Inside Story

Marinating in liberalism

Can this philosophical tradition offer a blueprint for a just society?

Peter Mares Books 6 July 2024 5359 words

Philosopher Alexandre Lefebvre advocates a version of liberalism in which we are free but also generous. Orbon Alija/iStockphoto

After years dominating Sydney’s FM radio waves, the notorious Kyle and Jacqui O are out to conquer Melbourne with their mix of smutty humour and provocation. (Kyle Sandilands pops up regularly on Media Watch, most recently for a pledge to masturbate on air.)

I doubt either of the hosts would call themselves liberals in the philosophical sense. Yet the tagline on the campaign’s billboards around Melbourne — make up your own mind —is a direct appeal to liberal sensibilities. It addresses potential listeners as rational agents who chart their own course through life and aren’t swayed by the crowd. And it champions free expression — don’t let those wowsers tell us what we can laugh at.

As Alexandre Lefebvre writes in his new book, Liberalism as a Way of Life, one “signature liberal idea,” is that “everyone is free to lead the kind of life they want so long as it does not interfere with the ability of others to do the same.” This fits the Kyle and Jacqui O promotion to a tee: they’ve got a right to be offensive, you don’t have to listen to them, it’s none of your business if I do.

This live-and-let-live notion, though, is just one of liberalism’s key ideas. Taken alone it could see us pursuing atomised lives, indifferent to the experiences of those around us. Free, but also selfish. Lefebvre, a political philosopher at the University of Sydney, advocates a more comprehensive version of liberalism — one in which we are free but also generous.

This kinder understanding of liberalism already dominates our culture, he argues. “Love it or hate it, we all swim — we positively marinate — in liberal waters.” Freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, one vote, one value — they’re all products of the liberal tradition.

Like fish, though, we are so attuned to the medium in which thrive that we hardly notice it. We take those rights and freedoms for granted and run the risk of reacting too slowly when liberalism’s sustaining properties are leached dry by hostile forces. A “jaded and furious citizenry” can quickly lose faith in the ideals underpinning liberal democratic society, warns Lefebvre.

The threat is everywhere apparent: in the possibility of a second Trump presidency, the rise of the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the resurgence of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in France or the entrenched “illiberal liberalism” of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

London-based economist and political philosopher Daniel Chandler strikes a similar sombre tone in Free and Equal, another recent book about liberalism. “In the end,” he writes, “the most important sources of stability in a democracy are the benefits that citizens experience from living it.” People only value democracy if it works for them; and at the moment, he says, it doesn’t.

Both Chandler and Lefebvre are seeking to rescue liberalism from within, drawing on the tradition’s extensive philosophical resources to make it match fit for the twenty-first century. Both of them want to reinvigorate the ideas of John Rawls, described on his death as the twentieth century’s greatest political philosopher. A scholar of justice, Rawls is often credited with reviving liberal thinking. His masterwork, A Theory of Justice, bolstered the intellectual foundations of social democracy, particularly on questions of inequality, fairness and opportunity.

Chambers and Lefebvre apply Rawls in very different and intriguing ways. But both books left me wondering whether liberalism can save itself on its own, or whether it needs an injection of fresh ideas from outside — particularly when it comes to the liberal understanding of human beings as rational, self-directed and autonomous.

Liberalism is usually seen as a conception of politics designed to guide how we live together as free and equal citizens. Its mechanisms are well-established: a universal franchise, regular elections, the separation of powers, an independent media and a system of law that guarantees private property rights and basic liberties. On Lefebvre’s reckoning, though, liberalism has morphed into something much more encompassing, at least in democracies like Australia. Its ideas and sensibilities have come to permeate the background culture.

Lefebvre draws on pop culture references to make his case. I confess I’ve never watched Parks and Recreation and I’m not familiar with Beyonce’s lyrics, but I am a fan of another of his examples, The Good Place, a TV comedy that he says “makes moral philosophy cool and popular.” The series begins when its main character, Eleanor Shellstrop, dies and finds herself in “the good place,” an afterlife reserved for people who have lived exemplary lives. Admission is based on a rigorous if idiosyncratic accounting system: you gain some points by singing to a child, for example, but lose more for revving a motorcycle. Since Eleanor was a carelessly cruel narcissist flogging fake miracle cures to the old and vulnerable, she knows she should never have landed there. In Lefebvre’s words, she had failed the crucial liberal test of “not being an asshole.” (His book uses American spellings.) To avoid being expelled, she must use all her cunning to maintain a façade of goodness and cheat the system.

