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Liberalism

First published Thu Nov 28, 1996; substantive revision Mon Dec 22, 2014

As soon as one examines it, liberalism fractures into a variety of types and competing visions. In
this entry we focus on debates within the liberal tradition. We begin by (1) examining different
interpretations of liberalism's core commitment liberty. We then consider (2) the longstanding
debate between the old and the new liberalism. In section (3) we turn to the more recent
controversy about whether liberalism is a comprehensive or a political doctrine. We close in
(4) by considering disagreements as to the reach of liberalism does it apply to all humankind,
and must all political communities be liberal?

1. The Debate About Liberty


1.1 The Presumption in Favor of Liberty

By definition, Maurice Cranston rightly points out, a liberal is a man who believes in liberty
(1967: 459). In two different ways, liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value. (i) Liberals
have typically maintained that humans are naturally in a State of perfect Freedom to order their
Actionsas they think fitwithout asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man
(Locke, 1960 [1689]: 287). Mill too argued that the burden of proof is supposed to be with those
who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition. The a priori assumption
is in favour of freedom (1963, vol. 21: 262). Recent liberal thinkers such as as Joel Feinberg
(1984: 9), Stanley Benn (1988: 87) and John Rawls (2001: 44, 112) agree. This might be called
the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gaus, 1996: 162-166): freedom is normatively basic, and so
the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom, especially through coercive means.
It follows from this that political authority and law must be justified, as they limit the liberty of
citizens. Consequently, a central question of liberal political theory is whether political authority
can be justified, and if so, how. It is for this reason that social contract theory, as developed by
Thomas Hobbes (1948 [1651]), John Locke (1960 [1689]), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1973 [1762])
and Immanuel Kant (1965 [1797]), is usually viewed as liberal even though the actual political
prescriptions of, say, Hobbes and Rousseau, have distinctly illiberal features. Insofar as they take
as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal, and so argue that any
limitation of this freedom and equality stands in need of justification (i.e., by the social contract),
the contractual tradition expresses the Fundamental Liberal Principle.

(ii) The Fundamental Liberal Principle holds that restrictions on liberty must be justified, and
because he accepts this, we can understand Hobbes as espousing a liberal political theory. But
Hobbes is at best a qualified liberal, for he also argues that drastic limitations on liberty can be
justified. Paradigmatic liberals such as Locke not only advocate the Fundamental Liberal Principle,
but also maintain that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest. Only a limited government
can be justified; indeed, the basic task of government is to protect the equal liberty of citizens.
Thus John Rawls's first principle of justice: Each person is to have an equal right to the most
extensive system of equal basic liberty compatible with a similar system for all (Rawls, 1999b:
220).

1.2 Negative Liberty

Liberals disagree, however, about the concept of liberty, and as a result the liberal ideal of
protecting individual liberty can lead to very different conceptions of the task of government. As
is well-known, Isaiah Berlin advocated a negative conception of liberty:

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my
activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed
by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree
unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described
as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form
of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because
I am blindit would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion
implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could
otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal
by other human beings (Berlin, 1969: 122).

For Berlin and those who follow him, then, the heart of liberty is the absence of coercion by others;
consequently, the liberal state's commitment to protecting liberty is, essentially, the job of ensuring
that citizens do not coerce each other without compelling justification. So understood, negative
liberty is an opportunity-concept. Being free is merely a matter of what we can do, what options
are open to us, regardless of whether or not we exercise such options (Taylor, 1979).

1.3 Positive Liberty

Many liberals have been attracted to more positive conceptions of liberty. Although Rousseau
(1973 [1762]) seemed to advocate a positive conception of liberty, according to which one was
free when one acted according to one's true will (the general will), the positive conception was
best developed by the British neo-Hegelians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet (2001 [1923]). Green acknowledged that it
must be of course admitted that every usage of the term [i.e., freedom] to express anything but a
social and political relation of one man to other involves a metaphorIt always impliessome
exemption from compulsion by another(1986 [1895]: 229). Nevertheless, Green went on to
claim that a person can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse or craving that cannot be controlled.
Such a person, Green argued, is in the condition of a bondsman who is carrying out the will of
another, not his own (1986 [1895]: 228). Just as a slave is not doing what he really wants to do,
one who is, say, an alcoholic, is being led by a craving to look for satisfaction where it cannot,
ultimately, be found.

For Green, a person is free only if she is self-directed or autonomous. Running throughout liberal
political theory is an ideal of a free person as one whose actions are in some sense her own.In this
sense, positive liberty is an exercise-concept. One is free merely to the degree that one has
effectively determined oneself and the shape of one's life (Taylor, 1979). Such a person is not
subject to compulsions, critically reflects on her ideals and so does not unreflectively follow
custom, and does not ignore her long-term interests for short-term pleasures. This ideal of freedom
as autonomy has its roots not only in Rousseau's and Kant's political theory, but also in John Stuart
Mill's On Liberty. And today it is a dominant strain in liberalism, as witnessed by the work of S.I.
Benn (1988), Gerald Dworkin (1988), and Joseph Raz (1986); see also the essays in Christman
and Anderson (2005).

