The three pillars of Liberalism: Freedom, Markets, and Morals from the Enlightment to the present

in the frame of the Intellectual History Working Group

Alan Kahan (Professor at Université de Versailles/Saint Quentin))

20 February 2019, 10:30-13:00, Sala del Torrino, Villa Salviati

Today there are no good histories of liberalism available. At best there are either excellent collections of essays, like Alan Ryan’s The Making of Modern Liberalism, or good stories without an argument, like Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism. The purpose of my project is to reorient historical debate about liberalism through an analytical history of its intellectual development, extending from the proto-liberalisms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the libertarianism and procedural liberalisms of the late twentieth. Elaborating on Judith Shklar’s argument that liberalism is about fear, The Three Pillars of Liberalism: Freedom, Markets, and Morals from the Enlightenment to the Present will put the changing nature of liberal fears into historical and national contexts, discussing liberalism in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany on a comparative basis. Methodologically, it will alternate close readings of particular liberal thinkers with discussions of liberal politicians’ encounters with movements and issues such as nationalism, suffrage, imperialism, and feminism. It will argue that most liberals have constructed their liberalism on the three pillars of freedom (politics), markets (economics) and morals (religion/morality), rather than on markets or politics alone. Most liberals, through the nineteenth century, saw political institutions, a commercial market economy, and strong morals/religion as complementary and necessary bases for a liberal society. Only gradually did a growing number of liberals succeed in separating politics and markets from morals, culminating in the divorce embodied in the rise of libertarian and the revival of contractarian thought after WWII, as seen in the work of Hayek, Friedman, Habermas, etc. From the late 20th century, there has been a return to arguments that freedom requires a moral basis. By providing a coherent revisionist account of the history of liberalism, Three Pillars will rebut Isaiah Berlin’s still-influential contention that liberalism is about negative freedom, and argue that liberalism has been most successful when it embodies both a vision of negative freedom and a vision of positive freedom. My talk will lay out the historical approach taken in Three Pillars and discuss its rationale, as well as the way in which such work straddles the boundaries between political theory and historical inquiry.

Benoit Vaillot

Doctorant en histoire Arche EA 3400 (Université de Strasbourg) / PhD Researcher (European University Institute, Florence). Coordinateur du séminaire doctoral « Nationalism Working Group » hébergé à l'Institut Universitaire Européen.

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