What is Liberalism? And do we want it?

by Joshua Dill, On January 28, 2015

What is Liberalism? And do we want it? These fundamental questions were at the center of a lively panel discussion hosted by the Common Sense Society at Centrál Kávéház on January 27, featuring speakers M. André Goodfriend, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy, András Lánczi, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Századvég Foundation, and Marion Smith, President of the Common Sense Society and Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The discussion began with a preliminary attempt at defining liberalism. In countries like the United States and Hungary, the term “liberalism” is sometimes associated with specific partisan positions, but also describes a broader philosophical approach to political freedom and individual rights, rooted in the Enlightenment and the move to government based on popular sovereignty. Other countries—Russia and China, for example—define liberalism in their own way, often with the aim of refuting it. Given that the term is ambiguous and polemical and has been redefined over the years—a problem with “isms” in general—should we abandon it and use something else?

In view of these difficulties, the panelists tried to home in on the core principles that animate liberalism—most importantly, the idea of individual rights. Some rights are said to inhere within the human person—“inalienable” or “natural” rights—whereas others are legal rights granted by governments. What grounds these rights? God? Nature? Governments? Given this ambiguity, is there a danger that we can no longer meaningfully distinguish legitimate rights from the constantly multiplying desires of individuals or interest groups? At an earlier stage in European intellectual history, it was common to speak not of individual rights, in the plural, but Natural Right in the singular—meaning a conception of justice rooted in the divine and in nature, dependent on human virtue. A modern conception, on the other hand, often relies on reason alone, seeking to eliminate any frame of reference that transcends the purely human. But is this possible? Does it result in an overly individualistic philosophy that ignores communal life in favor of abstractions?  Clearly, rights had emerged as a flashpoint—no one challenged them in principle, but their interpretation was controversial.

The discussion turned critically towards the issue of principles themselves. Is it productive to constantly discuss and reiterate abstract principles? Does this not risk inducing the “fatigue” with liberal principles that Leo Strauss noticed in Weimar Germany? But maybe it is in the nature of self-government to require exertion and fatigue—like all worthwhile things. And perhaps terms like “liberalism” only seem exhausting because they sound overly academic. Would it help to rephrase the question as, “Freedom—do we want it?”​

Finally, the panelists explored how this discussion might be turned toward current politics. Given the significant disagreement about how best to interpret the principles of liberty and rights, does it make sense for a nation like the United States to promote a particular, often progressive-oriented, vision of liberalism as a core part of its diplomacy? To do so often allows actors like Vladimir Putin to caricature and denounce liberalism generally. Nonetheless, nations should not be afraid to openly discuss controversial issues, since open and rational discussion is at the heart of democratic life. Finally, do differing interpretations of liberalism explain the recent tensions that many have noticed between the governments of Hungary and the United States? Many audience participants indicated their belief that Hungary’s recent “Eastern Opening” foreign policy shift represents not only a pragmatic economic policy, but reflects a heightened interest in alternate political models, for example the one represented by Moscow. ​

Perhaps Hungarians are skeptical of the idea that American-style liberalism represents the “end of history” or that, in Thomas Paine’s formulation, “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Without question, however, the ideas of liberty, justice, and rights are foundational to our modern understanding of politics. Defining them is so controversial because they are so important. It is clear, then, that in the coming years Hungarian political and thought leaders must address not only particular questions of policy, but must also grapple with universal principles.​

–Joshua Dill is a Pannonius Fellow of the Common Sense Society. He holds a degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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