This Greenian, autonomy-based, conception of positive freedom is often run together with a very
different notion of positive freedom: freedom as effective power to act or to pursue one's ends.
In the words of the British socialist R. H. Tawney, freedom thus understood is the ability act
(1931: 221; see also Gaus, 2000; ch. 5.) On this view of positive freedom, a person who is not
prohibited from being a member of a Country Club but who is too poor to afford membership is
not free to be a member: she does not have an effective power to act. Although the Greenian
autonomy-based conception of positive freedom certainly had implications for the distribution of
resources (education, for example, should be easily available so that all can develop their
capacities), positive freedom qua effective power to act closely ties freedom to material resources.
It was this conception of positive liberty that Hayek had in mind when he insisted that although
freedom and wealth are both good thingsthey still remain different (1960: 17-18).

1.4 Republican Liberty

An older notion of liberty that has recently undergone resurgence is the republican, or neo-Roman,
conception of liberty which has its roots in the writings of Cicero and Niccolo Machiavelli (1950
[1513]). According to Philip Pettit,

The contrary of the liber, or free, person in Roman, republican usage was the servus, or slave, and
up to at least the beginning of the last century, the dominant connotation of freedom, emphasized
in the long republican tradition, was not having to live in servitude to another: not being subject to
the arbitrary power of another. (Pettit, 1996: 576)

On this view, the opposite of freedom is domination. An agent is said to be unfree if she is subject
to the potentially capricious will or the potentially idiosyncratic judgement of another (Pettit,
1997: 5). The ideal liberty-protecting government, then, ensures that no agent, including itself, has
arbitrary power over any citizen. The key method by which this is accomplished is through an
equal disbursement of power. Each person has power that offsets the power of another to arbitrarily
interfere with her activities (Pettit, 1997: 67).

The republican conception of liberty is certainly distinct from both Greenian positive and negative
conceptions. Unlike Greenian positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with
rational autonomy, realizing one's true nature, or becoming one's higher self. When all dominating
power has been dispersed, republican theorists are generally silent about these goals (Larmore
2001). Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty is primarily focused upon defenseless
susceptibility to interference, rather than actual interference (Pettit, 1996: 577). Thus, in contrast
to the ordinary negative conception, on the republican conception the mere possibility of arbitrary
interference appears to constitute a limitation of liberty. Republican liberty thus seems to involve
a modal claim about the possibility of interference, and this is often cashed out in terms of complex
counterfactual claims. It is not clear whether these claims can be adequately explicated (Gaus,
2003; cf. Larmore, 2004).

Some republican theorists, such as Quentin Skinner (1998: 113), Maurizio Viroli (2002: 6) and
Pettit (1997: 8-11), view republicanism as an alternative to liberalism. Insofar as republican liberty
is seen as a basis for criticizing market liberty and market society, this is plausible (Gaus, 2003b).
However, when liberalism is understood more expansively, and not so closely tied to either
negative liberty or market society, republicanism becomes indistinguishable from liberalism
(Ghosh, 2008; Rogers, 2008; Larmore, 2001; Dagger, 1997).

2. The Debate Between the Old and the New


2.1 Classical Liberalism

Liberal political theory, then, fractures over the conception of liberty. But a more important
division concerns the place of private property and the market order. For classical liberals
sometimes called the old liberalism liberty and private property are intimately related. From
the eighteenth century right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system
based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live her
life including employing her labor and her capital as she sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals
and libertarians have often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the same thing;
it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property;
others have maintained that property is itself a form of freedom (Gaus, 1994; Steiner, 1994). A
market order based on private property is thus seen as an embodiment of freedom (Robbins, 1961:
104). Unless people are free to make contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to
save their incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to run enterprises
when they have obtained the capital, they are not really free.

Classical liberals employ a second argument connecting liberty and private property. Rather than
insisting that the freedom to obtain and employ private property is simply one aspect of people's
liberty, this second argument insists that private property is the only effective means for the
protection of liberty. Here the idea is that the dispersion of power that results from a free market
economy based on private property protects the liberty of subjects against encroachments by the
state. As F.A. Hayek argues, There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are
under government control, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no
freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly (1978: 149).

