Tilting at Windmills – What It Means to Be a Liberal


The genesis of the Ten Unscholarly Articles is that politics should not be the intramural sport of merry clansfolk.  It may be ardent and vigorous but if it is to make a difference, it must be sincere in seeking to engage with those who take a different position.  At times this requires acknowledging common ground, or at other times venturing deep into opponent territory, not to reconnoitre its vulnerabilities, but to seek an understanding of why the divergence exists.  In that spirit, we have commissioned this set of articles to anatomise why anyone would actively choose not to identify as a liberal.

We present in no particular order:

  • Definition
  • Atavism
  • Disinformation
  • Creep
  • Battle Scars
  • Psychopathy
  • Wherewithal
  • Entitlement
  • Bread and Circuses
  • Trompe-l’œil

This article concerns definition, since we propose for the first of our reasons that the term liberalism is subject to deep-rooted misunderstanding.  You might imagine it would be relatively unambiguous.  But while some see it in relation to the permissive society, for others it is primarily about social justice.  For others still it is tolerance of difference.  There are even some who claim to fly under its colours when espousing the economic liberalism of the free market.  What does it mean (and what should it mean) to be a liberal?  Where does it sit in relation to other labels, such as socialism or the left?  Where are the fault lines?  What are the contradictions?  Is it reasonable to speak of a hierarchy of liberal values?


In Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, the eponymous hero, the sixteenth century dramatist and duellist, is warned by the Duc de Guiche that he is making enemies.  De Guiche refers him to the famous passage from Don Quixote:

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished.  Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants?  I intend to do battle with them and slay them.  With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho.  ”Those over there are not giants but windmills.  Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

What is intended to be an insult, a comparison with the romantically deranged Don Quixote, is turned into a compliment.

To be a liberal sometimes feels like Cyrano, a righteous defender of the voiceless against the tyranny of injustice – endlessly hopping from one front to the next, with little rest or respite.  Yet this article argues that liberal aspirations are as old as human society itself, that they should not require exceptional virtue, but are simply what is best for the common weal.  How did we get to a place where liberals see themselves as a marginal voice, trying to militate for change in a society that is habitually at odds?

The term liberal derives from the Latin liber meaning free.  The idea that men are born free was conceptualised (if not invented) by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who begins his influential Du Contrat Social with the clarion call:

“L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers”

Commonly translated as “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”.  The notion that human beings are all equal under one God (or many or none!) was radical at a time when the received wisdom was that there was a natural order or social hierarchy into which one was born.  The idea that man was born free was tantamount to blasphemy.

Liberalism is built on the founding principle that human society achieves its full potential when its members are free from exploitation, harassment, intimidation, persecution, enslavement, marginalisation or any such let to their normal good agency.

Yet it is this link with freedom that has caused the term liberalism to be appropriated by social, political and economic streams that are cast in a very different hue.

The relationship between freedom and individualism

The definition of the founding principle of liberalism above implies that there needs to be some means of preventing individuals’ perceived interests from coming into conflict.  This does not need to be interventionist if it can be achieved by ‘enlightened self-interest’, yet in even the most basic societies there needs to be some law, custom, or convention that encourages or cajoles individuals not to ‘spoil it for everyone’.

As such, liberalism, by definition, is interventionist in so far as it seeks to promote social responsibility in a way that upholds the freedom of the individual.

The liberalism articulated above is sometimes referred to as ‘social liberalism’ to distinguish it from ‘classical liberalism’ which interprets freedom very differently.

Classical liberalism, in broad terms, is the theory that any intervention that limits individual freedom is deleterious to individual interest.  It accepts that individuals may co-operate with one another to achieve common aims but from the perspective of individual benefit, rejecting the interventionist principle.

Yet liberalism, as a shorthand, is sometimes employed for both.  For instance, an article by Anne Wortham discusses classical liberalism in such a way that its proponents are termed liberal and its opponents illiberal.  As such, it is a near perfect illustration of this aspect of the confusion that has grown up around the term.