The Good Place’s morality — secular rather than divine — is familiar. It’s preoccupied with the mundane world of interpersonal relations rather than rewards and punishments handed down by a deity. As the show’s creator Michael Schur says, the only thing we can be certain of in life is that we are surrounded by other people, and the best we can do is treat them with “dignity and respect, hoping they do the same for you.” Eleanor’s transgression lies not in the sin of selfishness but in the pursuit of her desires without respect for other people, which erodes social bonds. The series is an exploration of generous liberalism (and its opposite) in entertaining half-hour bites.

Respect — evidenced in how we swear and insult — provides another example of how liberalism has vanquished rival world views. In the deeply religious Middle Ages, profane language involved sacrilege; in the Victorian era, profanities were linked to sex and excretion. Today, the most powerful obscenities demean and belittle on the basis of identity. The N-word and other racialised terms are obvious examples, as are insults targeting gender, sexuality, body shape or disability. Why the shift? According to Lefebvre, identity slurs are transgressive in the way blasphemy once was because they assault self-respect, “the single most important good that liberal democracies must strive to ensure for all of their members.” In other words, they breach the mainstream’s unspoken liberal values.

Lefebvre attributes the recent centrality of respect directly to John Rawls. So pervasive are his ideas, he writes, that we are familiar with Rawls before we read him. Many of us have barely heard of Rawls, of course, let alone tackled his long, technical and intricately argued books, and a great benefit of Liberalism as a Way of Life and Free and Equal is that they render complex ideas accessible and engaging — particularly Rawls’s cardinal principles of justice as fairness and how he arrived at them. This alone make both books worth reading.

Lefebvre casts Rawls as a swimming instructor. We start in the shallow end of the pool, comfortable with the liberal assumption that society should be organised as “a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.” Under Rawls’s gentle yet systematic tutelage, we paddle confidently forward. Before we know it, though, we find ourselves in much deeper water. We are still in the familiar surrounds of a liberal democracy with a market-based economy, but we are now logically committed to a fundamental overhaul of social arrangements, particularly when it comes to tackling the inequalities that markets generate.

Rawls’s starting point is hard to fault. The ideal of society as a fair system of cooperation is intuitively compelling and places reciprocity at the centre of human relationships. We understand ourselves and our fellow citizens as “self-interested and other regarding, rational and reasonable” — as people who “seek their own advantage and honour fair terms of cooperation.” This approach has “a powerful moral psychology built into it.”

But while the theory is appealing, it doesn’t accord with how we live. Selfishness often swamps cooperation, regard for others is often discarded and reason often succumbs to conspiracy theories. How else to explain Donald Trump, men’s coercive control over women, or the everyday venom of social media? If we’re soaking in liberal culture, as Lefebvre attests, it hasn’t inoculated us against more malign influences. And if he’d trailed a different comb through popular media, might he have found other ideologies permeating society? Even if liberalism has spread to every “nook and cranny” of our culture, it hasn’t dislodged less palatable ideologies breeding in dark corners.

Lefebvre is ready for this gripe. Despite our immersion in liberal values, he says, we don’t live in a liberal society, but in a shadow place he terms “liberaldom,” where freedom, equality and fairness are given little more than lip service. We believe that society should be a fair system of cooperation but lack confidence that it can be. The result is a kind of “zombie liberalism”: not completely dead because we’re not willing to kill it off, yet barely alive because we can’t muster the conviction needed to sustain it. We are pretend liberals in a pretend liberal world.

Lefebvre believes Rawls offers us a way out of this morass. But not in the way he’s usually understood.

Most writing about Rawls focuses on the reform of political and economic structures. Using this approach, Daniel Chandler opens his book by unpacking Rawls’s key concepts and responding to significant criticisms made by other philosophical luminaries, including Rawls’s Harvard colleague Amartya Sen and current Harvard scholar Michael Sandel. He then seeks to apply Rawlsian principles to contemporary society. Anyone with an egalitarian outlook will recognise key proposals, including much greater investment in early childhood education and care, deprioritising school “choice” in favour of an education system that gives every pupil a fair start, and higher taxes on corporations, wealth, inheritances and gifts.