Although classical liberals agree on the fundamental importance of private property to a free
society, the classical liberal tradition itself refracts into a spectrum of views, from near-anarchist
to those that attribute a significant role to the state in economic and social policy (on this spectrum,
see Mack and Gaus, 2004). Towards the most extreme libertarian end of the classical liberal
spectrum are views of justified states as legitimate monopolies that may with justice charge for
their necessary rights-protection services: taxation is legitimate so long as it is necessary to protect
liberty and property rights. As we go further leftward we encounter classical liberal views that
allow taxation for (other) public goods and social infrastructure and, moving yet further left,
some classical liberal views allow for a modest social minimum.(e.g., Hayek, 1976: 87). Most
nineteenth century classical liberal economists endorsed a variety of state policies, encompassing
not only the criminal law and enforcement of contracts, but the licensing of professionals, health,
safety and fire regulations, banking regulations, commercial infrastructure (roads, harbors and
canals) and often encouraged unionization (Gaus, 1983b). Although today classical liberalism is
often associated with extreme forms of libertarianism, the classical liberal tradition was centrally
concerned with bettering the lot of the working class. The aim, as Bentham put it, was to make the
poor richer, not the rich poorer (Bentham, 1952 [1795]: vol. 1, 226n). Consequently, classical
liberals reject the redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

2.2 The New Liberalism

What has come to be known as new, revisionist, welfare state, or perhaps best, social justice,
liberalism challenges this intimate connection between personal liberty and a private property
based market order (Freeden, 1978; Gaus, 1983b; Paul, Miller and Paul, 2007). Three factors help
explain the rise of this revisionist theory. First, the new liberalism arose in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, a period in which the ability of a free market to sustain what Lord
Beveridge (1944: 96) called a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned. Believing that a
private property based market tended to be unstable, or could, as Keynes argued (1973 [1936]),
get stuck in an equilibrium with high unemployment, new liberals came to doubt that it was an
adequate foundation for a stable, free society. Here the second factor comes into play: just as the
new liberals were losing faith in the market, their faith in government as a means of supervising
economic life was increasing. This was partly due to the experiences of the First World War, in
which government attempts at economic planning seemed to succeed (Dewey, 1929: 551-60);
more importantly, this reevaluation of the state was spurred by the democratization of western
states, and the conviction that, for the first time, elected officials could truly be, in J.A. Hobson's
phrase representatives of the community (1922: 49). As D.G. Ritchie proclaimed:

be it observed that arguments used against government action, where the government is entirely
or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or
grandmotherly authority such arguments lose their force just in proportion as the government
becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves (1896:
64).

The third factor underlying the development of the new liberalism was probably the most
fundamental: a growing conviction that, so far from being the guardian of every other right (Ely,
1992: 26), property rights generated an unjust inequality of power that led to a less-than-equal
liberty (typically, positive liberty) for the working class. This theme is central to what is usually
called liberalism in American politics, combining a strong endorsement of civil and personal
liberties with, at best, an indifference, and often enough an antipathy, to private ownership. The
seeds of this newer liberalism can be found in Mill's On Liberty. Although Mill insisted that the
so-called doctrine of Free Trade rested on equally solid grounds as did the principle of
individual liberty (1963, vol. 18: 293), he nevertheless insisted that the justifications of personal
and economic liberty were distinct. And in his Principles of Political Economy Mill consistently
emphasized that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private
property (1963, vol. 2; 203-210), a view that Rawls was to reassert over a century later (2001: Part
IV).
2.3 Liberal Theories of Social Justice

One of the many consequences of Rawls's great work, A Theory of Justice (1999 [first published
in 1971]) is that the new liberalism has become focused on developing a theory of social justice.
For over thirty-five years liberal political philosophers have analyzed, and disputed, his famous
difference principle according to which a just basic structure of society arranges social and
economic inequalities such that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off
representative group (1999b: 266). For Rawls, the default is an equal distribution of (basically)
income and wealth; only inequalities that best enhance the long-term prospects of the least
advantaged are just. As Rawls sees it, the difference principle constitutes a public recognition of
the principle of reciprocity: the basic structure is to be arranged such that no social group advances
at the cost of another (2001: 122-24). Many followers of Rawls have focused less on the ideal of
reciprocity than the commitment to equality (Dworkin, 2000). Indeed, what was previously called
welfare state liberalism is now often described as egalitarian liberalism. And in one way that is
especially appropriate: in his later work Rawls insists that welfare-state capitalism does not
constitute a just basic structure (2001: 137-38). If some version of capitalism is to be just it must
be a property owning democracy with a wide diffusion of ownership; a market socialist regime,
in Rawls's view, is more just than welfare-state capitalism (2001: 135-38). Not too surprisingly,
classical liberals such as Hayek (1976) insist that the contemporary liberal fixation on the mirage
of social justice leads them to ignore the way that freedom depends on a decentralized market
based on private property, the overall results of which are unpredictable. In a similar vein, Robert
Nozick (1974: 160ff) famously argued that any attempt to ensure that market transactions conform
to any specific pattern of holdings will involve constant interferences with individual freedom.

