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What does it mean to be a liberal in contemporary Poland?

Published on August 24, 2009 by: in: Thought

There is the only one honest answer I can give to this question: I don’t know. I am not being coy and admitting to this agnosticism derives from a deeper uncertainty as to what liberalism “really” is, in general, but also more specifically, what it is in Poland.

Polish Eagle

I think the question itself about the „true” liberalism is not very interesting and the various disputes over the right to the name of true liberal- are not very serious. Since, the disputes that are really serious and interesting are the ones over the values, ideals and public goals and not over the labels. I know- more or less, leaving myself space for slight modifications, although a general conversion of ideals is quite unlikely to happen in my case- what ideals and values I affirm and what targets I find worth collective implementing. However analysing if they deserve to be called “liberal”- is not too fruitful and too interesting occupation.

All the more so because this will draw us away from the dispute over the values and will direct towards the disputes over the contemporary political ideals- and I don’t think this is what the venture undertook by Liberte!’s new editorial team is about. Therefore I am using the notion of „liberalism” referring to my own views, somewhat symbolically and solely for finding a brief label- but I will readily give it up to someone who will recognize that my views don’t deserve this label. As a matter of fact, even in the circles of eminent polish personages, who have declared their intention to support this venture, there are few people who, with certainty, would reject my views. Maybe I even acted as a usurper accepting a gift not due to me, when I accepted the invitation from the editing team of Liberte! to enter this good company. But this assessment doesn’t belong to me.

However I have to explain in what sense I feel like an outsider in the circle to which I was invited. I have an impression that most of my brilliant fellow travellers in this venture, find that the main priority is limiting the role of the state in the economy and cutting taxes- in a word, something called economic liberalization. I have to admit that in my own views I don’t attach too much significance to these targets. On the contrary: the issues of the state model, its economic role and tax system I find secondary to the chief values. “Secondary” does not mean “not important” but “secondary” in the sense: “derivative from these values”. Solutions concerning these matters are beneficial if they serve the values which I affirm and harmful if they interfere with them. I think that fe. the efforts towards the lowest taxes or towards flattening the tax system- reduction or elimination of the tax progression- most probably hinder the values which I affirm so they are- from my point of view- unjustified.

It is time then to lay out which values I find primary. My philosophy is based on three fundamental ideals, which are of the same significance for me and which should be (in ideal society which I dream of in my free time) carried out together. It is often difficult but this is what the dramatic social dilemmas are about, we have to harmonise and coordinate the values from which each one if carried out fully would be only harmful for others. There is nothing odd about this because we don’t live in an ideal society and we never will- if only because everyone has different ideals. However it is fundamental that I emphasize that my philosophy is not limited to the simple declaration of these three ideals- this would be easy but not so interesting- but they are accepted in a very specific interpretation which I will try to mark briefly, pointing out each of the three ideals. So someone who also finds these three ideals important but understands them differently, does not in fact share my system of values though they use similar words to characterise their own philosophy.

These three ideals, which together take chief position in my hierarchy of political values are:

1. Freedom. I understand freedom as a full freedom of action according to one’s own views, preferences and decisions- only under the condition that you hurt no one. No one (anyway no adult) should be forced or limited as far as the choice of a booklist, partners, job, education goes (I reiterate that it refers to adults), not to mention trivial matters, such as wear style as long as it doesn’t threaten the freedom and other justified interests of other people. Of course, this last clause, that freedom can be limited out of consideration for the interest of others (the rule of not harming others) is very general because if you define the interest of others broadly enough or what constitutes the loss for others, the freedom according to this definition will turn out to be extremely narrow. So “loss for others” should be narrowed to the maximum and it can’t include the feeling of indignation or irritation that others practise improper religion (or don’t practise any religion at all) that their sexual preferences are outrageous for others, that they read inappropriate books etc. I realise that this is only a sketch of the concept but there is no space to elaborate on it here- my comfort is that I have written a bit on this topic and whoever is interested can refer to the appropriate articles or books. Anyway the general rule is: No one should be told by the state what is better for them- and even if the state can say it in exceptional situations it shouldn’t be followed by actions which would force the man to act against his decisions although supposedly for his own good.

