(c) National Trust, Mount Stewart; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Liberalism in its classical manifestation is a philosophy of the individual, a philosophy of freedom, focusing on an open society of negative rights; the right to be free from interference, equality before the law, and sometimes, but not necessarily, the right to things needed to ensure a level of economic restitution (later variations of liberalism such as John Stewart Mills’ social-liberal philosophy adapted the concept to include certain positive rights). Its early origins are tied up with the emergence of parliamentary politics and the declining power of kings. When we think of liberalism we think of men like Locke, Paine, and Adam Smith, among others. These men advocated for a society based on the free individual as its primary unit.

Such an open society faces a paradox, and that paradox is that the seeds of its destruction lay in its very openness. It cannot raise a hand against those who would speak against it, and if it sees its principles as being something morally objective, something universal, then it cannot rightly disbar entry to its society.

Thinking of liberalism in pure deontological terms, its most perfect manifestation would be some sort of open borders libertarianism where the state only acts to enforce negative rights. Unfortunately, such a society would in reality, be rapidly destroyed. It would seem that viewing liberalism in terms of deontological morality would be a mistake.

Nowadays, classical liberalism as an explicit ideology is long dead; it has evolved through social liberalism and then been corrupted through contact with the European social democratic tendency and the American progressive movement. Western society, in its political aspects remains however, implicitly liberal, both on the establishment left and right, though by this point they have seen fit to pick and choose, having another agenda in mind.

There are three aspects of open societies which leave them open to destruction. One is the right to freedom of speech, one is the right to freedom of movement, and one is the political freedom expressed in liberal democracy. Together, these rights are set against each other.

liberal paradox triangle 2

A government could provide complete freedom of speech, but if it also provided open borders and a completely free party democratic system, then any number of foreign and domestic movements could through the direct mechanisms of politics, or through the changing of culture, destroy the right to freedom of speech, expression, the press, and the freedom to believe in whatever religion you like.

A government which provides the above, will over time tend to sour on the freedom of expression. This is very much where Western societies find themselves. Having provided for mass immigration from foreign cultures, they have sought to make them welcome by promoting a chilling tolerance, in which certain critical speech becomes recast as hate speech and not free speech.

Everyone must make a choice about these freedoms. For my part, I rank freedom of speech the highest. If I wish to have absolute freedom of speech, then there must be trade-offs. I value free speech so highly because critical inquiry is so important to material progress, but also because any precedent on restricting speech that I set, so as to thwart my enemies, could also become a rope for my own neck in the future.

Democracy I must rank second. It is vital to have the pressure valve and corrective mechanism of democracy if freedom is to be preserved, but we can be afford to be stricter with the political process than with expression per se. Democracy can become the mechanism to elect those who would destroy it, those who would pull the ladder up after them. If liberals were already at the top of the ladder, then I would have to join in Hayek in saying that I would prefer a liberal dictator to an illiberal democracy. This cannot be guaranteed, however, and any benevolent dictator could be corrupted by power and become a tyrant. Therefore democracy should be maintained, but with representative limits that encourage parties with a liberal spirit, and discourage illiberal ones. Totalitarian, ethno-statist, communist, theocratic, and any parties with genocidal programs must not be allowed into office. Their parties must be made purely private by striking them from the register.

I finally rank open borders dead last. We can be highly selective here, as long as we are careful about our criteria; it is less of a slippery slope. The problem with restrictions of freedom is preventing them from encouraging other restrictions, but the paradox of freedom remains all the same, and so you must choose the kind of trade-off you wish to make. If we were to restrict speech, our enemies may do likewise, creating a downward spiral due to tit for tat behaviour. The border issue is different in that we can trap our enemies on the outside of both a physical border and a legal one. The border issue is also about citizenship, and citizenship creates a nice clear delineation for where the restriction starts and stops. After the extreme ambiguity of the speech issue, and the moderate ambiguity of the democratic issue, we can see something much clearer, much sharper, and finer. The question of citizenship is the question of who the state allows its laws to apply to, and who gets rights. Border control helps keep the issue delineated and easily subject to measure, as it creates a physical delineation between one zone of law and another. The nation-state can therefore define liberal peoples as its nation, and trap illiberal peoples on the outside, carefully selecting among outsiders with various methods of filtration, selecting on the basis of economic benefit minus cultural and political disarray.

Unfortunately, the modern West already includes many illiberal peoples, both those long domestic and short. Therefore if we are to preserve freedom of speech and expression, then we must lean on democracy a little more than we might have had to if we didn’t have such a recklessly open consensus on border control up to now.

So my resolution to the paradox is to restore complete freedom of speech, and other attending expressive freedoms of a social and economic character, while simultaneously increasing the requirements for political parties to hold office, and making sure that the borders of my country are secure both physically in the form of barriers and patrol, and legally in the form of visa requirements and citizenship tests. I wish to disbar genocidal, totalitarian, racial-nationalist, theocratic, and communistic parties from office, and prevent uncontrollable inflows from cultures in which such ideas are common, while preserving, no, returning the right to think any thought and say any thing without legal censure.

This is how we not only save the best of liberalism, but make the best of liberalism greater than ever before!



  1. Negative freedom was one libertarians distillation.

    I’ve been reading Dr Tocqueville ‘s the old regime, it forwards a bolder, less formulaic, vision of freedom (as well as the well to fascism)


  2. There are three aspects of open societies which leave them open to destruction. One is the right to freedom of speech, one is the right to freedom of movement, and one is the political freedom expressed in liberal democracy. Together, these rights are set against each other.

    liberal paradox triangle 2

    This is really interesting. Nice insight for our time


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