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Political Philosophy

Liberalism, Civic Reformism and Democracy

José María Rosales
Universidad de Málaga

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ABSTRACT: This paper argues that liberalism provides democracy with the experience of civic reformism. Without it, democracy loses any tie-argumentative or practical-to a coherent design of public policy endeavoring to provide the resources for the realization of democratic citizenship. The case for liberalism rests on an argumentative reconstruction of the function it performs before the rise of a world economic order and, more specifically, in the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War. Accordingly, liberalism defines a reformist political program: it is an emancipatory political project by virtue of its struggle for an egalitarian and universalist extension of citizenship rights. This is but a formulation of the modern idea of citizenship, conceived of as a universalizable contract of rights. At the same time, liberalism embraces a socioeconomic emancipatory project that endeavors to provide the conditions, within the institutional framework of modern societies, for the accomplishment of citizenship rights.

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The origins of liberalism in the seventeenth century tell the story of the struggle for recognition of religious tolerance. This early form of pluralism provided the antecedent for the constitutional recognition of civil rights, interpreted in terms of universal adscription. A further step of constitution-building in liberal polities was taken when the universal principles of equality and liberty assumed the status of fundamental rights. That happened under the form of a constitutional program aimed at the improvement of the civil condition. Liberalism as a revolution of rights not only meant the conquest of civil rights by society, but also their extension by constitutional means. Both dimensions, the emancipatory and the egalitarian-universalist, gave form to the original liberalism.

For its later history, liberalism owes as much to its antecedents (situated at the rise of parliamentary assemblies and of the rule of law in the Middle Ages), as to its linkages with the republican tradition of communal self-government (from the seventeenth century onwards), and with the socialist tradition in support for an egalitarian model of society (as from the eighteenth century). Indeed, it is this double tie what determines that the political history of liberalism belongs to the history of modern democracy: a representative democracy but, thereby, pluralist. The tie also explains that the economic history of liberalism cannot be separated from the birth of the welfare state.

In both respects liberalism defines a reformist political program: it is an emancipatory political project by virtue of its struggle for an egalitarian and universalist extension of citizenship rights. This is but a formulation of the modern idea of citizenship, conceived of as a universalizable contract of rights. At the same time, liberalism embraces a socio-economic emancipatory project that endeavors to provide the conditions, within the institutional frame of modern societies, for the accomplishment of citizenship rights. Let us comment on this double characterization.

Liberal Citizenship: A Universalizable Contract of Rights

Firstly, if citizenship denotes the membership statute of individuals and social groups belonging to a political community (namely, a state), the own idea of membership embodies the establishment of a bilateral relation between the individual and the community or the state. Citizenship empowers individuals to entering the community’s political life. It is an egalitarian empowerment to the extent that the statute acknowledges in every citizen an equal civic capacity to act in politics. It is also universalist as long as the statute enables the citizen to participate in a domain of rights of universal intent. This universalism of rights assumed by modern citizenship has a normative sense, that is: as a theoretical and legal assumption, it enables us to think rationally the idea of an egalitarian-universalist condition of civic rights shared by every individual by virtue of his own humanity. This normative provision focuses citizenship in terms of a tension between membership of a community and exclusion from it.

The mode of access to citizenship determines the scope of the bilateral relation that binds the citizen to the state. Thus, citizenship can be assumed by birth or by contract, the options that generically are called ius sanguinis and ius soli, though the experience of democratic polities rather suggests the application of mixed solutions. The former founds membership on blood ties, while the latter refers it to a contractual relation. The mode of access separates the legal status of citizens from that of non-citizens, granting to each mode unequal expectations of inclusion: unattainable in the case of natural belonging and reachable, under certain conditions, in the other.

As regards its content or normative program, the right of citizenship gives access to a cluster of rights. Civil in its origins, the history of modern citizenship lights up the birth of modern civil society in the seventeenth century. Later on, the rights to associate and participate open the way for the creation of rights social and economic. Up to this stage runs T. H. Marshall’s argument on citizenship, circumscribed to the British case, where it describes the itinerary of citizenship from an original conquest of civil rights to the constitutional incorporation of welfare rights, mediated by the conquest of political citizenship (Marshall 1977, pp. 71 ff.). His interpretation reproduces the transit from the liberal state to the social or, better, the democratic welfare state (Díaz 1996), though it simplifies in a triadic, dialectical model the complex genesis of modern citizenship.

