Thomas Babington Macaulay (1831): Speech on the Great Reform Bill (March 2): "Reform, That You May Preserve": Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading: Judith Shklar: The LIberalism of Fear

School of Athens

Judith Shklar (1989): The Liberalism of Fear: "The liberalism of fear... does not... offer a summum bonum... but it certainly does begin with a summum malum, which all of us know and would avoid if only we could. That evil is cruelty and the fear it inspires...

...To that extent the liberalism of fear makes a universal and especially a cosmopolitan claim, as it historically always has done. What is meant by cruelty here? It is the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter.... Public cruelty is not an occasional personal inclination. It is made possible by differences in public power, and it is almost always built into the system of coercion upon which all governments have to rely to fulfill their essential functions. A minimal level of fear is implied in any system of law, and the liberalism of fear does not dream of an end of public, coercive government. The fear it does want to prevent is that which is created by arbitrary, unexpected, unnecessary, and unlicensed acts of force and by habitual and pervasive acts of cruelty and torture performed by military, paramilitary, and police agents in any regime.

Of fear it can be said without qualification that it is universal as it is physiological. It is a mental as well as a physical reaction, and it is common to animals as well as to human beings. To be alive is to be afraid, and much to our advantage in many cases, since alarm often preserves us from danger. The fear we fear is of pain inflicted by others to kill and maim us, not the natural and healthy fear that merely warns us of avoidable pain. And, when we think politically, we are afraid not only for ourselves but for our fellow citizens as well. We fear a society of fearful people.

Systematic fear is the condition that makes freedom impossible, and it is aroused by the expectation of institutionalized cruelty as by nothing else. However, it is fair to say that what I have called "putting cruelty first" is not a sufficient basis for political liberalism. It is simply a first principle, an act of moral intuition based on ample observation, on which liberalism can be built, especially at present. Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal, moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument. But one cannot rest.... If the prohibition of cruelty can be universalized and recognized as a necessary condition of the dignity of persons, then it can become a principle of political morality.... What liberalism requires is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions....

What the liberalism of fear owes to Locke is also obvious: that the governments of this world with their overwhelming power to kill, maim, indoctrinate, and make war are not to be trusted unconditionally ("lions"), and that any confidence that we might develop in their agents must rest firmly on deep suspicion. Locke was not, and neither should his heirs be, in favor of weak governments that cannot frame or carry out public policies and decisions made in conformity to requirements of publicity, deliberation, and fair procedures. What is to be feared is every extralegal, secret, and unauthorized act by public agents or their deputies. And to prevent such conduct requires a constant division and subdivision of political power.

The importance of voluntary associations from this perspective is not the satisfaction that their members may derive from joining in cooperative endeavors, but their ability to become significant units of social power and influence that can check, or at least alter, the assertions of other organized agents, both voluntary and governmental.

The separation of the public from the private is evidently far from stable here, as I already noted, especially if one does not ignore, as the liberalism of fear certainly does not, the power of such basically public organizations as corporate business enterprises. These of course owe their entire character and power to the laws, and they are not public in name only. To consider them in the same terms as the local mom and pop store is unworthy of serious social discourse. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the reasons we speak of property as private in many cases is that it is meant to be left to the discretion of individual owners as a matter of public policy and law, precisely because this is an indispensable and excellent way of limiting the long arm of government and of dividing social power, as well as of securing the independence of individuals. Nothing gives a person greater social resources than legally guaranteed proprietorship. It cannot be unlimited; because it is the creature of the law in the first place, and also because it serves a public purposeā€”the dispersion of power.

Where the instruments of coercion are at hand, whether it be through the use of economic power, chiefly to hire, pay, fire, and determine prices, or military might in its various manifestations, it is the task of a liberal citizenry to see that not one official or unofficial agent can intimidate anyone, except through the use of well-understood and accepted legal procedures. And that even then the agents of coercion should always be on the defensive and limited to proportionate and necessary actions that can be excused only as a response to threats of more severe cruelty and fear from private criminals.

It might well seem that the liberalism of fear is radically consequentialist in its concentration on the avoidance of foreseeable evils. As a guide to political practices that is the case, but it must avoid any tendency to offer ethical instructions in general. No form of liberalism has any business telling the citizenry to pursue happiness or even to define that wholly elusive condition. It is for each one of us to seek it or reject it in favor of duty or salvation or passivity, for example. Liberalism must restrict itself to politics and to proposals to restrain potential abusers of power in order to lift the burden of fear and favor from the shoulders of adult women and men, who can then conduct their lives in accordance with their own beliefs and preferences, as long as they do not prevent others from doing so as well...


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