Others of Chandler’s proposals might be less familiar. He wants predistribution rather than redistribution, with a focus on raising wages and reducing returns to capital. This could put him on the side of limitarians, who argue for caps on income and wealth. It’s not just that inequalities are best avoided rather than patched up through taxes and transfers, it’s also that Chandler agrees with Rawls that we can’t rely on government payments and welfare services to generate widely shared prosperity. Fairness is not simply a matter of more equal income and wealth distribution: it must also tackle “the concentration of economic power and control” and safeguard “opportunities for self-respect, including through work.”

In this vein, Chandler argues for an overhaul of industrial relations and offers the German example of co-determination, in which private and public sector workers elect directors to an enterprise’s governing body to have a say in setting vision and strategy. (This practice is so deeply engrained in Germany that I had trouble convincing a friend there that it isn’t also standard procedure in Australia.)

The second half of Lefebvre’s book, “Soulcraft for Liberals,” is quite different from Chandler’s. Rather than using Rawls’s political philosophy to reimagine social and economic structures, he switches gear. In his own words, he uses Rawls as a self-help guru, applying his wisdom to personal ethics in the search for a life that is “generous and free.” Lefebvre is not setting out to “fix liberaldom” but to help liberals live well within its confines.

These two things are not unrelated. A consistent Rawlsian doesn’t maximise personal wellbeing while watching the rest of the world go to hell in a handbasket. Living a good liberal life requires progressive engagement and collective action. Unlike established approaches to Rawls, though, Lefebvre’s focus is on the formation of individual character rather than a root-and-branch reform of social structures. This sees him straying close to the virtue ethics approach associated with Aristotle, who argued that we could excel at being human if we became skilled at being brave, fair, moderate and generous and honed our capacity of exercising wise but practical judgement.

Eleanor Shellstrop’s trajectory in The Good Place is relevant here. In her efforts to avoid being thrown out, she strives to act as if she really does respect the dignity of others. Over time, she comes to do so. She might end up as the exemplar of Lefebvre’s liberal person — free, generous and respectful — but her story of faking it until she makes it can also be read as a primer on virtue ethics.

Lefebvre’s novel approach to Rawls engages with a fundamental problem of political and moral philosophy, “the relationship between the government of the self and the government of others.” Plato, no fan of democracy, famously argued in The Republic for a special cadre of leaders — philosopher kings and queens — instilled from birth with the virtues required for wise decision making on behalf of the city. “For the ancients,” writes Lefebvre, “it was axiomatic that statecraft required prior soulcraft.”

But there is a chicken and egg question here: do we need to shape souls to transform the system or transform the system to shape souls? Clearly, as The Good Place argues, there is interplay between the two, but I am more drawn to the latter approach than the former, more drawn to Chandler’s application of Rawls as political philosophy than to Lefebvre’s use of his ideas as pedagogical tools in the formation of character.

I might resent paying higher taxes, for example, but were I forced to do so, resources would flow to the less affluent making the world a bit fairer. Over time, greater equality would reduce what Lefebvre calls the “nasty” emotions and attitudes fostered by modern societies that undermine liberalism, including “partiality, cynicism, rage, meaninglessness, and an ugly sense of entitlement.” Eventually, like Eleanor, I might even become generous.

But Lefebvre wants to lead me to generosity through deliberate practice. Aristotle compared the acquisition of the virtues with building a house or playing a musical instrument, things we can only learn by doing: “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Lefebvre urges us to practice at being good liberals by engaging in three “spiritual exercises” based on Rawlsian thinking.

The first draws on Rawls’s famous thought experiment, “the original position behind the veil of ignorance.” We’re invited to consider how we would want society to be organised if we had no idea what place we were to occupy within it — that is, if we were ignorant of our wealth, gender, ability, race, education and so on. Given that we might turn out to be nearer the bottom than the top, what kind of society would we design? Rigorously applied, this experiment can help us to think deeply about the principles of fairness, but it seems more an intellectual challenge than a “meditative exercise.”

The second exercise, “reflective equilibrium,” is an attempt to bring coherence to our moral thinking. “Many of our most serious conflicts are conflicts within ourselves,” wrote Rawls. “Those who suppose their judgements are always consistent are unreflective or dogmatic; not uncommonly they are ideologues and zealots.” It’s good advice: attempts to reconcile the contradictions in our ethical thinking can promote self-awareness and minimise hypocrisy.

The third exercise involves the application of “public reason.” This is about how we engage with one another, especially when we disagree, and is as much about listening as speaking. It requires us to offer reasons for our position that “respect the understanding of fellow citizens in a liberal democracy,” and to accept their counter arguments in good faith. “Only then is a civic conversation made civil.”

