Monday, December 12, 2005

What is Liberalism? By LibertyCat

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

Extract from the preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats

What is liberal democracy?

The official definition is the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution, of which an extract appears above (and, if you are a member, an extract appears on your membership card). But most of us believe that our core beliefs can be expressed more simply: in the words of Alan Beith, “Fundamental to liberalism is the belief in the freedom of the individual.” In short, “It’s about freedom.” From this core idea of freedom come three of the main strands of liberal democracy – political, social and economic liberalism. Since Gladstone Liberals and Liberal Democrats have also been internationalist, and in the last fifty years concern for the environment has become a core part of liberal democracy. But freedom remains at the heart of what we stand for.

Freedom is sometimes a slippery concept – indeed almost every political group claims that “real freedom” is advanced by its approach to politics. To understand what the liberal conception of freedom is, and how it forms the basis of Liberal Democrat ideas as set out in the Preamble, we first need to understand why we believe in individual freedom. When speaking at Party Conference, you only need to point out that something is the liberal thing to do. But when we try to justify our policies to people outside the Liberal Democrats, there are four basic arguments that keep coming up. Two of these are moral, and two are practical. The moral arguments are that everyone is fundamentally equal, and has certain rights that should be respected. The practical arguments are that concentrated power is dangerous, and that centralised decision-making simply does not work.

Why are we liberals?

Universal human rights

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it … that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions
John Locke, 2nd Treatise on Government (1690)

We are serious about tackling crime, but equally serious about defending our rights. We believe there are fundamental lines that should not be crossed. We will unashamedly stand up for civil liberties.
Simon Hughes, Speech to Party Conference on criminal justice (2001)

We believe that everyone has certain human rights that should be respected. They are not balanced by responsibilities – and the fact that someone fails to live up to a responsibility is no reason to take away their human rights. Among the most important human rights are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, the right to own property, and the right to privacy in home and family life.

These rights are listed in international treaties such as the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and also in national Bills of Rights such as the Human Rights Act 1998 (which incorporates the European Convention into British law) or the American Constitution. But these documents do not grant rights – they reflect rights which already existed before they were written, and liberals have been at the forefront of efforts to expand them to reflect how we view human rights.

Everyone is born equal

We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal…
U.S. Declaration of Independence, attributed to Thomas Jefferson (1776)

Conference reiterates its belief that no one may be born into a position of power over others.
“Towards a Democratic Head of State”, motion passed by LDYS Conference (2002)

The liberal idea of equality is based on a belief in fairness. If people are treated differently without good reason, it just isn’t fair. The most important kind of equality is equality before the law – the idea that the State should treat people in the same situation in the same way. This implies that the State should treat people as individuals and not as members of groups (such as races or classes).

Another important kind of liberal equality is equality of opportunity. We recognise that a legal right to become a doctor is worthless if you do not have enough money to go to medical school, or if you cannot study properly because your whole family lives in a one room flat. Everyone should have the same chance to succeed in life and we are prepared to take positive government action to ensure this. The liberal idea of equality does not extend to equality of outcome. If everyone has a fair chance in life, there is nothing morally wrong about the fact that some people succeed and others do not, whether this success is due to talent, hard work, or luck. In any case, it would be impossible to ensure equality of outcome while respecting people’s different individual desires – and we certainly do not want everyone to end up the same.

Centralism doesn’t work

[The man of system] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislator might choose to impress upon it.
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

This central command and control approach has failed Britain. It has failed to promote efficiency and failed to foster fairness.
Charles Kennedy, speech to the Social Market Foundation (2003)

Large centralised organisations are ineffective. The word “bureaucracy” pretty much sums up what is wrong with them – slowness, unresponsiveness, dysfunctional internal politics, and the occasional really stupid decision. Although we tend to associate this behaviour with government bureaucracies, large companies do it as well – which is how Dilbert became a pop-culture icon. The reason why centralism doesn’t work is that the centre cannot know what is going on everywhere in an organisation. Someone on the ground in Cambridge knows more about what is needed in Cambridge than a civil servant in Whitehall can; and I know more about my own personal needs than either of them. So if decisions are taken at the centre, then the decision maker is probably clueless. Liberals think this is a bad thing.

