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Temperamental Liberalism


As well as  to sharing core substantive convictions and a preference for procedural means, liberals have a distinct character or temperament.

The first use of “liberal” in a political sense took place in 1810, when Spanish delegates to the Cortes, or parliament, adopted the term. The word was used to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government. 

But the word “liberal” existed in language long before it had political meaning. “Liberal” stems from the Latin liber, or “free”. It has always had a wide– dare one say liberal? – meaning.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary points out that “liberal,” has many meanings other than free. It can also mean generous, abundant, large, unstinting, lax, candid, and unprejudiced. 

Legacies of that broad meaning abound today. Students do not study something called the conservative arts. And many societies claim to be liberal democratic while none call themselves conservative democratic. 




In ordinary usage, liberalism refers to three things. A substantive political program and morality based on fairness. And also a temperament that emphasizes openness to the world.

The liberal temperament has more to do with psychology than with politics or morality. 

“Liberalism” in this meaning of the term seeks to include rather than exclude. To accept rather than sensor. Embrace rather than stigmatize. Welcome rather than reject. To be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean. 

Temperamentally, liberals are impatient with arguments rooted in fear and self-protection. They tend to see the past’s improvements as reason for anticipating continued improvement.




To be sure, liberals recognise that evil can lurk in the hearts of men and women. And that some political systems – by definition, illiberal ones – have been evil in the extreme. But they hold that the existence of the bad ones does not make possible the realization of the good.

On the contrary, the fact that some societies lack liberalism’s generosity of spirit is all the more reason for liberals to insist on reform. Not only in the public and political sense but in the private and human one. In a liberals view we can all be better.




Temperamental liberalism is not political.

A conservative who opposes liberalism’s commitment to the welfare state but who gives to charity is acting liberally in this temperamental sense. More liberally, in many ways, than the leftist who supports the welfare state but who gives less to the poor and needy. 

A libertarian who votes republican and welcomes new technologies is more liberal than a party-line Democrat who insists that nothing he disproves be built in his backyard. 

A Christian who argues that religious liberty applies to Muslims and Buddhists is more temperamentally liberal than a secularist who dismisses all religion as superstitious nonsense. 

An academic department composed of liberals that refuses to hire conservatives does not live up to the liberalism it preaches. 

Temperamentally speaking, liberalism is not defined by the position one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.



Mother and daughter hands selective focus

The heroic openness, optimism, and generosity of temperamental liberalism is what the center-left is often culpable of failure on. 

It is one thing for conservatives to defend such time-honored practices and institutions as the classical tradition, Western culture, and fox hunting. This is what conservatives do. 

But it is another when leftists turn into temperamental conservatives. Unwilling to see their ways of life change, their ideas challenged, or their prejudices exposed.

No one is more temperamentally conservative than a Manhattan leftist living in a rent-controlled apartment and holding tenure at a university; his or her way of life is inevitably bound to breed a sense of complacency that is incompatible with liberalism’s historical commitment to be open to the new.

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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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