Liberalism: interacting to conserve

An alternative view of liberalism as the ideology of interaction, rejecting the standard liberal-communitarian divide.
Liberalism should be defined in terms of its promotion of (social) interaction. It is not to be seen as the opposite of communitarianism, as current usage implies, nor is it individualist. In practice it strengthens the nation state. It has a purpose, too, for given an innate but not perfect human conservatism, maximising interaction will minimise change. This conservatism does seem to exist, but liberalism is "ideological" in concealing it as a goal. With success, for no change-directed and specifically anti-interactive normative theory has emerged. Partly, perhaps, because it would lie outside the concept of the political entirely.

Published in Politics, 16(2), 1996, pp. 121-126. See also Neoliberalism and Internet as Hyper-liberalism


Why are there liberals? Did liberalism arise by chance? Or would any planet with human-like inhabitants eventually have liberals, at least the kind of post-war liberal the word now designates? I think it would: liberalism can be derived from innate human qualities. Some of liberalism's founding fathers sought to do that as well, but the derivation here is different. It starts from what liberalism does, or seeks to do.

Liberalism aims at maximising interaction. For some liberals that is a stated goal, with a virtual sacralisation of interaction by Popper and Hayek. Post-war liberal theory, and all market liberalism, refer to processes of interaction, not of withdrawal, evasion, escape or concealment. If this attracts little attention (excepting Hirschman, 1970), it is because interaction is taken for granted. Nevertheless, by imagining a counter-liberality it can be asked whether liberalism is there to stop it existing, and if so, why? And while the idea of a pre-liberal state suggests lack of interaction, there is no political theory of structured non-interaction as a contrast to liberalism.

Individualism and rights

Instead the accepted divide is "liberal vs. communitarian". This pair of opposites is itself recent, for in the past liberalism was contrasted with, among other things; planning, centralism, socialism, Marxism, totalitarianism, and clericalism. Current English-language academic practice contrasting it to communitarianism does so on the basis of differing conceptions of the self. Liberalism is then labelled individualist or atomist by its critics: "The metaphysical and ontological core of liberalism is individualism" (Arblaster, 1984, p.15). There is certainly a defensive liberal tradition, anti-autocratic and anti-absolutist, the liberalism of privacy and secrecy of correspondence. However the defence was against the state, not primarily against others. Liberalism more or less requires the individual to submit to interaction, usually with the proviso that rights are not infringed. That is to say, for liberals every action not infringing rights is permissible, even if subjectively undesired: hardly protective in the long run. Nor are rights self-enforceable, but in effect reserved to the state, however minimal. Liberal justice theories also prefer rights within interaction to prohibition of interaction itself. What is more the rights are invariably limited: for each declared inviolable by liberals, there are others they reject as invalid. Among those excluded are veto rights which freeze interaction (with historic precedents in the liberum veto). For example, introducing the right to sue for competition (even fair competition) would increase the rights of individuals and companies. On the other hand it would shut down the free market, and so most liberals would oppose it. Conversely, the rights you do have, in real liberal democracies, can be checkmated by other rights. Residents action against airports, for instance, although based on classic property rights, led to the proclamation of mobility rights, the right to tourism, and the right to fly.

Liberalism's concern with rights, and its anti-statism, do not prove individualism. And while liberalism uses no rhetoric of individual sacrifice to community, as nationalism does, the constant effects of interaction may be similarly unpleasant for the unwilling. So too with the aggressive achievers considered typical of liberal individualism. They measure achievement against the norms of others. Such persons seek to excel, but to excel in conformity: they have an ideal type in the student who gets full marks by writing exactly what the examiner wants to read. In the market, too, successful participants are by definition other-oriented. Psycho-socially, then, liberalism promotes interrelationship among humans, and willingness to place "network" above "self".

In theory and practice interaction has priority: liberalism sees it as good. Conversely, the social withdrawal encouraged by some religious is antagonistic to liberalism. (If few conflicts result, that is because withdrawal is now impossible anyway). The primacy of interaction is visible in liberalism's inapplicability to a Crusoe. Nozick (1974, p.185) says so explicitly, and Rawls¹ circumstances of justice are "plural" (Rawls 1974, ch.22). Recent liberalism is not a philosophy for solitary individuals, and in that sense not an individualist philosophy: it is interaction-centred.

