10 Apr 2016

On Liberalism

Dear readers: since I am busy revising for my exams and working on the Ark, I have decided to bump up some of my older posts. This essay on liberalism would, I suspect, interest a few of my readers.

Previously, I mentioned that I’d be writing on a topic in political philosophy I’d not covered before: Liberalism. As you may now be able to guess, that time has come. But before I get right into things, allow me to share a few pieces of news.

I also previously mentioned that I’d received feedback from an editor on the first chapter of the Ark; I’ve been looking for more editors, and have so far not found an offer that is more affordable or indeed more convincing. I therefore think it likely I’ll begin working with Matrice. Since my home Internet will be be back on Monday, I shall probably make my final decision there.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

What is Liberalism, Anyway?

Like Socialism, and indeed other political philosophies, Liberalism is frequently misunderstood. Partly this is as a result of political parlance—especially in America—and because parties that claim adherence to Liberalism often fail to resemble said ideology. (I’m looking at you, Lib Dems!) But this is also because, like other political philosophies, Liberalism is complex and has multiple schools of thought.

There are really two broad camps we can divide Liberalism into. The first is the so-called classical Liberalism; this is the philosophy developed by philosophers in the Early Modern period, and has some famous proponents—like Locke—though in truth proto-Liberalism existed as far back as Hobbes.

The second camp is the so-called progressive Liberalism; this movement really took off in the 20th century (at the same time as Socialism and the labour movements, ironically) though to me John Stuart Mill, in the 19th century, strikes me as its forefather.

What makes these philosophies Liberal is, as the name implies, the fact that they give a particular importance to the concept of freedom. But freedom, as we’ll see, is a slippery concept—and Liberals want a particular type of freedom.

Liberals should never be mistaken for Libertarians, with which they share a prefix but are otherwise really quite different kettles of fish. Libertarians focus on negative freedom really exclusively to all else. Negative freedom is basically the freedom from something—usually the state. (As an aside, Libertarians also claim freedom from other forms of tyranny, such as from criminals or gangs. This distinguishes it from Anarchism. Though in reality the two are hard to distinguish.)

Liberals are also keen on negative freedom, but they also value positive freedom i.e. the freedom to do something. A good example would be state education; this allows all children, regardless of background or wealth, to have the freedom to receive an education and pursue their goals in life.

Classical Liberals are distinct from Progressive Liberals because the former developed in response to what was seen as tyranny by the state; the latter developed as a response to the injustices of 19th and 20th century capitalism. (That’s why it’s similar, though different, to Socialism.)

It’s not that classical Liberalism doesn’t have a regard for positive freedom as well—it is more a case firstly of focus, but also of means. To the classical Liberals, freedom could be achieved by civil rights and democracy; to the progressive Liberals, achieving their goal required more—it required social democratic policies.

These days most Liberals are progressive; which is good, since classical Liberalism (and it’s unsavoury cousin Libertarianism) is not very convincing. To quote Lenin: ‘Freedom in a capitalist society means the freedom of the slave owner to own slaves.’ (Yes, I couldn’t help myself.)

The Naïveté behind Freedom

Let’s face it: a progressive Liberal and a Socialist aren’t going to be miles apart when it comes to economic policy. What really distinguishes the two ideologies is the whole concept of freedom.

The first problem I see with Liberalism is that it is naive. It assumes that human beings are always perfectly rational, perfectly capable of making mature and informed decisions, and that there are no such things as peer pressure, rampant ignorance, and cultural stigmas.

Allow me to use an example. A popular policy among Liberals (though it seems not hugely important to the Lib Dems) is drug legalisation. Now, drug legalisation is a complicated topic and what I will write here should not be taken as a comprehensive critique; rather, I am merely using it illustrate the point.

Liberals want to legalise drugs like marijuana—regardless of its fairly well documented negative impact on health—because they see people as being able to make their own decision. To quote my Liberal friends: ‘It is their choice if they want to take drugs, not the state’s decision. It doesn’t affect YOU. And you’re being paternalist. PATERNALIST!’

Unfortunately, I am very skeptical of both claims. Firstly, human beings—as I’ve already said—are not perfectly rational. People take drugs for stupid reasons.

For one, they take it because they’re young, and angry with the world, and want to give two fingers up to the establishment. Well, sorry to break it you: but the only person you’re giving two fingers to is yourself. It is your health that suffers. The establishment don’t give two figs—as long as they control the means of production, their quest is fulfilled. And if they catch you, they can send you to prison; and not because they’re afraid of you, but because they can.

Some people take drugs because their friends take drugs. This is obviously not a good way to live your life.

Other people take drugs in the belief that it’ll make them happy, or give them a new experience. And sure: it can make you happy. For a while. But it is the nature of these kinds of drugs—the kind that stimulate the brain to produce endorphins—for their effects to be ephemeral, for them to leave you feeling depressed after their effects have faded, and for them to be addictive.

And if you want to have a new experience, what makes you certain that the naturally addictive nature of the substances won’t have you back for a second, and third, and fourth?

In rare cases, drugs do ruin people’s lives. Drug driving can be lethal. Overdoses have killed many famous and talented young people. Addiction, especially if your personality is already susceptible, can leave you homeless. And in the current economic conditions, that’s not a good place to be in. Ditto those who take drugs in order to escape their circumstances; for drugs will only lead to worse.

Anyway, this is all getting a bit tangential. But it does lead me to a second point: the nature of social relations.

