Jun 1, 1982

Liberalism vs. Politics

“The identification of politics with freedom… conceals the fact of coercion that is a consequence of all political activity.”

Norman P. Barry
University College, Buckingham

“A Defence of Liberalism Against Politics.” Indian Journal of Political Science 41 (June 1980): 171–197.

Professor Barry critiques the view, exemplified by Prof. Bernard Crick, that (1) identifies the activity of politics (reconciling conflicting interests and pressure groups) with freedom or (2) judges that such political activity is superior to the moral theory of traditional liberalism.

Barry understands liberalism as it was understood in late 18th- and early 19th-century British political and economic thought as both a normative and scientific doctrine. Normatively, liberalism maintained that there “ought to be strict limits between the private and public spheres of action, which meant that the state ought to be limited either by formal, written constitutions, or unwritten, but equally binding customary rules of behaviour; that individual actions were more important, morally and politically, than collective actions; that laws ought to be general and non-discriminatory; and that a natural economic order would emerge if individuals were left to pursue their private purposes within the framework of these general rules. The scientific side of this liberalism consisted of the basic theorems of market economics, for example, the idea that the market mechanism would allocate resources more efficiently than state intervention. A crucial element in this was the belief in methodological individualism, that is the doctrine that social processes can only be understood in terms of individual action and not in terms of metaphysical entities such as ‘classes’, ‘states’ or societies’.” This version of liberalism rejects the classical utilitarian notion that there are any social ends or purposes beyond the maintenance of the system of rules within which individual transactions take place.

The writings of Professor Crick are taken by Barry as the example of the ‘political’ school, and it is argued that the liberal ideal of constitutionalism provides a better protection of individual rights than does the political process of majority voting and pressure or interest group struggles. The belief in the importance of group interests distorts the meaning of the public interest and sanctions policies that, in fact, harm that interest. Prof. Barry maintains that the identification of politics with freedom is not only logically mistaken but also conceals the fact of coercion that is a consequence of all political activity: the outcomes of political processes “must inevitably involve decisions which are uniform and coercive.”

Professor Barry’s far-ranging contrast of politics and liberalism deals with the nature of politics; politics, constitutions, and law; and politics, freedom, and liberalism. The symbiotic relationship of the free market, liberty, and liberalism is stressed throughout. Barry also underlines the normative vacuum of political formalism or rules without moral content.