Politics is full of slippery words, but none is harder to pin down than ‘liberal’. In America, to be a liberal is to be on the left of the political spectrum; in many parts of Europe, the opposite is the case. In Britain, it all depends on which words you use in combination with 'liberal' and whether or not you capitalise the initial letters. Most perplexing of all is Denmark, where the Liberals are the main party of the centre-right, but whose name in Danish – Venstre – literally means ‘Left’.

But if the terminology is confusing, then the ideology is even worse. Because, as Wilfred McClay explains in a brilliant essay for First Things, the philosophy of liberalism is riven with contradictions:

  • "…there are two basic ways we can understand liberalism. The first, and older… is above all a doctrine upholding the independence and supreme value of the individual person as a free agent who bears fundamental rights that exist prior to and independently of government…" 

The second and newer kind of liberalism "saw the achievement of a high degree of equality as the essential precondition for the exercise of any meaningful political liberty":

  • "The goal of [this kind of] liberalism… was still ultimately about the establishment of a society of free and equal citizens. But the means of achieving that goal were changing dramatically. Thus began the transformation of what had been a philosophy of limited government into a philosophy of expansive and activist government…" 

Crucially, the first kind of liberalism still survives in the form of a "fundamental commitment to the ideal of the autonomous self, boundless in its desires, and the self-legitimating creator of its own values." Thus we live in a world of "bureaucratic individualism" – a "logic-defying hybrid" composd of an anything-goes "personal realm" and an "organisational realm" dominated by the centralised state:

  • "Such a bifurcation… has had a terrible effect on our common life. There is surely by now ample reason to believe that our growing culture of government entitlements supported by an ever-enlarging national state engenders not the positive sense of freedom and self-mastery that would enable active participation and republican citizenship but a culture of sullen and suspicious dependency, of bitter ingratitude and crippling moral nihilism. In the years of public austerity that likely lie ahead, this will probably only get worse…"

Anyone who thinks that the idea of the Big Society (or whatever you wish to call it) is irrelevant, should consider just where our existing model of society is heading. (Hint: handcarts may be involved).