Liberalism Undressed

Liberalism Undressed

Liberalism Undressed

Liberalism Undressed


One of mankind's most enduring questions is the legitimate scope of state power: how far and in what ways may the government meddle with people's lives? Where lies the line that government ought not cross? For more than three centuries, the western world has answered these questions with with institutions and practices that collectively have come to be known as liberal democracy. Though deeply rooted, liberalism has stirred critical attacks from both the left and the right and it has never wholly won the day. During the past 40 years, many of liberalism's most distinguished defenders have presented complex, controversial, abstruse, and even impenetrable theories to justify liberal institutions and practices, often relying on metaphysical constructs, imaginary beings, and fanciful events to fashion abstract liberal principles that rarely reach real-world problems.
In Liberalism Undressed, Jethro K. Lieberman returns to liberalism's roots to explain, in accessible and readable prose, why liberalism retains its power and appeal. He begins with the memorable thesis of John Stuart Mill, who drew from earlier liberal writers, that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Building on Mill's well-known, but rarely analyzed, Harm Principle, Liberalism Undressed undertakes to show that this widely-accepted precept-"it's a free country; I should be able to do what I want as long as I don't hurt anybody"-can justify a government robust enough to deal with pressing modern problems of human harm and suffering while restrained enough to provide people freedom to live life on their own terms. A powerful reinterpretation of liberalism's foundations, it forces us to rethink our understanding of the meaning of harm and the proper role of government in our individual and communal lives.


The fundamental human dilemma is how to escape from the jungle without landing in the zoo.

How is it possible to prevent the community from fracturing into fearful and ruinous hostilities while protecting the individual from the heel of an intolerant, superior ruler? Nearly four centuries ago, a beguiling idea seized the western imagination: a just balance between disorder and repression could be achieved if the state withdrew from the business of imposing an ultimate good. Liberalism, the philosophical venture that promoted this apparently simple idea, holds that it is not only possible but also morally proper to govern by refraining from decreeing ultimate ends, and that the state’s only business is to prevent people from harming each other, not to engage in moral projects. Laws and political institutions should free us to seek and fulfill our own good as best we can without interfering in the same pursuit by others. Liberalism is thus a common life led at arm’s length: We can live together, but not so close that either we must watch our backs or someone else must look over our shoulders. This regime of “ordered liberty” has empowered large numbers of people to shape their own lives, and the release of energy has led to the most astonishing transformation in the human condition known to history.

The liberal venture was audacious, and for two significant reasons. First, it flew in the face of historical evidence. the state had always been an ordainment of God, not an artifact of man. the place of people, families, citizens, subjects, and slaves was fated and fixed—from ancient times through the Renaissance, the state that bound them was thought to be part of the natural order. Although history records many kinds of states, in all of them rulers ruled, they did not serve, and they ruled to promote the good that they commanded. To do otherwise would risk disorder, even chaos and depravity.

The liberal venture was audacious, second, because it required the paradoxical belief, as things worked out, that only in the state and by obedience to law was it possible to be free. Contrived to remove the yoke of the state, liberalism ultimately . . .

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