Nevertheless, we believe that at the root of all worthwhile political activity there must lie a set of beliefs and values which inspires and gives meaning to that activity. It may be seldom that a political activist is able to offer a coherent or comprehensive account of the web of values which motivates him, yet we believe that most people in politics do act from an intuitive and deeply felt sense of right and wrong. That moral sense - which, at the most basic level, tells us whether we are liberals, conservatives or socialists; tells us whether we live in a )just soc1ety capable of marginal improvement, or an unjust society demanding radical change - is, to borrow Oliver Wendell Holmes' phrase, the 'inarticulate major premise' of political conduct
...The liberal theory of society Like most political philosophies, liberalism commences with a theory of the nature of human society. To the liberal, the most fundamental characteristic of any society is that it is a coming together of a number of individual persons, each of whom has a unique identity, unique needs and aspirations, the individuality of each of whom is equally important. The pursuit of individual ends, subject to the agreed mutual constraints necessary to social existence, is the dynamic force of human progress.
This view of a society of free and autonomous individuals distinguishes in two essential respects Liberal social theory from the approaches of its most important contemporary rivals, conservatism and socialism. Firstly, conservatism and socialism have in common the belief that the basic units, the 'building blocks', of human society are structures much vaster than the individual. The conservative sees society as a naturally ordered, harmonious hierarchy; while in the eyes of the socialist, the basic structures of society are irreconcilably hostile classes...Both agree that individual persons are but incidents of larger entities.
Although liberal social theory does not deny the existence or significance of such larger categories, it insists upon the priority of the individual. It is the distinctive claim of liberalism that the individual person is the central unit of society and is therefore prior to and of greater significance than the social structures through which he pursues his ends.
Secondly, conservatism and socialism share a theory of social change which owes much to the dogma of historical determinism. Both believe that the forces which shape a society's development - whether those forces are understood according to the conservative's metaphor of society as an organism with its own spontaneous causes of growth and change, or the socialist's more formal theory of dialectical materialism - are impersonal and irresistible. Neither gives any place to human reason as a reconstructive social force. For both, the past determines the present and therefore limits the future. The socialist feels that he is the prisoner of the past; the conservative would like to think that he still lives there.
Liberalism, by contrast, simply rejects historical determinism. It asserts that individuals, acting ration- ally and with co-operative goodwilt can consciously shape the future of their societies so as to avoid the errors of the past and correct the injustices of the present. The reconstructive spirit of liberalism was captured well by Robert Kennedy when he proclaimed that it was 'the shaping impulse' of a liberal society that 'neither fate, nor nature, nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, will determine our destiny'.
...It would be an error to deduce from this that the liberal sees society as nothing more than a random collection of individual wills, for the very fact of social existence adds to human life an enormously important dimension, beyond the mere autonomous pursuit of private ends. While the only units of a society may be its individual members, individual existence is vastly enriched by its social character. In this sense, the liberal sees society as synergistic: the only parts are individuals but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Fundamentally, however, our social existence is an aspect of our individual selves, not vice versa. As social contract theorists from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls have argued, the individual person is prior to the social structures which he creates in order to achieve the greatest measure of satisfaction from his life.
The liberal ideal of the just society It is from this theory of society that the central claim of liberal political morality is drawn: every individual person is a unique and independent moral being, with an equal right to be respected as such ... Consequently, the highest value in a just society is the equal right of every individual to select and pursue his own ends, and to shape his life according to his own conception of what is the best life for him. There are three distinct elements in this claim: the idea of a right, the idea of the pursuit of individual ends ('individualism'), and the idea of equality.
The liberal ideal of a just society, as we have defined it, depends upon the belief that all individuals have rights, which other individuals, and society at large have a duty to respect. If a liberal is to be committed to the idea of individual rights, he must be willing to accept that, if an inconsistency arises between those rights and the general welfare of society, the general welfare must yield. This is because the essence of a right is that it is superior to considerations such as cost, convenience, or general social utility. One cannot intelligibly 'balance' a right against such lesser interests: the only thing by which a genuine right can be compromised is a competing and inconsistent right In Ronald Dworkin's words, 'rights are trumps'.
