A moment for Indian liberalism

Liberalism is probably more challenged in India today than in any other democracy in the world.

Liberalism includes a broad spectrum of political philosophies that consider individual liberty to be the most important political goal, and emphasize individual rights and equality of opportunity. Although most Liberals would claim that a government is necessary to protect rights, different forms of Liberalism may propose very different policies.

They are, however, generally united by their support for a number of principles, including extensive freedom of thought and freedom of speech, limitations on the power of governments, the application of the rule of law, a market economy (or a mixed economy with both private-owned and state-owned enterprises) and a transparent and democratic system of government.

Types of liberalism


Classical Liberalism

It holds that the only real freedom is freedom from coercion and that state intervention in the economy is a coercive power that restricts the economic freedom of individuals, and so should be avoided as far as possible. It favours laissez-faire economic policy (minimal economic intervention and taxation by the state beyond what is necessary to maintain individual liberty, peace, security and property rights), and opposes the welfare state (the provision of welfare services by the state, and the assumption by the state of primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens).There are two major currents of thought within Liberalism, Classical Liberalism and

Social Liberalism

  • Social Liberalism argues that governments must take an active role in promoting the freedom of citizens, and that real freedom can only exist when citizens are healthy, educated and free from dire poverty. Social Liberals believe that this freedom can be ensured when governments guarantee the right to an education, health care and a living wage, in addition to other responsibilities such as laws against discrimination in housing and employment, laws against pollution of the environment, and the provision of welfare, all of which would be supported by a progressive taxation system.

As with many political philosophies, there are several forms and variations of Liberalism, including the following:

  • Conservative Liberalism is a variant of Liberalism representing the right-wing of the Liberal movement, and combines liberal values and policies with conservative stances. Unlike Liberal Conservatives, however, who tend to be more committed to authority, tradition and established religion, Conservative Liberals are supporters of the separation between church and state. It also differs from Libertarianism in that it is far less radical in its economic program, and in its support for an active defense policy and military interventions.
  • Economic Liberalism is the theory of economics in Classical Liberalism, developed during the Enlightenment, particularly by Adam Smith, which advocates minimal interference by government in the economy. Libertarianism, Neoliberalism and some schools of Conservatism, particularly Liberal Conservatism are often referred to as Economic Liberalism.
  • Neoliberalism refers to a program of reducing trade barriers and internal market restrictions, while using government power to enforce opening of foreign markets. In some ways it is a modern attempt, championed by Conservatives like Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) and Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013) since the 1970’s, to revert to a more pure Classical Liberalism.
  • American Liberalism is largely a combination of social liberalism, social progressivism, and mixed economy philosophy. It is distinguished from Classic Liberalism (see above) and Libertarianism, which also claim freedom as their primary goal, in its insistance upon the inclusion of positive rights (such as education, health care and other services and goods believed to be required for human development and self-actualization) and in a broader definition of equality.
  • National Liberalism is a variant of Liberalism commonly found in several European countries in the 19th and 20th Century, which combines nationalism with policies mainly derived from Economic Liberalism (see above).
  • Ordoliberalism is a mid-20th Century school of Liberalism, developed mainly in Germany, emphasizing the need for the state to ensure that the free market produces results close to its theoretical potential.
  • Paleoliberalism is a term that has at least a few distinct, though largely ambigious, meanings, including extreme Liberalism, and very socialist or socially libertarian Liberalism, and opposed to Neoliberalism (see above).
  • Cultural Liberalism is a liberal view of society that stresses the freedom of individuals from cultural norms.

Why is Indian liberalism more challenging in the world?

Cnservative communities appear to have gained untrammeled power in recent times. Self-proclaimed custodians of caste and religion are perpetually breathing down the necks of young men and women, dictating who they must meet, converse with, befriend and marry, what they should eat, wear, watch or read, whether or not they can use mobile phones, and even where they can go and when. By encroaching on the most intimate relationships of love and friendship, interfering in matters of pleasure or habit, they suffocate personal freedoms and violate the very basic norms of individual choice.

People find it increasingly difficult to express themselves freely. A public culture of hurt sentiment, violated collective honour, offence and alleged humiliation and the social and political license to react to it in whatever brutal manner possible have created such a climate of fear that creative artists, intellectuals and even ordinary persons in public conversations hesitate to say what comes to their mind and look over their shoulder to see if big daddy is watching.

Large corporations and the government have access to virtually every detail about us, making us vulnerable and insecure. Methods of surveillance become more opaque, even as they attempt to make us transparent against our will.

We often fear excesses by official agents at every level of government, worry that power will be abused, that some person in charge of law and order will behave lawlessly, even brutally.

Various dimensions of liberalism

(a) demands for greater overall equality,

(b) defence of individual reason and autonomy,

(c) a tool against moral conservatism,

(d) cosmopolitanism and humanism, and

(e) free markets. Overused, it suffers from what happens routinely to words with wide currency

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