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Liberal Dispositions


Liberalism emerged in response to events in the world that were upsetting to established ways of thinking. These changes were the exciting beginnings of new ways of living.

Born in an era of change, liberalism tells us not so much what to think but more how to think. It is not a software program that can spit out the answers to whatever questions we may have.

Nor is it a set of theoretical principles or a bundle of well-meaning platitudes. It is best to think of liberalism in its non-political form; characterised by a set of dispositions toward the world.

These dispositions define what creatures we are, establish goals for us to reach, and lay down guidelines for the fairest ways to reach them.

Seven such dispositions are important if we are to understand the contributions liberalism can make to the world in which we live.


A Disposition to Grow

Contemporary libertarians are right to insist that human beings must have the freedom to choose. But human beings must also have the freedom to develop who they are.

You cannot choose what you do not know.

Liberals insist in encouraging people to grow beyond whatever state they find themselves in. We are not liberals hold, destined by forces beyond our control to lead lives whose outcome we cannot influence.

Human nature is neither so perfect that we can live like angels nor so bad that we are consumed by sin.

We are products of culture more than we are creatures of nature; we make the world around us, and in so doing, we make ourselves.


A Sympathy for Equality

It is widely believed that people are by nature unequal.

That any attempt by government to make them more equal will fail. For some, the case is even stronger. Artificial attempts to create equality lead inevitably to totalitarianism.

Liberals hold that, if anything, the reverse of this way of thinking is true. Modernity creates inevitable pressures for equality. Unjustified inequalities are no longer sustainable.

It is efforts to prevent equality – or in especially ugly times to bring about greater in equality – that are unrealistic.

Debate in modern politics should focus not on whether equality ought to be a goal of public policy. It should focus on what kinds of equality society wants and how best to achieve them. 

Liberals recognize that inequality, even if it benefits some people economically; imposes huge costs socially.

Inequality serves the interests of some; equality is in the interest of all.


A Preference for Realism

Liberals distrust reliance on the emotions in favour of a less dramatic, but more secure, reliance on fact. Indeed, liberalism developed throughout the nineteenth century as a reaction against Romanticism.

This was a vigorously creative force in literature, music, and poetry. When applied to such issues as war and nationalism, however, it became extremely dangerous.

Liberals treat the world with a certain kind of mocking detachment that resists ideological thinking. They are wary of heroes, romantic or any other kind. They believe leaders should be guided, above all else, by a sober sense of responsibility.

Let the imagination soar, but keep politics and policy close to the ground. Sometimes the ordinary offers a better guide to the way we ought to live than the poetic.


An Inclination to Debate

Deliberation and debate are not, to liberals, obstacles in the path of making strong decisions but necessary ingredients for making wise ones.

Liberal proceduralism is therefore not just formulaic insistence on rule-following; in democratic times, the more individuals who share in the responsibility for a decision, the more legitimate and binding that decision will be.

Liberalism cautions against those who insist that we face an enemy so grave, a crises so important, or a situation so unprecedented that the rules promising discussion and negotiation must be suspended.

A political system that encourages leaders to make decisions in the absence of widespread deliberation is an illiberal one.


A Commitment to Tolerance, even for those who do not tolerate you

Liberals remain committed to the idea of an open society. But what should liberals do about those who are not open to them?

The earliest liberal answer to this question was shaped by a reaction to organised religion. Some liberal thinkers, both during the Enlightenment and at the present times, insist that since religion is hostile to reason, liberalism should be hostile to religion.

But if liberalism, in the interest of promoting openness, closes itself off to faith, will it still be liberal?

The answer is no.

To pronounce religion wrongheaded and dangerous is not enlightened. In fact, it is to mimic the religious feelings one is presumable denouncing.

Liberalism ought to be in favour of freedom for religion and not just freedom from religion.


An Appreciation of Openness

Liberalism developed in reaction to societies that closed the minds of their subjects against new ideas. These were places that closed their borders against foreigners and their governments from the eyes of the public.

All three spheres will continue to pose challenges to liberal for the likely future.

Liberalism is at its most robust when it views freedom of speech not merely as the absence of restrain but as an opportunity to learn.

It can be most proud of itself when it develops practical ways to protect open borders against xenophobia. Further insisting in return that newcomers, even if they are inclined to resist doing so, learn liberal rules of the host society.

Despite arguments to the effect that times of terror and war require an unusual level of secrecy, the liberal commitment to open government is too valuable a resource to be casually thrown away.


A Taste for Governance

If individuals are to gain control over their emotions, should society gain control over its destiny?

The liberal answer is yes.

Liberals believe in government because they believe in governance.

Just as a people can establish directions for themselves, they can use their intelligence to plan for their collective future.

Modern people are not likely to return to a time when one illness could deplete their life savings, one natural disaster could wipe out their city, or one ill-planned war could undermine security.

Government is a fact of life in modern society, and the reaction against it has more to do with romantic longings than practical needs.

Better to welcome an approach that accepts government and want to see it improve than one in which, in rejecting its importance, all too often presides over its ineffectiveness.

This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Alan Wolfe, particularly his book The Future of Liberalism. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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