The belief that liberal values are grounded in individual rights requires a distinct approach to public decision-making when a political issue demands a moral choice. The liberal will first ask whether any person's rights are at stake - a question of substantive political morality...If a person's rights are at stake, they must generally prevail, even if the cost be inconvenience or public expense.
...Quite frequently, however, a situation may give rise to different and inconsistent rights. When that happens, we can do nothing more than balance the different rights against one another, necessarily compromising one, or both. The outcome of this exercise will depend upon the weight we give to each of the competing rights. It should come as no surprise if sincere liberals resolve such dilemmas differently. Liberalism demands respect for certain individual rights - it is our common commitment to the fundamental character of those rights that makes us liberals.
Individualism...We now examine in some detail the concrete rights which individualism presupposes. We believe that they are, basically, three: freedom, independence and opportunity.
Freedom. If a liberal society is based upon the self-determining individual, it is axiomatic that individuals must have the freedom both to determine their own ends and to pursue them. The freedoms essential to liberalism are various; they extend to the pursuit of both non-material and material ends. To the former category belong such rights as the freedom to worship, think, speak, and publish; the freedom to participate in public decision making; and the freedom to conduct one's private affairs according to one's personal moral beliefs.
Similarly, the liberal believes that individuals have the right freely to pursue their material ends, by working hard, by exercising skill and initiative, by dealing with others, and thereby seeking to prosper. The marketplace well illustrates the free play of competition and cooperation which is the essence ai liberal values. This claim must be qualified in twa ways. Firstly, certain aspects of the market's operation may be inimical to the very ideal of the freely self determining individual - for example, anti-competitive practices. Secondly, even a perfectly 'free' market may be inconsistent with (and is certainly not sufficient to secure) other liberal values, for example, the liberal ideal of equality, as we define it below.
Liberalism is not an economic theory, it is a political philosophy with important economic consequences. It is, therefore, an error to regard the freedom of the marketplace as more important than other potential inconsistent liberal values. Subject to these qualifications, however, the liberal has a presumptive commitment to the operation of free choice in the market.
It is crucial to appreciate that the liberal believes in freedom because he believes in individual rights, no vice versa. Freedom is one value among several which flow from the liberalÕs basic commitment to the equal right of all individuals to determine and pursue their ends in accordance with their own conception of the good. Freedom itself is not an absolute value, and the liberal is prepared to qualify it not only to the extent that this is necessary to ensure an equal measure of freedom for others, but also in cases where the limitation of freedom serves liberal values other than freedom, such as equality of opportunity.
Independence. Individualism entails independence. The liberal ideal is a society in which we as individuals pursue our own ends through our own effort and endeavour - in which we 'stand on our own two feet'. In doing so we are, in a sense, always dependent upon others: upon those with whom we work, with whom we deal, to whom we sell our services. But such dependence is, in the particular case, voluntary: we can always deal with others. Furthermore, in a more general sense, the fact of such independence is inevitable to social life.
The type of dependence to which the liberal is profoundly hostile is that which is neither voluntary nor inevitable, but results in the substitution of collective choice for individual decision and of collective action for individual effort. Such dependence is inimical to the liberal conception of individual self-determination: it robs the individual of both the right to determine his own unique ends and the satisfaction which comes from having achieved those ends through his own efforts and in his own way. Collectivism breeds paternalism.
The threat of paternalism is most clearly posed by government, and specially governments which, through elaborate welfare provisions, attempt to replace individual self-reliance with unnecessary public assistance ... Thus, the liberalÕs traditional suspicion of over mighty governments extends, in the latter part of the twentieth century, to overgenerous ones. Consequently, the rhetorical claim is often heard that liberalism is all about 'small government' . . . that claim is an error: liberalism demands no a priori limitation on the size of government and can be perfectly compatible with many forms of 'big government'. But liberalism does ordain a legitimate role for government. It is hostile to governments which seek to do for individuals that which they are as well able to do for themselves.
