The Route to a Free Society: What Should Contemporary Liberalism Be Like?


Few ideologies have changed the contemporary world to such an extent like liberalism did. Liberal demands for the rule of law, democracy, and market economy have been introduced to some extent in all highly developed countries. This, however, does not mean that the “end of history” is here and that liberalism, as political philosophy, became redundant in public life. In light of the rise in importance of anti-freedom and collectivist ideologies, liberals face the challenge of defending their ideals.

Already Friedrich August von Hayek, in his essay The Intellectuals and Socialism, observed that the main reason for liberalism’s decrease in popularity among the intellectuals in the 20th century was the fact that its supporters were incapable of presenting liberal ideas as a set of values that would be appealing to the audiences. Of course, it’s not a simple task. Liberalism, in contrast to collectivist ideologies such as socialism or naionalism, does not offer any utopian visions of common happiness. As a result, liberalism is also not a homogenous doctrine.

We can, however, or even should, set some boundaries that would determine the scope of talking about liberalism and identify liberal ideas in the existing axiological chaos related to terminology. It seems that one of the key problems that the contemporary liberalism faces is precisely the obliteration of these boundaries. The current public discourse identifies as a liberal almost anyone who does not propose radically collectivist solutions. Moreover, even such demands as obligatory quotas on the tickets or some forms of income distribution can be deemed as liberal. Of course, such classification is usually wrong but it clearly shows the lack of precise formulation of demands in liberal circles.

First of all, we should make it clear that we perceive liberalism as a political doctrine (contrary to the harmful everyday understanding of liberalism as being lenient). A doctrine that has at its heart individual freedoms in the social, political, and economic context. If we want to talk about liberalism, we cannot leave any of these context behind. Should liberals want to formulate a complete and appealing doctrine, they must go back to their roots and treat the issue of freedom in a principled manner.

Contrary to the belief hat has recently been rather popular among columnists and philosophers that liberalism should “in principle be in favor of free market”, I think that defending capitalist economy as the only form of assets management, leaving an individual with a wide range of freedoms and options, must be one of the pillars of the liberal agenda.

What’s especially funnny are the attempts to connect liberalism with completely arbitrary and artificial term “social justice”. In his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek states that the only purpose of this term is to justify redistribution demands toward state machinery.

I think that the state should not interfere in market except for the 19th-century defence-judiciary-administration triad. The limits of state intervention into capitalist mechanisms should become the subject of a debate in liberal circles. We cannot, however, resort to social-democratic rhetorics and place at the heart of the debate the issue of retaining economic freedom.

Of course, economic freedom and free movement of goods should not end with the borders of a given country. They should not be limited by the means of blockades and custom tariffs. Free trade is a part of the liberal DNA. It is a free exchange between the citizens of the respective countries that enables the creation of an international division of labor and, as a result, ensures that more goods are available at lower prices.

Free trade is the most effective program in history for helping backward countries develop. One of its dimensions was strengthening peace between states and nations. Not to mention the cooperation between average people that was a natural consequence. In light of the criticism of the globalization processes, liberals should defend the ideals of free movemet of people, labor, and trade.

A number of liberals seems to have fallen for the claims that the free market model became obsolete, that transformation is harmful, and that inequalities increase. Meanwhile, there is no political or social freedom without economic freedoms. How is anyone to support civic initiatives that one values if that person is being deprived of 75% of their pay by the machinery of state and thus supports the institutions identified by the authorities by the means of governmental programs? Falling for demagoguery is a first step toward losing one’s freedom. To paraphrase a well-known motto by Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of subjugation is for friends of freedom to do nothing.

The close ties of liberalism to the principle of the rule of law and tripartite separation of powers as the best existing system for securing freedom of an individual in democracies constitute the liberalism’s foundations as a political thought. In this regard, liberalism is an opposite of the populist ideology since it advocates limiting the will of the majority. Despite all of their shortcomings, democratic mechanisms are the best method for decision-making that humanity has come up with so far. They cannot, however, become the end in itself. We need institutions that would defend individual freedoms from the will of majority, should the latter intend to violate these freedoms.

The matter of rhetorics is often being neglected, whereas that’s what shapes the perception of voters and people who take part in public life. It has to be stated that Polish public debate lacks rhetorics related to freedom and individualism, what may be one of the causes for the weak state of Polish liberalism. Politicians and columnists featuring liberal stances face the challenge of shifting public discourse from a collectivist to an individual approach in order to create such an intellectual climate that would be welcoming of pro-freedom reforms. The change in the discourse from “us” to “you” can be initiated only by liberal circles.

Finally, all political doctrines require a clear purpose. In the case of liberalism, it’s the ideal of a free society. A society in which arbitrary coercion is limited and individual citizens enjoy as wide a range of freedoms as possible without harming others. The success of liberalism rests on whether liberals are capable not only to fight for this ideals, but whether they will be able to promote it on a large scale.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Piotr Olinski