3. The Debate About the Comprehensiveness of Liberalism


3.1 Political Liberalism

As his work evolved, Rawls (1996: 5ff) insisted that his liberalism was not a comprehensive
doctrine, that is, one which includes an overall theory of value, an ethical theory, an epistemology,
or a controversial metaphysics of the person and society. Our modern societies, characterized by
a reasonable pluralism, are already filled with such doctrines. The aim of political liberalism is
not to add yet another sectarian doctrine, but to provide a political framework that is neutral
between such controversial comprehensive doctrines (Larmore, 1996: 121ff). If it is to serve as the
basis for public reasoning in our diverse western societies, liberalism must be restricted to a core
set of political principles that are, or can be, the subject of consensus among all reasonable citizens.
Rawls's notion of a purely political conception of liberalism seems more austere than the traditional
liberal political theories discussed above, being largely restricted to constitutional principles
upholding basic civil liberties and the democratic process.

As Gaus (2004) has argued, the distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism
misses a great deal. Liberal theories form a broad continuum, from those that constitute full-blown
philosophical systems, to those that rely on a full theory of value and the good, to those that rely
on a theory of the right (but not the good), all the way to those that seek to be purely political
doctrines. Nevertheless, it is important to appreciate that, though liberalism is primarily a political
theory, it has been associated with broader theories of ethics, value and society. Indeed, many
believe that liberalism cannot rid itself of all controversial metaphysical (Hampton, 1989) or
epistemological (Raz, 1990) commitments.

3.2 Liberal Ethics

Following Wilhelm von Humboldt (1993 [1854]), in On Liberty Mill argues that one basis for
endorsing freedom (Mill believes that there are many), is the goodness of developing individuality
and cultivating capacities:

Individuality is the same thing with development, andit is only the cultivation of individuality
which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beingswhat more can be said of any
condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing
they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? (Mill,
1963, vol. 18: 267)

This is not just a theory about politics: it is a substantive, perfectionist, moral theory about the
good. And, on this view, the right thing to do is to promote development or perfection, and only a
regime securing extensive liberty for each person can accomplish this (Wall, 1998). This moral
ideal of human perfection and development dominated liberal thinking in the latter part of the
nineteenth, and for most of the twentieth, century: not only Mill, but T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse,
Bernard Bosanquet, John Dewey and even Rawls show allegiance to variants of this perfectionist
ethic and the claim that it provides a foundation for endorsing a regime of liberal rights (Gaus,
1983a). And it is fundamental to the proponents of liberal autonomy discussed above, as well as
liberal virtue theorists such as William Galston (1980). That the good life is necessarily a freely
chosen one in which a person develops his unique capacities as part of a plan of life is probably
the dominant liberal ethic of the past century.

The main challenge to Millian perfectionism as the distinctly liberal ethic comes from moral
contractualism, which can be divided into what might very roughly be labeled Kantian and
Hobbesian versions. According to Kantian contractualism, society, being composed of a
plurality of persons, each with his own aims, interests, and conceptions of the good, is best
arranged when it is governed by principles that do not themselves presuppose any particular
conception of the good (Sandel, 1982: 1). On this view, respect for the person of others
demands that we refrain from imposing our view of the good life on them. Only principles that can
be justified to all respect the personhood of each. We thus witness the tendency of recent liberal
theory (Reiman, 1990; Scanlon, 1998) to transform the social contract from an account of the state
to an overall justification of morality, or at least a social morality. Basic to such Kantian
contractualism is the idea that suitably idealized individuals are motivated not by the pursuit of
gain, but by a commitment or desire to publicly justify the claims they make on others (Reiman,
1990; Scanlon, 1982). A moral code that could be the object of agreement among such individuals
is thus a publicly justified morality.

In contrast, the Hobbesian version of contractualism supposes only that individuals are self-
interested, and correctly perceive that each person's ability to effectively pursue her interests is
enhanced by a framework of norms that structure social life and divide the fruits of social
cooperation (Gauither, 1986; Hampton, 1986; Kavka, 1986). Morality, then, is a common
framework that advances the self-interest of each. The claim of Hobbesian contractualism to be a
distinctly liberal conception of morality stems from the importance of individual freedom and
property in such a common framework: only systems of norms that allow each person great
freedom to pursue her interests as she sees fit could, it is argued, be the object of consensus among
self-interested agents (Courtland, 2008; Gaus 2003a: chap. 3; Gaus, 2012; Ridge, 1998; Gauthier,
1995). The continuing problem for Hobbesian contractualism is the apparent rationality of free-
riding: if everyone (or enough) complies with the terms of the contract, and so social order is
achieved, it would seem rational to defect, and act immorally when one can gain by doing so. This
is essentially the argument of Hobbes's Foole, and from Hobbes (1948 [1651]: 94ff) to Gauthier
(1986: 160ff), Hobbesians have tried to reply to it.

