Liberalism: Theirs and Ours

Ariel Glaria

Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes

HAVANA TIMES — I can count the number of books about economics that I own with the fingers of one hand, and few of the volumes written by the authors dearest to me are devoted to the subject. People may or may not identify with this, but I do believe there is a relationship between this fact and what I want to comment on today.

The most recent historical developments on our continent have made the word “liberalism” something of a commonplace, but the concept behind this term has been linked to our schools of thought for at least two hundred years.

The difference now is that its current political connotations are associated to a number of significant traumas our societies have experienced. It is not my intention to delve into this phenomenon deeply. I want, rather, to point out a conceptual difference which I believe distances our liberalism from the Anglo-Saxon kind.

English liberalism took definitive shape in the 18th century with the doctrine of “laissez-faire” and its defense by such economists as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, to mention only two. Both of these economic thinkers also cultivated the fine arts and prose writing. The two devoted part of their writings to the defense of the East India Company, that is to say, England’s colony in India and the copious benefits the latter afforded the English crown. For these two thinkers, freedom was tantamount to free trade devoid of any administrative fetters.

This school of thought branched out and had an influence on English arts, jurisprudence and science. It was the century of the industrial revolution.

This form of liberalism, as can be deduced, has its roots in a rational and economic mentality. It is no accident that, more than a hundred years after its emergence, an English writer of such appealing sensitivity as Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) embraced the cause of British control over India.

Latin American liberalism, on the other hand, has roots in the more fertile soil of the French Enlightenment and its postulates of equality. It was therefore originally critical and strongly linked, by dint of its background, to the constitutional.

Our thinkers, poets and founders conceived the world in terms of a freedom whose center and measure was man himself – a worldview more closely linked to Saint Thomas of Aquinas’ “distributive justice” and, later, Rousseau’s “social contract”, than to the steam-ship and railway.

Let us recall how a number of the founding fathers of our countries where also Church Fathers (Father Hidalgo, precursor of Mexican independence, and the Cuban Presbyterian and philosopher Felix Varela, are two examples).

Latin American liberal thought was always closer to the spirit than the wallet. Its originality is caught sight of in its critical and emotional essence. Its frustration, by contrast, stems from the imposition of postulates that have no roots among the vast majority of our populations.

Even today, the concept of freedom in our culture is more closely associated to a moral rather than an economic condition, to what is sustained by tradition (including evils) rather than free trade. On the other hand, Anglo-Saxon liberal postulates, which have taken root to the north of our continent, have more to do with trade and profits than any tenets that would make for the commercial integration of neighboring nations.

The two must overcome the age-old antagonism that divides them and find the enlightenment needed for reconciliation.

One thought on “Liberalism: Theirs and Ours

  • Thanks for a thought provoking article. Please excuse me for making what is a critical point. You speak of Adam Smith as English – he was a Scot. and part of the Scottish Enlightenment. England became a part of Great Britain in 1603 and immediately following the Coronation of James VI of Scotland (where he had been King for fifteen years) and his wife as Queen Consort in April 1604, the titles of King and Queen of England then became extant. There have been no Kings or Queens of Engand since that time. Later Queen Victoria adopted the title of Empress of India, which was discarded by George VI. The current Monarch is Queen Elizabeth 11 as Queen of the United Kingdom (England and Scotland) and Northern Ireland, Her overseas Dominions and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth (which comprises some 70 countries). Defender of the faith. (Church of England)
    The Scottish National Church is the Church of Scotland, which being Presbyterian and liberal elects as Head, a Moderator who holds office for two years.
    Scotland had a prolonged relationship with France in common against England known as “The Auld Alliance” You refer to the Cuban Presbyterian and philosopher Felix Varela – Presbyterianism being Scottish. I say this because Scots – particularly Northern Scots have for generations been liberal thinkers, not to be confused with the English Whigs
    Thank you again!

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