Image credit. On reading chapter 7 - "The Idea of Freedom" - of the below book, it occurred to me that what tears apart Classical Liberalism is its inherent attempt at being a uniform whole.
I am reading The System of Liberty, Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism by G.H. Smith.
The author writes in a pleasantly lucid way that demonstrates his superb command of the subject-matter. Smith elicits erudition free from arrogance or bookishness.
At least to me,
themes in the history of something
sounds suggestive of rather lower-ranking, miscellaneous issues, in stark contrast to the promise of the title:
the system of liberty.
The textual tension between title and subtitle captures a degenerate feature of classical liberalism. Owing to liberalism's magisterial ambition to reign in our minds and hearts as an all-encompassing world-view - a system of liberty - this family of more or less cognate doctrines has soon after its political ascendancy and rather abruptly lost touch with the march of time which, by now, it is part of only as a somewhat exotic accessory tinkling and twinkling on the fringes.
A Uniform Concept of Freedom
In fact, I contend, the most fundamental reason for the eclipse of liberalism - and ultimate ascension in different form, on that more in an another post - lies precisely in
its stubborn, ultimately rationalist ambition to be a system, a conclusively connected, coherent, and complete whole.
But why should that be so?
First note, freedom has a strong capacity to attract wide-spread concurrence and admiration. As she embraces a large number of phenomena that distinguish our very recent modern civilisation, freedom is a term that is naturally situated on a high level of abstraction, hiding constituent elements that can only be made appraisable in terms of truth and moral preference by disaggregation. On the highest level of abstraction, it is natural for people to flock around the term, and it is quite possible to give a valid definition of freedom capable of subsuming partisans with very different understandings of the concept.
Personally, I like Hayek's general definition, according to which freedom is, in my words,
the absence of arbitrary interference by others in a person's protected private domain (or even more tersely: "Unabhängigkeit von Willkür," as he writes in German: independence from arbitrariness).
Many will be happy to accept this definition of freedom, including people that may not be regarded by certain votaries of classical liberalism as even being capable of genuine appreciation of freedom. Indeed, matters get more tricky and divisive if we probe just a level deeper and ask questions like these:
What counts as arbitrary interference? How do we wish to define a person's protected private domain? How is that domain to be protected? By whom? What competences does the protector possess?
Dispersed Meanings - Contextually Defined Freedom
It turns out that even a clear definition of liberty always makes reference to dynamic concepts. These constitutive concepts of liberty are dynamic in a duplex sense.
Firstly, they are open to interpretation and invite dissent and pluralism, whose orderly pursuit is a main aim of freedom.
Secondly, they are being practically contested for, in the process of which they change or assume differential validity (my concept may only be allowed to be proposed in the general discourse, while somebody else's is accepted as operationally valid, serving as the foundation of laws issued by a legislative body).
In a free society, which the classical liberal definition of freedom is obviously trying to cover,
the auxiliary terms by which freedom is being contextually defined – justice, rights, property etc. – are naturally variable.
In large measure, freedom’s purpose (more neutrally: functional achievement) is to
empower people to negotiate the meaning of these auxiliary terms, and hence the working connotations of freedom, the meaning and operative content that people are giving to freedom.
According to classical liberalism, freedom is supposed to have only one, unambiguous meaning. By contrast, whatever the expectations of the classical liberal, in practice freedom persists and is only possible as a texture of different meanings and practices. Even if these convictions and deeds are contradictory and mutually exclusive to some extent, it is in their pursuit that humans are weaving the real texture of freedom.
It is a violation of the logic of freedom to conceive of her as a uniform and closed SYSTEM. Liberty is open-ended, she is a process with plenty of indeterminate future ramifications.
The greater the insistence on liberty as a system, the more liberalism becomes an exercise in intellectual vanity rather than a single-minded pursuit of the theme of freedom.
The rationalistic pretence of the classical liberal tempts her to ultimately give in to the lure of corruption. Most notably, her view of politics is corrupted by a hidden rationalist agenda in which there is no place for the hard-to-control ferment of competing political concepts, interpretations, and uses of the idea and potential of freedom. She disavows politics and democracy.
Ironically, classical liberalism has lost its import in the same measure as it has given clear precedence to doctrinal closure over a concern for the real state of liberty. Under these conditions, whatever one may think of contemporary liberals (i.e. Democrats, or say German social democratic liberals, or modern British liberals), the transition of the political name of freedom (liberalism) to other factions than the classical liberal one was an accident urgently waiting to happen.