‘I am proud to acknowledge that I am a liberal…who adheres to old-fashioned liberal values such as the rule of law, universal franchise, free elections, a free press, free association, guaranteed civil rights and an independent judiciary.’
– Helen Suzman (1917 – 2009), South African liberal stalwart and fearless fighter for human rights
Basic principles of liberalism and liberal democracy
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of individual freedom and equal rights
“liberals are usually very much against limiting freedom of expression, or censorship, because it is often used by governments to suppress people and views”
Firstly, there is a commitment to fundamental human rights. Fundamental human rights, for example, are the right to human dignity, life, freedom from slavery, freedom of religion, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of association and so forth. Each of these human rights is debated to decide what its precise meaning is: the right to freedom from slavery is an absolute right that cannot be limited. But what about freedom of expression? A famous example of a limitation here is that one cannot allow people to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Doing so would cause a panic and people would get hurt trying to get out. However, liberals are usually very much against limiting freedom of expression, or censorship, because it is often used by governments to suppress people and views that differ from what the government wants people to believe or say.
Of particular importance among the fundamental human rights is the right to equality. As with other fundamental rights, there is debate about what exactly equality means. All liberals will agree that equality means there can be no discrimination. In a court of law, for example, there can be no discrimination on the grounds of race (black or white) or gender (male or female) or religion (Christian or Muslim). There are still places where, for example, what a woman has to say in a court counts only half as much as what a man has to say. This is clearly unequal treatment. But does equality also mean that everyone must get the same salary or live in the same kind of house? Liberals will say ‘no’, but will demand that all people must have the same opportunities to improve their lives – therefore the emphasis on improving education for all South Africans. Liberals, in short, believe in equality before the law and equality of opportunity.
Rule of law
This commitment to fundamental human rights goes together with liberals’ commitment to the rule of law. The rule of law is a set of safeguards against arbitrary and tyrannical treatment by the authorities. In a court, for example, the judge must be impartial and cannot be the same person as the prosecutor (in other words, he or she cannot be a player and the referee at the same time). Everyone, including government, must be equal before the law – no matter who they are. Anyone accused of a crime must be told exactly what they are accused of so that they can defend themselves. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Judges must be independent, that is the government or anyone else must not try and tell them what to do, or threaten them.
“Everyone, including government, must be equal before the law – no matter who they are”
The decisions of the courts must be consistent, that is similar cases must have similar outcomes. In short, there must be fairness in the way and manner people are treated by the authorities.
All this goes hand in hand with liberals’ belief that the government and the state must function according to the law and that certain fundamental principles cannot be changed even if the government wants to (for example the right to human dignity). Such fundamental principles are often, but not always, written down in a country’s constitution.
The basis for these liberal beliefs is the importance liberals attach to the individual and his/her rights and responsibilities. Every single person is important. Liberals believe that people must decide for themselves and not be told what to do all the time. They must be free to lead the life they want to lead, provided that in doing so they do not limit someone else’s freedom. In other words, your right to swing your arms freely stops where you start hitting someone.
This belief in individual liberty underlies all the other principles listed already. In addition, liberalism demands tolerance of various opinions and, most difficult of all, of opinions that are different from our own. A famous writer once said, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Private property and a free market
Liberals take the idea of individual freedom and individual rights also into the area of economics. In fact, historically speaking, the concept of property rights was the very basis of individual freedom and individual rights. Firstly, there is the principle that people can own property. At its most basic, this means that each person owns him or herself and therefore cannot be owned by someone else, that is, no one can be a slave. Such a free person can own other property: clothes, books, furniture, land, houses, cars and even ideas, so-called intellectual property.
“each person owns him or herself and therefore cannot be owned by someone else, that is, no one can be a slave”
Secondly, owners of property must also be able to come together peacefully and sell their property and buy other people’s property freely. Liberals believe that the state must interfere in this free market as little as possible. This goes together with the belief that everyone is entitled to free economic activity – the state should not tell me what job to take, what profession to learn or to start or close a business. I must be allowed to do what I think I can do best. Liberals ask how free a person really is, if he or she cannot make these kind of important decisions for themselves. This links up with the earlier points made about individual freedom, because it requires a free exchange of ideas and opinions.
Thirdly, many liberals doubt whether the state should be in business at all: state-owned companies such as airlines, railways, water and electricity suppliers are usually run at a loss and people’s taxes are used to keep them going. Likewise, state-owned companies usually charge their consumers more than private ones, which have to compete for business and customers. Experience world-wide supports the liberal idea that only competition ensures good service and good prices (since privatisation and introducing competition, local phone calls in the United States are free, for example).
Fourthly, liberals accept that there is no equal access to the market. Believing in increasing equality of opportunity liberals therefore do not want to abolish the market; their aim is to enable people to be part of the market and to benefit from it. They want to do away with bureaucratic and unnecessary restrictions and barriers people face, to give greater access to better education and training and to make the necessary information available to join the market.
Strictly speaking, democracy is not one of liberalism’s core values, but adding them up, democracy becomes the only political system under which these values can really exist. To be more precise: liberals believe that it is liberal democracy, not a ‘one-party democracy’ and not a ‘people’s democracy’ that is needed. It is not enough for a liberal democracy simply to have regular elections, if there is only one party to choose from, or if a majority votes a government into power that promises to kill all members of a certain group or class, or if not all citizens above a certain age are allowed to vote. A liberal democracy demands free and fair elections, which are held regularly and in which all citizens (usually 18 years or older) are allowed to vote – but in addition, it requires all the core values described here: the commitment to fundamental human rights, equality, rule of law, individual freedom and private property and a free market.
“Liberals believe that these powers should not all be in the same hands, because that can very easily lead to abuse of power and to corruption”
Another important part of a liberal democracy is what is called ‘separation of powers’. That means that there is one body that has the power to make the laws (parliament), another body that has the power to implement those laws (the government or the ‘executive’) and a third body (the courts) that has the power to judge disputes and disagreements that may come from these laws. Liberals believe that these powers should not all be in the same hands, because that can very easily lead to abuse of power and to corruption. By keeping these powers separate, all these bodies (parliament, the executive, the courts) check and balance each other.
There are other liberal values that are also very, very important, such as the right to hold private property or the right to free economic activity. In addition, in the South African liberal tradition, compassion is a liberal value. Many liberals believe that these and other values follow automatically from the belief in fundamental human rights and individual freedom.
Unlike some other political belief systems, liberalism does not pretend to be ‘scientific’ and that one can measure how ‘pure’ a liberal is. Liberalism is a very dynamic, adaptable and pragmatic belief offering solutions for today’s problems. Liberal democracy is the best guarantee invented against abuse of power and the corruption that goes with that.*
* For more information please read:
Welsh, D. “The Liberal Inheritance” in Johnson, R.W. and Welsh, D. “Ironic Victory: Liberalism in post-liberation South Africa” (1998) Oxford University Press: Cape Town