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What does it mean to be a 'liberal'?

OPINION – The term “liberal” has taken several steps to the right in Sweden. In the United States it has simultaneously moved to the left. Olle Wästberg, Director General of the Swedish Institute, asks why.

Swedish schools more American than America's

Fredrik Segerfeldt, a leading political blogger who defines himself as a liberal, recently invited to a luncheon symposium with the leader of the Norwegian Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), Siv Jensen. Another “liberal” blogger, Johnny Munkhammar, at present with the [conservative] Moderate Party but previously a member of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet), blogs from the luncheon and calls the Progress Party “a liberal party in the classical sense”.

Obviously, a “liberal” can be cast in many forms. The Progress Party wants to “heavily reduce” immigration and practically isolate Norway behind closed borders. Should non-Nordic labor be required, Europeans would have preference. Svenska Dagbladet’s political editor-in-chief PJ Anders Linder has characterized the Progress Party as “partly liberal, partly populist”. However, this is like mixing food with poison, as commented by clever liberal blogger Johan Norberg. The result is both inedible and dangerous.

Since Moderate Party leader Gösta Bohman came out as a liberal in the 1970’s, the term “liberal” has taken several steps to the right in Swedish public discourse. In the United States on the other hand, it has simultaneously moved to the left. Whoever calls himself a “liberal” i the U.S. is most likely a supporter of Barack Obama or someone who feels that the President isn’t taking it far enough. But those in Sweden who rejoice at every problem that Obama runs into often call themselves liberals.

A common thought after the breakthrough of democracy was that liberalism had “conquered itself dead”. The great liberal ideas of freedom – freedom from guild thinking as well as human rights and democracy – had gained acceptance, and parties with a foundation in the wider working class took over.

This is true in the sense of party politics. Liberal parties that were strong a hundred years ago are in most cases quite weak today. The question is if liberalism as political ideology also has lost its meaning; everybody seems able to define themselves as liberal.

Svante Nycander – political scientist and journalist, formerly editor-in-chief at Dagens Nyheter – would probably agree. His comprehensive work “Liberalism: A History of Ideas” (“Liberalismens idéhistoria”, SNS förlag) shows that liberalism is a tree with many and deep roots, as well as a wide crown. It must be stated that this book is a masterpiece and, oddly enough, the first profound Swedish analysis of liberalism and all its variants.

Nycander’s book is as far from a pamphlet as you can possibly get. He avoids far-reaching assertions in favor of an account based on the history of ideas. He does not lack opinions regarding the different thinkers he approaches, but steers clear of the attempt to define a “true” liberalism. It is primarily in the book’s subtitle, “Freedom and modernity” that one catches a glance of the author’s own passion for liberalism. It is precisely the freedom of the individual and the belief in progress that is consistent throughout the extensive liberal construct. This is how he summarizes the ideas of early liberalism: “Intellectual and personal freedom, secularism, human rights, control of political power and the liberation of markets.”

Several things have surprised Nycander during his many years of research: “the liberal fathers’ pessimistic view of humanity, early liberalism’s features of revolutionary ideology, the clear philosophical difference between the older liberalism and social liberalism, and the close interaction between liberalism and the social sciences.”

The question of liberalism’s view of humanity is an important part of the book. It is often assumed that liberals have a positive view of humanity. The Swedish National Encyclopedia even calls it “idyllic”.  Others have argued that liberalism integrates an optimistic attitude – a person that is given freedom and responsibility can do great deeds – with a pessimistic one: Whoever is granted too much power will be drawn to despotism. Nycander shows how liberalism emanated from the latter; a view of the human being as a miserable creature, equipped with an inherent egotism that warrants the limitation and control of all power.

The roots of social liberalism – which in Sweden often is associated with Bertil Ohlin’s renewal of the Liberal Party in the 1930’s – actually stretch from the infancy of liberalism during the 17th and 18th centuries. Adam Smith, commonly and inaccurately described as a pure economist, argued that the workers who through their labor feed and clothe the people themselves should have a right to these goods. In reality, Smith was a moral philosopher who argued that a good economy had to be based on good moral values, and that good working conditions promote wealth. He was hardly a laissez-faire economist. Even if liberals always have nurtured a skeptical view of government, many, like John Stuart Mill, have viewed government intervention as a primarily pragmatic measure. Although it has to be carefully evaluated, there may be reasons for government power in certain areas. Neither Rosseau nor Kant (or Mill, for that matter) saw the ownership of property as a natural right – rather the result of applicable legal constructs.

Olle Wästberg
Director General of the Swedish Institute.
Former MP for the Liberal Party, undersecretary at the Ministry of Finance and Editor-in-Chief at Expressen.

Translation by Jonas Vesterberg, a U.S.-based journalist and communications consultant.


Last Updated (Thursday, 18 February 2010 12:14)


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