Opportunity. Yet there are many things which individuals cannot do for themselves. Our moral ideal of a society in which individuals have the equal right to determine and pursue their own ends according to their own conception of the good will be an empty one unless all have the opportunity to pursue those ends. Not everyone will be successful, but the liberal's commitment to individualism requires that all be given a chance... This means not merely the provision of formal opportunities in the sense of the absence of discriminatory barriers, but the positive provision of material resources sufficient to enable every individual to overcome such accidental disadvantages as poverty, isolation or handicap. In a society in which wealth is unevenly distributed, that will generally require exten- sive government action to redistribute resources in order to provide a decent opportunity for all. It also means that government must, if need be, physically involve itself in the provision of such opportunities - particularly by guaranteeing a reasonable level of education accessible to all.
...Liberal individualism is not egotism. Egotism is the doctrine, propagated by such eccentric extremist writers as Ayn Rand, that every individual should look after himself, heedless of others. What we have described as the central moral claim of liberalism is that the just society is one in which all individuals enjoy an equal right to pursue their own ends ... If a liberal society is one in which individuality can flourish, it must be one in which there are genuine opportunities for all. Charles Fried makes this point well.
It is an incorrect conception of liberal individualism to exclude from it any duty to be concerned about and to assist others The argument has been clear to liberals at least from Kant that indifference to one's fellows devalues our common humanity and so endangers the moral basis for the respect we claim as individuals. If liberalism is distinctive as a moral position, it is in its attempt to accommodate this duty of altruism to an individual's right to define and pursue his own conception of the good without being consumed by the needs of others.Equality...liberalism sees the individual person as the fundamental social unit, and consequently presupposes the priority of the individual to social structures and cleavages which may cause inequality. Therefore, liberalism admits no legitimate antecedent (that is, presocial) grounds for distinguishing between individuals. A liberal society is composed of persons as such, not based on artificial distinctions such as kings, lords and commons; capitalists and proletarians; free and unfree. This is the meaning of Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase 'all men are created equal'. A certain conception of human equality is no less important to the liberal belief in the dignity of the individual than other values such as personal freedom. The most perplexing difficulty for both liberal philosophers and liberal politicians is to reconcile these often inconsistent values.
Equality is a troublesome notion. What should be stressed by way of introduction is a point too often ignored by many who claim to be liberals: that far from providing an excuse for social inequality, the liberal's commitment to individualism requires that he accord equal respect to the individuality of all and therefore embrace equality in its most fundamental senses.
While we are all equally individuals, no two persons are equal in all respects - we are not eq(lally intelligent, equally ambitious, equally good sportsmen. Therefore, any political philosophy which values equality must be capable of making principled distinctions between those cases to which its egalitarian values extend and those to which they do not Liberalism demands the recognition of equality in three basic senses: in virtue of the rights we claim as individuals; in virtue of the basic material needs common to all human beings; and in virtue of the respect due to all human beings.
Individuality. Since certain rights are due to all individuals, and since no person is more an individual than anybody else, it follows that every person is equally entitled to those rights which that individuality presupposes: freedom, independence, and opportunity.
The equal right of all to be free means that no person has the right to a greater measure of freedom than any other.
The individualistic values of liberalism also demand that all be given an opportunity. The egalitarian values of liberalism demand that those opportunities be equal. We understand equality of opportunity to mean that all citizens have a right to be initially free of avoidable competitive handicaps. In general, this can only be achieved through government action; in particular, through education policies designed to give all children an equal start in life. The difficulty with equality of opportunity is that it is necessarily an incomplete ideal....It claims to ensure a fair start in a contest which is inevitably biased in favour of the strong and able. For that reason, equality of opportunity alone can never satisfy the liberals commitment to the equal dignity of all individuals.
Material needs. Since all persons are equally human beings, all have an equal need of those basic material resources which are necessary to human life, especially food, shelter, medical attention, and employment. Any political system which neglects or prejudices those needs is repugnant to the liberal, since a society in which any person wants for the basic material necessities of life cannot seriously claim to be one which upholds the equal dignity of all individuals...The claim of Australian liberals to be committed to the provision of a 'safety net' is best understood in these terms.