The net of interaction which liberalism proposes is best known in the forms of the free market economy, and liberal democracy. In a wider sense it includes debate, exchange of ideas, and compromise. Political liberalism is thus pro-politics in itself, even if sometimes elitist. (Remember that interaction in a bounded community, a polis, is still underlies the concept of politics). All this interaction in fact tends to reinforce community, in the sense in which communitarians use the word: national, ethnic or regional groups, or based on gender and sexual orientation. (An interesting example is the way the market reinforced the "gay community" in the U.S. in the 70's and 80's). This might not apply to a community based on unliberal concepts, such as class antagonism, but in general liberals are communitarians. If community among humans disappeared, liberal mechanisms could reconstruct it - by processes of coagulation and clustering in interaction. Liberals seem to realise better than communitarians that interaction is necessary for continued existence of a community and its values: mere sense of identity is not enough. If communitarians know what to preserve, liberals know how to preserve it.

Liberal states

That is abstract, and there is nowhere an abstract liberal "Society". There are real liberal-democratic nation states, first national and then liberal. However this is not the conflict it is sometimes made out to be. Just as liberalism cannot be opposed to community in the abstract, it is wrong to contrast it with nationalism, as commentators increasingly do since 1989. (Eastern Europe is often seen as a liberal-nationalist battleground). Not only did liberalism and the modern European nation state historically "grow up together", but ever increasing interaction in such states can, and often does, reinforce the nation. So although nation states rely ultimately on nationalism, the liberal component is real enough. In particular the market acts to preserve national values. (A company offering a national-flag-burning service would not last long in a solidly patriotic nation state).

There are two provisos here. The first is that liberalism is in real conflict with some universalisms, notably theocratic Islamic radicalism. The second is that liberal interaction does not resolve ethnic conflicts: reinforcement of national identity is strongest in already stable, homogenous nations. This is why Slovenia can go down the road foreseen by liberal triumphalists in 1989, but not Bosnia. Nor will interaction guarantee the existence of any particular state, when there are alternative identities. Market forces in publishing, advertising and the media helped the reassertion of Catalan language and identity after Franco's death, at the expense of a centralist Spanish nationalism. (Had Franco however succeeded in establishing that identity, the market would have produced no Catalan books, ads, or television).

Some liberals hope, and many nationalists fear, that liberal policies (especially global free trade neo-liberalism) will erode national identities. Smaller peoples may indeed lose out as the minimum size for a nation increases. But for most, both hope and fear seem false. No two liberal democracies have ever fused, let alone that a world liberal state is emerging. (In any case the number of states is irrelevant to the internal functioning of liberalism: if there was an overriding sense of global community, interaction would reinforce that too). The market is more likely to filter out goods and services which do not correspond to each community's values. In the long run, then, not just culture, but production, technology and infrastructure, will all reflect the pre-existing pattern of community. In Europe, of nations. Other things being equal, interaction stabilises the world order by internally stabilising its components, nation states. Liberalism did not create that world order, but with liberals it is less likely to disappear.

The trend is to a world which is nationalist and liberal at once. There is nothing illogical in this. (And in such a world individuals could no longer leave liberalism behind by emigrating). Given this trend, it is not surprising to see attempts at synthesis, revision or transcendence of the alleged liberal-communitarian divide on the self (Crittenden, 1992; Taylor, 1989), or to see liberals make concessions to values outside "the political" (Dworkin, 1993; Rawls 1993).

Workings and effects

So, seen from the abstract, or from real political trends, the standard picture of liberalism is false. It is not individualist, nor in opposition to the collective, the social, or community. On the contrary, the question "why liberalism?" is really the question "why interaction?" To return to interaction's effects: firstly, a liberal democratic society is in effect a reverse panopticon The entire population influences the life of each individual continually, especially through the market. Secondly, the influence of any individual at a larger scale is diluted when market and democracy mix their decisions with others to arrive at an outcome. Clearly both are effective methods of control: they tend to extinguish deviation from shared norms. (Again, in an ideal homogenous nation state, the national values).

Innovation is always a deviation from the norm, and the avoidance of change is what liberalism is ultimately about. In the aggregate and in the long term, interaction damps change - through the market, or comparable nets of interaction that Hayek labelled catallaxies, or the interactive morality of Popper's Open Society (Hayek, 1976, p.107-132; Popper, 1962, p.169-175). Transmission of preferences through such systems means that the entire system must be dragged along before change takes effect. Liberals are reluctant to see the market as a brake, claiming instead that its results are unforeseen or unintended. This is expressed in biological analogies (e.g. Nozick, 1974, p.20; 314-7), in metaphors of "invisible hand", "filter" or "balance", and in the concept of spontaneous order derived from Thomistic scholasticism (Böhr, 1985, p.5-8; 51-7). (If liberals did admit their proposed structures block change intentionally, they would admit to conservatism as a prior and overriding value, an unliberal concept).