Besides, the three stages interact with other dimensions of civic life, giving rise to new forms of citizenship (Turner 1997). Thus, we can speak of cultural citizenship when considering the meaning of culture for civility (Pakulski 1997); ecological citizenship when civic conscience is informed by the ecological sensibility (van Steenbergen 1994); or of a gender-unbiased citizenship when civic life is redefined in non-sexist terms (Vogel 1991). Namely, when equality overcomes gender prejudice and discrimination. Opportunities do not spring spontaneously. They grow out of an institutionalized socializing process. Hence, the importance of education for civic equality and egalitarian participation in public life: two aims that underline the universalist thrust of modern citizenship.

Even more, given the continuity that exists between the transformations of both the state and citizenship, it would be useful paying attention to recent institutional changes that envisage a postnational domain of civic rights (Habermas 1996, pp. 125-153). At that level, the originary, state-framed relation of the civic political identity to the community opens the way to a multivocal relation. A relation that blends the sharing of diverse collective identities with a common support (voluntary or contractual) for the constitutional tradition that grounds the political community. The matter in question is not to assess citizenship in the context of ‘the end of the state’, but of its transformations. Accordingly, we have to assess the changing meanings of citizenship. After all, the state, not the nation, remains the basic reference for citizenship, although the politics of citizenship is but the politics of nationality.

Reformism and the Dimensions of Liberalism

In the second place, liberalism constitutes a socio-economic reformist project. A project endeavored to provide the basic resources for the exercise of citizenship. ‘The liberal who ceases to seek new opportunities’, Dahrendorf has written, ‘ceases to be a liberal’ (1988, p. 18). Liberalism does not legitimate itself by its reformist and egalitarian appeal. It depends, rather, on the political reasonability of its project to be instituted. Nevertheless, liberalism is more than an intellectual tradition (Hayek). It is a mode of understanding and practising politics in a deliberative and participatory way. Liberalism assumes political representation to be a necessary mediation for the institutional complexity of modern societies, though it does not mean to abandon the assumption of participation as the full accomplishment of the civil condition. Besides, for liberalism the role of government should be headed to ensure that the access to basic rights and resources in made fairly. From that stage on, liberalism advocates no equality of results, something that would contradict its defense of liberty.

By the other side, liberal universalism is a civic universalism, meaning that, as long as political theory and political program, its normative horizon is defined by the project of a universalist extension of citizenship rights. The civil condition refers both to the real or historical condition of citizenship, and to its normative framework, that which allow us to think rationally the chances for citizenship. We had said before that liberalism is a politics of democratic citizenship in a double sense: concerning rights and concerning resources. Well, it is just the linkage of both dimensions what gives a normative sense to liberal politics. The tension between liberal political theory and a liberal policy can be illustrated by Amartya Sen’s distinction between freedom and means of freedom, a distinction that takes the debate on equality to the crossroads of rights and resources (Sen 1992).

Liberalism is a social theory likewise. As such, it endorses a pluralist model of society. However, liberal pluralism is founded on an egalitarian model of rights and opportunities. The state’s neutrality means non-interference with the diversity of life choices. In modern politics (representative and universalist), pluralism speaks for civil society’s diversity. Namely, the forms of association that articulate society autonomously but, at the same time, describing a complex interaction with the state associations (Rosales and Rubio-Carracedo 1997).

The idea of distributive justice quite approximately depicts the nature of pluralism: its principles are plural, knowledge and the interpretations are plural, the goods, the resources and the criteria for justice are plural. Thus, cultures and polities too. Civil diversity turns pluralism universal. What makes it differ from political relativism, anyway? Its defense of equality being compatible with the vindication of difference; its own idea of pluralism in terms of distributive justice; lastly, its defense of a fair pluralism: egalitarian, inclusive and, therefore, universalist.

A liberal pluralist community, we can argue as from Walzer (1983), not only is a community that includes diverse social groups and, therefore, tolerates different collective identities living together. It is, above all, an open and egalitarian community, built on a fair scheme of distribution of ‘life chances’ (Dahrendorf). Liberal pluralism is an inclusive pluralism whose ideal is but a community of communities: the old medieval idea of a universal community, but, rather, the Kantian idea of a world confederation of states or the pragmatist idea of a universal community of communication. Its reality, though, is indeed less shiny: it is real communities where distribution is made imperfectly, but where at least it happens. The imperfection somehow denotes its perfectible character. It can degenerate into an oligarquical distribution but, on its turn, it is always open to democratization.

