Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Syntax, Enemy Of The State

A while ago, a post on the LDYS forums prompted in my mind a soundbite that appealed to me perhaps more than it ought;

“You’re not just an economic liberal, you’re an economic liberal and a social liberal? So you’re not a Tory, you’re a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe? And I should care why exactly? If I need a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe, I’ll talk to Alan Duncan!”

But I’m not one to cut and run on a soundbite, and the more I looked at this one the more I found myself frustrated by it. Not because the sentiment is wrong, but because the words are. Simply put, it strikes me that, when I think of a theoretical, effectively stereotypical, “economic liberal”, what I am actually describing is a right-libertarian. And although the agreement is less pronounced, “social liberal” corresponds pretty well to left-libertarianism.

Now let’s be absolutely clear, there’s almost no mainstream political philosophy (and by mainstream, I do not include “socialism” as practised on university campuses) that I despise more than libertarianism, if only because it commits gross historical and sociological negligence.

Equally, that isn’t the point. I’m quite clear that, when I get PR and when I get the resulting realignment of British politics, the libertarians and I will be in quite separate organisations. Right now, however, I need the Liberal Democrats to be a strong enough force to secure that realignment, which means building a coalition. And while the right-libertarians do have a natural home in British politics (they’re called the Conservative Party, you may have heard of them…), recognise that the left-libertarians are best served by the Liberal Democrats for now.

The implication for our party is clear, however; while that is the coalition, it must be a coalition on those terms. As I have (hopefully) repeated more than sufficiently, the thing I most object to in the current state of the internal debate in our party is the sense that there is one group of Liberal Holy Warriors who are fighting to preserve the Gospel According To Saint Mill and that anyone disagreeing with that group is stupid and/or misguided and can therefore be ignored and patronised until they come to the “right” answer.

I want the input from that side of the debate, but I want it in the right spirit and in the right way; democratically and by demonstration, not fascistically and by faith alone. It’s worth noting in this respect that I agreed with pretty much everything in the Orange Book (even the health chapter!), but that was because it treated me as an adult and worked hard to demonstrate the positive nature of its effects. We have seen that it can be done; I would just like to see a heck of a lot more of it.

But for fear of being even more apocalyptic, there is actually a greater problem. David Cameron’s positioning on supposedly liberal ground can be combated, but ironically, not by us trying to reclaim the word for our own divine use. The problem with Cameron’s use is that it is correct in an academic sense but not in a practical one; the “liberals” he has are right-libertarians, who are liberal for reasons of greed, spite and complacency. Cameron wants his version of liberalism to appear to be fluffily progressive, and the only way to fight that academic fire is with academic fire in return.

At a time when a public clamouring for reform feels betrayed by a supposedly progressive government that has failed to deliver, with a primary opposition party whose only interest in reform is the desires of its narrow electorate, we cannot allow ourselves to get distracted by an intra-mural spitball contest over one word. We do need a consistent message, but it need only be this; we are the only party that can deliver change that is focused on people and on communities and their needs. That alone should suffice, and it must do so; anything else would be a disaster for the changes we all need to be delivered in the governance of Britain today.

PS While pondering all this on the train recently, I found myself passing that redoubtable locomotive, 60056 William Beveridge. Some people might think that someone was trying to tell them something…


Andy said...

Well done that man!

The above is the most consistently bang on piece of writing I have seen on Lib Dem Blogs in some time. The condescending tone of some people in the party has been pretty grinding of late; the sense that "illiberal" is just about the worst thing that you can call an idea, and that nothing must be allowed to pervert Lib Dem policy from the One True Path of a pretty libertarian reading of liberalism.

Some people just don't seem to be able to see that there may be situations where one set of freedoms must be weighed up against another, and that, in such situations, there *is* often a balance between social and economic outcomes. The insistence from the economic liberal side of the argument that there "is no argument" is what gets to me most.

Anyway, thanks for this post.

Tristan said...

Utter rubbish on libertarianism.

The few libertarians in the Tory party are actually principled defenders of freedom. The Tory party is certainly not the natural home for libertarians though.

Libertarianism is a form of liberalism - it is economic and social - it preaches freedom of the individual in all situations. It is in short what used to be called radical liberalism.

Economic liberalism is a commitment to liberty and freedom. It is about letting the individual make their own choices and take responsibility for them.

Right-libertarianism supports absolute freedom to act so long as you are not assaulting another or interfering with their right to act.

Left-libertarianism takes the same view, the difference is the ideas on the organisation of society - left-libertarians (or mutualists) view mutual societies as the way forward, right-libertarians tend to be happy with voluntary companies without the special privilege given them by the state.

Personally I view both as possible - people should be free to associate how they like. If you want to live in a socialist commune then fine, just don't make me.

As for your talk of self-interest, people are naturally self-serving, libertarianism of all types recognise that. The aim of libertarianism is to let people follow their own ends, producing the benefit for others which arises from that and without preventing others from using their own resources to follow their own wishes.

It, like liberalism, rejects the argument that you can't be free unless you can do whatever you like- you are free if you can do what you like with your own resources and abilities.

Lastly, I cannot think of any major Tory libertarians. I know a few ordinary members, just as I know a few in UKIP, but none of them are in positions of influence.
Thatcher took some of the /liberal/ project but rejected much more, she was not liberal or libertarian though.

James said...

Hmm, this seems to be a defining issue on the table at present in many a parlour and salon.

For strategic and electoral reasons I wouldn't isolate myself from potential supporters or voters, but also for a more liberal reason too: we are human and we are fallible, we have no monopoly on liberality and the benefits of liberty are not restricted by any putative owners of it.

Anyway, anyone can be liberal, convert, espouse and be embraced by it, or become disengaged and divorced too - these things are active, living individual decisions, not passive diktats of group-think.

One could therefore argue that thatcherite reforms promoted personal freedom through the devolution of the markets, while blairite reforms did something similar by devolving moral choice to indiviuals, economic choice to financial institutions, as well as political choice to Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland - all of which have been in the cause of liberty.

The criticism of each programme of reforms is best refined to the restrictions placed on each and has lead to their subsequent weaknesses.

Thus globalised free trade has become a dogmatic by-word for wealth creation, but the unrestrained power of finance has been created on the back of limited access to it and at the expense of disproportionately exaggerated divisions in society.

More recent expansions in the ability to choose have been matched by the resultant limits of those choices themselves - so more TV channels means more of the same TV programmes, more elections means more resistance and more consensus means more conflict - because for every trend there is also a counter-trend.

I dislike arguments that liberty or liberalism means this or that - it does, yes, but both concurrently and continuously.

For me we should be arguing about how to evolve our dialogue to a higher and better plane of purpose through use of debating positions as tools for enlightenment, rather than as doctrine to be enslaved by.

Theories are all well and good, but they are impractical personalised perspectives which must be fitted into a vibrant world where every attitude exists and must be accounted for.

The thing which I think nobody can escape from is that there is always an emphasis on one side or another, and every strength is balanced by a weakness: idealistic perfection is approachable, but is this really desireable?

And aren't we LibDems purveyors of the alternative to stultification?