Great philosophers · Liberalism · political philosophy · Political Theory · politics

Response to Liberalism of Fear by Judith N. Shklar

shklarIn The Liberalism of Fear, Shklar develops her view on political liberalism. Firstly, the author argues the main aim of liberalism is to secure political conditions that are necessary for exercise of political freedom (p.3). Liberalism does not have any particular doctrine and does not depend on specific religious or philosophical system of thought. On the other hand, it rejects those that do not accept toleration and those that do not draw the boundaries between public and private spheres (p.6). Nevertheless, it can be psychologically more compatible with some rather than with others.

In contrast to other kinds of liberalism, liberalism of fear claims that in order to make liberal polity possible it is necessary to put cruelty first. Cruelty is summum malum that should be avoided. Shklar is well aware that people’s freedoms and rights are fragile and vulnerable. There is always a danger that they will be attacked by some kind of tyranny. By referring to evidences from history, Shklar claims that liberal state should be freed from abuse of power and threats towards defenceless and weak (p.9). This means that the main enemy of the people is a state. However, there is another aspect of her argument that victims of various forms of cruelty might perpetrate cruelty on others too.

The author highlights that limited government, division of power, system of institutions and voluntary associations can prevent the government from behaving lawlessly. Shklar’s view on the role of voluntary associations is different from Tocqueville’s view. Tocqueville saw those bodies as a platform for political activity and he recognized their role in shaping model of good citizen, active member of society that is independent but respectful for others. Shklar has very instrumental approach to voluntary associations. She claims that people need those organizations to control the government, which has a tendency to abuse individual rights. She does not see the need to socialize, interact, or find common aim with other people. We are on our own in the society and our ultimate aim is to protect our individual rights. Political activity is necessary evil and we conduct in order to survive.

Liberalism of fear is a response to undisputable cruelty that human history has witnessed (p.9). In this respect, liberalism of fear differs from Locke’s liberalism of natural rights, which aims is to create predominant normative order (p.8), and Mill’s liberalism of personal development claiming that freedom is necessary for personal and social progress (p.9). Consequently, both liberalisms fail to develop historical memory that liberalism of fear depends on (p.9).

I agree with author that people’s freedoms and liberties are always in danger and those who are weak are usually the victims of the abuse of public power (p.9-10).  The rules and boundaries must be set for government, otherwise it might act lawlessly (p.10). Therefore, the solution might be limited government and divided political power that pose a minimal conditions to establish politically organized society (p.10). Moreover, complex system of institutions, dispersion of power, pluralism and elimination of some degree of social inequality are needed (p.10). Moreover, liberal society needs democracy because it provides, among others, the rule of law, independent judiciary, absence of military or political groups that put liberal society is jeopardy (p.19).

In my opinion, Shklar is right when she argues that liberalism of fear makes a universal and cosmopolitan claim that the evil is cruelty and fear it inspires (p.11). Fear is universal for all people and prevention of cruelty is a necessary condition to develop healthy and prosperous society. However, the cruelty is only one of various aspects that liberalism should focus on. Nevertheless, cruelty is a basic principle- an act of moral intuition based on insightful observation (p.11). It is worth to mention Shklar’s argument against relativists, who believe that liberalism of fear would not be welcome by those who live under traditional customs (p.16). She claims that people should be offered alternative to their conditions and when they have a right to choose, they go for liberalism. Offering universal humanity and rational arguments does not make liberalism intrusive into other cultures; it is an attempt to universally recognize human dignity which absolute relativism avoids to discuss.

On the other hand, Shklar argues (p.11) liberalism of fear is not against coercive government because every system of law has element of fear, but arbitrary and unlawful use of force and cruelty performed by police, military, parliament or other agent of the state is to be feared. Moreover, systematic fear grows because of threat of institutionalized cruelty and consequently makes freedom impossible. According to liberalism, threat of punishment under some circumstances, is unavoidable evil. It should be controlled though (p.12). Shklar disagree with the opinion that liberalism of fear is similar to anarchism. While anarchists believe people do not need the state and the rule of law to live in peace, Shklar argues the rule of law is what liberalism needs- rules and boundaries help to protect the individual rights.

To the extent, the liberalism of fear seems to be eclectic. Shklar argues that it owns philosophy of law to Kant or suspicion of unlimited power of government to Locke (Shlar, p.12). On the other hand, Shklar tries (p.6) to distance herself from Hobbes. However, her liberalism of fear is similar to Hobbes’ perception of politics and society. Both approaches have low vision of people’s features and tendencies. Both approaches see the state as an enemy of the people.  Likewise Hobbes, Shklar incorporates the fear as a starting principle of her political theory.

In summary, Shklar offers interesting view on liberalism of fear. However, most of the elements of this theory have been already offered by other theories. There is resemblance between the author’s solution of limited and controlled government and other institutional arrangements offered by Tocqueville. I do not find Shklar’s account innovative. I would rather see it as a continuation of already existing approaches to liberalism. In fact, Tocqueville offers deeper analysis of institutional solutions and voluntary organizations than Shklar does. Further, Shklar continually tries to distance herself from other liberalisms, however fails to elaborate on the solutions she offers that make her approach distinguished.

Finally, Shklar failed to offer reasonable solution on education in liberal state.  She claims that liberalism cannot impose moral and ethical rules on individuals, cannot openly direct them how they should conduct their private lives and should not openly teach good citizenship. However, erasing cruelty, humility and abuse of freedom might be difficult to achieve without education of positive practices and habits that would foster respect for others, self- restrain etc. Simply avoiding cruelty might not bring sustainable positive effects. She claims the state should not provide liberal education but she does not explain how, especially the younger part of the society, is supposed to acquire this valuable knowledge. This ultra-liberal approach to education is dangerous for liberal societies. There are many tangibles examples from Western European countries, where the government does not dare to teach about rights and freedoms in the name of ultra- liberalism. They claim they do not have a right to impose anything on religious and cultural minorities. They give those groups option to open their own schools where liberal education does not exist. In other words, because of liberalism they allow particular groups to practice illiberalism.

The essay leaves me with unanswered question how “neutral” and “distant” liberalism can be a solution for today’s multidimensional and complex world, where various beliefs and doctrines lead to abuse of power and limitation of individual’s freedom.

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