Classical liberalism is employed in a somewhat symbiotic relationship with classical economics, after Adam Smith, which prescribes the market as the ‘invisible hand’ that determines optimal outcomes between supply and demand.  Both reject intervention in principle believing that laissez-faire is the order of the day.

Both doctrines gained currency throughout the mid to late twentieth century and still dominate transatlantic politics, such that classical liberals, sometimes termed libertarians, with their anti-interventionist stance are often the most determined opponents of liberalism in the sense this article defines it.

One example may be drawn from the now notorious interview Lady Thatcher gave to Woman’s Own magazine in 1987.

The paraphrase that “there is no such thing as society” is often used to furnish the argument that Thatcherism was individualist and non-interventionist.  Given in its full context here, it is clear that the quote is distinguishing between society as a false abstraction and the actual individuals it comprises, however the doctrine that the primary responsibility for improved quality of life lies with the individual and not social intervention is explicit.

The formulation has demonstrated broad electoral appeal, however it is contingent on the unacknowledged assumption that opportunity is not limited by structural social injustice that denies to certain individuals the same opportunities that it affords to others.

As Rick Perlstein states in his blog for The Nation, classical liberals “act like only governments have the power to deprive citizens of freedom.”

Liberalism believes intervention that defends the rights of individuals and groups is not an incursion against freedom, but an assertion of it.

Social liberalism rejects as flawed the view that narrow pursuit of individual gain is the guarantor of social good – that individuals are best left to their own devices.  This article argues that libertarianism is a ‘philosophy of the few’ that serves to entrench freedom in pockets where it already exists, often to the detriment of those who lie outside its encompass.

To take a further example, an anti-interventionist stance to reduce taxation for the wealthiest in society, a classical liberal would argue, will enable wealth creators to prosper and society as a whole will benefit when that wealth trickles down with the creation of employment and opportunity for all.  In reality, it results in growing disparity of income which aggregates social, political and economic power in the hands of its beneficiaries.

The confusion that arises from the essentially opposing philosophies might be little more than a case of semantics were it not for the fact that the politicisation of thought actively encourages distinctions to be blurred.  What begins in the test-tube of abstract or applied thought graduates to the volatile political realm where ideas are bitter territory to be fought over, abandoned and reclaimed.  In a democracy, political parties are by their nature broad based and while they may identify themselves as liberal, may yet be seen to appeal haphazardly to both constituencies at different times to maximise their support.

Interestingly, although classical liberalism is almost inevitably employed with economic liberalism, economic liberals do not always subscribe to classical liberalism.  We will treat the economic aspect in more detail below.

The tension between freedom and intervention

We have argued above that liberalism is an appellation that ought justly to be perceived as a common expression of society’s best interests.  Freedom is a ‘mom and apple-pie’ concept, that brooks no argument, however intervention is more naturally prone to scepticism.

The interventionism implicit in liberalism need not be state intervention.  It is more accurate to give it the label of ‘civil society’, since as we have touched upon already, it is often achieved more effectively by social conventions, customs and mores without recourse to the state.  The distinction, however, is not fraught since social liberalism regards intervention whether directly by our peers or by representative institutions as a necessary recourse.

It is a natural human instinct that the individual is the best judge of his or her own interests and does not need the intervention of ‘the nanny state’.  The accusation that liberals are self-appointed, holier-than-thou moral arbiters is a common plank of the opposition to liberalism.  Yet the principle that civil society may override the wishes of the individual is only contentious to anarchists.  Without it there would be no criminal justice system.  The debate arises in determining which areas of life the state is entitled to intervene in and how it should go about it.

A fundamental challenge for liberalism is to foster the culture and representative institutions that promote a healthy relationship between the individual and civil society.

Yet, societies that have suffered from instability may favour a strong state, even if it severely curtails civil liberty.  Conversely societies that have a history of dictatorship or state abuse of power may prefer a discrete line to be drawn between public and private.  Finally, cultures rooted in self-sufficiency – the Davy Crockett ‘pioneer spirit’ – draw from a deep emotional wellspring when opposing liberal interventionism.

