(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 16 March 2016.)
Liberalism is a political philosophy that embraces liberty and equality as its core ideas. Liberals generally support ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation.
In the 20th-century the word liberalism has been used to cover a wide array of views depending on the emphasis and understanding of the principles of liberty and equality. Three faces of liberalism have taken hold: (1) classical liberalism, (2) social liberalism (or social democracy), and (3) ‘liberalism of deep diversity.’
What we call classical liberalism emerged in the Age of Enlightenment and gave priority to liberty; in modern America, this is also called libertarianism. The term liberalism there has taken on a new meaning best described as social liberalism with its stress on equality.
In Europe, the word liberalism has retained its original classical meaning, but to avoid confusion with social liberalism in America, it is called European liberalism. Europe in the 20th-century, particularly on the continent, placed even more emphasis on equality than American social liberalism, and it is more accurate to describe this ideology as social democracy.
The growing emphasis on equality in the conception of liberalism in America and Europe implies a shift in focus. Classical liberalism views liberty as the freedom of individuals from external constraints. Social democracy views liberty as the freedom to be master of one’s life through collective participation in political life.
The principles of liberty and equality underlying classical liberalism, social liberalism, and social democracy are all based on universal moral values and truths applicable to all men, everywhere, which are derived from the notion that men are equal and free. Family, community, history, place and all other ties that encumber a person are never mentioned, not even age and gender.
This universal conception of man gives liberalism its enormous moral appeal across time and place, and in different communities. When the idea of organizing the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong first started, participants claimed to be fighting for universal values. But in the last days of the movement, Mongkok had become a place to vent nativist anger. That anger would later rear its head again in Yuen Long and Shatin. Nativism appears to be the exact opposite of universalism.
In the late 18th-century, German scholars responded to Enlightenment ideas with deep suspicion. They rejected the liberal view that laws could be found to order human society according to the principles of equality and liberty, in the same manner that scientists discovered the laws of nature.
These German thinkers gravely damaged the notion that absolute truth exists and knowledge about it can be discovered. Instead we now have relative truths, ethnocentric truths, and subjective truths. Existentialism and postmodernism are the heirs of German Romanticism in the 20th-century.
Can liberalism still survive when subjectivism, irrationality, and relativism have become part of the human discourse? The challenges are non-trivial and demanding. Without the common yardstick of an absolute standard to decide what is right and wrong, we need deep tolerance and understanding. But this can work only if opposing sides are willing to forsake confrontation and mutual defamation as the protocol of engagement. This is what is necessary when we have a “liberalism of deep diversity.” It will test our humanity.
Religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts are difficult to resolve, as they are often conflicts over subjective beliefs. Economic and social conflicts arising from inequality in the use of resources are less difficult because they are primarily objective conditions that can be addressed by correct policy incentives. Fortunately, even religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts have economic dimensions, and one could start working first on the easier parts of a complicated problem.
The growing political conflict in highly civilized Hong Kong does not have religious, ethnic and cultural origins; it is primarily economic and social in nature, with origins in the socioeconomic consequences of the opening of China and the effects of economic globalization. The resulting problems can be solved by government engaging those in opposition to forge a consensus on the way forward. Imposing a solution from above is unlikely to work, as the failures of past efforts here and elsewhere have demonstrated. When have a “liberalism of deep diversity”, a top down solution will fail even more totally. It requires power to be shared.