What does “liberalism” mean?

The word “liberalism” is a key concept both within the political vernacular of post-industrial societies as well as within the academy. But this word does not seem to have a fixed, singular meaning, rather different groups seem to use this term to refer to entirely different social phenomena and theoretical justifications. In this entry I would like to unpack some of the different ways in which the term “liberal” and “liberalism” is used and show that we ought to explain what we mean by this term when using it in conversation with others because it seems to refer to a disparate set of phenomena and ideas.

In everyday use in North America the term liberal refers to someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum. In this sense the word liberal denotes a broad acceptance of, and enthusiasm for a welfare state that will ensure the equality, and freedom of all, as well as a broad acceptance of difference. Liberalism, in this sense, let’s call it Sense 1 Liberalism, is defined in opposition to conservatism which is understood in terms of adherence to free enterprise, and a general uneasiness with the recognition of difference, whether cultural, racial or sexual. Within everyday political discourse when someone says liberal this is typically what they mean, however there are many other uses of the terms liberal, and liberalism, which display very different meanings.

Another sense of the term “liberalism” is that which refers to an approach to political economy which emphasizes the efficiency of markets and their self-regulating nature as well as the fact that the state should be as minimal as possible as is consistent with ensuring a large degree of economic growth. This is often referred to as neoliberalism; the rationale behind calling this orientation towards the economy neoliberalism is that it is return to the 19th century liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. But for our purposes let us call this Sense 2 Liberalism, as people will still often refer to liberal economics or liberalism to refer to this doctrine that emphasizes the primacy of markets.

One other way in which the term liberalism is used is particularly predominant in the academy among critical theorists (Marxists, Radical Feminists etc) and some Communitarians. In this context liberalism is a pejorative used to describe a mixture of political, cultural and economic attitudes within liberal democratic societies. This term does not describe any particular theory, but the status quo within liberal societies such as Canada, the United States, and many countries within Western Europe among others. Let us call this Sense 3 Liberalism.

One final way in which liberalism is used is common within the Anglo-American academy, especially among Political Philosophers and Political Theorists. This sense of liberalism posits that liberalism is a family of political philosophies that emphasizes that the point of the state is to ensure the equal freedom of all individuals under it. There are of course differing variants of liberalism in this sense that range between more market capitalist oriented interpretations and more egalitarian interpretations that accept as much state intervention in the economy as most socialists would. Furthermore, some variants emphasize that ensuring equal freedom is necessary to support an autonomous life, while others suppose that ensuring equal freedom is not necessary to another end, but something that is required to treat a person with respect, but they all share this broad commitment to equal freedom of the individual. Let us call this Sense 4 Liberalism. The philosophies of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Dworkin and Waldron would all be examples of Sense 4 Liberalism.

Now we can see that all of these meanings of liberalism share some commonalities, in that they all have something to do with freedom and the individual, but beyond that there is not much that unites them at the level of meaning. For example, I would say that I am a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism, while I am not a supporter of Sense 2 or Sense 3 Liberalism. The fact that I think that the state should ensure that all those who live under it are accorded equal freedom, need not mean that I support the current state of culture, politics, and economics within liberal democratic societies. Societies that are based on principles that correspond to Sense 4 Liberalism do tend to have vices similar to those of Sense 3 Liberalism, but this does not mean that supporters of Sense 4 Liberalism need to support these vices.

The trouble is that often people use one sense of the term liberalism, without explaining what the term means, to either support or critique liberalism. When this occurs the others listening to this person will often be confused because if the person is critiquing Sense 3 Liberalism, and say liberalism necessary leads to a shallow society, and their interlocutor thinks of liberalism in terms of Sense 1 Liberalism then they will be puzzled and confused by the critics comments. Furthermore, if they are a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism they may get very defensive because this person is suggesting that a mere commitment to the notion that ensuring equal freedom is the fundamental aim of the state means that one is also encouraging the creation of a shallow society. Consequently, using the term liberalism without explanation of what one means is a strategy that tends to lead to confusion. It should be noted that each of these senses of the term liberalism flourishes in differing set of topical spaces, but these spaces often overlap such that if the exclusive user of Sense 2 Liberalism is encountered by exclusive users of Sense 4 Liberalism and neither party is willing to explain what they mean by liberalism than confusion, will ultimately arise. Consequently, we should be very careful when using the term liberalism to explain what we mean, so that they we don’t confuse our interlocutors.

Yet a further difficulty occurs in that liberalism is a word that typically attracts either feelings of condemnation or praise. Whatever sense of the word liberalism is dominant in someone’s lexicon, they ordinarily have strong thoughts about it. Thus, the term liberalism tends to be used less as a device to explain one’s position, than as a rhetorical device that signifies either pure goodness or wretchedness. For example, many critical theorists use liberal or liberalism as a synonym for bad (the badness of late capitalist society). While many market liberals use liberalism as a synonym for goodness (the goodness of the market). Thus, it seems that in the context of the use of the word liberalism at the very least Alasdair MacIntyre is right to suggest that in the modern world concepts that seem to have a distinct meaning are used more to express approval and disapproval than to actually convey a coherent position about the nature of the right or the good. Clearly, it would be problematic for rational ethical/political dialogue if all that we were doing through it was expressing approval or disapproval without conveying a substantive coherent position about the good, but if we continue to use the term liberalism as it is being used then at least in the case of liberalism we would not actually be engaging in a rational exchange about the nature of the good, rather we would be trying to bludgeon one another with our approval or disapproval of an abstraction.

Given the dilemma sketched above, we have to ensure that when engaging in ethical or political dialogue with others we use terms like liberal, that at once refer to disparate phenomena, but also are subjects of condemnation or praise, in a way that recognizes that the other may not just disagree with us about whether the term deserves praise or condemnation, but rather may mean something entirely different by the term. This will require us to avoid using the term as a merely polemical device, and rather require us to explain what it is we are supporting and condemning. In the abstract this may seem like an obvious requirement of rational dialogue, but the dialogue in our society suggests that then we are confronted with opponents we rarely engage in dialogue in this way. Consequently, when engaging dialogue we need to think about what we are doing, and be sure that we are taking the steps necessary to help the other understand our position, rather than merely beat them.

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