Liberalism is an idea which (very aptly) renounces social engineering and all sorts of projects of structuring a “perfect” social order. Planning of this kind, even more frequently than economic planning, leads to the enslavement of people; as a matter of fact, it is often linked to regulating economy, results from it or generates it. Spontaneity and voluntariness in creating interpersonal relations and lifestyles, attitudes and hierarchy of values, which are to a great extent based on millions of independent decisions, are a guarantee of freedom in social life. For spontaneous and free society to emerge, those millions of individuals that shape their own way of life must maintain a two-dimensional independence: 1. from the circles of political power, in which one can find (there is always such danger) a home-grown demiurge who wishes to kill spontaneity and set about to design a “perfect” society from his own subjective point of view (or from the point of view of authorities), 2. from social pressure that takes on a character of such a strong impulse that a real independence in individual control over one’s own life becomes a formal fiction. In the reality of contemporary Western societies, this coincidence of phenomena is a serious challenge for liberal ideas. Moreover, a question arises whether spontaneous society includes mechanisms which in time may turn out to be destructive or at least harmful for free society. In that case, supporters of the thesis that free society is superior must doubt that full spontaneity and voluntariness is the best alternative. Liberalism faces a dilemma.
Freedom of choice above all
It is obvious that spontaneous and free society must assume pluralism in ways of life and lifestyles. In the case of the lack of constraints from the state or from one person towards another, people will make various choices. Of course, it does not mean that we are anti-social beings, that we shun belonging to community or we lack any conformism; however, in spite of these phenomena, we will not all make the same choices in relation to values, attitudes, life aims and accepted behaviours . A communal dimension of humanity will be able to fulfill itself on the level of small and axiologically diversified groups, from a mosaic of which a global society of a given country is constructed, and not on the level of total conformism that includes and standardizes everyone without exception. For that reason liberalism, that takes a stand on free and spontaneous society, will support the existence of such pluralism. Instead of giving opinion in a debate about the best society, or rather about the best choice of a way of life, it will guard the existence of the choice itself, it will refrain from clearly favouring particular lifestyles and from condemning others. The only condition of its nearly absolute tolerance is a rule according to which none of the actors will attempt on the existence of the freedom of choice and pluralism of a wide range of available options.
Other outlooks on life often have determined preferences and opinions pertaining the choice of lifestyle, and are willing to devote themselves to promoting their own vision of “a good life”. In contemporary political practice it mostly pertains to traditional right-wing parties and (it needs to be highlighted that it can be understood in different ways and behave differently in relation to this problem) conservatism. It does not mean, under any circumstances, that modern and democratic traditional conservatism promotes the necessity to take away freedom of choice from people. This is not the case; conservatism nowadays takes a stand on supporting the idea of free society, although its enthusiasm for it has its boundaries. Conservatives show a certain dose of skepticism towards the way in which some people use their freedom. A conservative would rank a range of lifestyles relatively easily, divide these alternatives into more desirable, less desirable and repulsive, evaluated very low, and severely criticized. Thus, a vision of the best conservative society is designed on the basis of axiological beliefs, even if conservatives in their political practice usually withdraw from the attempts to force through those visions with the help of legal bans and orders. The vision of the best liberal society coincides with the vision of free and spontaneous society, where the existence of the individual’s right of choice is the key factor. Thus, a wide range of alternatives of lifestyles is justified and in accordance with liberal model of society: ascetic-religious, traditional-conservative, city-consumerism, bourgeois-moderate, counterculture-alternative, socially committed, community-oriented, libertarian-riotous, isolated, ultraindividualistic etc.
Choice under pressure? Test for liberalism
An individual may make a choice from the above list which is surely not complete. Three questions emerge in relation to this process and its consequence for the functioning of the state and society. The first question, which is “Is it justified to force an individual to choose a specific alternative?“, can be omitted in the light of the above statements. It surely functions in social life, for example in the reflection on the process to educate juveniles, immature people who cannot take full responsibility for their own choices. In this frame of reference, it is a legitimate question. However, it is not legitimate in contemporary political practice and in relation to society of adults as a whole. Liberal-democratic consensus, which exists in Western society, settles this problem by naturally giving a negative answer to this question. All traditional outlooks give such answer (apart from radical, marginal and the ones that call upon to change a political system completely). This includes conservatism, which has already been highlighted above.
The second question complicates matters and creates differences between trends belonging to liberal-democratic consensus. The question is: “Is it justified to put pressure on an individual to choose a particular alternative?”. Pressure is not the same as constraint. Formally, it does not abolish freedom but only brings in an element of persuasion, advice, impelling, warning against consequences, or a promise of a certain kind of benefits. If we go back to the first paragraph, one can notice that a positive answer to the question would mean the emergence of a free society, but rather not spontaneous. An individual would be free from social engineering inflicted by political authorities, but not from pressure of another human being, namely social and local authorities, non-government structures and institutions, and of course church circles. Without doubt, the key aspect of the evaluation of this society would be the strength of this pressure. A mild pressure, from which an individual could become independent relatively easily, would not have to erase the society’s spontaneity. However, on the other hand, each individual’s liberation potential is different; therefore, some of them would not be able to break through to independence and fulfill one’s dreams and ambitions freely, while others would surrender to the pressure of unification for so called peace of mind and the feeling of acceptance in their closest surroundings.
