Let’s face it. The number of people who identify as liberal in the West right now is probably at a historical low. The once great ideology of Locke and Mills, of both Keynes and Hayek, of Kennedy and Rawls, is suffering a crisis of both popularity and identity. The American right-wing probably started it all in the 1980s or so, by using liberal as a smear word, meaning something like supporting governments that spend liberally. To this crowd, everyone to their left is a liberal, including a clear majority of young adults, especially those with college education. On the other hand, many of the people they accuse of being liberals, people who actually like their governments very big (real liberals don’t), accurately identify themselves as socialists, and also don’t want anything to do with the l-word. In fact, one of their favourite smears is neoliberal, and while this word doesn’t mean the same as liberal in general usage, in some leftist circles it is used to smear practically all liberals, and only liberals. (They use ‘right-wing’ to describe real Thatcherite neoliberals.)
Right now, people don’t want to identify as liberal because liberalism has a respectability problem.
Both conservative and socialist are clearly more respectable in many circles. I suspect even communist is more respectable than liberal in an increasing number of leftist circles throughout the West. To be liberal means to support self-interested establishment politics and the status-quo way of doing things. After all, what else can explain the fact that liberals oppose many radical changes proposed by both the left and the right? What else can explain the fact that we don’t want to cut government down to the barebones but don’t want to massively grow government either? What else can explain the fact that we are concerned about poverty and equal opportunity but still support free market capitalism? For too many people, a liberal is either a narrow-minded technocrat or someone with an interest in maintaining the unfair status quo. A liberal has neither heart, soul or vision.
But none of this can be further than the truth.
People like Locke, Mills and even Burke clearly weren’t the conservatives in their day. The French revolution was inspired by liberal ideas. And although Keynes and Hayek were almost polar opposites, the one thing they had in common was not supporting the status quo. Real liberalism is a challenge to the status quo, for the sake of liberty for all. Liberalism probably has had more heart, soul and vision throughout history than any other ideology. It’s just that, right now, people seem to have forgotten. Right now, liberalism is being framed in the views of other ideologies. If you see everything from a conservative perspective, liberals support too much government spending, and don’t care enough about traditional morality. If you see everything from a socialist perspective, liberals support too little government intervention and hence don’t care about economic inequality. If you see everything from a new-left perspective, liberals don’t do enough for women and minorities, because we allow conservatives too much liberty. Hence, liberalism is almost always inadequate in one way or another. But where is the liberal vision, the vision of liberty for all as the central guiding principle of governance?
The liberal vision is missing from mainstream discussion because even liberals don’t always argue on liberty’s terms.
This, in turn, I believe is due to the lack of moral weight assigned to liberty itself in mainstream consciousness. Conservatives base everything on traditional morality, and socialists and new-leftists on the morality of equality. Liberty isn’t always seen as a moral imperative, and therefore is too often assumed to be disposable in the face of important moral imperatives. Therefore, I believe that, to revive the liberal consciousness, we need to revive the moral case for liberty. In John Stuart Mill’s day, many liberals often based their arguments on utilitarian grounds, and simultaneously argued that what was utilitarian was also what was moral. However, in the many decades since, it has been shown that liberty for all may not be the most utilitarian, and utilitarianism may not always be the most moral and just. Therefore, a modern moral case for liberty has to start from first principles and stand on its own.
My moral case for liberalism, i.e. moral libertarianism, rests on the principle of equal moral agency, i.e. that since every individual should be morally considered equal, a moral society shall distribute moral agency equally among every individual, with no exception. Logically, this means society must let each individual have full liberty over their own actions due to their own moral compass, and must respect the same liberty being exercised by every other individual. The need to achieve this objective alone will adequately explain all liberal policies that would otherwise have been seen as weak compromises. For example, both supporting free trade and the free market economy, and providing a strong safety net for disadvantaged individuals, is most consistent with the principle of every individual having equal liberty and moral agency. If the government bans the free market (as in communism), it would take away the liberty and moral agency of individual citizens. On the other hand, if the government doesn’t provide a safety net (as in conservatism), it would mean poorer individuals don’t have much liberty or moral agency. Therefore, the level of government intervention in the economy needs to be balanced between both extremes, while aiming to use the least invasive methods to achieve the desired objectives in any case (e.g. to provide a welfare state rather than to nationalize the means of production).
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for liberal politics in the 21st century.