Economically, liberalism defends the freedom of contract in the market. But the meaning of economic freedom is wider and should be interpreted as freedom/right in a fair sense, that is, as the equal right to economic freedom in the normative sense already mentioned. Liberalism acknowledges that competition in the market, though under fair rules, produces inequalities. Furthermore, the own access to the market is made from unequal positions. Hence, its idea of the market is not one of a realm absolutely autonomous and self-regulated. Instead, liberalism supports a kind of regulatory policy that ensures the ‘constitutional essentials’ (Rawls 1993) of the equality of opportunities. Besides, liberalism upholds that the state must guarantee the public services that respond to the constitutional idea of basic goods and rights, either through its own management or through a combined management with the private initiative.

Liberalism’s idea of the economy is a welfarist idea, that takes efficiency and equity as interwoven criteria. That entails, next to the acceptance of the market as a legitimate domain, that ‘market allocations must be corrected in order to bring some people closer to the share of resources they would have had but for these various differences of initial advantage, luck, and inherent capacity’ (Dworkin 1985, p. 207).

My purpose in this paper is not to subscribe to a specific kind of liberalism, but to argue that an egalitarian and universalist model of socio-economic welfare is a constitutive feature of liberalism. As opposed to the socialist tradition (more than to the social democratic), liberalism envisages welfare programs as a preventive alternative to provide for civic opportunities. Then it puts the programs into practice as a way to empower individuals in matters of resources and rights. For this reason, it assumes the equality of rights in terms of individual responsibilities. They are triumphs (Dworkin) to be exercised. Besides, they are goods deserving care and demanding from their holders a responsibility for their enjoyment before society.

A liberal policy is an active policy in matters of rights. From a liberal view, the extension of rights leads to transforming or reforming the status quo. It is this endeavor where lies the origin of the welfare state and where next to the liberal imprinting (initially in Britain), appears the social democratic one (in Germany). Both traditions are so blended in the history of the welfare state, that even after its crisis of the 1970s and the 1990s, its basic schemes, though with differences, are held under conservative governments. Even more, the issue of reforming, not dismantling, the welfare state has been raised by the debate on the future of liberalism.

Before this challenge, liberalism has faced both the laissez-faire criticism deeming any reform to be one more example of the ‘futility’ or of the welfare state’s incapacity to efficiently provide social services (Hirschman 1991, pp. 60-69), and the leftist ‘critique of reformism’ that beforehand considered a failure any attempt to keep and deepen welfare policies in the capitalist system (Turner 1986, pp. 27-53). Nevertheless, the debate on reformism, which is but the debate on liberalism, runs not only on social terms. The issue of the social model is indeed a political matter that directly affects the institutional model of liberal democracy. More specifically, the model of relations between the state and civil society.

Liberal reformism is civic reformism. The political history of liberalism draws the transformations of the modern state as related to the conquest of rights by civil society (Keane 1988). This is, after all, a process of state democratization that clearly depicts the challenge of liberal reformism: since to democratize the state means to expand and to deepen the experience of democratic citizenship.

Liberalism is a public philosophy committed to the accomplishment, the improvement and, hence, the reform of the civil condition. Thus, committed to a civic model of democracy. Liberal reformism draws on the experience of democratic citizenship. Indeed, liberalism depends on the assumption that it aims to create civic opportunities, namely, opportunities for liberty. Also as a public philosophy, liberalism is committed to a model of civil society. Accordingly, citizenship is conceived of as the experience of participation in civil society’s pluralism. Thus, citizenship defines the educative experience of public life (Dewey 1987, pp. 41-65). This idea of the creation of civic opportunities, of the realization of freedom, summarizes the contribution (as a challenge) of liberalism, of a reformist liberalism, to democracy.

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"Liberalism, Civic Reformism and Democracy" draws on a former paper, "The Benefits of Liberalism", presented at the IPSA XVIIth World Congress in Seoul, August 1997. I am grateful to Benjamin Barber and José Rubio-Carracedo for their comments on its previous drafts.


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____ 1997: "Citizenship Studies: a General Theory", Citizenship Studies, 1, pp. 5-18.

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Walzer, M. 1983: Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books.

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