The danger is that liberalism is seen to be an advocate or an apologist for the state and its arms and institutions, as if they were as an end in themselves, rather than a necessary recourse to establish and protect societal values and freedoms.  Liberalism walks a tightrope in so far as it believes in the measured intervention of civil society while yet acknowledging the capacity for that selfsame intervention to derogate, rather than uphold, individual freedom.

Liberalism should always be the most ardent critic of civil society where it is the instrument not of freedom but of (moral, political, economic, social, spiritual) subjugation.

Consensus as a touchstone of liberalism

The correct delineation of freedom, as applied to political liberalism, has divided liberal thinkers and provided their opponents with endless ammunition.  All societies circumscribe liberty to some degree.  The right to own private property, for instance, as Proudhon would argue, is a theft from the common man, yet communism is in such widespread disrepute in our current time that it is an accusation that has been wilfully misapplied to virtually any liberal policy, from help with childcare to ending human trafficking.  Yet the key here is not the malicious intent but that the left is culpable in its own moral and philosophical defeat if by dreaming of utopia it conjures dystopia.

It is critical that if liberalism is to retain its association with freedom that it must speak to a consensus.  If liberalism is non-consensual it is not liberalism.

That is not to say that the liberal agenda should not remain ahead of the curve.  Liberalism as a moral, social and political force has been at the forefront of every reform that has led to a modern civilised society.  The breach between liberalism and other philosophies of the left is that liberalism perceives the danger of acting without mandate in the name of the common good.

Consensus does not imply that liberalism is the centre-ground of the political debate.  Liberalism should embrace the tension that naturally exists between an illiberal status quo and the fight to establish a liberal consensus.

This inevitably leads to criticism from the left, such as in this ‘open letter to The Nation from a young radical’, that liberalism is toothless, that it lacks a ‘dynamic theory of power’, that it is too accommodating towards political forces that wish to use it as a means of emasculating the radical left.  This criticism misses the point that the left has no innate prerogative to assign to itself the beau rôle.  When its opponents admonish it for reasons that amount to good faith, bad faith or indifference, liberalism whilst never meek, should also innately recognise that it cannot claim to speak for freedom unless it pins its case on persuasion.

Consider the opposite argument: there is a view current in many streams of left-wing thought that any meaningful socio-economic change has only ever been achieved by violent opposition to the status quo.  It rejects the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as a bourgeois document and instead believes that the continuous armed struggle against the tyranny of state (1789), the ‘enemy within’ (1794-5) and the ‘enemy without’ (1792-1815) were the necessary bloodshed that secured the legacy of the French Revolution.

Violence and bloodshed may well have facilitated the revolution, but they were also the symptoms of a chain of events that was out of control.  The Girondins, the Jacobins, the Hébertists, successive factions that at one time or another saw themselves as at the vanguard of the Revolution were also in short order devoured by it.  It is a dangerous fallacy that liberal aspirations are only achievable by insurrection.  Barbarism and a ‘state of nature’ are the opposite of freedom – let us assume that one establishes the dismantling of privilege by killing the privileged and sequestrating their property, this merely sets a precedent for barbarism to establish the new power structures – emancipated from exploitation the New Republic has no moral basis for behaving any differently from the disregard for law, person and property that gave birth to it.

That is not to assume naively that the beneficiaries of the existing order will surrender their privileges with good grace, upon the spoken word, but that liberalism must remain an earnest voice, even in the cynical corridors where power is exercised.