There can be little objection here, especially from someone like me, who spent a quarter of a century working at the ABC in the belief that independent public broadcasting is essential if Rawls’s public reason and “civic friendship” are to thrive. But public reason can devolve into admonishments to be polite, even when people have good reason to be outraged because they are on the receiving end of gross injustice.

This raises a broader problem. One of Lefebvre’s examples of the pervasiveness of liberalism in everyday life is that we take for granted that goods at the supermarket cost the same for everyone, regardless of class, race or any other characteristic. That lack of discrimination may be “liberalism in action,” but it’s no comfort to the homeless person who is barred entry, or the dark-skinned shopper trailed through the aisles by a watchful security guard. In theory, such unfair treatment is a function of liberaldom rather than liberalism, and reflects a failure to rigorously apply the correct principles. In practice it suggests an inadequate critique of power.

A cynic would argue that the purpose of liberalism is not to ensure that we live freely and equally but to give us the impression that we do so. It is a veneer that deflects from the true forms of domination that characterise society.

That’s not my view, but nor am I convinced by Lefebvre’s implication that liberalism has somehow been polluted by “other ideologies and systems, including capitalism (with its individualism, materialism and instrumentalism), democracy (with its latent populism)… and meritocracy (with its calculations of worth and reward).”

Rather than being separate from capitalism, democracy and meritocracy, liberalism is intrinsic to all three, not least because of how it conceptualises the human being. We are not only free and equal citizens, but also rational, independent, self-directed individuals.

That version of the self is threaded through the history of liberal thought. It can be found in Rawls’s rejection of paternalism, in John Stuart Mill’s emphasis on liberty, and in Kant’s preoccupation with autonomy. Its origins arguably lie with John Locke, who crystalised the notion that everyone has a property in their own person. We own ourselves, and therefore, we rightly own the products of our labour.

This was revolutionary thinking in the seventeenth century, with profound implications for a still-feudal system. It argued for a historical shift that would lay the foundations for widespread private property rights and turn subjects into citizens. But it also provided a convenient ideology for imperialism, including Australia’s own terra nullius, since the Lockean view was that any land that was not enclosed and tilled was not owned, and was, therefore, laying waste and free for the taking.

In some respects, the case that overturned terra nullius, Mabo, also drew on Locke’s ideas. The High Court heard, for example, that the Meriam people of Mer (Murray Island) had cultivated gardens and organised their houses in named villages. Title was recognised in part because continued occupation and use of the land was seen as evidence of ownership.

Subsequent liberal thinkers have expanded and challenged Locke’s ideas, but we must nevertheless grapple with fact that the liberal tradition is entangled with European colonisation, the expropriation of Indigenous lands, the destruction of cultures and the continuing oppression of women. Locke profited from the slave trade; Kant regarded women as incapable of rational thought and promulgated theories of racial hierarchy (in which, of course, Europeans were at the top); John Stuart Mill spent most of his working life in the employ of the East India Company.

All three men were creatures of their eras, and the standard argument in their defence is that their pioneering liberal ideas nevertheless provided intellectual grounds for challenging oppressive forces, including those they failed to see. But the history of ideas doesn’t run smoothly along rails of reason. Revised and expanded understandings of liberalism, ones that regard all people as equal, regardless of race or gender, can’t be ascribed only to Kant, Mill or Rawls busily scribbling away in their studies. This is not to downgrade the power of ideas but to recognise that emancipatory thinking is often pushed up from below, against staunch resistance, as the oppressed turn the language of their overlords against them.

Take the example of independence leader Toussaint Louverture, known as the “Black Spartacus,” a key figure in Haiti’s 1791 rebellion against slavery. Toussaint challenged the leaders of the colonial assembly on their own terms. “You, gentlemen, who pretend to subject us to slavery — have you not sworn to uphold the French Constitution? … Have you forgotten that you have formally vowed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which says that men are born free, equal in their rights; that their natural rights include liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression?”

Britain’s suffragettes engaged in public reason, but that alone was not enough to win women the vote. They organised — protesting, disrupting royal horse races, slashing paintings in National Gallery, engaging in hunger strikes — often at the risk of imprisonment and death.

It is not coincidental that Rawls’s landmark book, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971, after civil rights campaigners, black power activists and feminists had begun rattling the cages of the established order and inviting new ways to think about equality, fairness and opportunity in the land of the free.

