Liberal Principles Compared

Giulio Ercolessi – Critica liberale foundation

This text is part of the book “Liberal Principles Compared”, edited by Maartje Jansen, Anne van Veenstre and Gosse Vuijk, The Hague 2012. The book is the final output of the European Liberal Forum Summer Seminar held on 7-9 September 2011 in Doorn (Utrecht), organised with the support of  the International Democratic Initiative and Hans van Mierlo foundation and funded by the European Parliament. This text represents Giulio Ercolessi’s contribution to the seminar.


Liberal democracy appears to be in a very bad shape almost everywhere. Almost everywhere we have to face decisional paralysis, all vested interests hijacking political institutions, furious electors, outraged youth. Every now and then, short-lived enthusiasm arises around a new and flamboyant leader, that systematically creates new disappointment shortly after the wave of enthusiasm expires.

Liberal representative constitutional democracy appears to have fallen into disrepute, and the marriage between democracy and liberalism no longer appears indissoluble in the eyes of many of our fellow citizens.

This is also a consequence of a lack of political debate and ideas, as in most of our democracies we are no longer used to choose policies, rather, we are asked to select personalities. Political principles, competing interests and views on social affairs, historical perspective, different ethical values seem to be less and less important than witty remarks or jokes within the framework of infotainment provided by the media.

The average quality of the political class is bound to deteriorate further, as the first quality required of a politician is more and more that of not caring about his/her reputation too much: if it is the personality and the character that matter, and not the political choices, negative campaigning is bound to grow even further, in Europe as it has been the case in America. As a consequence, the qualities required of candidates are also less and less those necessary to be effective democratic leaders, capable of mastering a complex political and economical international perspective, of understanding the existing constraints, of seeing the risks of unintentional consequences of political decisions – already difficult enough – and being recognised as political leaders, and win an election, and be re-elected after doing what was to be done.

Liberalism, as the archetypal form of “government by discussion”, risks to be the most distinguished victim of these developments.

Half a century after Bernard Crick’s classical booklet, a new “Defence of Politics” is probably necessary to all the existing political families, in order to give a political significance to a real European-wide democratic debate; that obviously requires, at least, a shared vocabulary. But comparing the different brands of liberalism – each sometimes claiming, in some countries, to be the only one that deserves the label, and in others fiercely competing with each other ­– is a necessary exercise if we want to restore the substance of our public debate, and is particularly necessary to our own political family, as the word “liberal” carries different meanings – sometimes very different indeed – within the different national political traditions. That is why Critica liberale took a great interest in the ELF seminar that was held in Doorn last September on the initiative of the D66 think tanks, where some of the topics discussed in the different sessions – namely, the central value we all attach to individual freedom and self-determination, and separation of state and religion as a necessary tool to implement them – proved to be unanimously shared, whereas significant differences emerged on others, as the desirable level of taxation versus that of social protection, or the existing or non existing connection between nation-state and democracy.

Liberalism, more than any other political thought, is after all not only one of the main political ideologies of the Western civilization: it is the one that shaped more than any other the very civic and cultural fabric of the Western civilization in the contemporary age.


The brand of liberalism that was mostly recognized as such, after the end of World War II and until a few decades ago, the one that largely influenced most of the political spectrum in most Western democracies throughout the Cold War, not only required the guarantee and the implementation of the individual liberties that were trampled by communist and other totalitarian regimes, but also included a push towards an ever greater inclusion and empowerment of each individual in the actual exercise of his/her citizenship and liberal rights. That had originally been a typically liberal idea, born in the Victorian age in the same country, England, that had given birth to liberalism two centuries before. The idea was that public powers should actually put the individual in the condition of making real use of his/her liberal liberties. The Welfare state was first conceived and designed by liberals as Keynes and Beveridge, who were card-carrying members of the Liberal Party, not by socialists or social democrats. And for years, not only communists, but also a lot of mainstream socialists, had been accusing the wicked liberal economist John Maynard Keynes for having rescued capitalism from its certain downfall, thus preventing the rise of a happy global socialist society.

It is a fact that almost all national political classes and state bureaucracies had long been squandering since, for their own advantage, much of the benefits they were supposed to make available to a majority of citizens. A healthy liberal mistrust towards ever possible abuses committed by the holders of political power, and a less naive and more sober notion of democracy, should obviously have suggested that “public” is by no means equivalent per se to “caring for public interest”.

