Definition of liberalism
November 18, 2013 § 74 Comments
Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the primary legitimate purpose of government.
A liberal is a person who has a significant degree of commitment to this doctrine.
The liberal’s commitment may be derived from pragmatic considerations, or it may be ideologically derived from the preliminary doctrine that the just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed. But whatever the source of commitment, a person who is committed to the doctrine of liberalism is a liberal.
A liberal doesn’t have to believe that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the only legitimate purpose of government: he just has to see it as a primary legitimate purpose.
The notion that liberals aren’t genuinely committed to individual freedom and equal rights is false. They are. But the notion that they aren’t leaves the door open for other kinds of liberals to claim that their own conception of liberalism (which they may or may not label “liberalism”) is the authentic conception. Thus the fracturing of modern politics into different factions of liberalism: in the United States the two main factions are the right liberals (represented by the Republican party) and the left liberals (represented by the Democratic party). Despite the apparent division, all respectable political opinion inside the Overton window – and indeed much political opinion outside of it – is liberal opinion.
But who, then, are the authentic representatives of liberal doctrine? In fact there is no authentic conception of liberalism, because liberalism is incoherent. An authentic conception of liberalism does not exist: it is impossible in principle. Government by its very essence is a discriminating authority which initiates force to support a particular conception of the good. That’s what government is. A concept of government with the primary purpose of preventing authoritative discrimination is therefore self-contradictory.
A right is a specific discriminating authority possessed by an individual; for example a property right discriminates between the owner and the trespasser, treating the former’s claims as authoritative over the latter’s claims. The doctrine of equal rights requires that rights be distributed without discrimination: it requires that in the distribution of discriminating authorities (rights) there shall be no discrimination and no authority (equality).
Intuitively one might think that this internal incoherence would make liberalism non-viable as a political doctrine, but in fact the opposite is the case. When the doctrine one embraces is self-contradictory in a way that is (perhaps) not obvious, it is possible to derive all sorts of conclusions – even conclusions which are in conflict with each other – from that doctrine. In practice this makes the doctrine very ‘flexible’, and creates a subtle (or not so subtle) shift of frame. The frameshift makes considerations of what is true turn blurry, and makes what individuals will come sharply into focus as paramount.
So when liberals tell you that they are “pro choice” in an undistilled abstract sense independent of the actual content of those choices, they are telling the truth. The reason that each faction of liberalism in practice treats some choices as legitimate and some as illegitimate – with different understandings depending on the faction, setting up the intramural conflicts between different sorts of liberals which dominate modern politics – arises from the fact that in order to govern at all it is necessary to discriminate authoritatively. Thus the implicit corollary doctrine of the superman which inevitably appears in every form of liberalism as its self-contradictory substrate encounters particular realities.
Update 11/19/2013: tweaked the definition slightly, added the bit about other purposes of government, and made a few other tweaks.