For that reason, liberalism’s answer to the second question is also negative. In fact, it is a “test for liberalism”, in political practice, it involves legal regulations which make it difficult for some people to use a real constraint in the form of overwhelming pressure towards other people. Conservatism, however, gives a positive answer to this question, and it is here that the paths of conservatism and liberalism diverge. Conservatism has its roots in the ideas of elitism and hierarchized social structure. It does not consider a problem that a weaker individual is unable to become independent in a situation of strong pressure, as formally freedom of this individual is not limited. Thus, weaker individuals deserve the fate of a slave of social pressure. As a matter of fact, it is profitable for society as a whole, if individuals who have weak intellectual or personality potential remain under control of obligations and bans of a traditional lifestyle. Finally, and most importantly, this pressure is used to strengthen the dominating customs, traditions, norms, attitudes and values of a given society. Pressure is used to slow down the process of the increase of social pluralism, it makes society more homogeneous than it would be if it became fully spontaneous. The society’s homogeneity as well as maintaining traditions of ancestors remain values which are highly estimated by conservatism.
Summing up the current discussion, liberalism and conservatism oppose legal constraints and social engineering, both want a formally free society, liberalism also strives to the existence of spontaneous and a really free society, where social pressure is weakened and countered, while conservatism accepts some forms of this pressure, as it values the safe haven of tradition and homogeneity more than complete freedom of choice.
Does it mean that liberalism, being in favour of spontaneous society and a wide range of choice of lifestyles, is enthusiastic about heterogeneous society? Are spontaneity, pluralism and heterogeneity always good and desirable from a liberal point of view? This brings us to the third question, the most tricky one: “Should one wish that individuals, even in the situation of lack of constraint and lack of social pressure, choose relatively coincident and similar ways of life within one society?” In other words, would it not be better if society was free and spontaneous, and relatively homogeneous?!
Since conservatism answers the second question about the possibility of using pressure in order to gain a result of homogeneity positively, its answer to the third question is not difficult to predict; it is, of course, positive. However a conservative vision of society may be judged, it is consistent (this vision is not attractive for a liberal because of the approval of pressure in social relations, as well as arbitrary appointment of lifestyles as better, more legitimate and “more moral”). A conservative wishes to have homogeneous society, assimilated immigrants, curbed “freaks”, silenced iconoclasts, ashamed non-patriots, so he suggests using social pressure to achieve this. On the opposite side of the debate there is, also consistent, left-wing vision. Social democrats, the Greens and other movements of the “new left” simply give different answers to the second and third questions than conservatives. They are, like liberals, against exerting pressure on a human being, for spontaneous society, and as a result they take a step further and openly declare that they wish to live in “colourful” society, very heterogeneous, multicultural, where everyone lives as they please, even if such society would turn out to be a short-lived experiment, a joyful carnival, unstable structure, coming close to a kind of implosion, as a result of which long-forgotten anti-democratic forms would return.
How does liberalism answer the third question? A liberal often functions between two separate worlds and visits both of them from time to time. At the same time, he is a “demoralised libertarian” among serious bourgeois conservatives, as well as a reserved stiff among colourful bohemia who is not embarrassed to tell loutish politically incorrect jokes but is at the same time constantly responsible. Indeed, on one hand, this left-wing vision of “carnival society”, heterogeneous, living on the spur of the moment seems “cool” for them and is naturally attractive for a supporter of freedom. On the other hand, there is this “stiffness”, the feeling of responsibility and playing safe. For the fear of the collapse of such shaky, extremely heterogeneous society, liberalism may be inclined to give a positive answer to the third question along with the conservatives. The society which is deeply divided, as far as cultural patterns, appreciated values and approved behaviours are concerned, is a powder keg. As its heterogeneity deepens, it might reach a certain critical point in this process, after which an outburst of social conflicts will appear, an open war between different various parts of this society being, in fact, kinds of subcultures and their coalitions. If such clash takes place and the conflict is not appeased successfully (which is difficult, as a compromise between contradictory values is impossible and only a return to elusive modus vivendi may be considered), one of the sides will marginalize the other. In this case, the debate about the shape of free society might return to the level of the first question. The winner of the war of cultures may want to use constraint to fully benefit from the fruit of their victory and strengthen it.
Perhaps, liberalism adopts an ambivalent attitude, and its vision is a free society formally and in reality, formally spontaneous, but in fact spontaneous only to a certain degree? Liberals would wish for people to be free and make choices under the condition that the choices are wise, the ones that would not endanger the stability of liberal-democratic system and free society. However, they differ from conservatives in the fact that they are not ready to accept pressure. Why? Because they differ as far as the assessment of the moral nature and intellectual potential of human beings is concerned (according to conservatives people are bad and foolish, and according to liberals they are good by nature and sagacious). They believe optimistically that the free choice of the majority of society would be wise, that these people, in spite of obvious temptations, would refrain from hedonism, dissolution, prodigality, perversion and revelries, although nobody forces them to do so. In fact, liberals let the matters “take their course”, allowing people to shape the face of the community they live in spontaneously, and hoping that “things will work out”. Of course, they may “face defeat”. Nevertheless, freedom is always involved with a certain decrease in the level of security which is offered by common despotism.
Therefore, a lot of common sense is necessary for liberal society to survive, society that is free, spontaneous and still quite homogeneous.
Tłumaczenie: Monika Mokrosz