All of the major political parties are liberal but they aren't all the same.
They are all liberal because they all follow the liberal first principle: that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own individual will and reason.
The parties are different, though, in how they try to follow through with this principle. It's useful to try to understand how the different forms of liberalism are represented across the political spectrum.
Right versus left liberalism
The major distinction is that existing between the right and left wing of politics. This division (in its modern form) has been around since at least the late nineteenth century.
Right liberals are the heirs of the classical liberal tradition, which was dominant in the English speaking countries in the early and mid-nineteenth century.
The classical liberals tried to solve the basic problem of liberalism in an ingenious way. Liberals want us to be unimpeded in following our own will and reason. But if you have millions of individuals each doing whatever they want, then how do you hold a society together?
The answer for the classical liberals was not to deny that individuals would act selfishly under the liberal principle, but to argue that this selfishness would actually benefit society through the workings of a free market. In other words, millions of competing wills could successfully be regulated by a free market and bring about economic and social advancement.
This right liberal attitude has a number of consequences. Firstly, there is a great emphasis in right liberalism on Economic Man, as it is through our economic activities that we carry out the underlying principles of liberalism. In fact, it's important to remember with right liberals that the free market doesn't just exist for purely economic outcomes: it is the bearer, for right liberals, of larger liberal ideals. That's why a right liberal like Margaret Thatcher could proclaim that "Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul."
Also, right liberals don't like the state to interfere with the workings of the free market. They have therefore tended to prefer a smaller state than other kinds of liberals.
The commitment to the free market has also led right liberals to prefer an ideal of equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes. After all, if you support the free market then you have to accept that some will do better than others, and end up with greater wealth and power.
And historically this is where classical liberalism spawned an opposition. Some liberals could not commit themselves to the inequality of condition brought about by classical liberalism.
Therefore, instead of looking to the free market to regulate the millions of competing wills, they looked to the state instead. These were the "new" liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But today they are called left liberals or social democrats.
The contrast between right and left liberals could be broadly put as follows. Whereas right liberals focus on Economic Man, left liberals instead emphasise the idea of Social Man (which is why the left wing opponents of the World Economic Forum established a rival grouping called the World Social Forum).
Whereas right liberals are anti-statist in the sense that they don't like too much state interference in the economy (and so often have policies of privatisation and deregulation), left liberals tend to be statist and have at times called for the nationalisation of industry.
Whereas right liberals are most comfortable with equality of opportunity (a level playing field) left liberals are more sympathetic to government intervention to engineer equality of outcome.
And finally, there is one more common distinction between right and left liberals. Left liberals, even when they are an influential part of the establishment, like to see themselves as "dissenters". Right liberals, on the other hand, are more inclined to see themselves as "loyalists".
(Another marker of the distinction between right and left liberals is that right liberals often identify positively with the USA, where right liberalism is strongest, whereas left liberals look to the Scandinavian countries, where social democracy is most dominant.)
The distinction that people make between the right wing and left wing of politics therefore holds true, as long as it's realised that this is a broad distinction between different kinds of liberalism.
It's possible to go further than this, though, and make distinctions between different kinds of left liberals and right liberals.
For instance, within the left liberal camp there are what might be termed "mainstream left liberals" or "social democrats". These are left liberals who are committed to gradual reform through democratic politics. They include the American Democrats, the British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party.
They are different from radical left liberals who prefer to take direct action to achieve their aims immediately. Some feminists, socialists and animal liberationists fall into this radical left liberal camp.
Then there are libertarian left liberals, sometimes known as anarchists. Like other left liberals, they are hostile to the idea that a free market should regulate the workings of society. But instead of looking to the state as an alternative, they want things to be determined at a local community level.
To summarise, the left liberal camp can be further divided into three parts: mainstream left liberals (social democrats), radical left liberals (socialists) and libertarian left liberals (anarchists).
It's also possible to make distinctions within the right liberal camp. First, there are mainstream right liberal parties, such as the American Republicans, or the British Conservatives, or the Australian Liberals. These parties are sometimes confusingly called "conservative" parties, even though they are based on a liberal philosophy.
The more radical version of right liberalism is right libertarianism. Right libertarians are more strongly opposed to the role of the state in society than mainstream right liberals. They are also more likely to see themselves as dissenters than mainstream right liberals.
Right and left libertarians obviously agree with each other in wanting to strictly limit the sphere of the central state. However, right libertarians support the free market as an alternative, putting them at odds with left libertarians.
An even finer level of distinction can be made within the mainstream left and right liberal parties.
For instance, in Australia the mainstream left liberal party, the Labor Party, has a left wing and a right wing. As you would expect, the more left wing members of the party are more firmly opposed to the free market and more strongly in favour of state intervention.
It is the right wing of the Labor Party which has been dominant, though, and which has been willing to agree to free market measures such as privatisation and deregulation.
Similarly, the mainstream right liberal party, the Liberal Party, has a left wing (the wets) and a right wing (the dries). In the past, the wets were often small businessmen who weren't so keen on a free market in which the larger and more powerful economic units could clear out the weaker. (Nor were they keen on small business being at the mercy of powerful unions which dominated the Labor Party.)
It's not surprising that the wets within the Liberal Party have defected in the past to form independent left wing parties (such as the Australian Democrats).
The political spectrum is therefore made up different varieties of liberalism. The main division is between left and right liberals. Right liberals look to the free market to regulate competing wills, left liberals believe instead that either the central state or local communities should perform this role.
There are further distinctions within each wing of politics with the "moderates" broadly in the middle and radicals at either end.
Of course, looked at more closely the situation is more complex than this. Still, a general understanding of the political spectrum is useful to get a grasp on the way that politics currently works.
(First published at Conservative Central, 19/06/2004)
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