Liberalism, Liberal and Illiberal

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Can liberals be tolerant? Should they be? Liberalism is about liberty, surely, and liberty means freedom for people to say and do – more, or less, to be sure – as they choose. Freedom of speech, in particular, might seem at the heart of liberalism. Liberalism is surely identified with ideals of political freedom and self-government, which pre-suppose freedom of speech and debate on public questions.

Yet in recent years there has clearly been a counter-trend, if not a wave, of opposition to free thought and free speech from people and institutions usually accounted liberal. Universities and colleges – supposedly citadels of free inquiry – are an epicentre of this: “islands of repression”, as they began to be described some decades ago, in what was then – perhaps optimistically – thought to be, and sure to remain, an off-campus “sea of freedom”. The jargon of campus intolerance is now familiar: micro-aggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, “no-platforming”. Speakers are shouted down or physically attacked at campus forums, or disinvited before they arrive. Ideas, views, and facts that challenge or differ from now-compulsory campus opinion, “liberal” opinion, are condemned as “hate speech”. As one chastened liberal writer observes, these are not “just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over”, nor “a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the deligitimization of dissent as a first-order goal”.

A similar spirit of intolerance, moreover, is evidently spreading in the “sea of freedom” beyond the precincts of academia, including in parts of corporate America.

Perhaps all this is merely a deviation from liberalism? Two twentieth century thinkers and historians of ideas, Isaiah Berlin and Jacob Talmon, suggest darker or at least more complicated possibilities.

Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that there are two concepts of liberty: “negative freedom” and “positive freedom”. Negative liberty is freedom from coercion by other people. But positive liberty is self-government, being one’s own master. These two ideas might seem very similar. Yet, as Berlin explains, “the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions not always by logically reputable steps, until in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other.”

Jacob Talmon, somewhat less widely known than Isaiah Berlin, distinguished liberal or empirical democracy on the one hand, and political messianism or totalitarian democracy on the other.

Both Berlin and Talmon, writing in the mid-20th century, were preoccupied, at least in part, with possible sources of Communist doctrine and practice: the ideology and policy of dictatorships which then dominated much of the world. Perhaps paradoxically, the disappearance of the Soviet Union may now have given a new lease on life to intolerant dogma and to conduct – on campus and off – reminiscent of Communist politics.

This article tries to show the strengths, and also some weaknesses, in Isaiah Berlin’s and Jacob Talmon’s ideas about positive liberty and totalitarian democracy: and particularly in Berlin’s and Talmon’s efforts to differentiate these potentially tyrannical liberal ideas from right-wing or reactionary authoritarianism.

Surely, liberal or empirical democracy, and the freedom and tolerance associated with negative liberty, have been the exception, not the rule, in world history. There is reason to think they may now be more fragile than they might seem to people accustomed to taking them for granted.