Classical Liberal thinkers held that we're all born free, equal, and capable of rationality. So how does that square with a British Empire that denied people around the globe their autonomy for centuries?
What Is It
Many democracies are founded on the ideals of 18th- and 19th-Century British Liberalism: the idea that human beings deserve the right to self-government because we are born free, equal, and capable of rationality. Yet Liberalism was used to justify colonialism, which deprived people around the world of the right to govern themselves. How could a political philosophy that claims to be pro-freedom be used to take freedom away from so many people? Was Liberalism misunderstood, or were its moral flaws built-in from the beginning? How can we design a political philosophy that liberates everyone, not just the citizens of a few wealthy and powerful nations? Josh and Ray talk liberally with Uday Singh Mehta from the CUNY Graduate Center, author of Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought, for an episode generously sponsored by the Stanford Global Studies program.
Josh and Ray open the show with a back and forth debate on the colonialism practiced by the British empire and the United States. Ray points out that the British justified their colonial rule through philosophical liberalism, which appears contradictory given the ideology’s emphasis on rationality, freedom, and self-governance. Josh responds that the problem was not in the ideology itself, but rather their ill practice of it.
The hosts are joined by guest Uday Singh Mehta, a professor of political science at the City University of New York. On the topic of liberalism, Uday argues that political liberalism under the views of Locke and Mill was the most oppressive. According to their view, rationality preceded freedom. Moreover, colonial powers regarded their liberal ideas as universal ones. They oppressed other groups by withholding freedom and attempting to teach them to become rational under their own standards. Other forms of liberalism like economic liberalism, associated with Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, paved the way for capitalism as a result of ideas like private property and free trade.
In the last segment of the show, Ray questions if liberalism is a futile ideology, and by extension, if other political ideologies are better alternatives. In response to the latter, Uday envisions a humbler ideology, one that maintains notions of justice and equality but does not speak in terms of power and nations. Following the views of Burke and Gandhi, who were both committed to patience, Uday concludes that time, courage, and preserving culture matters.
- Roving Philosophical Report (4:52): Holly J. McDede provides a report on the Haitian Revolution and its historical accounts and literature. Co-authors of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolution, Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg, speak on the lack of acknowledgement of the Haitian Revolution. Furthermore, they dissect the legacy of Louverture and the revolution as a whole on the American civil war, anti-colonial movements, and Black Lives Matter.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (45:15): Ian Shoales addresses the passing of Queen Elizabeth and opens a broader topic of discussion on post-colonial America and the continued division and strife among its people.
Are freedom and equality all we need?
Or do liberal ideals just end up supporting oppression?
How can we make sure that justice is for everybody?