Liberalism and Social Relations

One of the maxims behind Liberal philosophy is ‘You can do what affects yourself, but not what affects other people.’ The trouble with this is that, even if—unlike me—you can accept the right to individual freedom, it is still rarely the case that your actions affect only yourself.

Some examples are obvious and Liberals readily accept. Driving while drunk is a danger not only to your own life, but to others around you. But there are other, more problematic examples. Take smoking. Smoking firstly affects yourself. It can also affect other people; Liberals concede this, which is why we all agree to no smoking in pubs and public spaces. But smoking can also affect the people who love you. If you get lung cancer before you’re forty, you can bet your spouse, parents and friends will suffer too.

Paternalism

One of the complaints leveled by Liberals at other ideologies is that they are paternalist, i.e. they presume to dictate human behaviour in a top-down, or at least peer-based, sort of fashion.

But you know what? That’s life. Humans are social creatures; freedom, in reality, has always been and always will be limited. There’s no point in pursuing what can never be achieved. (Indeed this is the same criticism I level against Communism, but that’s a different debate.)

There’s also a question of the rights of the state to be had here. Deontologist, libertarian-style talking points might centre around humans having ‘rights’ that must not be undermined by the state. There’s plenty that’s wrong with deontology, but Liberals are usually utilitarians anyway. And so I would present a utilitarian argument: if intervention by the state leads to more good than harm, do it. Be pragmatic rather than emotive.

Empirical Arguments of Liberalism

Alternately Liberals may take a different tack to the paternalist line. They say that empirical observation favours giving humans freedom as the best way to achieving utility maximisation.

It’s worth mentioning that Liberals employ this argument specifically in relation to social freedom not economic ‘freedom’ (if they do, they’re not progressive Liberals; they’re free-market Liberals, more akin to the modern Tory party).

Anyway, I personally am dubious of this claim. As I’ve shown, humans are not perfectly rational and they make bad decisions. I struggle to see how the freedom to smoke, for example, can possibly lead to the best consequences.

The Economics of Liberalism

An interesting feature of Progressive Liberalism is that it shares a lot of economic maxims with Socialism. These Liberals are in favour of things like the NHS; free university (unless you’re a Lib Dem, of course); regulation of key industry; and even nationalisation.

My only concern is not so much the economic policies of Liberals—which are usually solid, if a little limited in scope at times—but with the motivation. The aim of economic policy should not be to promote freedom but to lead to sustainable, equitable economic growth that provides the greatest utility. The two are rarely in contradiction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless.

The Dangers of the State

One of the Liberal pet peeves is the power of the government. Although progressive liberals are usually happy with a big state, they’re not so happy with big government. Aside from all the reasons I’ve mentioned, there’s another reason: Liberals are wary of the government. They see the potential for abuse.

This is why they make such a fuss about online surveillance and Internet rights, for example.

And you know what? The state can be abused. It is one of the most powerful forces in human existence; and it has been abused, as history can attest to. The Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, and even the CIA are well known for the evils they committed in the name of the state.

And, worse than that: look at Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot or today’s Assad.

So, yes, it’s wise to watch the state. Nonetheless, I feel that Liberals are often paranoid. Believe it or not, states can enact non-Liberal policies without being tyrannies.

There’s also the pragmatic element to this. In the words of Hobbes, life without government would be poor, brutish, nasty, dirty and short.

The Value of Self-Determination

Reading the above, some of you may be under the impression that I don’t value human self-determination (or ‘freedom,’ a word I very much dislike). But you would be mistaken. It is not that I don’t see value in self-determination; I do. I understand the desire to live one’s own life, to make decisions, to fail or to succeed on one’s own back.

But I don’t believe a political philosophy should make that its raison d’être. There is a great deal more to human existence than freedom—not least of which is happiness, safety from crime and war, and living life as the social creatures we are.

Ultimately, I don’t like Liberalism because it is a simplification and a misrepresentation of human nature. Put simply, there are more important things in life than freedom.

A Few Specific Policy Points

One of the misconceptions that the less politically astute suffer from is the idea that some of the policies that are termed ‘progressive’ (a term I very much dislike...) are also exclusively Liberal. For example: abortion and gay rights.

It is true that any Liberal who doesn’t support gay rights is not a Liberal and that nearly all Liberals are pro-abortion—though the latter rests on some empirical foundations.

But these policies are not in fact specifically Liberal at all. Indeed, the attitude of some Liberals with regards to gay rights disturbs me: Farron has stated that he believes all gay people are sinners but that he still supports gay rights because he’s a Liberal.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t like Liberalism. If people do bad things to themselves, I don’t believe we can excuse them under the auspices of freedom. I am gay, and support gay rights—along with quite a number of other more controversial positions like the legalisation of sex between relatives—because of an empirical and ethical standpoint. Being gay isn’t really that different from being straight; you can still love and be loved, marry, and live a happy life. You can even adopt children.

In short, there is no evidence to show that being gay is somehow a bad thing. You don’t need to be a bleeding-heart Liberal to support gay rights; you just have to recognise the empirical reality and make a sensible and ethical choice to support it.

Conclusion

My conclusion is remarkably simple and short considering the complexity of this topic. Liberalism gets some things right—it recognises the problems inherent to free market systems and it places value in self-determination. But it is also a deeply naive ideology, resting on dubious assumptions about human nature, dubious empirical claims and dubious deontological ‘rights’.

Anyway, that about sums it up. Stick with me for news on the Ark.

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