by Ted Honderich 

This piece tries to get a quick hold of what is now called liberalism, and also one of its two main parts -- a thing that itself used to be called liberalism and has more claim to the name. The questions are raised of whether the two parts really go together, and, however they got together, whether they will stay together. Also the worth of them. The piece is a revision of one in The Globe and Mail. A letter to the editor about it was brief: "I read, with great interest, Ted Honderich's piece on liberalism (Trying Times for Liberalism). Please, gentlemen, what did he say?" Maybe the current version is clearer. 

Suppose you woke up this morning thinking about joining a political tradition or party. Maybe it's election time. Maybe, too, in order to achieve more self-confidence, you'd like to join the side that will win out in history's longer run, not just at this election. A helpful professor says join this bunch of mine over here, the liberals without a capital L. 

Some of them believe that in the perfectly just society there would be no moral obligation on anybody or anything, including the society, to help any members actually starving to death. The only moral obligations are legal ones. These liberals can cite Edmund Burke, the 18th Century parliamentarian, who said the way to deal with the Irish famine was by selling them food. He needs to be remembered for that as much as for his fine sentences. 

But there are other characters in the professor's bunch. There are liberals of a seemingly egalitarian strain. They believe that in the perfectly just society, no one would have a scrap more socio-economic goods than anybody else -- unless an inequality in such goods would give the bottom class a scrap more than they would have had without the inequality. In which case, the top class could have a couple of thousand times more. Gold-plated condos in Florida for a start. 

The helpful professor, noting your hesitation about what these latter liberals actually stand for, says something about a trickle-down effect from the top in a society. Wealth trickles down a little to those below. He says that the perfectly just society in question will probably be somewhere or other closer to the absolute socio-economic equality first mentioned than to the surreal inequality with the gold-plated condos.   

But there is still that first lot of liberals in the professor's mixed bag, the new Burkeans. They're not the same. One now makes it more certain by piping up that any taxation is forced labour. If the government takes away part of what you get for working, you are to that extent being made to work for nothing. Maybe he adds in that Robin Hood was a jerk, and should have been taking from the thieving poor and giving back to the productive rich. 

Shouldn't you let the helpful professor know that in thinking about joining a political tradition, you meant one ? That you were trying actually to make up your mind about politics? Locating yourself somewhere on the political spectrum of Left, Centre and Right? Shouldn't you let him know, above all, that you're a sensible fellow and you weren't planning on joining what sure looks like a tradition of self-contradiction?  

No doubt he will now give you one of his graduate seminars to show that his two lots of characters are really one. Admittedly the first lot can indeed be said to support neo-liberalism, or 19th Century Liberalism, or, to call a spade a spade, the New Right. And the second lot are for what most of used to call just liberalism and now have to call welfare-liberalism. It has in it gentler folk who think there's still a need for unions, and that there ought to be some sort of social safety net, and so on. But, he says firmly, both lots are for 'liberty without harm to others' or whatever.  

His fiddling may produce some kind of verbal consistency by means of vagueness. But won't it still be true that you would have to have two opposed sets of feelings or personal commitments to be for his bunch? You'd have to be a little schizoid, wouldn't you? Commitments that make any taxation into forced labour couldn't support even quarter-serious let alone half-serious egalitarianism. 

Uttering the truism that both lots are for liberty or freedom from something or other under certain conditions is absolutely no reason to think there is one single natural kind of thing here. For a start, every political tradition, including the most awful totalitarianisms, have been for freedom from something. They have actually provided freedom from something. And, to say the same thing differently, rights can be proclaimed to anything. So anything whatever you put together, even in your wildest political dreams, could by means of the fiddling be made into one thing.   

Even if the dog's breakfast of so-called liberalism stays together, with or without the help of the professor's verbal consistency, the things in it are better sorted out and thought of separately. And will they stay together? It can seem unlikely, even if history has a lot of strange political alliances in it. Neo-liberalism and welfare-liberalism are plainly pulling in opposite directions, towards different ends of the political spectrum.  

Leave aside the matter of how long they will stay in bed together, and also the sordid matter of how they got there in the first place. Let us concentrate instead on what used to be called liberalism, and can also be called trickle-down liberalism or welfare-liberalism, and henceforth will be called just liberalism by me, what does it really come to? Some say that it by itself is near to a mess. Forget about the professor's efforts with respect to the larger bundle that includes it. This stuff by iself doesn't fall under a clear and explicit definition. It is a mess on its own. 

This modishness about liberalism, to which I have been tempted myself, is one-sidedly tough-minded. What does the different tradition of conservatism in politics really come to? You might ask that question in England, where it now has to do with nothing other than compassion, recently the stock-in-trade of its opponents. Also, as the trains keep running off the tracks, and the word 'nationalization' is now happily heard in the land, the Conservative Party doesn't stand up and proclaim that it is for privatization anymore. 

You can also ask what the tradition of communism comes to, and be troubled about the answer. Don't forget Italian or pizza communism, or Yugoslavia in the good old days when Tito kept things together. You can get troubled about the definition of any tradition, large or small, that is real enough to involve a little compromise. You can get more than troubled about the pompous bumble that is Communitarianism. 

You can approach one good answer to what real liberalism comes to by first thinking of political conservatism. You have only to remember Margaret Thatcher to know it is not for conserving things, not against change. It isn't against revolution either, since it is all for revolutions of the right kind. In fact, all of conservatism's supposed distinguishing features fail to give you its nature. Having written a book on it to help out with an election, I can let you know that while it is no more self-interested than any other political tradition, it is unique in having no sizeable moral principle to support its self-interest. 

If you go to the other side of the political spectrum, you get the Left. The best understanding of it is that it is committed not only to doing itself some good, if possible a condo, but also to a sizeable moral principle, The Principle of Equality. The Left by this reckoning has in it real egalitarians. It includes those who were willing to pay, or have somebody pay, the costs of communism. It also has in it non-Marxists. Say tough democratic socialists who see the point of a knockabout street demonstration against the world trade agreement, and can even join in. 

And liberalism? The answer, since we are after truth rather than seminar-surprise, is that it is in the middle of Conservatives and the Left. For many or most of its members, it is the politics of some conscience, and necessarily bad conscience. The Principle of Equality doesn't have a grip on it, but tugs at it from time to time. Liberalism is not simply self-interested, but has some generosity in it. It is not very honest about the self-interest. In this respect it is not out of sight of the tradition of conservatism, which actively tries to conceal its dismal nature.  

Is liberalism what those on the bottom of the social pile are stuck with as their best hope for the foreseeable future? Is this tradition of mixed motivation all they can look to for a little help? Well, they'll always know the possibility of something better. That is because of two real facts.  

One is that we all want big things, like a decent length of life. The second is that we've got eyes, and can in the end see through the drapery and also the self-deception that is an essential part of liberalism -- the considerable avoiding of the grim facts of inequality. So, a last thought about it is that liberalism itself will never be so stable as to be comfortable. A good thing too. 


Philosophical readers will know the neo-liberalism in the second paragraph, although Burke is mentioned in connection with it, is most recently Robert Nozick's, and that the liberalism in the third and fourth paragraphs is that of John Rawls. In the fifth paragraph Nozick makes another appearance, as does the novelist Ayn Rand. For some more on liberalism, see What Equality Is Not, Fortunately. Also, in a way, even the first chapter of After the Terror. But the second chapter is better. Still better is the book Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003).