One of the reasons it is hard to articulate this vision is that liberalism has no natural endpoint. It reckons with the complexity of human behaviour and the myriad ways we aspire to create and shape our individual lives, families, and societies. More than that, it welcomes and celebrates this complexity. This in itself precludes any single, simple definition of what ‘the good life’ looks like. It also precludes the use of power to force society and our economy into a predefined mould.
In this way, liberalism is different from the more dominant models of both socialism and conservatism. We do not believe in a state that centralises power and uses it to destroy private enterprise and appropriate private property, eventually ‘withering away’ when total sameness is finally embraced. Nor do we believe in a state that elevates traditions, institutions and behaviours of the past or the present to the level of myth – and in protecting them, defends the privileges and inequalities that they create and sustain.
Liberals start from John Stuart Mill’s great principle of individual sovereignty: that each person is sovereign over their own body and mind. We continue to agree with the principle he advanced alongside this, that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”. The way governments are combatting covid-19 rests heavily on this principle. We have never before seen, nor may we again see, this level of interference in liberty of action in the name of self-protection. It is warranted, but temporary. It must be followed by a time of unprecedented liberation – for everyone.
If we are really to rethink and reform our society fundamentally as we emerge from this crisis, we must reclaim these timeless principles. If we could boil down a liberal vision into one phrase, perhaps this might be it: To see individual freedom, human diversity and ingenuity, and natural beauty flourish and advance within a generous and free society.
Our vision is to see individual freedom, human diversity and ingenuity, and natural beauty flourish and advance within a generous and free society.
As citizens in 2020, we are perhaps better placed than almost any previous generation to understand what individual sovereignty looks like. We are the children of the advertising revolution: weaned on the concept of consumer power and taught the price of everything. We learn to choose before we can talk. When we go to the supermarket or to the cornershop, and especially when we browse Amazon, eBay or Etsy, we expect to see and weigh almost limitless choices.
And yet in too many other areas of our lives – far more important areas than which brand of cereal or toilet paper we intend to buy – our choice, and thus our reality, is limited. We can think of four ever-larger realms of life in which liberals demand and pursue greater generosity and freedom: the personal, the political, the social, and the global.
Read more about the four realms