The Paradox of Liberalism

As an undergraduate, I studied comparative literature and philosophy. Literature was a natural choice for me, philosophy a compromise. I decided it’s a good option for what would be second to literature. Three years later, when I concluded my Bachelor’s Degree, I was relieved that I was done with philosophy. Although I felt it encourages systematic and coherent thinking, it was detached from life. I like literature – and arts in general – because they are always a mixture of the abstract and the concrete, of general truths and facts and details of everyday life. Philosophy was too abstract for me.

But recent events made me think I was all wrong. Liberalism, the philosophy that shaped the West, has become the source of major social and political events. Newspapers and TV programs discuss the immigration to Europe using terms like freedom of choice, religious tolerance, natural right to liberty—all philosophical terms coined by the founding fathers of liberalism.

Liberalism is, of course, a rich and complex philosophy. Created in the seventeenth century, the British philosopher John Locke is considered its founder. From its birth until today, it has shaped almost every aspect of the western world: the political systems, the nature of society, the place of education, the right to private property, and more. Liberal ideas affect both liberals and conservatives.

The very general idea of liberalism is that man should be free. He should not be enslaved, jailed for no reason, or forced to accept things he cannot agree with. But the founders of liberalism were well aware of the paradox that lies at the heart of their philosophy: full freedom of one man or woman is the slavery of another; a comprehensive self-fulfillment of one person will prevent achievements by another. The need to have some kind of government stands in contrast to the complete freedom of each individual.

Modern liberal philosophers created a huge body of work discussing this topic. They focused mainly on the relations between the individual and the regime and how to maintain freedom in a society that has some form of government. John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin and other great thinkers elaborated on the paradox of liberalism.

In their eyes, the threat to human freedom came from within society: it was the regime that endangered the liberty of the individual. Monarchies didn’t give people the rights they deserved, and certain forms of government prevented people from acting according to their own will. Some regimes didn’t give equal rights to all its members and instead kept some people free and others enslaved. The mental image most philosophers had was that society’s own ruling system was the threat to liberty.

In the nineteenth century, when Europeans were well aware of the non-western world, John Stuart Mill referred to the encounter between liberal and non-liberal societies: juxtaposed with western societies were the “barbarians,” societies that didn’t share western values. He contemplated whether the West should interfere with their way of life: “Barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal rules of morality between man and man.” Though he did call all foreigners “barbarians,” it should be taken in perspective. This is an early example of a political philosopher referring to the world outside Europe as part of his own. While he didn’t think the “barbarians” endangered his society, he did contemplate forcing liberal ideas upon them.

Thus, philosophy almost never addressed the question of this kind of external threat to a liberal society: not facing enemies but joined by people who lack liberal values. Let me be clear that I am not referring to humanitarian aid to refugees escaping genocide. They are entitled to get help from Europe, the United States, and Israel!

It seems to me that the paradox of liberalism is resurfacing in a new form since the threat to liberal society is changing. No longer is it the government. Now it is people with non-liberal values, who join western society and  change its nature. Nowadays many see Islamic believers as a peril, but it could be any other group. Since our world is so virtual, the threat can be illustrated in the context of social networks. Suppose you were part of a Facebook group dedicated to human rights. If many people who object the very idea of human rights wanted to join the group and express their views, would it be right to block them?

The philosophical contemplation of the past should have a fresh, contemporary dimension. The new reality calls for a theoretical expansion of liberalism, perhaps by adding another aspect to the old ideas. Recent events generated new unanswered philosophical questions, like how does liberalism treat non-liberal members of society? Should we enforce liberal ideas? Should we accept whoever want to join our society, regardless if he or she holds anti-liberal values?

I am now glad I studied philosophy, yet it makes me further appreciate the lack of a much-needed theoretical development in the philosophy of liberalism.


  • Bruce says:

    Very well said, thanks for your insight. There are many more perversions of the liberal ideal that have occurred through the centuries, until, today, the latest manifestations of the philosophy have become almost unrecognizable; as in the dichotomy of so called liberal thinking political parties who rabidly pursue “democracy” on a global scale, but, at the same time, see the solution to all man’s problems in, ever expanding, governmental power. It’s almost become a form of depravity.

  • G illian says:

    All ‘isms’ have their day , don’t they ? Maybe this so-caleld ‘liberal’ consensus has had it’s day when it has become the tool for one elite to dominate a larger majority.
    Food for thought ?

  • Brurya says:

    Never having studied philosophy in an organised way, I assume liberalism has been accepted as the most “moral” way of upholding society. So we tend to think that our way is “right”. It follows, then, that a society that upholds unequal rights is “immoral”. People tend to be very righteous when their moral – or so called moral – values are challenged.

  • Matthew says:

    There is no requirement that tolerant liberals must tolerate intolerance although this is frequently taken to be the case. So if an intolerant group wants to join a tolerant group then yes it is ethical to block them.

  • David Cooper says:

    At a practical level it depends on how well each country absorbs new immigrants from illiberal countries of origin, and how successfully those new immigrants, their children and grandchildren assimilate the values of the host country. The United States does that better than the European countries. Even so, I have met second and third generation Syrian-Americans who continue to harbor anti-Israel biases. And let us not forget what happened when the flow of migrants was in the opposite direction: whenJewish refugees arrived in the Middle East in the 20th Century the welcome they received was often murderous.

  • Anonymous says:

    It’s so true and sad😇

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