What is liberalism?

150 150 Time To Talk
From 16:00-17:15 GMT on Sunday 29th October 2017, the Battle of Ideas hosted a Time to Talk debate on what being a liberal means today.

About the debate:

In December last year, Adrian Pabst, a post-liberalism theorist, wrote: “After the vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election, the liberal world lies in tatters as reactionaries rise.”. Certainly, liberalism seems in crisis. The election of Emmanuel Macron in France raised hopes that Western liberalism might be saved by a liberal strongman who could challenge the illiberal authoritarianism on the rise in the US, Russia and Turkey. Yet the joy at Macron’s victory has been short-lived as his popularity plummets and other trends point towards to a deeper malaise within liberalism.

In the UK, following an election fought between non-liberal wings of the two main parties, Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron resigned, claiming he was unable to reconcile his evangelical Christian beliefs with leading a liberal party. In the US, Democratic Party Chairman Ben Ray Lujan sparked uproar for suggesting its liberal members should support illiberal anti-abortion candidates to win back voters.

Such instances indicate a profound confusion about what being a liberal means today. There are few words in the political dictionary that mean so many different things in different contexts. Traditionally, liberalism – inspired by Enlightenment thinkers from John Locke to John Stuart Mill – referred to championing negative liberty and privileging individual rights and personal autonomy over those of the state, challenging restrictions on economic, social and intellectual freedoms.  In the post-war era, liberalism became defined by differing stances on the role of the state. Neo-liberals believed the state to have a role in protecting markets against state power. Social liberals, exemplified by William Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state, tended to believe the state to have a role in protecting vulnerable individuals from the vagaries and power of the market.

These differing strands of liberalism nonetheless made a virtue of taking a broadly tolerant approach to matters of belief and conscience, in opposition to conservatism. There have been tensions, but, over the past 40 years, politics across the West has witnessed the victory of the twin liberalisms. On the one hand, economic liberalism appeared to have triumphed in the late 20th century, especially in the Eighties, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dominated Western politics. On the other hand and sometimes at odds with such free-market ideas, the Sixties liberal-left seemed until recently to have largely won the socio-cultural argument.

The freedom fighters of the Sixties overthrew many of the shackles of conformity, including the partial decriminalisation of both homosexuality and abortion in 1967, leading to a society associated with being open, tolerant and permissive. Yet today’s so-called progressive liberals are often intolerant of other points of view, frequently leading calls for official censure against what they perceive as non-progressive views on topics such as LGBT rights, feminism, climate change and immigration. Many economic liberals, meanwhile, appear to define themselves in opposition to progressives on social issues and have moved more towards libertarianism as a loosely-defined label. Yet economic liberalism seems to be increasingly out of favour, associated with job-exporting trade deals, free movement and the deregulation of finance, which, it is argued, have resulted in economic hardship for many.

Meanwhile, socio-cultural liberalism, with its belief in universal rights and the meaninglessness of difference, has not been able to withstand the challenge of everything from postmodernism to identity politics and, more recently, militant Islamism – liberal society’s avowed and violent enemy.

Why has liberalism, the dominant ideology of Western nations until only a few years ago, fallen into such malaise? Does it reflect a growing disenchantment with economically liberal ideas or with the concept of liberalism itself? Are culture wars a battle within liberalism or against it? Is liberalism predominantly a laissez faire approach to contemporary political and social currents or an active ideology of freedom? What does it mean to be a liberal in the twenty-first century?

This debate is part of the Time to Talk series of debates entitled Understanding the Populist Turn: The Ex-Debates. This series is supported by The Open Society Initiative for Europe.



Rowenna Davis – Teacher, Writer and Author of Tangled Up In Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul

Nick Gillespie – US journalist and Commentator, Editor-in-Chief of Reason.com, Reason TV and the online and video platforms of Reason magazine

James Panton – Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Open University and Head of Upper Sixth and Politics at Magdalen College School

Łukasz Pawłowski – Managing Editor & Columnist, Kultura Liberalna

Moderation and production:

David Bowden – Associate Fellow, Institute of Ideas

Related reading:

Freedom before Liberalism, Philip Pettit, spiked, May 2017

Disagreement is the Essence of LiberalismFinancial Times, 18th June 2017

Neoliberalism – the Ideology at the Root of all our Problems, George Monbiot, The Guardian, 15th April 2016

Whatever Happened to Liberalism, Maurice Cranston, The American Spectator, June 8th 2012

The Origin of Liberalism, Daniel B. Klein, The Atlantic, 13th February 2014

The Crisis for Liberalism, Ross Douthat, Sunday Review, 19th November 2016

Isaiah Berlin, Part 1: What is Liberalism?, Giles Fraser, The Guardian, 3rd October 2011

Battle of Ideas 2017:

This debate formed part of the Battle of Ideas. The Battle of Ideas is a huge annual festival of debate at London’s Barbican Centre. This festival prides itself on challenging accepted points of view and putting forward provocative arguments and promises to provide new perspectives.

To find out more about the festival and it’s 100+ events, click here.


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