A liberal thinks, unthinks and rethinks issues when new knowledge comes up
Having trouble identifying a liberal? Not surprising. This is because they refuse to be predictably consistent. Yet, it is precisely this quality which makes liberals so precious to democracy.
The liberals bow neither to the market nor to the state. All they know is that citizens should not discriminate against one another in a democracy; everything else depends on information flow. This makes them inconsistent, open to change, difficult to predict, hard to label, prone to errors – but, for all that, a guarantor of democracy.
Take Mahatma Gandhi. He, as a true liberal, refused to be a “hobgoblin” of consistency and chastised Nirmal Bose for wanting to “systematise” his thoughts. Tagore too began by admiring the Soviet Union and fairly gushed over its educational system. Soon enough he found the centralised Soviet state stifling because “freedom of thought enables one to grasp the truth, while fear kills it”.
It was again the liberal in Friedrich Engels, as well as in Shaheed Bhagat Singh, that led them to abandon violence in favour of peaceful agitation. If any one of the above had tested positive for consistency we would have forgotten them long ago.
The most enduring feature of any liberal position is that it is time barred and never forever. The greatest danger liberals face is from traditionalists in their ranks who advise them to settle down and stop fidgeting with new ideas.
Take for instance, the suspension of the uniform civil code (UCC). It was held back to give Muslims time to recover from the Partition trauma and then to introduce it once they felt secure. Withholding UCC was, once upon a time, a true liberal position in the interest of enlarging consensual citizenship.
Instead of treating the withholding of UCC as a temporary measure, erstwhile liberals became conservative about it. Reluctant to give up the bone, they made the non-implementation of UCC a virtue in itself and soon lost the plot.
India’s reservations policy too is no longer the sharp knife it once was. Originally intended to uplift scheduled castes and scheduled tribes it has become, over time, a blunt instrument in the hands of powerful rural castes. There were warning signs, but self-professed liberals ignored them and set their minds in stone. Instead, if they had let fresh information in, reservations could have been more effective today.
It was a bold liberal move, however, when Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh implemented the 1991 economic reforms and opened India to foreign capital. Many old time liberals, stuck in the past, criticised it doggedly in the name of Nehruvianism. Today, everybody praises what the Rao-Singh duo accomplished in 1991. Clearly, good things happen when liberals rethink past positions. They then emerge as leaders; thought leaders too.
This is so not just true for India, but world over. A liberal thinks, unthinks and rethinks when new knowledge comes up. So, what’s a true liberal policy? Well, it depends. In the 1970s Britain’s Labour leader, Tony Benn, opposed the European Union. But by 1997, the Labour Party recognised fresh facts prompting Britain, under PM Tony Blair, to kiss and make up with Europe.
Ditto with Nafta trade treaty between the US, Canada and Mexico. It was first plotted by Ronald Reagan of the US and Brian Mulrooney of Canada, both conservatives, and was opposed by Canadian liberals. The far left Zapatistas even called it a “death sentence” for indigenous Mexicans. Over time enough facts piled up, leading Canadian liberals and American Democrats to change their mind and support Nafta.
Conservatives too change their policies. But these remain opportunistic in nature because, unlike liberals, they refuse to change their minds. Conservatives everywhere extol a minimalist state and the powers of the market and yet, time and again, calmly contradict themselves and engage in deficit financing and costly wars. Supernovas can explode around them but in their heads the market will always be their lodestar.
Ethnic conservatives are no better and hold firm, no matter what, to their contempt of racial and religious minorities in their midst. Even though they see so many from these communities, as soldiers, die for their country, their brains refuse to process this open piece of information. Like the 18th-century Bourbons, these conservatives learn nothing new and forget nothing old.
A liberal is not “capitalist”, “socialist”, “secularist”, or anything, but somebody who is willing to change position should new evidence warrant it. Just when you thought liberals were socialists, they could advocate a policy “professional” socialists would consider a betrayal. Just when you thought liberals were secularists they could support a view “professional” secularists might wish they hadn’t heard.
Liberals shun badges and labels, making them difficult to define. They make mistakes too, which makes them difficult to follow. As they undervalue consistency and overvalue information, track changes for them are routine affairs. But take liberals out and democracy becomes a curry without spice.
This is why the liberal motto could well be: “Lib and let Lib.”