What is Liberalism?
Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Introduction of the “Foundation for
Notes for a presentation by Dr. Ronald Meindardus* for the
Young Leaders Workshop of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats
(CALD), Manila, 24 September 2002
- The Foundation’s history beginning 1958. Civic Education as
one of the pillars of the West German democracy (“re-education”).
Development of international activities in the late sixties. The
problem of political interference in foreign political affairs.
The principle of political partnership. The foreign policy rationale
of Germany foundations’ activities.
- The three core areas of the Foundation’s activities:
- Civic education
- Political dialogue
- Political counseling
- Organizational aspects : finances, relationship with the
government as an NGO internal organization
- Programmatic aspects: the content of our activities. The promotion
of liberal values and principles. Quote from Foundation’s brochure
“Shaping the future”.
- The strategy of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation
How can we most effectively reach our goal (which is the promotion
of liberal values)?
Clear definition of our objective(s) – focus
Clear image of ourselves as the “Foundation for liberal politics”
Clear understanding of our target groups (with core and
more peripheral groups, the core group being the leaders and functionaries
of liberal parties and organisations).
2. The liberal confusion
Unfortunately life is more intricate and complex than our clear-cut
strategy on paper may make belief. There exist much confusion as
to the questions: who is liberal, what is a liberal party, even
what is liberalism. This confusion has several dimensions
– internal (intra-liberal) and external (extra-liberal).
- Linguistic diversity: not all languages provide the term “liberal”,
in some languages the term has a completely different meaning
than in other languages. Whereas in most languages a “liberal”
is understood as someone who desires freedom (“libertas” – the
Greek word “filelevtheros” literally meaning “the friend of freedom”),
in other languages and cultures “liberal” is associated with sexual
abnormality, aberration. On a more fundamental base, there is
a divergence between US-American usage of the term “liberal” and
the continental European tradition. While we in Europe think
of liberalism primarily as a program to curb the influence of
the state in our personal (and economic affairs), in the U.S.
liberal has become a synonym for big government.
- Juggling with labels: In German we say, not everything
that is labelled as liberal must have a liberal content, meaning,
there exist political forces who misuse the attribute, without
following liberal principles. Many examples in Eastern Asia: Liberal
Party of Synghman Rhee, United Liberal Democrats of Kim, Jong-pil
(South Korea), Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). These are all right-wing
- Intramural discord: The world of liberalism is a very colourful
and pluralistic community. Considering the multitude of
different approaches, it is at times problematic to speak of one
international liberal family. Main reasons for this intramural
discord are – on the international level – the fundamental political,
social, and mainly cultural differences in different parts of
the world. Furthermore, the different sorts (or even brands) of
liberalism. I single out the most prominent:
- Political liberalism
- Economic liberalism
- National liberalism
- Social liberalism (left liberalism)
All these liberalisms may be found in political organizations,
not rarely even in one single liberal party. In some countries,
there exist more than one liberal party (Netherlands: D66, VVD),
with both being members of LI. Considering these differences, may
we still speak of one liberal family?
3. The unifying elements
Liberal individuals and their organizations unite for two main
motives, one reason being to distinguish themselves from their political
opponents (reactive dimension) , the other due to a belief in a
joint set of political (even philosophical) values and principles:
- Liberals distinguish themselves mainly from the two other major
political main-streams, socialism and conservatism. Socialists
(of all shades) share the fundamental belief, that it is up to
the state to solve all the problems of society. This is the exactly
the opposite of the liberal credo. Conservatives (of all shades),
on the other hand, share a fundamental belief in the existence
of a God-given order, a metaphysically determined status quo,
that needs to be protected and “conserved” (conservare”)
with all means. For liberals, on the other hand, religion and
politics should be separated, the political order being in flux
and changing (progressing) according to the wishes of the
majority of the citizens.
- The labels left, right, centre dominate many discussions. In
this traditional political geography the natural place of the
liberals is in the centre. There are problems with this location,
though, as the big blocks to the left and the right have a tendency
of moving to the centre taking away the breathing space of the
liberals. This occupancy of political terrain by our ideological
opponents often goes hand in hand with the usurpation, yes hijacking
of liberal positions. Actually, today in many parties many
politicians promote liberal politics. Quite distressing for some
members of liberal parties, sometimes there seem to be more attractive
advocates of liberal positions outside the own party (than within).
And even more distressing, there are often even openly un-liberal
elements (termites?!) within the boundaries of the liberal parties!
This is a major head-ache to all those, who believe that political
parties should rest on a joint set of political values and principles.
I know, that in the Philippines ideology is not the most important
glue that keeps political parties together. But I acknowledge
a growing desire in this country for the parties to become more
programmatic and – therefore – politically accountable.
- The liberal Foundation together with its partner NIPS sees
one of its main objectives in this country to assist the Liberal
Party in achieving this goal. I believe, this seminar is an important
practical expression of this intention.
4. What is liberalism? Exercise with cards
So far, I have spoken about the confusion regarding liberalism
and stressed the importance of the adherence to a common set of
liberal values and principles. But what exactly are these liberal
values and principles? As I am the Representative of a liberal institution
and not a missionary of a religious grouping, I will not impose
on you my understanding of liberalism (this in fact would be rather
un-liberal), but I invite you to join a little exercise with the
aim at reaching a definition in a joint effort. Each participants
is asked to fill out three moderation cards, defining with a one
catch-word what for him or her constitutes liberalism. After
five minutes, I will collect the cards, and we will then discuss
- (individual) freedom
- market economy
- rule of law
- distrust of the state
- equality of chances
- Checks and balances
*Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the former resident representative
of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Philippines