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On Comprehensive Liberalism, Political Liberalism, and Ideology


The heated debate (in academic circles at least) over the difference between comprehensive liberalism and political liberalism eludes applied liberal thought, in whatever corner of the globe such thinking takes place. The Rawlsian categorization of liberalism as political or comprehensive is superfluous. Rawls’ political liberalism is built on liberal axioms which constitute most of the values of “comprehensive” liberalism, except that it takes them not as core values but as epistemological givens. On the other hand, when comprehensive liberalism finds itself in power, it perforce becomes political liberalism. The latter is, in practice, akin to a political ideology and, in this sense, it is comprehensive. The political version of any doctrine has to become more comprehensive than the non-political version.

A first thought

It is claimed that political liberalism manages a pluralist state system that protects the right of citizens to live by, adhere to, and detach themselves from comprehensive doctrines concerning the good life, given that these doctrines can be presented and defended with reasonable arguments. As political liberalism does not impose a liberal doctrine, it presumes that the overwhelming majority agrees on the constitutional principles from which it proceeds in practice.

Liberals in power are politically liberal. Outside of government, they have the right to practice their liberal beliefs as they understand them. But they cannot run the state according to a comprehensive doctrinal liberalism with a stance on what constitutes “the good life,” because they would need the institutions of the state to impose it.

John Rawls’ claim that comprehensive liberalism is more inclined to be imposed through the instruments of state coercion cannot be validated either theoretically or empirically. People who hold comprehensive liberal beliefs are (despite my reservations about this designation) the most likely to oppose the use of state coercion to impose their beliefs. Their commitment to civil liberties and their firm convictions concerning restricting the powers of the state prevent this. These liberals are the most averse to government intrusion into society, the most inclined to limit state interventions that could infringe upon individual liberties, and the most eager to empower people to avail themselves of their freedoms. It is this logic that led these liberals not only to accept but to demand social welfare policies.

Since political liberalism is concerned with running the state and has little meaning unless it is performing or actively striving to perform this task, it needs constitutional safeguards from the volatility of majority rule in democratic systems. Take, for example, the recent populist tide sweeping across democratic societies where the illiberal right is taking advantage of democratic rules and principles to push through legislation that contradicts political liberalism. Or take the spread of a general mood that is hostile to the existence of constitutional guarantees for rights and liberties which guide the work of unelected bodies. Crises stemming from the conflict between liberalism versus democracy, i.e., between governance according to liberal values and governance according to the will of the majority, have recurred with near regularity since these two aspects of liberal democracies converged in the twentieth century. Ultimately, such crises are useful in that they enable the system to readjust in their wake, but only on the condition that state institutions protect the values of political liberalism.

One reading of conditions in liberal democratic countries could lead to the antithetical conclusion that it is political liberalism that needs to be enforced by the state (at least in times of outbreaks of the above mentioned crises), while comprehensive liberalism could be allowed to turn into a subculture and even a lifestyle based on certain values that the middle classes choose to live by, to defend or not, or to observe with varying degrees of authenticity or hypocrisy. Such a trend might find itself insulated from sociopolitical processes unfolding among broader segments of society. For instance, when attempting to dictate the mores of political correctness upon society at large, so-called comprehensive liberals are shocked by the populist tide and the growing influence of groups who resent such attempts as patronizing.

Comprehensive liberalism, which defends a particular concept of “the good life,” in my opinion is liberalism outside of government. This is because attempts to impose its ideology – beyond protecting and enabling access to freedoms and personal autonomy – will prove self-defeating and risk lapsing into illiberalism.

Political liberalism is no more or less than liberalism in power; a liberalism that has been put to the test of governing. Philosophical discussions abound (within moral and political philosophy and jurisprudence) about the dilemmas different liberal currents face when in government regarding the degree of state intervention in the economy, the meaning of equality, whether there is such a thing as collective rights or whether only individual rights are valid. Advocates of collective rights are themselves split between those who see these rights as derived from the individual’s right to voluntary association and those who accept that group rights can be attributed to a community. The latter, in turn, are divided concerning the extent to which the rights of the group take precedence over the rights of the individual and over the protection of individual freedoms within groups.

Discussions contributing to such debates have been published in hundreds of books and thousands of articles. I know of no more “comprehensive” range of issues, and this is the challenge that faces liberalism. Do political liberal approaches differ in their ethical judgements on these issues? They do. From this perspective, political liberalism is more comprehensive than comprehensive liberalism as it deals with different aspects of the life of individual societies and the state, in addition to having to contend with the ambiguities of comprehensive liberalism regarding the relationship between values and practices.

