Reclaiming liberalism
Fawcett (Edmund)
Source: Aeon, 30 June, 2014
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Though often spoken of interchangeably, liberalism and democracy are distinct.
    • Liberalism is about how power is to be controlled, how human life is to be improved and how people are to enjoy respect. Democracy is about who belongs in that happy circle of voice, progress and protection.
    • Liberalism answers the question ‘How?’ Democracy answers ‘Who?’
    • Liberalism is about content; democracy about scope.
    • Liberalism limits how power is exercised. Democracy insists that the control of power lies in the end with the many, not with the one (autocracy) or the few (oligarchy).
    • Liberalism lays out the feast, democracy draws up the guest list.
    With its promised boons and protections, liberalism can be exclusive or inclusive. The democratic challenge to liberals in the late 19th century was, as it remains today, to show how their ideals might be applied to everyone without exclusion, whoever they were.
  2. At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.
    1. The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.
    2. Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.
    3. Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable, for society as a whole and for people one by one, through education above all, particularly moral education.
    4. Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are. Such respect requires not intruding on people’s property or privacy; not obstructing their chosen aims and enterprises; and not excluding anyone from such protections and permissions because they’re useless to society or socially despised.


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