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Substantive Liberalism


In its substantive sense, liberalism’s core principle is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.

Expressed in this form, liberalism commits itself to both liberty and to equality. The question is what those terms mean under the conditions of modern political life.

With respect to individuals, liberals want independence. Dependency for liberals cripples. Human beings have minds and bodies. Liberals believe both should be free to exercise their full capacities.

Minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect.

Bodies, through societies that guarantee basic economic security for all. So that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basics necessities of life.


The autonomous life

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The autonomous life is the best life. We have the potential, and are therefore responsible for realising it, to be masters of our own destiny.

This is why liberals insist on the importance of rights, including the right of people to practise their religion as they see fit. Or to speak for and assemble around causes in which they believe. Or to poses a significant degree of control over their personal livelihood.

Take away those rights and you have a political system that is illiberal.

Liberalism’s core commitment to individual autonomy does not mean that it refuses to accept the existence of authority. This includes the authority that derives from supernatural forces or governmental power.

On the contrary, one of the founders of Liberalism, John Locke was a religious believer. Key American founders such as Thomas Jefferson worried about the dangers of individual self-interest. And the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant struggled his whole life build a philosophy based on universal moral rules.




Liberals do not envision a world of heroic Ayn Rand stalwarts refusing to bend their iron wills to the opinions, or even the existence of others.

Much like conservatives, liberals believe that individuals live within an ordered world. This world stops people from doing whatever they want whenever they want to do it.

For liberals, however, these rules are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control. Nor are they shaped by traditions they cannot influence. Instead people themselves establish them through consent or a social contract.

Independence cannot exist without interdependence. We need the existence of society.




This importance of the social is frequently over looked, but it cannot and should not be.

“Men are not born free; they become free by means of Society and the State,” wrote Guido De Ruggiero, an Italian historian of European liberalism, in 1927.

The state or government limits the rights of individuals. But it also gives those rights a recognition and sanction. It elevates them from precarious facts to rights whose fulfillment can be confidently demanded.

“That is the real gain which the individual make when he exchanges the uncertainty of natural liberty for civil liberty.”



Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal.

Liberals are not satisfied when only some people – members of an aristocratic class here, representatives of a business elite there – have the chance to determine how they will live.

Liberals believe in equality, but not as an end in itself. Radical egalitarianism is more associated with the socialist tradition than with the liberal one.

Liberals, rather, believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish only counts when society allows you to do so. Independence is for everyone not just for a privileged few.

How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another. It is possible to imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it.

But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their human capacities. Or that allows inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.


A political position


These substantive commitments to freedom and equality all represent a political position. They defend particular goals against other political positions that either oppose such goals or assign a low priority to them.

In the eighteenth century, liberalism’s opponents were those who protected a caste system. A system where favourable birth to a small minority conferred advantage available to no one else.

In the twenty-first century, liberalism stands in opposition to different things.

To forms of conservatism that justify hierarchies of unequal opportunity.

Versions of libertarianism’s that give business too much power and ordinary people too little.

And the lingering legacies of socialism that run roughshod over individual rights in their determination to achieve greater equality.

Liberalism in the substantive sense of the term is partial as well as partisan. To realise their substantive goals, liberals must organise on behalf of them and influence public opinion to obtain them.

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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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