Saturday, July 01, 2006

An introduction to liberalism

Liberalism is well known for its theories promoting individual human freedom, in an economic and political context, as the basic construct through which society should be organised. Attaching the ‘liberal’ tag to streams of liberalism which propagate illiberal ideas – liberal forms of feminism, nationalism, socialism and conservatism – or have scarce connection to the fundamental precepts of liberalism, does not imply these can be taken to be a pure form of liberalism. What some consider as tension within liberalism is in fact entirely consistent with the internal logic of this ideology, in spite of the admittedly contradictory results obtained when liberal ideas are translated to the contemporary political spectrum. Liberalism cannot be analysed as a traditional ideology because it is a philosophical standpoint developed through the ages and serves no particular class interests.

Initially driven in the 1700s through the political economy of Adam Smith and the political philosophy of Frédéric Bastiat, liberalism has continually refined itself through the centuries. Although some peripheral aspects of the ideology may have changed, its core belief – that emphasising individual outcomes will lead to more optimal results than structuring society around groups – has not wavered. At its heart is not necessarily the support of majority power over minority groups, but rather a belief that the inclusion of minority groups within an ideological framework would lead to confounded decision making. This is because in any society, everyone is part of a minority group, be it based upon geographical location, age, sex, religion, caste, food consumption, medical state, or any other defining characteristic that could plausibly result in an organised group of people sharing the same attribute.

Such refusal to give special status to groups is again a strong reflection of the focus on the protection of individuals. Given an individual, concepts such as rule of law and the separation of powers advocated by Montesquieu can work to ensure the protection of human rights. Justice, in the sense that all are equal under the law, is thus a key pillar of liberal thought. This concept of justice does not concern itself with whether parties to a dispute agree with the law, merely that the law is applied fairly. A frequently cited example of the failure of governance based on groups is the collectivisation crisis of the 1920s, where Russians starved as a result of communist central planning. Modern liberalism therefore stands in stark contrast to group focused ideologies such as socialism.


At July 02, 2006 12:06 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

For me, the individuality of liberalism is often not emphasized enough. It seems we live in a world obsessed with slotting people into filing cabinets, disregarding their fundamental character, let alone anything so abstruse as personal quirks and idiosyncracies.

A notorious example is the desire to make any member of an oppressed group representative of all members of that oppressed group. This, of course, gets rather tricky when one is a member of several groups, some privileged, some oppressed. Where does a rich black woman fit in? Can she deploy the narrative of victimhood? Or is it all a bit passe?

At July 18, 2006 11:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing with your example is that if you were living in a country with affirmative action policies, that person could get differential treatment simply because of their skin colour.

That's partly why I would advocate - rather controversially perhaps - that Aboriginals be treated as Australians first, rather than some special subgroup within society. Ditto for migrants and other ethnic groups. No special treatment or rules for anyone.

Remaining bogged down in the past has fuelled many needless conflicts around the world - the most notable being the Israeli-Palestinian.

I saw a documentary recently that pointed out the growing problem of reverse discrimination against poor whites brought about by black affirmative action policies in South Africa.

The quicker we get out of this sort of group mentality and start treating individuals as humans rather members of a particular interest group, the better.


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