By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, May 9, 2022: Existence of life and its continuance presuppose coexistence of personal liberties like freedom to breathe, freedom to eat and drink, freedom to think, freedom to express oneself, freedom to sleep and dream, freedom to communicate verbally or in writing, or singing, dancing, and performing, freedom to travel, freedom to stay at home, or elsewhere. They are inseparable from life.

The concept of liberal society flows out the word liberty which is the freedom of the individual to do as he/she pleases, limited only by the authority of a politically organized society to regulate his action to secure the public health, safety, or morals or of other recognized social interests. It is generally understood that freedom of an individual is subject to restraints imposed by State to safeguard the physical, moral, political, and economic welfare of others.

State comes into being for life and continues for good life, says Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher. Existence of State is, therefore, for protection of life from which flows personal liberties. In absence of State life will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short according to Hobbes, the English political philosopher. He postulates Leviathan meaning the State maintains and preserves order in the society.

The State is there to regulate life to avoid inconvenience since freedom of one may impinge on freedom of other according to Locke. What kind of life it will be if there are no personal liberties?

Liberalism has grown to include individual rights, civil rights and human rights, electoral democracy, adult suffrage, secularism, rule of law, economic and political freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion etc. It pre-supposes the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances between branches of government, multi-party system etc.

Some liberal thoughts suggest government has also the responsibility to manage the economy in such a manner that unemployment is low, inflation is in check and growth is high and steps are taken towards reduction of economic inequality. Even some advocate autonomy of institutions and minimizing the activities of state, free association, freedom of choice, individualism and voluntary association.

Liberals also believe that a nation must tolerate all religions, sects, ethnic origin, linguistic groups, and actively promote gender equality, and in recent times they propagate equality of status and respect for LGTB. From these developments emerge rights of minorities, children and physically handicapped. They oppose the uncontrolled power of dynastic rulers. Political architecture should be based on a State governed by a constitution whether written or unwritten.

Many will also advocate that respect of international law; rule based international order would come under the broad umbrella of liberalism. International legal instruments based on Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitute the fountain head of personal liberties and rights. International Criminal Court created under the Rome Convention is the logical outcome of libertine values. All these reflect that sovereignty of State is not absolute. It is subject to international law limiting its authority not only vis-à-vis other sovereign States but also vis-à-vis its own citizens and subjects. Even aliens have human rights.

For quite sometime the liberal philosophy encapsulated the idea of right of self determination in territorial entity based on religion, language, ethnicity, culture of people.

Foundation of a liberal society is based on tolerance. It is the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior with which one does not necessarily agree. Forbearance is an element in tolerance which underlies patience, self-control, restraint and liberality is the quality of being open to innovative ideas and free from prejudice.

If one studies working of most of the countries one will find written constitution and laws which have grown under it encompassing all that has been described as features of liberal society although Britain does not have a written constitution but its conventions, customs, usages, practices, judicial decisions and laws passed by Parliament over centuries are considered as the bedrock of the constitution.

A fundamental question, however, comes up in the mind at this stage is whether practices in real life reflect what may exist in constitution. The constitution and laws may be one thing, but the reality can be different.

Can liberal society exist if the state machinery is not liberal? If law enforcement officials are not free from prejudice with regard to religion, race, language, sect, and caste, what will be the fate of people? Can society be liberal if the vast majority of people do not subscribe to the essence of that philosophy?

Can the society be liberal if there is extreme inequality or extreme poverty? If we read the reports published by Oxfam, we find more than ninety percent of global wealth is in the hands less than five percent of global population. Economists like Atkinson and Thomas Piketty have written most authoritative texts on this global phenomenon. As regards extreme poverty, according to World Bank it is 736 million in 2015.

Can the society which is diverse in nature be liberal if all key positions in the state machinery are held by people belonging to one religion, sect, linguistic group, caste, ethnicity, or region?

Can the society be liberal if there is concentration of wealth in a group either based on race, religion, linguistic group and caste etc. Can there be liberal society if election is based on money power and muscle power? Should not the political parties contesting in election seeking power have intra-party democracy like election to party posts, free criticism of the working of the party? Should not their sources of funding be subject to internal and public scrutiny? Should not there be tenure limitation of public posts and also party posts?

All political leaders, civil servants high or low, judges, legislators, holders of constitutional and statutory posts, members of media, academia, religious leaders, and civil society should introspect and ask these questions to them.

Pursuit for a liberal society, and not ersatz liberal society should be the aim and also relentless.

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