It should be noted that the liberals commitment to the provision of a safety net is more extensive than his commitment to equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity demands that all citizens be initially free of avoidable competitive handicaps; it looks exclusive, to the start of life's competitive endeavours and has nothing to say about those who, given an equal] opportunity, subsequently fail. The safety net l3rinciple insists that there should be a minimum standard of material security available to all individuals throughout their lives.
Humanity. The third, and perhaps most fundamental, sense of the liberalÕs belief in equality) arises from the respect due equally to all human beings in virtue of their common humanity. That which we have in common, simply because of the sort of creatures we are - higher than the apes, lower than the angels - is of vastly greater significance than al the natural and acquired differences which create distinctions, barriers and inequalities between men and women in everyday life.
There are, in particular, two unique attributes which all human beings share and which all in a liberal society must respect. Firstly, all humans are rational beings. This does not, of course, mean that all are equally logical or intelligent. It does mean that all - though ignorant no less than the intelligent - possess a rational faculty, and a capacity for logical thought. Secondly, a] human beings are moral beings. This means that a] human beings are creatures with a moral capacity and a moral sense. We are all capable of reasoning about and making distinctions between, right and wrong capable of assessing people and issues in terms of good and bad; capable of praising and blaming, of being praised and being blamed.
Our common humanity - the fact that we all possess those special qualities which define a human being - is the ultimate basis of the dignity which we claim equally as individuals. The obligation of a liberal society to respect that equal dignity - what Dworkin calls 'the right to be treated as an equal' - tells us much about the way in which a liberal society must operate. It has, for instance, important consequences in determining the way in which a society will conduct its public business: in accordance with the principles of participatory democracy and public accountability.
The equal respect due to all means that in a liberal society all are equally entitled to contribute their opinions to the process of public decision-making All are entitled to have their values taken into account, and taken seriously. It also means that the citizens of such a society can never be simply the objects of decisions which affect their lives. All are entitled to call upon the decision-makers, be they administrators, legislators or judges, to justify any such decisions - both why they are rational and why they are right.
To the extent to which it does not ordain a right to equality, liberalism envisages social inequality. Although we have argued that the liberal theory of equality covers the most fundamental and important senses of that notoriously difficult concept, it is clear that a liberal society will condone and justify much ultimate inequality. That this should be so reflects the inevitable tension between liberalism's egalitarian and individualistic values, and the fact that each must make some concessions to the other ... Ultimately, liberalismÕs touchstone is the dignity of the human person. A moment's reflection on the tortured history of mankind in our century must leave us in little doubt that the ideal is less likely to be outraged by those inequalities which will tend to exist in any free society, than by attempts to impose that spurious and elusive ultimate equality which have been frequently accompanied by cruelty, tyranny, and the stifling of the human spirit.
...Australian liberals must never allow themselves to become complacent or to take liberalism for granted. They must never forget that the liberal rights we enjoy are not part of the natural order of things - consider how tiny is the proportion of human beings who have ever lived in a liberal society - but are an inheritance won for us by past generations of liberals who had the courage to face unpopularity and ostracism, to fight and to die for a radical cause. Liberalism has never prided itself on being the philosophy of respectability. Nothing is more sickening to a true liberal than the thought this his values should provide a rhetorical apologia for a cosy establishment. In Australia this is too often the case.
This generation of liberals must not only be vigilant to protect and preserve those liberal values that are already entrenched, but also be no less resolute than our forbears in seeking to extend those values to new spheres. We should, at the present time in the Liberal Party's development be concerned to insist that liberalism is, as we have argued, very much a mixture of individualistic and egalitarian rights, and that the latter must not be eclipsed by an obsessive attention to the former. We should remind Liberal Party leaders that the most politically successful Liberal Government, that of Menzies, combined a robust commitment to free enterprise with a genuine and deeply felt commitment to equality of opportunity and concern for the weak...
Printed in Liberals Face The Future, Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1984