Two alternative visions of a Liberalism for the 21st century

Miranda Green writing in Prospect magazine compares the vision of Liberalism put forward in the Radix book “The Death of Liberal Democracy?” by Joe Zammit-Lucia and David Boyle to the vision put forward by Former Deputy Prime Minister and Radix Trustee, The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP in “Politics: Between the Extremes“.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    Great to see a mature discussion on this very topical subject.

    However, there are two fundamental problems with liberalism as it is currently practiced, both of which can be discerned when we take a closer look at the oft stated sentiment of live and let live.

    Liberalism evolved from humanism which as a body of thought and a way of life reinterpreted religious ideas around natural order and natural rights into the right to self-preservation and the golden rule (the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself). This humanist interpretation of natural rights respectively consists of both negative (oblige inaction) and positive (oblige action) dimensions which together confer both rights and responsibilities onto individuals.

    However over time the positive dimension of responsibility was incrementally dropped in favour of the negaive dimension of rights which became formulated as the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness within the American Constitution. Around the same time, the Enlightenment interpretation of natural rights (liberalism) led to a somewhat different conclusion in terms of liberty, equality and fraternity but still the positive dimension of responsibility was not as clear as the negative dimension of rights.

    As a result we now have an economic and a social liberalism which both emphasize inaction (with state mediation) to allow people their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with no accompanying sense of responsibility that ones’ pursuit of happiness may actually cause harm and damage to others.

    This is the current state of play with the EU’s four economic freedoms and its Convention on Human Rights. They do not require right-holders to consider the implications of their pursuits for happiness. In other words the EU and liberalism in general promotes irresponsible liberty. Therefore the first fundamental problem with current liberalism is that it does not incorporate the positive dimension of responsibilty in the form of the golden rule.

    The second and more fundamental problem with liberalism and its live and let live sentiment is that it does not take into consideration the ecological reality of the life/death relationship between all lifeforms. As such liberalism is an idealistic abstraction divorced from ecological realities which is why liberalism (and human rights) can only ever be abstracted to humans (and human pets) only.

    Thus liberalism is fundamentally speciest in its outlook, maybe not in theory but certainly in practice, since to extend negative rights to all life forms would result in the collapse of food chains. Therefore liberalism is strictly anthropocentric and as such, as an ideological paradigm is unable to address problems of an ecological nature, which it can be argued will become more pronounced as the liberalism of humanity destroys the environment more and more.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thank you Stephen for your great comments. We indeed address the issue that rights must go hand in hand with responsibilities in our book and stress that the concept of “citizenship” has, over time, come to focus almost exclusively on rights while the responsibilities that go with citizenship have slowly withered away. As for extending responsibilities beyond the human, that is a very good point which, as you know, has been the subject of much discussion in environmental philosophy. We do not get into that in our book. Something for another time I hope but well worth discussing. Difficult, of course, because, as you say, it all comes from the humanistic tradition. Extending these ideas beyond the human is a relatively recent thought process which deserves more attention and which still needs to get past philosophical discussion into the practical policy realm.

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