Liberalism as a set of social and political attitudes not associated with any political cult originated in 19th century in Europe. It does not identify itself with any political party though some parties profess this as a movement in their manifestos. Liberalism focuses on emancipation from feudal and monarchical control, further emphasizing on economic theory such as laissez faire. Freedom to join any organization, freedom of speech and belief, and freedom of any action that does not hurt anyone are also supported by its followers. Modern liberal parties existing in most democratic states, though not necessarily under that title, tend to argue that conflict between capitalism and some form of socialism or Marxism is misplaced. They place focus on talents, capacities and needs of actual individuals.
Liberal democracy is a form of representative democracy. By this, a kind of indirect rule of majority through legitimately-chosen representatives amongst whom executive is selected to run the affairs of the state including lawmaking through assembly is professed. While the liberal aspect is related to safeguarding civil and natural rights, and the system is expected to enshrine them in values like due process of law, equality before law, freedom of speech/assembly, protection for minorities, equal opportunities, etc. are central to the political culture and are also enshrined in the constitution and are protected by courts. The fear emanates from the unhampered majoritarian democracy as unbound representatives in the assembly thwart the desires of the electorate by not acting upon their collective will. One such example is the issue of capital punishment in many countries where it is still in the doldrums despite a strong majority in its favour.
Emanating from such developments is the belief that all men have a certain set of rights which are indefeasible, cannot be given up and may not be taken away. This is called libertarianism holding extreme versions of liberal capitalist beliefs. Even modified versions of libertarianism have been set out by some political thinkers like Robert Nozick, John Rawls and von Hayek. According to Hayek, state intervention is opposed not because it involves reduction in rights, but because it threatens human autonomy which is taken as the basic value. The state intervention in life decreases happiness of human life rather than development of human ingenuity, as stated by J.S. Mill. The maximization of happiness, the old utilitarian aim is as much opposed by libertarians as is socialism.
The main assumption of one of the thinkers, John Rawls, was that the principal task of government is to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives. It seems that communitarians have sought to deflate the universal pretensions of liberal theory as highlighted above. It propounds that standard of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence they can vary from society to society and from context to context. Another feature of this theory is to work out the rules for consensus in political communities where people are willing to go for consensus. The liberal societies must demonstrate tolerance and for this they need not be democratic but non-aggressive towards other communities and must also have common good conception of justice that includes a reasonable consultation hierarchy to achieve the ultimate goal.
In justifying this viewpoint on communitarian, the liberal societies of the West have been ignored or undermined. Non-liberal societies that may be as good as the liberal societies of the West do not explain the ideal of the intimate reciprocating local community bound by shared ends. In such an environment, people assume and fulfil their socially adopted roles.
The conflict is between liberal democracies where on the one hand liberal democratic political arrangements are emphasized while on the other, the communitarian values are where the interests of the society take precedence over that of the individual. Hegel’s idea of freedom was based on the notion that an individual finds his true personality and freedom in the state. This represents a reaction against the notion of freedom born of natural rights. Man has no inalienable rights; his freedom is the gift of the state which not only enhances it but also secures it. An individual’s freedom is through civic institutions and environment created by the state. The present age is of continuous endeavours to ensure and safeguard the individual liberties. However, one cannot ignore the cultural and environmental realities of any given society while formulating any such scheme of ideas.
The discourse on different aspects as put forwarded by different proponents necessitates the need to have cross-cultural dialogue to reach at some kind of general consensus by admitting universal moral principles instead of thinking that only their own are universally true and beyond any mistake.