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Procedural Liberalism


In addition to its substantive (political) content, liberalism can also be defined according to procedural means. 

Liberalism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when constitution writing was all the rage. The need for constitutions reflected a desire to create rules. These rules would enable different interests within society to negotiate. 

For liberals, proceduralism is the only real alternative to violence. In the absence of agreed-upon rules in the international arena war is inevitable. Without adherence to procedures in domestic life, civil war threatens. 

Liberal thinkers have come up with a variety of ways to express this idea.

These range from 17th Century philosopher John Locke’s social contract to such American constitutional practices as the separation of powers. They also include movements in the twentieth century to create international bodies designed to prevent war. For example the United Nations. 




What links them all are the shadows cast by two political philosophers, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Both called attention to the ubiquity of force in the world of public affairs. 

Machiavelli was a Florentine Renaissance man who gave the rulers of his day cold blooded advise about how to retain their power.

Hobbes was a seventeenth century Englishman who insisted that only a powerful sovereign could prevent a return to barbaric state of nature. A state in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

To avoid the need for force in life, liberals argued something else. That government must achieve neutrality between contending parties and win their trust. The best way to do this is through agreements which all parties agree to.

Agreements they respect at all times.




Procedural liberalism refers to a moral ideal rather than a political goal. This is in contrast to substantive liberalism

It’s goal is fairness or impartiality, the idea that anything that applies to any one person must apply to every person. 

Liberalism in this meaning of the term does not necessarily oppose political conservatism. Nor does it stand in opposition to libertarianism. If anything, libertarians have been even more vigilant than liberals in the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary power. 

Procedural liberalism’s real opposition is to absolutism. The notion that a ruler is not bound by rules.

Understood in the procedural sense, a liberal is anyone who supports a constitutional form of government. Or believes in a government of laws rather than of men. Or holds exception to general rules should be rarely if ever granted. And accepts the principle that the party in power cannot change the rules of achieving power to benefit itself. 

It is for this reason that one can call an entire country such as the United States liberal. Even though it contains many people whose views are conservative.  What unites almost all citizens of Liberal countries is loyalty to a set of rules that apply to everyone.


Still Relevant


Although created in opposition to the monarchies of the ancient regime, liberal proceduralism is relevant to the twenty-first century. Not only because illiberal societies threaten liberal ones with the prospect of terrorism. But also because liberal societies are tempted to take procedural illiberal actions to counter the threat. 

So long as some use arbitrary means to impose their will on others, proceduralism will be a crucial element of liberalism. 

Suspend the constitution (or interpret it in ways impossible to justify).

Break the law when you are in charge of enforcing it. 

Grant pardons to some while increasing the severity of punishments handed out to other.

Treat the political opposition as if it were an enemy.

If you do any of these you are no longer a liberal in a procedural sense. 




In complex, plural societies procedural liberalism wins by default. How else could different political views compete unless we all agreed on the rules and procedures for doing so?

Liberal proceduralism’s success, however, does not mean the battle is over. 

Challenges occur every time a government or society takes a short-cut around its constitutional rules or laws. The typical challenge comes from those who argue that challenges, be they terrorism or war or some other threat, are so great that the usual rules are in need suspending or modifying. 

In the United States in particular during the Bush years, liberalism’s commitment to fair procedures was put to the test. When America’s leaders permitted torture, suspended the rights of habeas corpus, increased surveillance without following constitutional rules, and concentrated unprecedented powers in the White House.

Each terrorist attack in Europe sees calls for evermore encroachment of state power.

In such ways are liberal societies constantly reminded to take seriously the liberalism that defines them.

Pleas for suspension of the rules are opportunities for remembering why the rules are important.

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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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