Liberalism: Tensions

Liberalism: Tensions

Tension between Positive and Negative Liberty

  • Positive Liberty is the freedom to achieve potential, implying a more active role for the state to intervene and rectify social inequalities.
  • Negative Liberty, on the other hand, is freedom from interference, suggesting minimal state intervention.
  • This fundamental dilemma is present within liberalism and presents a constant tension between the needs of individuals and the actions of the state.

Tension between Liberalism and Democracy

  • Despite endorsing the principle of consent, there may be tension between liberalism and the idea of majoritarian democracy.
  • Liberals might fret about the “tyranny of the majority” whereby democratic rule could potentially infringe upon individual rights, leading to a tension between values of individualism and collective decision-making.
  • The liberal solution to this has been constitutionalism, in which the powers of the governments are limited and separated to prevent abuse.

Tension between Individualism and Social Justice

  • Liberals believe in individualism which is about maximising personal freedom and allowing individuals to make their own choices.
  • However, pursuing a social justice agenda could entail state intervention to redistribute resources, which could potentially infringe upon individual freedoms (e.g., through progressive taxation).
  • Balancing these two tenets raises tension within liberal theory between the need to protect individual rights, and the need to promote a fair and equitable society.

Tension between Free Markets and Economic Equality

  • Many liberals praise the efficiency of free markets and argue that they deliver prosperity, choice and economic freedom.
  • However, unregulated free markets could lead to income inequality, which can undermine the principle of equal opportunity and social justice.
  • The need to mitigate such inequalities without excessively tampering with the market system creates tension within the liberal world view between economic liberalism and social justice.

Note: Understanding these tensions help in grasping the complex interplay of ideas, values and principles within liberalism. It also assists in analysing the differing routes that differentiating liberal thinkers and traditions have taken in terms of policy and implementation.