A Free Society Is a Liberal Society: The 3 Liberal Definitions, Explained
‘Liberal’ Democracy vs. Economic ‘Liberalism’ vs. Social ‘Liberalism’: The definition of each and how understanding can unite citizens.
The terms liberal and liberalism have different meanings depending on the context and what aspect(s) of a free society one is referring to when using the terms. Today, in the United States (U.S.), a paradox may arise when saying someone who believes in free markets and private ownership believes in liberal principles. To the informed this is not a paradox, it simply makes sense. In other words, a free society like the U.S., is, in fact, a liberal society.
The reason for the paradox is that free markets and private ownership are associated with capitalism and are typical talking points of right-wing political parties (e.g., Republican Party, USA). Whereas, “liberal” is synonymous with being associated with left-wing politics (e.g., Democratic Party, USA). Such confusion arises from the three different definitions of liberal for the characteristics of a given free society. The confusion is simply a lack of understanding of what comprises a free society and a (broad brushstroke) misappropriation of the term liberal for political means, which can result in polarization.
At the highest level, and to varying degrees, free societies have the following ideological aspects which each contain the term liberal:
- Government: Liberal Democracy
- Economic: Economic Liberalism
- Social: Social Liberalism
In each of these aspects (government, economic, social), liberal is used in a different context and each definition and understanding is significant. Together, they form a free society’s spectrum (or fingerprint):
In a given free society (e.g., U.S.), it can be argued that most citizens believe in liberal principles more than they appear to disagree on them (i.e., when such principles are presented with a political spin). To understand why, we have to explore the varying contextual definitions of liberal in a free society.
1. Government: Liberal Democracy
Context: The government framework or structure.
Definition for Liberal Democracy:
Liberal democracy is a liberal political ideology and a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of classical liberalism. Also called Western democracy, it is characterised by elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, a market economy with private property and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either formally written or uncodified, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract. -Wikipedia. May 10, 2019
The U.S. is an example of a liberal democracy which is defined by The Constitution of the United States. Historically, the political parties in the U.S. generally agree that a liberal democracy government type is preferred to the alternatives:
- Authoritarianism (current-day Russia)
- Communism (Soviet Union style)
- Dictatorship (current-day North Korea)
- Fascism (Nazi Germany)
- Unitary one-party socialist state or communist state (current-day China)
It’s the economic and social definitions of liberalism, where U.S. political parties have differing ideologies.
2. Economic: Economic Liberalism
Context: Economic system organization (rules and laws of the economy).
Definition for Economic Liberalism:
Economic liberalism is an economic system organized on individual lines, which means the greatest possible number of economic decisions are made by individuals or households rather than by collective institutions or organizations. It includes a spectrum of different economic policies…Economic liberalism is associated with free markets and private ownership of capital assets. Historically, economic liberalism arose in response to mercantilism and feudalism. Today, economic liberalism is also considered opposed to non-capitalist economic orders, such as socialism and planned economies. It also contrasts with protectionism because of its support for free trade and open markets.
An economy that is managed according to these precepts may be described as a liberal economy. -Wikipedia. May 10, 2019
Revisiting the paradox presented earlier, we can begin to understand why broadly labeling any economic policy that opposes capitalistic economic orders as “liberal” is technically incorrect when speaking in the economic context. In fact, supporting capitalism is actually liberal (economically speaking). Therefore, it makes sense to say that “someone who believes in free markets and private ownership, believes in liberal economic principles.”
3. Social: Social Liberalism
Context: Political ideology regarding society.
Definition for Social Liberalism:
Social liberalism (also known as modern liberalism in the United States) is a political ideology and a variety of liberalism that endorses a regulated free market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights. A social liberal government is expected to address economic and social issues such as poverty, health care and education in a liberal state. It does so in allowing autonomy of the individual and products of the market economy unrestricted access with the goal to increase wellbeing for all.
Under social liberalism, the common good is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world. -Wikipedia. May 10, 2019
In the U.S., this aspect of liberalism is arguably ground zero for a decent proportion of political debates. The purpose of this section is not to debate or discuss those topics, rather, it’s to make the reader aware of the further complexity around liberal terminology.
Not a One-Size-Fits-All
Taking into account the three definitions for liberal, we now have a better understanding of what they can mean in a given free society. To properly label and understand a liberal policy or principle, we have to consider the context. When this happens, it can be argued that the majority of a country’s citizens, for example in the U.S., actually believe in, agree on, and are willing to fight for a vast number of liberal principles which span the three liberal aspects of the free society.
With that said, no free society is the same as another, and the people of that society will value and require varying levels of government, economic, and social liberalism. For example, below are two generic examples (no countries in particular). In the first example, consider a society that values government and economic liberalism, but de-emphasizes social liberalism. Their spectrum would generally look like the one below.
For the second example, consider a society that equally values government, economic, and social liberalism. Their spectrum might look more like the one below.
Notice in the latter example above, that government, economic, and social liberalism are not mutually exclusive in a strict, zero-sum manner of thinking. Meaning, a society can value social liberalism without sacrificing the privileges and benefits of, say, liberal democracy — it’s a spectrum and a different lever to pull. Implementing a given social program does NOT require society to change its government structure from a liberal democracy to a communist state.
Furthermore, free societies today provide evidence that there exists some degree to which these liberal aspects are not mutually exclusive. To demonstrate, the U.S. has successfully implemented numerous social welfare programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) while remaining a liberal democracy (free society) and having the largest and strongest liberal economy in the world.
Focusing on the Similarities
In this article, the free society spectrum diagrams presented are simply for illustrative and conceptual purposes and do not reflect any specific countries. The primary purpose of these diagrams is to visualize the following takeaways:
- Free societies are comprised of three liberal aspects: government, economic, social
- Each liberal aspect is a spectrum, not an on/off switch. Society determines where they want to operate on the spectrum.
- The three liberal aspects of a free society can co-exist in a non-zero-sum game
When considering the terms liberal or liberalism, the author hopes the reader has a better appreciation for the complexity of these terms and what they mean in free societies today. It should be apparent, that if one believes in a free society, then on some level (government, economic, social), one identifies as being “liberal.” This should be a unifying realization that should be embraced. Citizens of free societies, regardless of political party, likely agree on more than they disagree on. Focusing on this will allow us to increase our awareness of how we’re alike, resist political manipulation, and reduce polarization.