But, as it frequently happens in politics – and in social sciences – an overreaction took place since the late Seventies on both sides of the Atlantic, in the end substituting the liberal consensus that had been shared in most Western countries by the moderate left and the moderate right alike while we were containing and opposing Soviet communism, with the so-called Washington consensus of the Nineties, that was much less interested in the expansion of the aggregated demand and therefore more inclined to accept growing inequalities, and, inevitably, also decreasing equality in opportunities.

In some countries, namely in France, and elsewhere to a smaller extent, that essentially merely economical doctrine became synonymous with liberalism, to the point that the previous meaning – liberalism as synonymous for political freedom and freedom of conscience in the first place – has been long labelled as vieilli (outdated) by French dictionaries (Robert): so that even the Chilean Pinochet regime of the Seventies and Eighties can be defined as libéral in the present French political debate.

Anyway, this new basically economical consensus, not the comprehensive liberal political views that embodied the Western opposition to communism from the Forties more or less to the late Seventies, was the ideology upon which the globalised world was restructured after the fall of communism.

At the beginning it was a success, because of the enormous growth caused by the more open societies in general and by the opening of totally new markets; and most of all by the simultaneous huge technological revolution; and, later, due to the practice of easy indebtedness.

The subsequent global economic crisis still ongoing, and the consequent discredit that the most radical interpretations of the Washington consensus are undergoing, should not be allowed to drag liberalism into disrepute together with them.

A liberal society cannot survive without a free market economy, not only because private enterprise is an expression of individual freedom, and because the economical development that it alone can make possible is necessary in order to achieve a satisfactory degree of human development, but also because a liberal society must be polyarchic: political power, economic power and media power should be as much separate as possible. Strong counter-powers to the political power are vital for a liberal society.

It is however not only a long overdue tribute to historical accuracy, but also a statement of fact, that different views on the extent of legitimate and suitable state intervention, and different ideas on the desirable level of equality of opportunities, have always been present in the history of contemporary liberalism.

As far as Critica liberale is concerned, our foundation has always identified with the more “progressive” and Millian notion of liberalism. However any possible choice in the field of economic policies has to come to terms with the constraints of globalisation and interdependence; and freedom of trade – as Spinoza, Voltaire and Kant had already seen – nowadays globalisation and interdependence, are the strongest ever guarantee for peace among the great world powers (and therefore today the strongest guarantee against any risk of a future nuclear war).


Both more Keynesians and more free-trader liberals should find a common ground on the overriding importance they both attach to the freedom and free development of the personality of each single individual: personal freedom, freedom of speech, the right to a due process of law, protection from discrimination on the ground of ascribed identities (ethnicity, physical characters, age, disability, sex, gender, sexual orientation) or on the ground of political, cultural and religious choices; and equal social dignity. The rule of law, human rights, liberal constitutional democracy are nowadays the shared heritage of all the democratic political families in Europe, but they all are the outcome of liberal initiative, liberal imprinting, liberal intellectual leadership in the past. We should be their most demanding interpreters today.

The ever impending risk of the “tyranny of the majority” is nowadays most notably visible in the debate concerning the rising and aggressive claims of religious fundamentalisms (both Christian and Islamic), the new bioethical issues, prohibitionist policies and the controversies over multiculturalism.

On all these issues we should stick to the rule that basic constitutional principles – individual liberties, equal rights and dignity, the rule of law, democracy – are the only acceptable binding civic bonds of an open society (this is what some of us call the “patriotism of the Liberal Grundnorm”, with an explicit reference to Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “constitutional patriotism” and to Hans Kelsen’s idea of Grundnorm), despite the claims of populists and religious fundamentalists. This implies that the state, or public powers, can never be entitled to forcefully protect adult and sane individuals from themselves («every man has a property in his own person», John Locke 1690); that individuals should always be treated as individuals, not as individual members of typified groups; that cultural diversity can never justify a compression of individuals’ rights within minority communities or those of minorities within minorities; that faith, ideas and practices of their elders can never be forcefully imposed on minors that are «capable of forming their own views» (New York 1989 Convention on the Rights of Children).

No better institutional framework could be provided, in order to protect these individual liberties and rights, than that provided by our great and successful liberal tradition of religious neutrality and separation – as large as practically feasible – between religion and political power. This achievement was the converging result of the struggles both of deists, free-thinkers, libertines and immanentist or atheist philosophers, and that of religious minorities. In the new multireligious situation, when many claim that “interreligious dialogue” is the key to any peaceful coexistence, we should never forget that the fight for religious freedom and freedom of conscience was from the start a fight against the religious supremacy of the established churches (at that time in the form of compulsory uniformity and intolerance), and only in the end a fight against the scourge of state atheism in communist counties or against Islamic fundamentalism. The «wall of separation between church and state» (Thomas Jefferson, 1802) is even today the most secure and effective tool to protect the freedom of conscience of each single individual.

