Raymond Aron’s Liberal Virtues (Paul T. Wilford, Ethan Cutler, Mar 01 2024, City Journal)

Liberal democracy stakes its claim to justice on securing individual liberty for each by granting legal and political equality to all. […]

At the heart of Aron’s lecture is a penetrating threefold distinction among kinds of liberties—the personal, the political, and the social—that he employs to correct the abstract thinking that keeps us from recognizing, and thus from making good use of, the rights we already enjoy.

Aron elaborates his typology of liberties beginning with personal liberties, which he defines as the protection of individuals from various forms of coercion. Among them are freedom of movement, choice of employment, and freedom of conscience, which, in increasingly secular societies, has grown from religious liberty to include the freedom to express differing political ideologies—even those that are illiberal or anti-liberal. Such guarantees of personal independence are complemented by the political liberties that assure citizens the possibility of active participation in the political process, which “may be summed up by three words: voting, protesting, and assembling.” Mediating between the personal and the political are the social liberties, which depend immediately on material welfare without directly involving either political participation or freedom from coercion. These include the aims of the welfare state, such as “the liberty of being cared for, or that of being educated,” as well as the freedom of groups (such as unions) to organize for their interests within civil society. This final kind of liberty mitigates the socioeconomic inequalities that are a necessary consequence of equality before the law.

If Aron’s stress on the reality of individual liberty indicates his distance from the Left, his defense of forms of collective liberty distinguishes him from the libertarian Right. But Aron cannot be pinned on such a spectrum––not even in its center—because each position on it prizes a particular kind of liberty above others, which is just what he avoids. When liberal democracies are at their best, Aron observes, personal, political, and social liberties counterbalance rather than subsume one another. Liberal regimes flourish, he maintains, when personal, social, and political liberties check and balance one another; they decay when just one form of liberty is considered the true end of political life, rendering the others mere means.