2. Equal opportunities. I understand it as follows: no one should be limited in their life opportunities (fe. receiving appropriate education, finding satisfying job) by the factors beyond their control and which are within social intervention and modification. This is of course very radical ideal and not possible to be realized fully but we should at least try to head towards it (which after all is a clause referring to the other two ideals). So the fact that someone was born in a village far away from educational centres or in a poor family without tradition of education shouldn’t determine negatively whole future of this man. The ideal equal opportunities means that position which a man achieved in a society (in realising the values desired socially) depends solely on himself and not on the determinants on which he has no influence. So if I drop out from the entry exam because I didn’t want to devote more time to learning or my intellectual predispositions aren’t sufficient- this isn’t contradiction of equal opportunities; if however my low position doesn’t result from my own decisions or poor abilities but only from the fact that I was born – so to say- in a wrong place, then I can assume that I wasn’t given equal opportunities.

3. Influence. All people (all adults with some exceptions, fe. except for those who have been rightly deprived of civil rights) should have equal influence on public decisions. They can of course resign from this right (fe. by refusing to vote) and then they can’t complain- but they have to have a possibility at least to play an equal role in shaping the public decisions, especially in deciding who will govern their country (and also a smaller territorial unit) in the nearest term. I assume that the possibility to influence public matters is ALSO good itself that people have justified right to: people not only have the right to specific public decisions realising their preferences but also to influence taking this public decisions. Of course definition of what belongs to the public sphere is an extremely complicated matter and it is hiding many traps (if the public sphere is defined very narrowly then the influence will turn out to be illusory) but then again it is not place to elaborate here. I assume however as an important and rightful ideal that the shape of public units is not something given from above, inaccessible to human cognition and intellect but it is and should be shaped by exactly these people who will be affected by the decisions.

This is in short my constellation of chief values. From the ideal no. 1 it appears that I am a liberal, from the ideal no. 2- that I am an egalitarian (moderate because my ideal equality is based on equal opportunities not conditions) and from ideal no. 3- that I am a democrat. My liberalism tells me to maximise freedom, my egalitarianism- to maximise equal opportunities and my democratism- to maximise equal influence of the citizens on public matters.

Contrary to appearances- this isn’t a cliché because there are many people in Poland expressing themselves publically who doesn’t accept at least one of the three values (and sometimes- all three) in the interpretation that I have given here so there is something to argue and fight about. There are people then who –firstly- reject the principle of freedom expressed by me (speaking briefly- shaped after John Stuart Mill) and think that hierarchy matters over personal freedom, the traditional set values and order from which many prohibitions in personal sphere result. There are- secondly- people who reject the principle of equal opportunities established here (modelled, in this interpretation, on John Rawls’s philosophy) and assume that if someone was born poorer or far from the centre- it can’t be helped, in a way it is their own fault, anyway the society doesn’t have any obligation because of this connected with the ideal of solidarity with the less privileged. “Life is not fair” wrote Milion Friedman once (seriously and with the approval of this maxim)- and it is these people’s motto. And thirdly- there are people who reject the ideal of democracy; they sometimes write the word itself with asterisks in the middle as if it was a vulgar word although- for reasons not known- they probably assume that in the undemocratic system they dream about, it would be them not their adversaries who would have a special influence on public matters.

And because towards each of the ideals I affirm, in the interpretation I laid out, there are objections, accusations and counter-ideals put forward, it’s worth to discuss them , defend them and specify them- without fear that one is talking about trivial matters. This is a discussion I find essential in today’s Poland- and this is why I am gladly joining the venture that was given a beautiful name “Liberté”. With the exclamation mark to emphasize that it is not about an academic discussion about words but about a motto the content of which has meaning for the life of millions of people.

Marta Kurek:

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About Wojciech Sadurski

Professor of philosophy at European University Institute in Florence; also connected with the Faculty of Law at Sydney University and with European Centre of Warsaw University. He studied and took his doctorate at the Faculty of Law at Warsaw University; then he worked in Australia and Italy and was an academic teacher at few American and European universities (among others at Central European University in Budapest). His main academic books are, among others:”Neoliberal System of Political Values” (1980), “The Theory of Justice” (1988), “Moral Pluralizm and Legal Neutralisty” (1990), “Freedom of Speech and its Limits” (1999), “Rights Before Courts” (2005), and recently “Equality and Legitimacy” (2008). He is also a regular columnist, among others in “Rzeczpospolita” and “Gazeta Wyborcza” and recently he has been writing a blog on a web portal Salon24. He is a member of Programme Councils of Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for International Relations, as well as of few international think-tanks and editorial teams.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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