3.3 Liberal Theories of Value

Turning from rightness to goodness, we can identify three main candidates for a liberal theory of
value. We have already encountered the first: perfectionism. Insofar as perfectionism is a theory
of right action, it can be understood as an account of morality. Obviously, however, it is an account
of rightness that presupposes a theory of value or the good: the ultimate human value is developed
personality or an autonomous life. Competing with this objectivist theory of value are two other
liberal accounts: pluralism and subjectivism.

In his famous defence of negative liberty, Berlin insisted that values or ends are plural, and no
interpersonally justifiable ranking among these many ends is to be had. More than that, Berlin
maintained that the pursuit of one end necessarily implies that other ends will not be achieved. In
this sense ends collide or, in the more prosaic terms of economics, the pursuit of one end
necessarily entails opportunity costs in relation to others which cannot be impersonally shown to
be less worthy. So there is no interpersonally justifiable way to rank the ends, and there is no way
to achieve them all. The upshot is that each person must devote herself to some ends at the cost of
ignoring others. For the pluralist, then, autonomy, perfection or development are not necessarily
ranked higher than hedonistic pleasures, environmental preservation or economic equality. All
compete for our allegiance, but because they are incommensurable, no choice can be
interpersonally justified as correct.

The pluralist is not a subjectivist: that values are many, competing and incommensurable does not
imply that they are somehow dependent on subjective experiences. But the claim that what a person
values rests on experiences that vary from person to person has long been a part of the liberal
tradition. To Hobbes, what one values depends on what one desires (1948 [1651]: 48). Locke
advances a taste theory of value:

The Mind has a different relish, as well as the Palate; and you will as fruitlessly endeavour to
delight all Man with Riches or Glory, (which yet some Men place their Happiness in,) as you
would satisfy all men's Hunger with Cheese or Lobsters; which, though very agreeable and
delicious fare to some, are to others extremely nauseous and offensive: And many People would
with reason preferr [sic] the griping of an hungry Belly, to those Dishes, which are a Feast to
others. Hence it was, I think, that the Philosophers of old did in vain enquire, whether the Summum
bonum consisted in Riches, or bodily Delights, or Virtue, or Contemplation: And they might have
as reasonably disputed, whether the best Relish were to be found in Apples, Plumbs or Nuts; and
have divided themselves into Sects upon it. Forpleasant Tastes depend not on the things
themselves, but their agreeableness to this or that particulare Palate, wherein there is great
variety(1975 [1706]: 269).

The perfectionist, the pluralist and the subjectivist concur on the crucial point: the nature of value
is such that reasonable people pursue different ways of living. To the perfectionist, this is because
each person has unique capacities, the development of which confers value on her life; to the
pluralist, it is because values are many and conflicting, and no one life can include them all, or
make the interpersonally correct choice among them; and to the subjectivist, it is because our ideas
about what is valuable stem from our desires or tastes, and these differ from one individual to
another. All three views, then, defend the basic liberal idea that people rationally follow very
different ways of living. But in themselves, such notions of the good do not constitute a full-fledged
liberal ethic, for an additional argument is required linking liberal value with norms of equal
liberty. To be sure, Berlin seems to believe this is a very quick argument: the inherent plurality of
ends points to the political preeminence of liberty (see, for example, Gray: 2006). Guaranteeing
each a measure of negative liberty is, Berlin argues, the most humane ideal, as it recognises that
human goals are many, and no one can make a choice that is right for all people (1969: 171). But
the move from diversity to equal liberty and individual rights seems a complicated one; it is here
that both subjectivists and pluralists often rely on versions of moral contractualism. Those who
insist that liberalism is ultimately a nihilistic theory can be interpreted as arguing that this transition
cannot be made successfully: liberals, on their view, are stuck with a subjectivistic or pluralistic
theory of value, and no account of the right emerges from it.

3.4 The Metaphysics of Liberalism

Throughout the last century, liberalism has been beset by controversies between, on the one hand,
those broadly identified as individualists and, on the other, collectivists, communitarians or
organicists (for skepticism about this, though, see Bird, 1999). These vague and sweeping
designations have been applied to a wide array of disputes; we focus here on controversies
concerning (i) the nature of society; (ii) the nature of the self.

