Indonesia | Economics

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Being a liberal

Professor Alan Blinder, Princeton economist, has a litmus test for a true liberal – at least, in the modern American sense. “Walk into a room where [a man] is watching football. If his favorite team is not involved, he will always be rooting for the underdog or for the team that is way behind”. Having rooted for Ecuador and Ghana (and having fancied neither) in the World Cup’s second round, I must be a true liberal, then.

Notice that I qualify such liberalism as a modern American one – represented in the United States (US) by the Democratic Party. It’s a rather different animal than the kind proposed by 18th century philosophers, notably J.S. Mills, who emphasise protection for individual rights (including the rights to property and trade) from the power of the state. This kind of liberalism is often associated with the Republican Party.

Guess what: I am also that kind of a liberal.

This rambling about to-be-or-not-to-be-a-liberal began when my good friend, Philips Vermonte, a political scientist now studying for his PhD in the US, somewhat objected to my calling him a liberal. He sought for possible reasons for my putting him in a “Fellow Indonesian Liberal” category – only to find it in the fact that he had more web-links to “liberal” (read: right-minded, market-oriented) friends than to more left-minded friends.

For an American reader, this must have sounded quite odd: shouldn’t it be the other way around?

But coming from Indonesia, this, certainly, is not the only available interpretation of “liberalism”. The last time the word went public, it was in a fatwa – a religious edict – of the Indonesian Ulemma Council, which considered it an evil ideology. I am not a hundred percent sure what the Council meant with the word, though I can imagine why religious councils would condemn an ideology respecting individual interpretation of holy texts (though I can imagine that most Indonesians who supported the fatwa were associating “liberalism” with “a liberal lifestyle” which includes sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll). It won’t be the first time in human history.

But I’m digressing. The point I was making (if there was any in the first place), is that for me, being a liberal should transcend economic-ideological line of centre-left and centre-right (e.g., between Keynesian and neoclassic). Liberalism, at its essence, is about respect of individuals. Whether one thinks that such respect would be better served by a little more market, or a little more government, is a matter of taste. But the far-left (totalitarian communism or), far-right (to quote Kwik Kian Gie, in lack of a better term, “free-fight liberalism”), and far-up (religious fundamentalism) ideologies – now, they are the true non-liberals.

Going back to my dear friend, I really can’t see him supporting any of the three ideologies I just mentioned. In fact, when I checked his supposed “non-liberal” friends, I found all of them to be liberals – promoting individual rights to choose (religions, what to wear, what to think, what to say), or to be (e.g., a woman). I hope, this clarifies – just in case I get tempted to start including M. Vermonte’s “other friends” next time.


  • Bung, nice try!...:-)

    I am not objecting you calling me a liberal. The truth is: I am surprised for this is the first time I am being classified as a liberal. With the kind of explanation of what constitute 'a true liberal' you just gave us, well, we are all liberals then....

    and 'far-up'? what a nice term you coin... What's the opposite? far-down? who are they?...he..he

    btw, I copy-paste your post to my blog. In case some people also need this sort of explanation. Then you can convert more people...:-)

    By Anonymous philips vermonte, at 6/28/2006 03:35:00 pm  

  • Continuing from this comment thread
    Three things:

    First, why, if anything, would radical muslims use my categorization to attach Gus Dur. Especially since most of them think it already anyway.

    Second, as much as I'd love to be recognized as the first person to think of Gus Dur as a liberal politician, I am not. Just Google "Abdurrahman-Wahid liberal" and you'll see hundreds of entries. So, the classification was not original - most political scientists think it first.

    Finally, what's wrong with (Christian) Liberal Theologians. They are the best kind.

    By Blogger Arya, at 8/25/2006 10:17:00 pm  

  • Re: liberal theologians, they are what we called 'non main stream'. The obvious dangerous of this theology is, that they don't believe in Trinitarian doctrine nor Jesus as Son of God. You may know John Dominic Crossan who has a reputation as a liberal theologian for his role in the Jesus Seminar. Liberal Christianity started in good foot but has since parted in opposite direction than main stream Christianity.

    The same kind of thinking (there's only 1 true Islam)goes against liberal moslem. The movement is getting stronger in various parts of Moslem world. It's been used successfully in country like Iran. I honestly don't know if it has started in Indonesia.

    By Blogger SMAK1-1985, at 8/28/2006 12:21:00 am  

  • I am an economist, not a theologian, so I'll refrain from this debate on theology.

    And yes, there are liberal moslems in Indonesia and they are pluralists' and minorities' best friends.

    By Blogger Arya, at 8/28/2006 01:16:00 am  

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