2. Why Is Liberalism Important Today?
Liberalism rose as a political philosophy in the years after 1815, when the French Emperor Napoleon was finally defeated and centuries of religious strife and revolutions came to an end. It responded to a society (in Fawcett’s words) “energized by capitalism and shaken by revolution in which for better or worse material and ethical change now appeared ceaseless… Liberalism offered means to adapt law and government to productive new patterns of trade and industry, to hold together divided societies from which familiar organizing hierarchies and overarching creeds were disappearing and to foster or keep hold of standards of humanity, particularly standards of how state power and moneyed power must not mistreat or neglect people with less power.” That is, liberalism grew out of a need to help people deal with times of great economic and social change. And it has an important role to play in these current times of great economic and social change.
Fawcett contrasts liberals with both conservatives and believers in other political doctrines. He asserts that liberals are more open to challenging authority and customs than conservatives are. Fawcett further notes that liberals also advocate for human progress through the gradual reform of society, unlike many conservatives, who are more likely to think of the human character as largely unchangeable and society’s scope for meaningful improvement as small or nonexistent.
Fawcett states that socialism, like liberalism, also has faith in human progress, though it’s a more collectivist vision of common ownership and material equality. He asserts that liberals value private choice more than socialists. Additionally, Fawcett argues that more extreme political philosophies, such as fascism and communism, equated social progress with the “progress of the nation, race or class, from the benefits of which those in the wrong nation, race or class were excluded. Neither fascism nor communism offered [liberalism’s] benchmarks for civic respect, or indeed any clear lines that society might not overstep in its pursuit of the common good.” Historically, these more extreme ideologies also embraced violent, revolutionary change, rather than gradualism.
In the Twenty-First Century, new challenges to liberalism have arisen: these include one-party authoritarianism, state capitalism, democratic nationalism and theocratic Islam. “Each denied or shortchanged one or more of the elements that marked out liberalism, most obviously resistance to power and civic respect [for individuals’ rights].”
Fawcett points out that liberalism and democracy are distinct, and that a good deal of the history of liberalism is the story of liberalism’s promises being extended to everyone. “Liberalism is about how authority is to be restrained and talked back to. It is about how people, their beliefs, and their property are to be shielded from the intrusive powers of state, market and society…It is about how the general conditions of moral and material life are to be improved. Democracy by contrast is about who belongs in that happy circle of voice, protection and progress. The ‘how?’ and the ‘who?’ are not the same question. Liberalism is about content, democracy about scope.”
According to Fawcett, “Looked at from the point of view of citizens, liberalism is a practice of politics for people who will not be bossed about or pushed around by superior power, whether the power of the state, the power of wealth or the power of society. Liberal politics aspires to openness and toleration, to settling matters by argument and compromise, to building coalitions rather than creating sects, and to recognizing the inevitable existence of factions and interests without turning them into irreconcilable foes.”
Fawcett contends that liberalism has loose, wide borders, but that, if we understand it, we can more clearly see “where liberalism breaks up into something nonliberal…[including] economic libertarianism, or the conservative defense of prevailing order at any cost.” Or a rise of illiberalism on the left.