Liberalism is, of course, usually associated with individualist analyses of society. Human beings
in society, Mill claimed, have no properties but those which are derived from, and which may be
resolved into, the laws of the nature of individual men (1963, Vol. 8: 879; see also Bentham: 1970
[1823]: chap. I, sec. 4). Herbert Spencer agreed: the properties of the mass are dependent upon
the attributes of its component parts (1995 [1851]: 1). In the last years of the nineteenth century
this individualist view was increasingly subject to attack, especially by those who were influenced
by idealist philosophy. D. G. Ritche, criticizing Spencer's individualist liberalism, explicitly
rejected the idea that society is simply a heap of individuals, insisting that it is more akin to an
organism, with a complex internal life (1896: 13). Liberals such as L. T. Hobhouse and Dewey
refused to adopt radically collectivist views such as those advocated by Bernard Bosanquet (2001),
but they too rejected the radical individualism of Bentham, Mill and Spencer. Throughout most of
the first half of the twentieth century such organic analyses of society held sway in liberal theory,
even in economics (see A.F Mummery and J. A. Hobson, 1956: 106; J.M. Keynes, 1972: 275).
During and after the Second World War the idea that liberalism was based on inherently
individualist analysis of humans-in-society arose again. Karl Popper's The Open Society and its
Enemies (1945) presented a sustained critique of Hegelian and Marxist theory and its collectivist
and historicist, and to Popper, inherently illiberal, understanding of society. The reemergence of
economic analysis in liberal theory brought to the fore a thoroughgoing methodological
individualism. Writing in the early 1960s, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock adamantly
defended the individualistic postulate against all forms of organicism: This [organicist]
approach or theory of the collectivity.is essentially opposed to the Western philosophical
tradition in which the human individual is the primary philosophical entity (1965: 11-12). Human
beings, insisted Buchanan and Tullock, are the only real choosers and decision-makers, and their
preferences determine both public and private actions. The renascent individualism of late-
twentieth century liberalism was closely bound up with the induction of Hobbes as a member of
the liberal pantheon. Hobbes's relentlessly individualistic account of society, and the manner in
which his analysis of the state of nature lent itself to game-theoretical modeling, yielded a highly
individualist, formal analysis of the liberal state and liberal morality.

Of course, as is widely known, the last twenty-five years have witnessed a renewed interest in
collectivist analyses of liberal society though the term collectivist is abjured in favor of
communitarian. Writing in 1985, Amy Gutmann observed that we are witnessing a revival of
communitarian criticisms of liberal political theory. Like the critics of the 1960s, those of the 1980s
fault liberalism for being mistakenly and irreparably individualistic (1985: 308). Starting with
Michael Sandel's (1982) famous criticism of Rawls, a number of critics charged that liberalism
was necessarily premised on an abstract conception of individual selves as pure choosers, whose
commitments, values and concerns are possessions of the self, but never constitute the self.
Although the now famous, not to say infamous, liberal-communitarian debate ultimately
involved wide-ranging moral, political and sociological disputes about the nature of communities,
and the rights and responsibilities of their members, the heart of the debate was about the nature
of liberal selves. For Sandel the flaw at the heart of Rawls's liberalism was its implausibly abstract
theory of the self, the pure autonomous chooser. Rawls, he charges, ultimately assumes that it
makes sense to identify us with a pure capacity for choice, and that such pure choosers might reject
any or all of their attachments and values and yet retain their identity.

From the mid-1980s onwards various liberals sought to show how liberalism may consistently
advocate a theory of the self which finds room for cultural membership and other non-chosen
attachments and commitments which at least partially constitute the self (Kymlicka, 1989). Much
of liberal theory has became focused on the issue as to how we can be social creatures, members
of cultures and raised in various traditions, while also being autonomous choosers who employ
our liberty to construct lives of our own.

4. The Debate About The Reach of Liberalism


4.1 Is Liberalism Justified in All Political Communities?

In On Liberty Mill argued that Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things
anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal
discussion (1963, vol. 18: 224). Thus Despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing
with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement (1963, vol. 18: 224). This passage
infused with the spirit of nineteenth century imperialism (and perhaps, as some maintain, latent
racism) is often ignored by defenders of Mill as an embarrassment (Parekh, 1994; Parekh, 1995;
Mehta, 1999; Pitts, 2005).This is not to say that such Millian passages are without a defense. Inder
Marawah, for example, provides a thoughtful and nuanced defense (2011). Nevertheless, it raises
a question that still divides liberals: are liberal political principles justified for all political
communities? In The Law of Peoples Rawls argues that they are not. According to Rawls there
can be a decent hierarchical society which is not based on the liberal conception of all persons
as free and equal, but instead views persons as responsible and cooperating members of their
respective groups but not inherently equal (1999a: 66). Given this, the full liberal conception of
justice cannot be constructed out of shared ideas of this people, though basic human rights,
implicit in the very idea of a social cooperative structure, apply to all peoples. David Miller (2002)
develops a different defense of this anti-universalistic position, while those such as Thomas Pogge
(2002: ch. 4) and Martha Nussbaum (2002) reject Rawls's position, instead advocating versions of
moral universalism: they claim that liberal moral principles apply to all states.

