Is Liberalism dead? Was it ever alive?

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

“Taxation of earnings is on a par with forced labour.” Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia.

During a recent Salisbury Democracy Café the interesting question ‘Is Liberalism dead?’ was posed. Much depends on the definition of Liberalism. Some people seem to mean a rather wishy-washy tolerance epitomised by the pejorative term ‘bleeding heart liberal’. But political Liberalism is very far from being wishy-washy as the quote above by the American libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick attests. The most fundamental expression of this position is given by what is known as Methodological Individualism, which asserts that all attempts to explain social (or individual) phenomena are to be rejected unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about the individual.

There have, however, been many attempts to create what might be called Social Liberalism, which in turn can be seen either as attempts to avoid Thomas Hobbes’s bleak conclusion that individuals should willingly submit to the power of a strong sovereign in order to protect them against a life that is ‘ nasty, brutish and short’, or the slide to Nozick’s extreme and equally unpleasant libertarianism. The social contract theory of Joh n Rawls in A Theory of Justice is probably the most influential work in the field. At the heart of this book is a kind of thought experiment he calls the Original Position or the Veil of Ignorance in which we are asked to imagine what sort of society would be chosen if we did not know certain facts about ourselves, particularly our social location and natural endowments. From this position Rawls deduces that most people would choose two principles: First – “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”; second – “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) to be the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

One of the most serious objections to the Original Position coming from the communitarian tradition, however, is that it assumes a certain conception of the self as individuated before any sense of entanglement with social or communal considerations. This is a serious problem for those who believe that the creation of the self is inextricably linked to the collective, which itself is shaped by the individual. To the communitarian it makes no sense to assume that the individual springs fully formed from the womb without being at least partly shaped by its environment and communal links. From the political point of view this means that the individual emerges from and thrives in a communal environment in which certain universal goods like health, education and transport are communally pooled. And, as Erich Fromm wrote in Beyond the Chains of Illusion ‘the most important factor for the development of the individual is the structure and values of society into which he has been born’.

In this context, then, it could be argued that Rawls’s Original Position is an intellectually tortuous and, ultimately, unsuccessful device to save Liberalism from the bleak visions of Hobbes and Nozick or, indeed, an unsustainable reliance on an individualism cast adrift from its social grounding. And, of course, the same objections could be made against Nozick. It could be argued that communitarianism is a much more grounded vision of the individual and one that calls into question the fundamental principles of Liberalism, properly understood. Indeed, the individual cast adrift above Friedrich’s Sea of Fog may be a better metaphor than the Veil of Ignorance.

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