Some things do not change. Liberalism is always, everywhere, about freedom. Historically this was freedom from – from political or religious authority; from the king, the church, or foreign power. In the West many such freedoms have been won, or re-won. But, though freer, are we free from want and sickness, custom and convention, from the pressure of the norm, from worry, fear and hate, from ignorance and prejudice? There are many battles still to be fought.
The test for a liberal is always freedom for an individual, not a sect or class, nor group nor gender, but freedom for the person, however they term themselves. We judge our freedoms by ever-changing benchmarks; as each summit is reached we see distant horizons, further freedoms beckon. Gaining political freedom, we seek social, sexual, economic freedoms now. We are ambitious for ourselves. We treasure personal liberties. Being free, growing in freedom, is a process, not an achievement; a journey, not an ending.
But even as we reach for new freedoms, our old ones are constantly under threat. Truly, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. Are we free, politically, if government can view our every digital secret? Are we free when subject to the agendas of the media, or the power of corporations? Are we free to breathe clean air when companies disguise emissions data? Are we free when governments are economical with the truth, or conceal, or mislead, or lie? Are we free when facts are withheld, or figures massaged or protest kettled? Are we free against the onslaught of advertisers? Are we free from the dictates of fashion and beauty? Are we free in a fog of created needs? And, at the end, are you free to die as you wish – or do you have to go to a foreign land to do so? Our freedoms are still fragile, incomplete; they will always call upon liberalism. The dragons are never slain.
But liberalism is ever optimistic; it is driven by hope. We wish for freedom for and freedom to. And liberals always will, always should, shoulder responsibility. With freedom comes the knowledge that freedoms clash. So we learn to respect the freedom of others; we make a virtue of tolerance. We recognise responsibility: responsibility for ourselves, for each other, for animals, the natural world, our shared and finite planet. Responsibility has a so much wider reach than that of rights. Responsibility is self-critical, generous, tolerant, far-sighted. Responsibility grows.
Because freedom is not about just claiming rights. It is recognising that freedoms for others may demand restraint in us. And self-denial frees us from our selfish selves. A social life is not just me; but us, together. In a world of finite resources, freedom has to be more than self-indulgence; it has to be self-knowing, so that we are aware of consequence, anxious of effect, sensitive to difference. Being selfless brings its own rewards. Shouldering responsibilities is, like liberalism itself, a process. Some we have, or learn, from our earliest years. Some we acquire, with knowledge and controversy, age and experience. As we grow into a sense of our place in the world, so we can embrace a mutual aid. We trade in freedoms for common advantage. We compromise the I for Us, and feel the richer for it. Ask any parent.
But haven’t we achieved all necessary freedoms? For which, some questions! Would you trust government with your data? Are businesses always honourable? Are women free from glass ceilings? Are minorities free from discrimination? Are hate and bigotry, ignorance and prejudice banished from history? Are people celebrated and loved whether fat or thin, old or ugly, weak or disabled, frail – in body or mind?
And so we reach a cherished child of liberalism – education – the hope that knowledge, ideas, argument, debate, can widen our outlook, increase understanding, deepen our tolerance. Nothing can be more effective against bias or belief. A broad, thought-provoking education prompts each of us to reflect at length, to take account, to value difference, to choose with care. It tears down ignorance, tears up prejudice and hate. It fosters friendship, kindles kindness. The playground breaks down barriers more effectively than any adult endorsement, any official policy.
So where are we liberals today? We are still right to resist the over-mighty state, whether of the authoritarian right or socialist left. In a complex modern economy the tentacles of government reach everywhere. Regulation touches every aspect of our lives: how we live, how we school our young, how we endure sickness, how we travel, how we play, how we eat and drink, and how we die. Liberals distrust government, even when they aspire to it. They wish to devolve and disperse and diffuse power; they favour variety, diversity, over uniformity. Liberals are driven by the urge to be free – from authority, however exercised, from power, wherever imposed, from convention, whenever felt. For the liberal the journey is always towards freedom, so that individuals can enjoy, for each their brief allotted span, the fullest, most fulfilling life.
For oppression is not just political – it can be economic. How are we free if the rich are always freer – from want, from injustice, from punishment? If wealth was only ever obtained by graft, the industry, invention of the individual, it would be difficult to rail against. But it is also inherited, enhanced, protected, preserved by all the invisible networks of birth and power. This cannot sit easily on a liberal conscience. We feel an imperative to break down privilege, redistribute wealth, provide good housing, hospitals and schools for all. We wish to defend our freedoms but reduce our social, economic and regional imbalances. Why? Because if we are not fair, how can we be free?