Essay on Liberalism and Social Liberalism

There is a notable distinction between old-school liberalism of the 16th and 17th century that formulated political change in Western societies (based on writings from John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others) and Social Liberalism that is the emanation of traditional liberal ideas, since the debate on economic outcomes divide liberalism into free market vs. regulated market concepts.

We first have to give a general introduction to the term liberalism that traces back its philosophical roots to Montesquieu, Locke, Smith and Kant. They believed in essential human rights like life, liberty and property. Since there has been a consensus about life and liberty in the western Democratic societies that developed into so-called liberal democracies- a term often used by Francis Fukuyama, when he predicted the victory of the liberal democracies after the downfall of the Soviet Union and affiliates (in “The End of History and The Last Man”) – it was highly contentious to reflect on Locke’s third provision, which was property. Property essentially is economics and refers to the battle between socialism and libertarianism (or American paleo-conservatism). But more about it I shall explain later.

When all these theories were proposed in the 17th and 18th century they centered around the humanistic-rationalistic concept of the capacity of the human mind to control his own life (Rousseau), which primarily ran contrary to the absolutist ideals of monarchy that dominated the European landscape into the mid 19th century and in a moderate form until World War I and today. Adam Smith went further and proposed economic concepts now to be known as capitalism, which is seen critically by Marx, but it should be noted that the socialist concept of equality would never have come about without the formulation and implementation of capitalism with all its positive (wealth expansion) as well as negative (for workers) ramifications. Later on the Austrian and Chicago School of Economics under the leadership of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek provided more academic contributions to laissez-faire economics.

In evaluating Adam Smith’s work I conclude that while general, foundational concepts of liberalism (life, liberty and property) are Western Democratic consensus, there are varying opinions on the economic application of the term liberalism (I am evidently a proponent of social liberalism).

Kant wrote about the idea that reason and morals were subordinate to natural laws, again invoking John Locke that shall be applied in reality in the French Revolution and the American Revolution, more or less with success. The expansion of liberalism as a key concept of the Western blueprint from then on can’t be halted. Take a look at the 1848 revolution that, even though, failed to overthrow the Prussian and Habsburgern monarchy, shaped the nation’s policies from then on. Liberalism should now also apply to promoting or denying democracy. James Madison, the founder of the constitution, was not very keen on the “excesses of democracy”, and, in part, determined to reduce democracy to the election of the House of Representatives, whereas the Senate and the Supreme Court do not require popular vote, and the President requires the electoral votes. Laissez-faire economics played a huge role throughout U.S. history with a farmer’s class in the South and West opposed to the banking class in New England. That was also the reason that swept Andrew Jackson to office running under populist premises, but promising to abolish the Bank of the United States. The expansion of voting rights certainly is a remarkable feature of early America that is not built up of a noble aristocracy and monarchy. But of course, there were people that had significantly more wealth like the Vanderbilts or Carnegies. It took a gruesome Civil War to expand voting and citizenship rights to people of color. A long fight, indeed, but in what other European country were blacks entitled to vote? Political liberalism is a justifiable quest for human progress that facilitated the realization of civil rights and voting rights for men, women, whites, and non-whites.

The end of imperialism, the breakdown of Europe in the aftermath of World War I, the emergence of cultural, political and military domination from the United States, and the consequences of the Great Depression brought about the popularity of fascism and National Socialism. Whereas America could avert social upheaval via the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, many European countries specifically Germany and Italy could not deal with the diresome economic situation and their new, unprecedented experiment with democracy. Germany certainly called for a strong leader that would return the old, idolized strength to Germany that fed on heavy nationalism and anti-Semitism based on Nietzsche’s argument of the superior race (he didn’t specify which race) and Darwin’s argument of the superior species. Liberalism and democracy, wherever it remained and survived (largely in Great Britain and the United States), now saw itself imperiled, so the intellectuals set the definition of liberalism as the diametrical opposite to totalitarianism. I refer to Friedrich Hayek’s classic “The Road to Serfdom” that traced totalitarianism to the encroachment of economic liberties by too much central planning, and thus, too much government (a favorite line among modern day American conservatives). Hayek wrote that socialism in relation to economic central planning was the pre-condition that enabled Hitler and Mussolini to take over power, since they didn’t have to dramatically change people’s views and conceptions, but simply feed on people’s submission to central planning but with different goals (anti-Semitism, pro-militarism, pro-nationalism, pro-state capitalism etc. etc.).

