In an era of dogmatism, polarisation, and intolerance, visible on both the right and left wings of politics, liberalism needs more love. Part of its image problem is a widespread perplexity about what values and principles it really stands for. In different times and places, liberalism has meant many different, even contradictory, things. There are, among others, British and American traditions of liberalism (dating back to the 1830s and the 1930s, respectively), varied liberal traditions in continental Europe, and still others in Latin America, while in Australia our so-called Liberal Party is firmly perched on the centre-right of the political spectrum (where it has nothing obvious to do with the ideas of, say, Benjamin Constant or John Stuart Mill).
In A Thousand Small Sanities, the New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik acknowledges this confusion. At one point, he compares liberalism to a rhinoceros: an ungainly, imperfect, and superficially unattractive sort of animal – yet real enough, unlike a pretty unicorn, and effective at what it does. Gopnik explains that liberalism’s values include liberty, equality, and democracy, as well as tolerance, kindness, pluralism, self-realisation, and autonomy. Among its principles are freedom of speech, judicial independence, and, more generally, the rule of law. My own list of liberal values and principles might be slightly different, but Gopnik’s is a pretty good starting point.
Gopnik argues that the essence of liberalism is not centrist but radically reformist. It aims at removing the many sorts of cruelty that mar human societies, and this requires large changes to practices and institutions. However, liberals seek reforms over time, through constant small steps supported at each stage by discussion and debate, rather than through revolutionary upheavals. Furthermore, liberalism is conciliatory rather than triumphalist. As Gopnik points out, it accommodates the interests of as many people as it can, even, where possible, those of its defeated opponents.