So the net metaphor is appropriate: change gets entangled, in markets and debate. The fact is that ideas, especially new ones, are better off on their own. Innovation is best off when protected against counter-arguments. So too are its supporters, often a small minority, with no choice but the "fanaticism" abhorred by liberals. It might be good for the community that they seek by reasoned debate to convince others, or try to "sell" innovation on the market. It is better for change itself that they quit the community, isolate themselves from the market, disentangle themselves from the net.

Territorially this is no longer possible: nation states have divided the world among themselves. Geopolitically, in preserving nations, interaction also blocks alternative territorial divisions as a way to facilitate change. So within the states that do exist, liberals opposition to "interference with the market" combines with nationalist commitment to a unitary state/ law/ administration, to block the creation of islands of change - legal, economic, administrative, or territorial. A relevant example from urban politics: some European cities have organised referenda on car-free centres, though none yet on car-free cities. Now there are probably enough people in Europe willing to populate one large high-density city with an advanced transit system, but they are dispersed as minorities in existing cities. Intense majority preference, working through the market, has instead given Western Europe an urban pattern of low density, dispersal, and car commuting. Nor will any democracy elect an anti-car, anti-garden, government. Nor will any nation give part of its sacred soil to this minority to build their own city: after all, they are not a "people". In this example, nation, market and democracy combine to block urban innovation.


In abstract "Society", and many real nations, liberalism has a general conservative effect. (A liberal revolution is possible, but the society it establishes will tend to stability). So why not derive both liberal and nationalist/ communitarian thought from a basic human conservative drive? Formally, only comparison with non-humans could directly prove this drive exists, but it can be inferred from the historic resistance that met most proposed change or reform. Change usually induces reactions of fear, disgust, and aggression in humans. If liberalism is about freedom, that means partly: human freedom from change.

I suggest, then, that social interaction among humans is functional and instrumental with respect to this inherent conservatism. It reduces the chance that any human (self or other) will act as an agent of change. Liberalism, then, is:

Social interaction itself predates liberalism, but it is these factors which are new. Liberal thought also coincided historically with increased potential interaction through better transport and communication, and it promoted their use. Some liberals make other political demands with a conservative effect - rationality, plurality of moral values, anti-teleology, anti-utopianism, priority of the right over the good, moral exclusion of non-human factors - but it is liberalism's intensification of community which makes it a conservative force in the world.

All this is consistent with the day-to-day reality of European liberalism, which is that liberals often align with traditionalists, or indeed form part of the Conservative Party. As persons, today's liberals are conservative in inclination, conformist in dress and taste, and tend to come from groups in society which profit from the status quo. They are likely to define social instability as crime or terrorism, to support "law and order" and expanded policing. In fact the most vigorous defenders of liberal democracy in north-west Europe are found among the army, security services, the political police, and public order civil servants. These same groups were the backbone of traditionalist authoritarian regimes in southern Europe: they once shared a feeling of being under siege globally (see, for instance, Wilkinson, 1977). Perhaps such groups regard both regime types as functionally equivalent: if so they are right.

Change outside liberalism

That said, what can be done, politically, to rescue innovation from liberal democracy? An anti-interactive normative theory would be concerned with processes of withdrawal, ultimately to zones of accelerated change. (It follows that the current model of unitary nation states, and the principle that a nation is the only entity with a valid claim to sovereignty, would be eroded). In economics, with barriers to isolate change from market forces. In politics, with avoiding inclusion, participation, or emancipation inside liberal-democratic nations. Not, however, with forming new communities, since that would reconstitute the initial problem. (As this qualification of two main left strategies indicates, "left" is not equivalent to "pro-change").

In the final analysis, however, little can be done "politically" for change, because politics itself is interaction. Politics - in the sense of civic life, debate, negotiation, parties, argument, lobbying, demonstrations, elections, even political violence - is best avoided by those seeking change. Liberals seem to realise this, and would presumably oppose politics¹ end, or its replacement by geopolitics. However I suggest that no liberal can show how change can occur in a liberal system against the will of all participants, or not be slowed by conservative resistance. That raises the moral issue of consent, in a world with largely conservative inhabitants. Most humans want no change, or at least not much, and not too fast. If change must depend on maximising consent, there will no be much change. Fortunately, facilitating change does not imply tyranny, but rather segregation. So: change may need illiberality, but it is of a kind outside most concepts of politics.


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