Power to the People: Seen as Weak, Liberalism Is Actually a Victim of Its Own Success

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), September 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Power to the People: Seen as Weak, Liberalism Is Actually a Victim of Its Own Success


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


"The congeries of stuff that is liberalism," wrote Ted Honderich dismissively in this space two weeks ago. It's true that the word "liberal" is used so often and variously as to have lost much precision of definition. Liberal parties can lean to the right, like the German Free Democrats, or to the left, in the British tradition of Lloyd George and Maynard Keynes. To the American right, it is a catch-all term for anyone vaguely left-wing, while to some on the US left, such as the actor and activist Danny Glover, a liberal is an apologist--"a guy who talks about how bad segregated trains are. Yet he rides in the whites-only section," as he told me once, quoting the poet Langston Hughes. But liberalism is still a word worth fighting for.

At its heart is a belief in individualism, perfectly expressed by John Stuart Mill in his introduction to On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his own will, is to prevent harm to others ... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The second of Mill's sentences is one of the most stirring statements to be found in political philosophy. The first is where all the problems arise. For the second provides tinder for the libertarian fire, while the first is the bucket of water ready to douse it.

This compromise makes liberalism vulnerable to the more obvious certainties of conservatism and socialism (or its more amenable sibling, social democracy). …

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