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Exploring the Liberal Soul: What are the

Distinguishing Marks of a Liberal?

When we think of characteristic liberal values we probably think of the following:

Freedom of religion: this also implies the acceptance of pluralism, except in those few societies which are religiously or culturally homogeneous.

Freedom of speech: this means the freedom of private opinions and also freedom of the press.

Freedom of private interests: this usually includes freedom to indulge personal eccentricities without harassment.

Freedom to pursue economic activity and to accumulate wealth: this implies capitalism, regulated to a greater or lesser degree.

Equality under the law: this usually implies a commitment (often only honoured in the breach) to remove or reduce class privileges, distinctions, and barriers.

Rulers are answerable to those they rule: this usually implies some form of representative democratic government.

Certain human rights are inalienable: this includes the above plus any others that the democratic community (or the less democratic courts) may see fit to add to the list.

However, the problem with regarding these principles as characteristic of liberals is that they are so generally accepted in Western societies (and widely acceptable in whole or in part by ordinary people everywhere, both now and in the past) that they no longer distinguish the liberal from anybody else. (It is Authority, whether it be political, religious, or merely commercial, which always tends to be illiberal in action, not only because power is an absolutist passion that will brook no compromise, but because authority and liberty are two legitimate principles that frequently come into conflict.) Moreover liberals, like everyone else, sometimes have difficulty in living up to liberal principles. Nevertheless it is clear that there is a category of people who we recognize as, and who call themselves, liberals. And there is also a category of people, perhaps a majority, who either call themselves conservatives, or refuse to identify themselves as liberals, or only do so reluctantly. It would seem to follow, therefore, that there is a group of beliefs or attitudes by which it should be possible to characterize a fully fledged liberal. What are those beliefs and attitudes?

In my opinion, a liberal is someone who feels anything from vague disapproval to outright hostility for most, if not all, of the following: religion, authority, dogma, tradition, (especially traditional morality and the institution of marriage), and hierarchy (both in social and in intellectual relations—it is quite difficult to get a liberal to say what he is prepared not to dispute, what he will take as a “given”). Since a liberal doesn’t typically believe in an afterlife, his ideals tend to be worldly rather than otherworldly. By nature he will emphasize the importance of politics, education, and science: politics to improve social relations; education to improve human nature; and science to improve humanity’s material conditions. Thus the liberal often calls himself a progressive, while others not infrequently call him a radical. Finally, the liberal tends to look at human nature through rose coloured glasses after the manner of Rousseau. Human nature is basically decent, not sinful, unregenerate, or just plain nasty. To improve the lot of humanity therefore requires new social conditions (and perhaps new social experiments) rather than an appeal to man’s “conscience” or the “better angels” of his nature. Such an attitude almost guarantees that the liberal, even when he is well-to-do, will have an instinctive sympathy with the left—historically he has often been an apologist for the extreme left—provided he doesn’t feel that his own economic position is in danger. To the extent that all of the above is true, the liberal is out of step with a very large, and culturally and economically diverse, segment of the population. Harsh as it may sound, I don’t think it’s too much to say that many non-liberals have come to feel that whenever liberals get into a position of power they will usually let you down, and not infrequently let themselves down.

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