On the contrary, today many religious leaders demand a “public recognition” on the part of our states and of the EU itself. That is almost wherever in Europe the demand of Muslim leaders. And other established religions, first of all the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, are thus trying to seize the opportunity to ask for a renewed “public role” of all religions, that would inevitably confine non-believers in the position of second class citizens, like the Dhimmis in the Ottoman Empire; to try to impose on all of us, by law, personal behaviours only consistent with a faith many of us do not share, and even many more do not share in its traditional interpretation, as it is the case of tens of millions of Catholics. Or at least they want to impose on all of us to pay more taxes to replace the voluntary contributions of those whose faith is no longer strong enough to contribute financially to the life of their churches as they did decades ago; or require that religious faiths and religious people and leaders be given a privileged rank in our secularised societies. But what does this “public role” mean? What supporters of new, “open”, “updated” or “positive” laïcité, or of a new “public role” of religion, should explain is very simple – and usually untold: what public resources, what superior social dignity, what greater role, what power of influence should be given to groups qualified or recognised as “religious”, and denied, taken away or refused to all the others? And where should we draw the line between what is and what is not religious? Answering these questions would make things much clearer, and liberals should never desist from asking for clear answers.

An even more open threat to open societies comes from those populist politicians who want no “religious dialogue” at all, but use the autochthonous religion, or whatever other item they find in their country’s real or invented “tradition”, as tools to exclude people of no or other religion, and autochthonous individualists alike, from their regressive dream of a society they would like to make more cohesive and intolerant through a renewed authoritarian imposition of some kind of anthropological uniformity.

Christianity is for them nothing more than an ideological weapon to be brandished against immigrants. One thousand years ago, Europe could indeed have been described as synonymous for Christendom, and each of its emerging nations was – or had just become – Christian. No longer today: our Europe is more secular and liberal than any other part of the world, and religiously plural. Claims for national identities, or for a European identity, based upon a single religion, or indeed on one single culture, are not candid, innocent claims: what is claimed is a exegetic principle, a criterion to be implemented in the interpretation of the entire system of law, creating first and second class citizens.

The biggest challenge of the present time is the paradoxical erosion of the most precious historical values typical of our common civic identity, by populist politicians who pose as the keepers of our “real” identity and tradition, and would like to cage all of us into closed homogeneous and mutually hostile communitarian enclosures, the smaller and the more controlled the better.


The basic principles for liberalism in the XXI century are not difficult to be found. If the means necessary to implement them change along with the generations, the principles themselves should in the end be the same described by John Stuart Mill in 1859: «There is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation [...] This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty [...] framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong».


Liberal principles

A liberal society must be polyarchic: political power, economic power and media power should be as much separate as possible; judicial review and the independence of the judiciary must never be limited or restrained.

Basic constitutional principles – individual liberties, equal rights and dignity, the rule of law, democracy – can be the only binding civic bonds of an open society (patriotism of the “Liberal Grundnorm“).

Individuals should always be treated as individuals, not as individual members of typified groups.

At least a safety net – including basic health care and safety from poverty – should be guaranteed to individuals by public powers. Especially children should be granted the highest possible degree of equal opportunities.

There cannot be a liberal society without a free market economy. But the level and progressiveness / flatness of taxation is not a matter of principle, but a debatable matter of economic efficacy. Keynesianism is one of the major historical currents of Western liberalism.

Non liberal principles

Public powers can sometimes be entitled to forcefully protect adult and sane individuals from themselves.

Democratic rule, and democratic will, could sometimes be allowed to prevail over the rule of law and individuals’ or minorities’ freedom and human rights.

Public powers should promote or defend the traditional, and/or all, religious faith in order to enhance the cohesiveness and/or security of society.

Cultural diversity can sometimes justify a compression of individuals’ rights within minority communities or those of minorities within minorities.

Parents always know what is best for their children: let them be free to impose their minor children the schools, ideas and practices they want.

 Autumn 2011

The whole book “Liberal Principles Compared” is funded by the European Parliament and is not for sale, but can be downloaded free of charge from the ELF web site (pdf, 1.8 MB).

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