While Rawls puts equality, and therefore, reciprocity front and centre, other liberal approaches come down harder on the side of freedom and don’t allow a compromise with genuine fairness.

To misappropriate a favourite phrase of John Howard’s, liberalism is a broad church, and while Rawls can find a pew, so can his antagonist Milton Friedman, who argued that state attempts to regulate markets and reduce inequality involved unacceptable restrictions on personal liberty.

Lefebvre might want to put Friedman under a different roof altogether, in the church of liberaldom, though he acknowledges that liberalism is a tradition that can support “contrasting and even conflicting ways of living.” Rawls’s and Friedman’s interpretations of free and equal may be very different, but in my view, they grow from the same roots — the idea that we move through the world as rational, autonomous individuals seeking to maximise our own advantage. When we sit behind the veil of ignorance in Rawls’s famous thought experiment, for example, we are not concerned with the fate of others, or at least only indirectly; our focus is on discovering principles of fairness that we think will be to our personal advantage, given that we could be anywhere in the social hierarchy.

While the individualistic liberal conception of the self can be used to generate a generous Rawlsian society based on reciprocity and a fair system of cooperation, it also enables a harsher understanding of society as a site of competition and rivalry — one that promotes a self-centred, “what’s in it for me” attitude. Rather than engage with public concerns and the welfare of others, we withdraw to pursue our private and often lonely lives. The discourse of rights meant to uphold dignity, degrades into a chorus of shrill claims and counter claims about who gets what and who can do what.

It’s not that the liberal conception of the human is completely wrong. As Chandler points out, one of liberalism’s strengths is that it equips us to protect ourselves against incursions from above and from the side — from an overweening state on the one hand, and from fellow citizens on the other.

Nevertheless, the liberal conception of the self is insufficient, and needs to be informed and supplemented by other approaches. For Australians in particular, an Indigenous conception of connection to Country can provide a necessary leavening. So too can a feminist ethic of care. To explore these, we need to put a few more planks of Rawlsian theory in place.

For Rawls, the central problem political liberalism must solve is this: “How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens who [also] remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?”

This requires a bit of unpacking. Rawls assumes that a variety of rival, but reasonable, worldviews coexist, none of which takes precedence over any other. He calls this “reasonable pluralism.” As Lefebvre writes, this makes liberalism “a uniquely nonteleological ideology”: it doesn’t offer us a shared conception of the good but allows each of us to seek our own version of the good in our own way. For Rawls, this is an essential component of freedom.

But if we don’t have a shared vision of a good society, how can we organise a fair system of cooperation? For Rawls the answer is found in the “overlapping consensus.” I visualise this as a Venn diagram, with many circles intersecting. In the middle ground where all connect are the core liberal principles, the idea of citizens as free and equal. If I am an atheist and you’re a devout Catholic, we will have many moral and political arguments; yet, if Rawls is right, we can still agree wholeheartedly on fundamental concepts, sufficient to build and embrace a shared understanding of justice. This is not a grudging contract that requires either of us to compromise our core beliefs, but an agreement that accords with our deepest convictions.

Some worldviews don’t overlap with the consensus on the Venn diagram because, in Rawls’s terms, they are unreasonable. An ideology of racial superiority, for example, is inherently illiberal, because it doesn’t accept the proposition that we are free and equal. Few of us would have any reservations about liberalism’s effort to contain such views. But there are more nuanced challenges to the liberal worldview that are not illiberal so much as non-liberal. This is especially true in settler-colonial states like Australia.

Under the Rawlsian conception, we engage as free and equal citizens in an implicit social contract. Compare this with the Aboriginal view of governance presented by scholars Mary Graham and Morgan Brigg in a series of articles for the ABC. “Political order arises because Aboriginal people are relationally embedded in a sentient landscape (or ‘Country’) with each other and other-than-human beings.” While liberalism “tends to relegate questions of ethics to individual choice” based on an assumed universal reason, in Indigenous political thought, “ethical conduct is continually affirmed and managed through relations with Country, kin, and ancestor figures.” We are not so much free and equal as relational and obligated.