4.2 Is Liberalism a Cosmopolitan or a State-centered Theory?

The debate about whether liberal principles apply to all political communities should not be
confused with the debate as to whether liberalism is a state-centered theory, or whether, at least
ideally, it is a cosmopolitan political theory for the community of all humankind. Immanuel Kant
a moral universalist if ever there was one argued that all states should respect the dignity of
their citizens as free and equal persons, yet denied that humanity forms one political community.
Thus he rejected the ideal of a universal cosmopolitan liberal political community in favor of a
world of states, all with internally just constitutions, and united in a confederation to assure peace
(1970 [1795]).

On a classical liberal theory, the difference between a world of liberal communities and a world
liberal community is not of fundamental importance. Since the aim of government in a community
is to assure the basic liberty and property rights of its citizens, borders are not of great moral
significance in classical liberalism (Lomasky, 2007; but cf. Pogge, 2002: ch. 2). In contrast under
the new liberalism, which stresses redistributive programs to achieve social justice, it matters a
great deal who is included within the political or moral community. If liberal principles require
significant redistribution, then it is crucially important whether these principles apply only within
particular communities, or whether their reach is global. Thus a fundamental debate between
Rawls and many of his followers is whether the difference principle should only be applied within
a liberal state such as the United States (where the least well off are the least well off Americans),
or whether it should be applied globally (where the least well off are the least well off in the world)
(Rawls, 1999a: 113ff; Beitz, 1973: 143ff; Pogge, 1989: Part Three).

4.3 Liberal Interaction with Non-Liberal Groups: International

Liberal political theory also fractures concerning the appropriate response to groups (cultural,
religious, etc.) which endorse illiberal policies and values. These groups may deny education to
some of their members, advocate female genital mutilation, restrict religious freedom, maintain an
inequitable caste system, and so on. When, if ever, is it reasonable for a liberal group to interfere
with the internal governance of an illiberal group?

Suppose first that the illiberal group is another political community or state. Can liberals intervene
in the affairs of non-liberal states? Mill provides a complicated answer in his 1859 essay A Few
Words on Non-Intervention. Reiterating his claim from On Liberty that civilized and non-civilized
countries are to be treated differently, he insists that barbarians have no rights as a nation, except
a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The
only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal
rules of morality between man and man (1963, vol. 21: 119). Although this strikes us today as
simply a case for an objectionable paternalistic imperialism (and it certainly was such a case),
Mill's argument for the conclusion is more complex, including a claim that, since international
morality depends on reciprocity, barbarous governments that cannot be counted on to engage in
reciprocal behavior have no rights qua governments. In any event, when Mill turns to interventions
among civilized peoples he develops an altogether more sophisticated account as to when one
state can intervene in the affairs of another to protect liberal principles. Here Mill is generally
against intervention. The reason is, that there can seldom be anything approaching to assurance
that intervention, even if successful, would be for the good of the people themselves. The only test
possessing any real value, of a people's having become fit for popular institutions, is that they, or
a sufficient proportion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for
their liberation (1963, vol. 21: 122).

In addition to questions of efficacy, to the extent that peoples or groups have rights to collective
self-determination, intervention by a liberal group to induce a non-liberal community to adopt
liberal principles will be morally objectionable. As with individuals, liberals may think that
peoples or groups have freedom to make mistakes in managing their collective affairs. If people's
self-conceptions are based on their participation in such groups, even those whose liberties are
denied may object to, and perhaps in some way harmed by, the imposition of liberal principles
(Margalit and Raz, 1990; Tamir, 1993). Thus rather than proposing a doctrine of intervention many
liberals propose various principles of toleration which specify to what extent liberals must tolerate
non-liberal peoples and cultures. As is usual, Rawls's discussion is subtle and enlightening. In his
account of the foreign affairs of liberal peoples, Rawls argues that liberal peoples must distinguish
decent non-liberal societies from outlaw and other states; the former have a claim on liberal
peoples to tolerance while the latter do not (1999a: 59-61). Decent peoples, argues Rawls, simply
do not tolerate outlaw states which ignore human rights: such states may be subject to forceful
sanctions and even to intervention (1999a: 81). In contrast, Rawls insists that liberal peoples
must try to encourage [non-liberal] decent peoples and not frustrate their vitality by coercively
insisting that all societies be liberal (1999a: 62). Chandran Kukathas (2003) whose liberalism
derives from the classical tradition is inclined to almost complete toleration of non-liberal
peoples, with the proviso that there must be exit rights.

