What Is Liberalism? And How To Distinguish It From Social Democracy?
What Is Liberalism?
Liberalism is a philosophical point of view which identifies the individual as the main unit of the social and political order, who by virtue of being a rational being can make intelligent and independent decisions and on such a basis is entitled to inalienable rights and freedoms.
A liberal order seeks to limit the powers of the state to interfere with the freedom of individuals to make free choices.
The Reformation, the Scientific Revolutions and the Enlightenment movement created the intellectual basis for liberalism, and the French Revolution the political push for it to become a worldwide movement. In the UK it developed on its own momentum through constitutional changes.
Right-wing Liberalism assumes that human beings are essentially egotistic. That being the nature of human beings, they have all the right to seek personal pleasure and satisfaction. For that to happen they consider the free-market economy the best natural determinant of the worth of every individual. Neo-liberal capitalism is the economic strategy of right-wing liberals against state intervention to promote unearned benefits.
Left-wing liberalism or Social Democracy
Left-wing liberalism, better known as Social Democracy, while accepting that individuals seek self-realisation, identify the need to create a level playing field by removing all privileges and creating a basic network for maintaining a minimum standard of living which is important for living a dignified and free life.
For them the individual should be freed from the old conservative order based on privileges and birth rights and if that were to happen the maximum good of the maximum number would take place.
Liberals of all varieties have been in favour of the right to education, voting rights for all individuals and a system of free and fair elections. They believe that the state must uphold the rule of law but leave wide scope for individuals freely to live as they please.
Social Democracy is not the same as social liberalism although in practice they resemble one another quite closely.
Social Democracy originated in the Socialist movement which assumes that human beings are best served by the eradication of private property, but after the Russian Revolution, which was based on an armed revolution, Social Democracy came to be associated with those who believed in peaceful, reformist building up of a welfare state.
Social Democracy has always believed in a strong interventionist state which can through progressive taxation and other such measures build up the welfare state.
I would say that while the United States of America is more an example of right-wing liberalism, Canada and most of western European democracies are Social Liberal or Social Democratic states.
I consider myself a liberal in the sense that I believe the individual if given proper, rational education can develop into an intelligent, responsible human being. However, I believe in the Strong Interventionist State willing to take radical measures to create a level playing field and promoting an egalitarian culture in which human beings relate to each other on the basis of horizontal solidarity.
Therefore for me the Social Democratic Interventionist State is essential to change the world into a freer, more egalitarian place to live in.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on [email protected]