The sixties inheritance

The term liberal is also sometimes employed to refer to permissive society, in particular that borne of the 1960s, primarily in the United States, as betokened by the sexual revolution that accompanied the widespread availability of the pill, the increase in recreation drug use, rejection of traditional authority, opposition to war and the articulation of a counterculture.  That the sixties was a time of dramatic socio-political change, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the flourishing of feminism, increased political awareness and activism has led to confusion between the individual and social elements of sixties liberalism.

the sixties inheritance

It is critical to unpick what is still relevant to social liberalism from the socio-political maelstrom of the sixties.  Sixties liberalism emphasised the importance of the individual as a free agent with a prerogative, if not a duty, to explore anew the relationship between the individual and the exterior world.  This was based on a flat out rejection of the post-war conservative hegemony as morally, socially, politically, environmentally and spiritually bankrupt.  Arguably, it was as profound a challenge to the existing order as the the Enlightenment.  Yet while the Enlightenment was founded on thought before it begat revolution, the sixties turned the guns on its own ancien regime while its literary canon was yet being loaded.

As such, though was have the music, poetry and prose of the ‘beat’ movement, we have no On Liberty or Das Capital that establishes sixties liberalism as a coherent body of thought.

That the individual and social elements of sixties liberalism were subject to cross-fertilisation is beyond doubt, but that one can exist without the other is an inheritance that liberalism has had to endure in the subsequent decades.  That liberalism should connote hedonism without social conscience segued conveniently into the subsequent doctrine of individualism of the eighties.  Equally opponents have as a consequence been able to mount the charges against its individual elements of a crisis of values, disrespect for authority and moral decadence, without an adequate defence.  The liberal of the post-sixties era is believed by his or her opponent to be an apologist for declining standards that the conservative believes himself or herself to uphold.

Theodora Tsimpouki has argued that by profoundly challenging the American auto narrative, sixties liberalism paved the way for greater inclusiveness in that society.  In a broader context, liberalism directly translated from the sixties has led the emphasis on heterogeneity in society rather than the dogma of one way of being.  Related to this, the attempt to understand difference has led to greater sensitivity to cause and effect.  To a degree it is a question of interpretation between what the left posits as ‘reasons’ and the right condemns as ‘excuses’.

However, the arguments pursued along these lines are no different to the formulations in the Victorian era such as that between a ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.  That is to say, sixties liberalism, though conspicuous for the advancements it made against the status quo of its time, was not a material departure from arguments which, as we have argued, are recurrent in any human society.

Noticeably absent in the sixties liberalism was a direct challenge to the economic basis for inequality.  When vice-president Henry A. Wallace warned in 1946 of American Fascism, of poisonous corporate involvement in politics, he might have expected that the next liberal challenge to the status quo would be found in this quarter.  Yet the social movements of the sixties arguably did little or nothing for Wallace’s ‘common man’.

For this reason, liberalism since the sixties has sometimes been rejected by some on the left as a middle-class philosophy or one that is interested exclusively in politically fashionable minorities.  If it is to speak for the best interests of society as a whole, modern social liberalism must pay attention to efforts to repair this disconnect.

The economic context of social liberalism

Economics, as an attempt to understand how economies function and (at a macroeconomic level) what makes societies prosperous, is fundamental to the challenges faced by liberalism.  How successful a society is in securing the means to provide for its needs and how economic resources are distributed within that society are critical determinants of the freedom or otherwise of its citizens.  Since most modern societies run mixed economies, governments, business, financial institutions, social groups and individuals must addresses the plethora of choices made within that society around the questions of ownership, deployment and distribution as well as surrounding taxation, public spending, money supply, inflation, interest rates and currency exchange.

Social liberalism is not an economic philosophy, and though it has been traditionally associated with so-called Keynesian economics, which emphasises the importance of intervention and public spending, its chief interest lies in ensuring the outcome of economic decisions and choices is not harmful to individual freedom.  For example, considering gross domestic product (GDP) to be the total value of goods and services in an economy, taken as a measure of the wealth of that society, economic liberalism emphasises the importance of the market to maximise the total size of the economy.  Social liberalism (as touched upon earlier) suggests that an economic prescription that secures economic growth is not necessarily a sufficient end in itself.  It is not just a lack of economic decision-making power that trammels freedom.  Poverty feeds a culture of low expectation where a myriad abuses occur.  This is challenged by moral absolutists, who argue that we all have the choice in how we act, however an increasing body of evidence recognises at least a correlative relationship between income inequality and any range of measures of social dysfunction which cannot simply be ignored.  More than that, Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, an inititative to lend small amounts of money to villagers to spark micro-entrepreneurship, argues that “Poverty covers people in a thick crust and makes the poor appear stupid and without initiative.”  Thus artificially feeding the moral justification for inequality that the poor are feckless and it is wasteful to redeploy resources towards them.

