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Liberals behaving badly in the public sphere

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Local politician making an appeal at demonstration against default data traffic surveillance proposed lawLiberals, as defined below, often like to shame their opponents in public debate by calling them extremists. They say this about right wing campaigners, for instance, who hold uncompromising views on gun control, or abortion, or the ruthless and prolific use of force as an instrument of power politics. Liberals also describe as extremists sundry religious fundamentalists: Hindu, Christian, Islamic, whatever variety of a religion refuses to embrace tolerance, balance, and modernity and so on. Clearly, you’d think, to be an extremist, is something that liberals really abhor. But do they really?

Before we get into the key issue that I want to raise, it is important to ask: what is liberalism? The question matters because depending on where you are in the world today to be called a ‘liberal’ could mean very different things. It is important to point out that I refer to liberalism in the context of political philosophy.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1]helpfully points out that:

One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom – including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality – which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm. (p. 514)

…the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies. (p. 516)

I am a conviction liberal of this kind, so what I am about to point out are the things some prominent liberals are saying in the global public sphere that make one wonder if they know what they are doing. To be blunt about it, quite a few loud, particularly doctrinaire liberals are becoming extremists too, and they seem totally unaware of this. I won’t name names, let’s just focus on the positions that they are taking.

Two groups stand out (there are others). The first are the advocates of what I call radical transparency: the view that governments have no right to keep any secrets at all. I am supposed to believe, for instance, that it is my fundamental human right as a citizen in a democracy to be able to read the diplomatic cables of the diplomats working for my country around the world, that no internal deliberation within government deserves protection. In the second group are the advocates of privacy as a right that trumps everything. Even if a clear and present danger to the community arises (say, a terrorist threat or incident) the right to privacy must come first no matter what. You read the great journals of public debate and discussion these days, you listen to debates on global television channels, and you experience the spectacle of liberals of a very deep dye making versions of these claims, and others. You listen to these folks and government comes across as the Great Satan, even democratically elected governments, many headed by liberals!
What truly bothers me about this insistent, often self-righteously indignant claim-making, is the total disappearance of balance, plus the astonishing unwillingness to recognize the trade-offs that policy makers and political leaders cannot ignore. Principles compete. Values clash. That is what creates what my late former teacher, Ronald Dworkin, would call, were they before a constitutional court, hard cases. It is the unavoidable task of statecraft to weigh the claims of privacy against the claims of security. Ditto the claims of frank and robust deliberation within government against the claims of transparency and so on. Hard cases arise when these competing claims are sharply engaged and wisdom is called for in the resolution. By the way, the one thing many of these uncompromising liberals often forget is that treaties on fundamental rights or bills of rights standardly contain what are known as derogation clauses: when certain crises or emergencies arise, and provided the right safeguards are followed, civil liberties can be suspended for a while. (See here and here
Here is the main point. Fanatics of any kind abhor complexity. They always say: it is all so very simple. Yet this attitude flies in the face of the unavoidable messiness of politics. Hard cases will keep coming up. Tradeoffs will have to be considered. Balance will have to be sought. Difficult judgment calls will have to be made. That is the essence of statecraft. And if, in the face of nativist challenges in many countries, liberalism is going to thrive as an effective philosophy of governance – and not be merely the creed of otherworldly ideologues – it will have to convince the citizens of democracies that it has a grown-up approach to handling complexity… and hard cases.

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Photograph by Arne Halvorsen via Flickr Creative Commons


[1] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005) pp. 514- 516.


Submitted by Jeffrey Katz on

Points well worth making--and often overlooked by "liberals" and "conservatives". These labels have moved far from their early meanings.

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