Karl Popper published the book “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, in which he argued that liberal democracy and an open society can be achieved without bloodshed, and that the government should promote pluralism and multiculturalism in concert with people’s views and needs. This is another stage of enlightened liberalism, as I may call it (liberalism is the product of enlightenment, so it seems to be self-explanatory). It is the consensus that should guide government decisions after World War II until now, at least in theory.

For me the most favorable focus on socialism is to be found in conjunction with western liberal democratic societies. The communist experiment of the Soviet Union and the full application of communist power in China shall result in failure, and indeed, communism can’t compete with capitalism. But in terms of socialist-liberal ideas there is no Manichaean dualism, no wall of separation that keeps both ideas apart. If we go back to the Great Depression, we need to analyze why the United States was spared from a fascist-communist takeover of power. Perhaps it was because America was an ethnically diverse country that prevented nationalist-ethnic ideas to prevail (even though nationalism is a key feature of America to ensure a minimum consensus to retain the nation’s unity, but this reflection, for now, is irrelevant). Perhaps it was because even though America lost tremendous wealth they still had the human capital to be deemed better off than their European counterparts that fully depended on the American market. But the strongest reason for me was that Roosevelt adhered to a new economist, the first major economist of the left, John Maynard Keynes. In “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” Keynes argued that the fluctuating business cycles made companies unreliable agents for economic growth in a severe depression. The government would have to use deficit spending to shock the economy back to life again, and eventually the theory once put into practice paid off.

The success of the New Deal and of World War II, the main source of economic recovery, was the milestone that facilitated the reconciliation between liberalism and socialism in what was to be called social liberalism. In most of Europe the terminology has not changed at all. Liberalism means small government. Labour Party governments were elected to office across Europe and they never saw the need for labeling their labour or social democratic parties any different than that. (Consult ). In general, some differences in American social liberalism and European social democracy are based on cultural perception tracing back to America’s aversion to aristocracy and top-down arrangements. For example, European leftists are more likely to embrace government as a means to its own end, whereas American leftists only believe in narrowly tailored application of government power to redistribute wealth to the poor, but not to use it as a dominating institution according to the motto, “If we need the government, we’ll take it. If not, keep it off.” Therefore European leftists promote broad, generous welfare programs, while American welfare only benefits the poor. Second, American leftists are less likely to promote nationalization as a desirable goal than European leftists. And third, American leftists attempt a fair distribution of power more so than a mere redistribution of wealth, which is the primary objective of European Social Democracy.

The prevalence of European social democracy and American (social) liberalism (both the same) should be the political blueprint for the next thirty years succeeding WW II. It was a time of incredible wealth accumulation, where the United States was supplying most of the products for domestic and foreign consumers. The Marshall plan, practically an expansion of the New Deal for participating European countries, mainly to prevent a Soviet Communist takeover, played another part in extending peace and prosperity. As long as the economy would run smooth, lavish spending programs could be considered. Look at the Great Society program that for me was a great success, irrespective of some irregularities and inefficiencies that are overdrawn by the corporate media and readily accepted by the general population. The Republican President Nixon went so far as to say, “We’re all Keynesians now.” The stagflation of the 1970s destroyed the hope of everlasting economic growth, demand-sided stimulus, and an expansion of the social welfare state. It weakened but not destroyed Keynesianism. The current economic crisis delivers the opportunity to invest in the American public and change policies to improve people’s lives. This poses a return to Keynesianism and social liberal programs.

