In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

1

Liberalism and Illiberal
Social Policy

THE intellectual and political dominance of liberal ideas in the United States and Britain is incontestable. The political theorist Michael Freeden describes liberalism as 'a pre-eminent ideology in Western political thought, extensively articulated and amplified, and a familiar component within the ideological spectrum of the past century and a half'. 1 Although scholars adopt different emphases, at its core liberalism accords primacy to individual freedom in political arrangements: 2 that is, there is a commitment to enabling all citizens to engage in freedom of choice to as great an extent as possible without harming others. It is also a fundamental principle of democracy that members of the political community receive equality of treatment. 3 As Brian Barry summarizes: 'the basic idea of liberalism is to create a set of rights under which people are treated equally in certain respects, and then to leave them to deploy these rights (alone or in association with others) in pursuit of their own ends. In the past two hundred years, western societies have been transformed in accordance with the precept of equal treatment'; 4 or as Winston Churchill pithily declared, opposing immigration restriction, in 1904, 'all should be free and equal before the law of the land'. 5 Liberal democracy imputes a set of rights to citizens as the basis for autonomous action; 6 unreasonable or

____________________
1
Freeden (1996: 141).
2
See inter alia, Kymlicka (1990), Bellamy (1992), Freeden (1996), Waldron (1993), Raz (1986), Powell (1992), and Holmes (1995). In Michael Freeden's most recent book (1996: 142-3) he distinguishes four variants of the liberal tradition: Millian classical liberalism; reformist or new liberalism; American (Rawlsian) philosophical liberalism; and libertarianism.
3
Alan Brinkley (1998: xi) correctly warns that 'liberalism has never been a uniform or stable creed', an observation especially germane to the United States; nonetheless as defined here the core values of liberalism find expression in the political institutions of both countries.
4
Barry (1996: 538), emphasis added; and see Gray (1989, 1995).
5
Quoted in the Jewish Chronicle's report on the Aliens Bill 1904,15 July 1904, p. 721.
6
These rights are not static but have been expanded to cover previously excluded groups and new spheres. See Smith (1989). For an historical analysis of the development of the idea in the United States see Howe (1997), and for the theoretical context see Taylor (1989).

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