A second thought

The foregoing conclusion is consistent with other conclusions that may be reached from the perspective of life under authoritarian regimes, where liberalism outside the power structures may still be classed as political liberalism. Such a classification is possible because it occasionally reveals itself within the regime through proposals for reform programs aimed at broadening the scope of freedom of expression and civil liberties or via the demands of political opposition forces.

At the social level in these states, doctrinal liberal thought and lifestyles – as informed by principles of the moral autonomy of the individual, civil rights, and personal liberties (of both men and women) – may clash with authoritarian practices. But they might simultaneously clash with other opposition doctrinal movements seeking to change the system of governance and use the state to impose their creed.

Since the collapse of the communist regime in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, most of the world’s ruling authoritarian regimes are no longer totalitarian: they do not impose an all-embracing doctrine upon society and institutions. Today, the majority of such regimes justify their existence with arguments based on the principle of sovereignty, national interests, matters of security and stability, people’s alleged cultural incompatibility with democracy, and, increasingly, what they term the failure of liberalism in the West. All authoritarian regimes require a great degree of physical and psychological violence to secure their stability. Usually, there are some opposition circles that espouse comprehensive illiberal doctrines. They may be marginal, but the authorities use them to discourage change.

An interesting development has occurred in this context. Rather than coming in comprehensive versus political forms, liberalism has split into a version that espouses political and civil liberties and anti-despotic principles, and another solely focused on the individual, in the sense of personal freedoms and lifestyle choices (again, I disregard here the neoliberals who confine liberalism to the economy, as I do not consider them liberals to begin with). Paradoxically, this latter liberalism of personal liberties and lifestyles might find itself more comfortable with some existing authoritarian regimes since, even though those regimes suppress political activism and civil liberties, they are not greatly concerned with the individual’s personal freedoms.

When doctrinal liberals in authoritarian states think politically, they may arrive at the conviction that they should postpone the struggle for personal freedoms at the political level in favor of proposing a liberal program for a system of governance that promises political plurality open to adherents of diverse comprehensive doctrines and safeguards for the protection of civil rights and the individual’s moral autonomy. But this can prove to be a form of self-deception. Overthrowing the existing regime without waging a struggle for the core values of liberalism – at least at the level of political elites – could open up a route to power for forces that are only committed to political pluralism for electoral purposes, rather than to protecting liberties or individual moral autonomy.

The presence of political elites committed to political liberal principles, regardless of their doctrinal disagreements, is essential in the aftermath of the overthrow of a despotic regime. At such a moment, the dominant popular culture, after decades of living under authoritarian rule, is unlikely to commit itself easily to something akin to a liberal constitutional or overlapping consensus. Nor will civil and political liberties have taken root in public culture.

It is often said that liberalism is a normative theory and therefore a branch of ethics. At the level of university courses and academic conferences, this may be true. But in social and political conflict, liberalism becomes an ideology. It is in this context that the quality of being comprehensive takes on meaning. Philosophical liberalism cannot be comprehensive in this sense; it is always abstract, even when it is complex enough to have developed a complete philosophical system. Conversely, ideology can be comprehensive, though not necessarily in the sense of a totalitarian or all-encompassing dogma. Rather, it is comprehensive in its embeddedness in society and in relating to various aspects of life, culture (language, religion, mores, etc.), and interests. It thus becomes able to address the people by tying liberties to their culture, interests, and sense of patriotism; and to present its liberal political program for the liberation of the individual and society. When it departs the realm of philosophy to engage in the down-to-earth realities of political and social conflict, liberalism finds that it must be comprehensive because it is political. Accordingly, liberals call, for instance, for individual and society’s liberation from tyranny without alienating the people by upsetting the foundations of the dominant religious culture. They recognize that they must offer solutions to the poor, who will not understand a notion of political liberty that fails to address their economic plight. Meanwhile, a “liberal” for whom a progressive personal lifestyle is the core issue can coexist with a secular authoritarian regime. Such a liberal can agree with others whose “liberalism” is restricted to the market economy in order to turn a blind eye to daily human rights abuses or to convince the ruling authoritarian regime to accept World Bank and International Monetary Fund prescriptions in exchange for further loans.

Azmi Bishara, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Qatar <>