No arbitrary power

All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Lord Acton (1887)

There are Ministers today who sometimes give the impression that they believe in the Divine Right of New Labour. One of our tasks is to disabuse them of that belief.
Charles Kennedy, speech to Charter 88 (2003)

Lord Acton pretty much sums this one up. Nobody can be trusted with unaccountable power – people will eventually abuse their power simply because they can, whether they are sleazy Tory MP’s under Major, or sadistic American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. We do not trust ourselves with arbitrary power any more than we trust others.

There are three ways to minimise the corrupting effects of power. The first is to disperse power as widely as possible, so that nobody comes close to absolute power. The second is to control power with checks and balances. The third, and often the most important, is to ensure that the powerful are subject to public scrutiny (the chance of being caught reduces the temptation of corruption dramatically!) and ultimately to removal from power if they do misbehave.

Putting it all together

As is clear from the above, liberals support freedom because it is right, and because it works. And the liberal concept of freedom that forms the heart of liberal democracy is one which fits in with these ideas – we believe that freedom is about being treated fairly, about having your fundamental rights respected, and about not being subject to centralised unaccountable power. I will briefly look about how the ideas behind each of the main planks of liberal democracy fits in with this concept of freedom – the rest of this booklet deals with how these ideas inform our policy.

Political liberalism

“Your business is not to govern the country but it is, if you think fit, to call to account those who do govern it.”
William Ewart Gladstone, speech to the House of Commons (1869)

First, freedom is about promoting independence for individuals and communities. That means a distinct shift of power from today’s overcentralised and authoritarian State.
Charles Kennedy, forward to the 2001 election manifesto

This is obviously the heart of the matter. We believe in limiting the powers of government to protect the rights of individuals. Equality demands effective democracy. Because centralism doesn’t work, we believe in devolving power to local and regional government. And all of this helps ensure that central government does not represent an excessive concentration of arbitrary power.

Social liberalism

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

It is hard, if not impossible, for there to be agreement about what constitutes a “good life”. The State cannot and should not impose a single view.
Party Policy Paper “It’s about Freedom” (2002)

Liberals believe that people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as it does not harm other people. The fact that most people think is something is immoral is no reason to ban it, nor is the fact that it is bad for you.

Again, this brings together all the four reasons for liberalism. If everyone is equal as individuals, everyone’s lifestyle choices deserve equal respect. In any case, the basic human right to privacy demands it. Much of On Liberty is devoted to the practical argument that I know more about what I want than the government does, so government intervention “for my own good” will not work. To effectively enforce this kind of law also involves giving the police the power to pry into people’s private lives. This power is open to abuse, for example with the War on Drugs. Mill’s harm principle takes all of this into account, which is why it is such a useful guide to policymaking.

Economic liberalism

What we desire is plenty of corn, and we are utterly careless what its price is, provided we obtain it at the natural price.
Richard Cobden, speech attacking the Corn Laws (1844)

The CAP is doing intense damage to developing countries, world trade and European budget priorities. The EU should gradually eliminate its food export subsidies.
2004 European Election manifesto

Since most government intervention in the economy has the aim of favouring some groups (such as a favoured industry) over others, liberal equality demands a broadly free market, as does the fundamental human right to own property. We also believe in the benefits of competition, which decentralizes economic power, and ensures that businesses are accountable to their customers.

Where competition is impossible for some reason (for instance in the railway industry, where building two competing tracks would be wasteful) we are prepared to intervene in the market. An unregulated private sector monopoly has an unacceptable degree of arbitrary power, whereas regulation allows a degree of democratic accountability. Liberals also recognise that sometimes positive government action is needed to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in a market economy, for instance by providing free education. The taxation needed to pay for this should be levied in as fair a way as possible – we believe that people’s tax bills should reflect their ability to pay, and that in general the tax system should not be used as a tool of social engineering. Green taxes are an important exception to this – economic freedom may include the right to do what you want with your own property, but does not include the right to spew pollution over someone else’s.

Liberal internationalism

My second principle of foreign policy is this – peace.
William Ewart Gladstone, speech during the Midlothian campaign (1879)

Without a second UN resolution, there is no way that the Liberal Democrats could or should support war [in Iraq].
Charles Kennedy, speech to Hyde Park anti-war rally (2003)

Since liberals support the rule of law as a constraint on arbitrary power in the domestic arena, it is no surprise that we support the rule of international law. We support multilateral institutions such as the EU, UN and WTO because they help ensure that international politics is subject to the rule of law, and also because they help avoid unnecessary wars.

