Liberalism and Political Order

“There are two kinds of order that we can observe and see,” Dr. Stephen Davies notes at the beginning of his June 2020 Summer Seminar lecture on “Liberalism and the Challenge of Politics.”

One is spontaneous and undesigned, Dr. Davies explained, and one is consciously chosen. Political order belongs to the second category: Political order imposes conscious design on individual interactions, sometimes overriding spontaneous order.

The essential question, Dr. Davies said, is this:


Dr. Stephen Davies

How many areas of life and which areas of life should be subject to the political way of making decisions and the political order?

-Dr. Stephen Davies

In other words, which areas of life should be consciously organized through the political process, and which should be left to form through spontaneous, or emergent, order?

For non-liberals, Dr. Davies says, this question is usually formulated as: “How would we define the area of life that is not governed by politics?” Non-liberals begin with political order as the default position and then identify areas where political decision-making isn’t appropriate.


Now liberalism, by contrast, has a different approach. It starts from the other end, the starting point, as it says here is individuality and the choices made by individuals and the private sphere. And so that is taken as the default position. And the argument then is, well, what is the area of life where this process is not appropriate?

-Dr. Stephen Davies


Because liberals start at the individual as their starting point, “liberals have always been ambivalent about the power of families,” Dr. Davies said. “On the one hand, they recognize the importance both for human existence and flourishing, and also as a check on politics in the wider sense. But at the same time, liberals have historically always been aware of the potential of families, tightly knit families, in particular, to actually restrain and restrict self-realization and individual development.” Families, after all, are not examples of spontaneous order; they are subject to conscious decision-making and design.

Liberalism doesn’t position politics as the default order. The challenge for liberalism is to identify which areas of life do require political decision-making—“to work out what in this case the exception is—the exception being the area of life that is governed by politics.”

You can watch Dr. Davies’ full lecture and the rest of the IHS Summer Seminar on our YouTube channel. For more information on Summer Seminars, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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