The libertarian activities who invoke the exact same philosophical ancestors as the social liberals (like me), are now running on the grounds of returning to old liberal (libertarian) values of freedom from government infringement, which really is only taxation not the abridgment of freedom of speech! And relatively speaking, the United States has a lower tax burden than any other European country. The tea-party-organizers are a conservative-libertarian faction (conservative refers to social conservatism in conjunction with free market ideology; libertarians are also free market ideologues, but generally reject social conservatism as a means of oppression) that promote the weakening of government in the hope of strengthening their own position by facing less public debt. 1 But this is a short-sighted assumption. The elimination or reduction of essential government services would put us back to industrial wealth scenarios with a few wealthy people controlling and subjugating the rest of us. As long as this scenario is not a vivid reality for those mostly middle class tax protesters, there won’t be any change in their attitude, and so it will be the task of those on the liberal side of the fence to contribute valuable scholarship, journalism, and organizing efforts to regain the hearts and minds of ordinary people and do great things in the spirit of the old liberal spirit that seeks a liberation from captivity from fear and insecurity.
1 The increasing popularity of the tea party movement an be seen as an assembly of people angry with government actions. It is the response to the decline of the nation, the loss in faith in government institutions, and the administration’s lack of arousal of popular support, and the division between the “educated class” and the masses. Or as David Brooks from the New York Times notes, “The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.”
While the Republican Party seems to benefit from such popular anger, Democrats still have a chance to convince suspicious people about the decent efforts of a fair-minded administration.
Another line of criticism from the right is the charge of “liberal condescension”, who are completely disconnected to the average American people. This is a fallacy, because social liberalism promotes the cause of the poor. Social liberals intend to redistribute power to the poor instead of stipulating narrow life choices under absolutist-monarchic rule that Americans are so scared about. Alexander, Gerard, “Why are liberals so condescending?”, 2/7/2010, Washington Post,

When I analyze European policies we can see also a lot of anger mainly resulting from the economic crisis and also fear of the future. Young people are the losers of globalization, as the liberal Austrian newspaper DerStandard notes (for my German-speaking readers). These people are called “Modernisierungsverlierer”, according to Werner T. Bauer, “Bodensatz für Ausländerfeindlichkeit in Österreich ist groß” 13. November 2008, 12:18,
“Ausländerfeindlichkeit” refers to the opposition and hostility towards immigrants that is prevalent in many European societies as jobs are disappearing. In countries like Austria where there is tendency to submit to authority (which is the antithesis to the pseudo freedom-loving American tea party people that also articulate angers and fears of the people). This pessimism among young Austrians is articulated by the right nationalist parties that gain more than 30% popularity in regular elections. The Austrian Caritas President Küberl notices “the fear of the unfamiliar.” He notes a change in circumstances with an unclear, insecure future, unsustainable retirement and welfare systems, and the breakdown of banks. Such a desperation can be exploited by politicians who run their campaign on fear and scapegoating (immigrants). Lackner, Herbert, “So schlecht ist der Ausländer: Debatte um Asylanten, Arigona & Kriminalität entgleist”, Der Profil, 1/18/2010,
Generally, a good, perceptive analysis of anti-foreignism in Austria is given in a report by Peter Zuser. “It argues, first, that the problems resulting from the open borders were different from the concerns that dominated the public debate. And, second, it claims that it was the Social Democratic Party and its Minister of Internal Affairs (and not the Freedom Party) who put the immigration issue on the political agenda, also shaping its concrete form and expression.” Zuser, Peter, Die Konstruktion der Ausländerfrage in Österreich Eine Analyse des öffentlichen Diskurses 1990″ June 1996, Institut für Höhere Studien (IHS), Wien (Institute for Advanced Studies in Austria, Vienna) p.5
Greece is also involved in anti-immigration activities, but resulting in concrete riots. “Anti-foreigner riots break out in Athens”, Deutsche Welle, 5/10/2009,,,4239718,00.html

All my outlines can be read in and
Wikipedia has countless further references that helped me include the vast amount of philosophers and thinkers. Whoever believes in the wickedness or unreliability of Wikipedia must be disappointed. While there is a fear in the Academia about the over-use of Wikipedia I have little objection to the use of it.

Additional Note:
Here is a list of some notable social liberals in America: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, Lujo Brentano, Friedrich Naumann, Alfred Fouillee, Emile Durkheim, Leon Bourgeois, Richard Ely, John Bates Clark, and Henry Carter Adams, Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey, William Beveridge, Alexander Ruestow, John Maynard Keynes, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn
Include the Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt (FDR), and Johnson
Also review a bunch of other social liberal thinkers:
There is no division between liberalism and socialism, but within a western democratic society both ideas are inherently inseparable. Social Liberalism draws its concepts from Marx as well as Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Keynes. But the example of Maoism and Stalin Communism can be taken as an extended branch of Marxist socialism with a distinct political setting resulting in distinct political outcomes.

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