For Rawls, a state is only legitimate when it exercises coercive power in line with principles that free and equal citizens can all endorse based on our common human reason. In his fascinating book Can Liberal States Accommodate Indigenous Peoples?, Duncan Ivison asks a telling question: can a society still shaped by colonialism satisfy this liberal standard of legitimacy? His short answer is no. Why should First Nations peoples accept the state established through a process of “dispossession, war, genocide, racial supremacy and political domination” and which, despite their resistance and resilience, continues to fail in its duty to treat them as free and equal or defend their pre-existing rights?

Rawlsian liberalism “is inherently forward looking and not backward looking,” argues Ivison. Even at its most generous, it offers no meaningful response the injustices of Australia’s past. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon liberalism. Rather, he says, we need to stretch and strain its constitutional and political fabric to develop “a shared set of practices and reasons for going on together.”

His conclusion (written before the No vote in the Voice referendum) is optimistic: “Grappling with the ongoing reality of the political domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples within existing liberal democratic states, strange as it may seem, offers a chance to reimagine contemporary liberalism.”

Graham and Brigg also believe that Aboriginal political philosophy is not incompatible with liberalism but that “each tradition can serve as a useful vantage point to reveal the shortcomings of the other in the building of a more ethical polity.”

In Rawls’s view, writes Lefebvre, “citizens in a liberal democracy regard themselves as capable of taking charge of own affairs and goals.” As responsible and self-directed, we are competent to assess and adjust our life plans and no one is entitled to make decisions for us “outside of special situations of parenthood or guardianship” (my emphasis).

That telling exception shines a critical light on the liberal conception of the self. Take a moment to think about it. We spend a considerable proportion of our lives in Rawls’s “special situations” — that is, in various degrees of intimate dependency. Most of our childhood falls into this category, as might some of our old age, as well as periods when we are sick or otherwise incapacitated. Through much, sometimes all, of our lives we rely on others to care for us, and either make decisions on our behalf, or assist us in making decisions that we cannot manage alone.

Even when don’t depend on others in this way, our decisions are not unencumbered. I wouldn’t decide to take on a new job, for example, without consulting my partner and discussing the implications for our family, particularly our responsibilities to care for children or elderly parents.

Rawlsian liberalism, according to Lefebvre, poses the question “do I value personal independence and assume that how I live is mainly a matter for me to figure out?” His answer is yes, and together with other aspects of personal freedom this is crucial to who we are, although this liberal identity is leavened by equally powerful considerations of fairness. Still, the emphasis is on individual autonomy.

From the perspective of the ethics of care, this approach undervalues the intimate webs of connection and interdependency in which we are all entangled. The moral significance of such bonds is diminished, even though such relationships are the very stuff that gives our lives meaning.

Liberalism treats associations as equal and freely made. But as the late New Zealand-born philosopher, Annette Baier pointed out, this is untrue of many of our most significant relationships. Families offer a telling example. Parents have overwhelming power over children, and children do not choose the family they are born into. Nor, initially at least, do we choose our nationality, ethnicity, class, religion or other social relations that profoundly shape our lives.

From Rawls, we draw a notion of justice focussed on individual autonomy, equality, impartiality and the fair distribution of resources. These are essential considerations at the heart of liberalism; an ethic of care complements them by emphasising the importance of trust, attentiveness and supportive engagement in the lives of others.

Rawls’s principles of justice as fairness would have us design systems that are geared to favour the least advantaged members of society. Yet the opposite is often true. Whether it’s housing or superannuation, school funding or capital gains tax, the greatest benefits generally flow to the already wealthy.

But if we fail to live as liberals, Lefebvre warns, liberalism’s significant gains will be undone. Our first response to waning democratic enthusiasm, warns Chambers, should be to “acknowledge the shortcomings of existing institutions — the ways in which the rich are able to dominate the political process; the poverty, inequality and insecurity generated by modern capitalism — and transform them so that they are genuinely worth of people’s allegiance.”

But as Lefebvre acknowledges, “the hard truth is that many worthy human goods do not flourish in liberal soil.” On this list he includes bravery, solidarity, loyalty, compassion, and self-sacrifice: all good reasons why liberalism needs to be enriched by other perspectives — ones that recognise our profound interdependence and our obligations to one another and the natural world. •

Liberalism as a way of life
By Alexandre Lefebvre | Princeton University Press | $34.99 | 296 pages

Free and Equal: What Would A Fair Society Look Like?
By Daniel Chandler | Allen Lane | $55 | 416 pages

Can Liberal States Accommodate Indigenous Peoples?
By Duncan Ivison | Polity Press | $20.95 | 140 pages