Equally there is a level of debate in many societies between economic liberals, who promote the extension of the market principle into more and more aspects of life and interventionists who believe that government has a significant role either in providing for fully publicly resourced goods and services or else legislating to ensure that business and corporate interests do not cause undesirable effects.  In each of these cases, the primary interest of social liberalism is to look at outcomes and attempt to find interventionist solutions that best manage those outcomes equitably.  The complexity of modern economic arrangements means this is no straightforward task, and economists will continue to find gainful employment advising on the consequences of public economic policy.  However, the measure of success of social liberalism with regard to economics is the extent to which economic activity is sustainable, inclusive and provides for the common good.

What does liberalism mean today?

It may be apparent from the discussion above that liberalism, while it is consistent in its appeal to establish a free and fair society, by its nature evolves from era to era depending on the battles of the day.

From the Magna Carta onwards, the battles that liberalism has fought include ending arbitrary abuse of state power, the establishment of democratic institutions including a free judiciary, the end to religious persecution and free right of belief and worship, establishing the principle and practice of freedom of expression, unionism and protection of the worker from exploitation, extension of the suffrage, the abolition of slavery and child labour, social, economic and political equality for women, the promotion of education as a path to betterment, the establishment of the welfare state to provide protection to the individual in case of illness or economic hardship and the end of discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation or disability.

In each of these battles, liberalism was opposed by the status quo and political conservatism that either favoured the status quo, or argued that the consequences of liberal reform were unpredictable and better left for another day.

Yet in each of these arenas there is a challenge to prevent rightward encroachment on the freedoms that have been established.  Many of the battles that liberalism faces today concern the defence and extension of these hard won freedoms.

A full articulation of freedom agreed by mutual consent for the current age is by provided the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That the nations which are signatories to the declaration are, to be euphemistic for a moment, very hazy in applying it, does not invalidate the document as an expression of consensus. Similarly, that politicians on the right may actively oppose or seek to repeal liberal legislation does not imply that consensus is defunct.

Political opposition to liberal aspiration, failure in its application, the law of unintended consequences or the vagaries of debate, none of these mean that liberal aspirations are devalued, simply that liberalism must continue to base its case on the merit of what it aspires to achieve and its practical achievability.

The final aspect of defining liberalism that merits separate treatment concerns occasions when liberal aspirations are in apparent conflict:

  • A notoriously illiberal female politician is described as a ‘witch’
  • Discrimination perpetrated by groups that are themselves minorities is not called out
  • A prominent liberal engages in a scurrilous campaign to discredit an opponent
  • Unpalatable views are censored
  • Unpalatable views are not censored
  • A free and fair election brings a government to power with expressly illiberal views

The list is not exhaustive. However, what this aims to capture is that there is no easy dichotomy between liberal and illberal nor any secret key or hierarchy to reference.  However this does not mean that a reasonable liberal response cannot be articulated for any situation.  Where two or more liberal aspirations appear to be in conflict, the argument should not be which aspiration is pre-eminent, but case by case, what is achieved or lost by subordinating one to another.

In other words liberalism is not a predefined set of aspirations but a way of mediating between competing interests to uphold individual freedom in its truest sense as a sine qua non of social advance.


In the next article we will consider atavism.  If liberalism aims to appeal to our better instincts, is it equally fair to say that it is opposed by our baser instincts?  Is it easier to be a liberal in principle than practice?  Does liberalism retreat when individuals or groups perceive they are under threat.  Does it depend who is watching?

Sanjoy Banerjee is co-founder of Column F. He studied history at the University of Southampton and now lives in Birkenhead on the Wirral, where he works as an aspiring freelance writer and I.T. Analyst.

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