education philosopher

Liberalism is Not Neutral or All-Inclusive: So What?

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on December 1, 2009

In political theory, a big deal is often made about critizing liberalism (small “l”) for not being the neutral, value-free, set up it allegedly pretends to be. Liberalism, of course, is the idea of a society set up so that the government refrains from the business of telling us how to live and leaves people free to pursue goals as they wish, short of harming others. Critics point out that liberalism still is not value neutral: it constrains certain things from being done (certain anti-liberal practices like refusing to send a child to school) and debate to be conducted in a certain way (in a secular way that leaves personal religious views at the door).

But here is a question: so what? What if liberalism draws lines that will inevitably restrict some from acting in ways they wish? Show me a social vision that doesn’t. (This, of course, is never done because it can’t be done. The only social vision without rules is anarchism which, as anarchists tell us, is not a system but the antithesis of one.)

Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish, two thinkers with little in common, have both seperately argued this criticism against liberalism: it pretends to be a value-free system whereby individuals can pursue their own visions but, at some point, it has to take a stand. As it is a vision of justice, it must take a stand and by taking a stand it must presuppose that certain values are superior to others. (What about the people that DON’T want to be left alone by the government? Supposing that non-interference is the highest good is to choose one good above all others.)

But the obvious retort to this is one seldom heard, and that is to affirm what is at issue. Yes, liberalism is not value-free. Yes, some people may be marginalized by its rules because as wide and inclusive as its rules are, rules have exceptions. But this is a problem not with liberalism, but with rules. And as any society has to have rules (unless it is an anarchic one, which ceases to be a society), there seems to be no social vision possible that does not run the risk of marginalizing some people.

Interestingly, this is one of the criticisms of American constitutionallism: as it was a  contract signed on behalf of future Americans who did not choose it, therefore, it is invalid as a contract.

And this argument is appealing if we assume that this is in some way avoidable. But as far as I can see, this criticism only holds water if there is the possibility of a society where folks are not forced to live under rules established before they had a say. That is simply not possible, for several reasons. First, children of a young age are not often recognized as having the mental wherewithall to consent to laws, but it would be strange indeed to suggest that this means that setting rules for them is always unjust. Second, if each individual were free to opt out of societal rules with which they disagreed, it would not take long for society to become anarchic and unworkable (imagine a citizen refusing to follow laws against rape because he did not agree to them, or citizens refusing to follow laws against murder because he was not there to debate the original law?).

All of this is to say that too often, we find it easy to criticize a societal system becasue of downsides without realizing that this implies a system with fewer or no downsides. Generally, when liberalism is criticized as a not-value-free system, that is the end of the matter, when in reality, the obligation is now on the criticizer to offer a more fair or more just system in its place that has fewer downsides. That is seldom done (in my view because it cannot be done).

So, let’s reframe liberalism in this way. Instead of pretending that it is a value-neutral system – it is not, as ‘value-neutral system’ is a contradiction in terms – let’s suggest that is the theory that strives to be as inclusive as any system can realistically be. Even though specifying that government will refrain from interfering with people’s ability to live as they see fit is actually a value itself, it is the value – a metavalue? – that allows for the most “breathing room” inside it; that is, in keeping the stae out of as many substantive value judgments as possible, the value of liberalism tries to cast the net of inclusion as wide as possible, only “cutting people out of it” if they refuse to obey a very miniam rule set.

The only alternatives to this are anarchism (which doesn’t marginalize anyone because it doesn’t impose rules) or allowing the state to get involved with writing more rules (generally done in the name of community, solidarity, or some other excuse to tighten the net of inclusion so that more people are excluded). If there is another way beyond this, I haven’t heard it argued.

So, it is simply bogus to argue against liberalism by pointing out cases whereby its values result in marginalizing those who refuse to ascribe to them. It is bogus because marginalizations of this kind will happen under any system of rules. The question is not whether marginalizations occur, but whether we can minimize the number of them. (Generally, attempts of government to avoid marginalization of some result in marginalization of others, and this is seldom talked about.)


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