession in 2004 of nine Eastern
European states, plus Malta, of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and of Croatia in
2013 to the European Union, bringing the total from the original six member states
in the 1950s to 27 today, is indicative of this commitment.
The very dominance of liberalism can make it a difficult ideology to grasp. In
the history of political thought quite different bodies of thought are identified as
‘liberal’. And in popular political discourse confusion can be caused when the term
is applied to particular parties, movements or strands of thought withina liberal
democracy. For example, many political parties have the word ‘liberal’ in their name;
in Canada the Liberal Party is towards the left of the political spectrum, while in
Australia the Liberal Party is on the right. In many European countries liberalism
is associated with a strong commitment to the free market, whereas in the United
States the term denotes a belief in central – that is, federal – state intervention in
society and the economy, and so to be ‘liberal’ is to be on the left. Clarification is
sometimes provided by a qualifying adjective: economic liberalism or social
liberalism. Occasionally the term classicalliberalism is employed to denote support
for free trade and the free market.
Some distinctions will help to cut through the confusions of popular usage:

  • JustificationPolitical institutions can be described as ‘liberal’, but so can the
    method by which they are justified. Hobbes’s defence of the state is a good
    example of this distinction. The institutions he defends appear highly illiberal
    but his method of justifying those institutions – contractarianism – is liberal.
    State authority is justified because we, as rational individuals, would calculate
    that it is in our interests to submit to it. Most of our attention in this chapter
    will be on the justification of institutions.

  • Constitution and policyTurning to institutions, we can distinguish between the
    constitution and policy (or law-making). The constitution determines the
    procedure by which laws are passed, while to a large extent leaving open the
    content of those laws. Although there may be debate about the constitution, most
    people are implicitly ‘liberal’ on the essentials of the constitution: the division of
    powers and the basic rights of individuals. They may not, however, support
    parties that describe themselves as liberal. The struggle between political parties
    normally operates withinthe constitution, rather than being a battle over the
    constitution. In short, at the constitutional level most of us are liberals, but at
    the policy level this may not be the case.

  • AttitudesThere is a distinction between how political theorists have defended –
    justified – liberal principles and institutions, and popular attitudes to those

Chapter 8 Liberalism 173
Free download pdf