Since human rights are universal, we believe that foreigners have them too. Most obviously, this means that we shouldn’t bomb them without a very good reason. It also makes us support foreign aid and debt relief. Finally, it means that we are prepared to intervene militarily – ideally as part of a UN force – to stop the most egregious violations of human rights such as the genocides in former Yugoslavia.

Green liberalism


Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
Traditional Native American saying

The environment is not something that you inherit from your parents. It is something that you preserve for your children.
Charles Kennedy, speech to Party Conference (2000)

There should be nothing distinctly liberal about concern for the environment – it is after all a matter of our self-preservation as a species. Nevertheless, the Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats were the first British political party to take environmental issues seriously, and we remain the greenest of the main parties. Other aspects of liberalism inform our approach to environmental issues, which is thus often different to the Green party. For example, we tend to prefer green taxes to government imposed limits on pollution, and we support rules-based international co-operation through treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol.

How are we different from the other lot?


My aim here is to compare the underlying beliefs of the main political parties in Britain – not necessarily their detailed policies. The Conservative Party is still by and large conservative in both belief and policy (just as the Liberal Democrats are by and large liberal) but not every policy fits the pattern – a good example at the moment is their opposition to university tuition fees. British conservatism has also changed dramatically since Thatcher – I look at the modern form. The New Labour leadership does not believe in Labour’s traditional socialist ideology, nor do they follow socialist policies, so I deal with “Old” and “New” Labour separately. If there is one key point that differentiates liberalism from almost all other political ideologies, it is that we believe that “X is bad.” does not automatically imply “There ought to be a law against X.”

Liberals are not Conservatives

Conservatives reject social liberalism. They believe that certain aspects of traditional morality are uniquely valuable and should be defended by the State. Conservative economic policy (at least in Britain and America) is often mistaken for economic liberalism, but there are important differences. For instance, most liberals see inherited wealth as a problem (because it negates equality of opportunity) whereas most Conservatives do not. In any case, Conservatives support the free market not because of liberal principle but because they believe that “Greed is Good.” Conservatives believe strongly in the nation state, and most believe that the national interest should take priority over international cooperation. Conservatives claim to believe in political liberalism, but typically oppose any actual reforms on the basis that the existing system of government embodies centuries of wisdom and should not be changed without a very good reason.

Liberals are not socialists

Socialists reject economic liberalism. They believe that economic competition inevitably leads to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialist ideas of equality tend to deal with equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, and with equality between groups rather than between individuals. Most socialists reject political liberalism, believing that a strong centralised state is needed to counteract the economic power of the capitalist class. Most socialists claim to accept social liberalism, but this is better understood as a rejection of conventional “bourgeois” morality. Where socialists believe that private behaviour is immoral (such as using the word “nigger” in a conversation with a friend) they tend to want to ban it.

Tony Blair is not liberal

It is harder to compare liberalism to New Labour than to Old Labour (i.e. socialism) or the Tories (i.e. conservatism) because New Labour does not have an ideology. Instead, Blair claims that “what counts is what works.” It is clear that the main difference is that New Labour does not accept that centralism doesn’t work. New Labour believes that there is a right way of doing things, and that central government should make sure that everyone does things the right way. New Labour also rejects political liberalism – Blair has centralized unaccountable power in Number 10 to an unprecedented degree. The inevitable result is a stupid and/or corrupt decision – which is why we are at war in Iraq.

A note for Americans (and other people who think Noam Chomsky is a liberal)

Liberalism is a British political tradition with a distinguished history dating back over 300 years. There are liberal parties founded on the British model in more than 60 countries, not including the United States. Instead, Americans (especially those who are not liberal in either sense of the word) use the word “liberal” to refer to anyone left-wing, whether they are a liberal, a socialist, or Bill Clinton. Increasingly British right-wingers have started doing this, with attacks on “Guardian-reading liberals” or “politically correct liberals”. Although many of us do read the Guardian, it is a socialist paper and not a liberal one. If political correctness means anything (and more often than not it is simply an insult), it is about restricting speech purely on the grounds that it is racially or sexually offensive – something supported by most socialists but very few liberals.

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