4.4 Liberal Interaction with Non-Liberal Groups: Domestic

The status of non-liberal groups within liberal societies has increasingly become a subject of
debate, especially with respect to some citizens of faith. We should distinguish two questions: (i)
to what extent should non-liberal cultural and religious communities be exempt from the
requirements of the liberal state? and, (ii) to what extent can they be allowed to participate in
decision-making in the liberal state?

Turning to (i), liberalism has a long history of seeking to accommodate religious groups that have
deep objections to certain public policies, such as the Quakers, Mennonites or Sikhs. The most
difficult issues in this regard arise in relation to children and education (see Galston, 2003; Fowler,
2010; Andersson, 2011) Mill, for example, writes:

Consider the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should
require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its
citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognize and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed
will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of the parents (or, as law and usage now stand,
the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education
fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself . that to bring a
child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but
instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and
against society . (1963, vol. 18)

Over the last thirty years, there has been a particular case that is at the core of this debate
Wisconsin vs. Yoder: [406 U.S. 205 (1972)]. In this case, the United States Supreme Court upheld
the right of Amish parents to avoid compulsory schooling laws and remove their children from
school at the age of 14 thus, according to the Amish, avoiding secular influences that might
undermine the traditional Amish way of life. Because cultural and religious communities raise and
educate children, they cannot be seen as purely voluntary opt-outs from the liberal state: they
exercise coercive power over children, and so basic liberal principles about protecting the innocent
from unjustified coercion come into play. Some have maintained that liberal principles require that
the state should intervene (against groups like the Amish) in order to [1] provide the children with
an effective right of exit that would otherwise be denied via a lack of education (Okin, 2002), [2]
to protect the children's right to an autonomous and open future (Feinberg, 1980) and/or [3] to
insure that children will have the cognitive tools to prepare them for their future role as citizens
(Galston, 1995: p. 529; Macedo, 1995: pp. 285-6). Other liberal theorists, on the other hand, have
argued that the state should not intervene because it might undermine the inculcation of certain
values that are necessary for the continued existence of certain comprehensive doctrines (Galston,
1995: p. 533; Stolzenberg, 1993: pp. 582-3). Moreover, some such as Harry Brighouse (1998) have
argued that the inculcation of liberal values through compulsory education might undermine the
legitimacy of liberal states because children would not (due to possible indoctrination) be free to
consent to such institutions.

Question (ii) the extent to which non-liberal beliefs and values may be employed in liberal
political discussion has become the subject of sustained debate in the years following Rawls's
Political Liberalism. According to Rawls's liberalism and what we might call public reason
liberalism more generally because our societies are characterized by reasonable pluralism,
coercion cannot be justified on the basis of comprehensive moral or religious systems of belief.
But many friends of religion (e.g., Eberle, 2002; Perry, 1993) argue that this is objectionably
exclusionary: conscientious believers are barred from voting on their deepest convictions. Again
liberals diverge in their responses. Some such as Stephen Macedo take a pretty hard-nosed attitude:
if some peoplefeel silenced or marginalized by the fact that some of us believe that it is
wrong to shape basic liberties on the basis of religious or metaphysical claims, I can only say
grow up! (2000: 35). Rawls, in contrast, seeks to be more accommodating, allowing that
arguments based on religious comprehensive doctrines may enter into liberal politics on issues of
basic justice provided that, in due course, we give properly public reasons to support the
principles and policies that our comprehensive doctrine is said to support (1999a: 144). Thus
Rawls allows the legitimacy of religious-based arguments against slavery and in favor of the
United States civil rights movement, because ultimately such arguments were supported by public
reasons. Others (e.g., Greenawalt, 1995) hold that even this is too restrictive: it is difficult for
liberals to justify a moral prohibition on a religious citizen from voicing her view in liberal political
debate. Gaus and Vallier seek to ameliorate such tensions, in part, by acknowledging an asymmetry
between the reasons to justify to another a law and the reasons to reject a law (2009: 54). They
argue that although a secular rationale is necessary in our society for a publicly justified law, it
can be defeated by a reasonable religious conviction without secular backing (2009: 63). Thus,
citizens of faith would be able to preserve their religious integrity, all the while remaining unable
to coerce others via unshared religious reasons.

5. Conclusion
Given that liberalism fractures on so many issues the nature of liberty, the place of property
and democracy in a just society, the comprehensiveness and the reach of the liberal ideal one
might wonder whether there is any point in talking of liberalism at all. It is not, though, an
unimportant or trivial thing that all these theories take liberty to be the grounding political value.
Radical democrats assert the overriding value of equality, communitarians maintain that the
demands of belongingness trump freedom, and conservatives complain that the liberal devotion to
freedom undermines traditional values and virtues and so social order itself. Intramural disputes
aside, liberals join in rejecting these conceptions of political right.