Monday, February 13, 2006

The Legend of Liberty and the not-at-all-Minarchist Cat

Andy has written a long ripost to LibertyCat's piece about 'What is Liberalism?'. To which Rob Knight over at LiberalReview has written an excellent reply - he summarises what is at the core of the disagreement between 'economic' liberals (the 'Orange Bookers') and 'social' liberals (the Beveridge Group) in the Liberal Democrats when he writes:

Many see economic liberalism as somehow linked to "big business". This is flat out wrong, a misconception that stems (in my view) from the Thatcher government.... I think that the whole question of economic liberalism has become weighed down with emotive language and knee-jerk reactions which far outweight the differences at stake.

I don't think that there are any concrete, ideological differences. The devil is in the detail. There is a great deal of misunderstanding over what economic liberalism is. This is due to the popular use of terms like 'neo-liberalism' and 'liberalisation of markets' (describing complete removal of all economic legislation), as well as the lingering influence of Thatcherism. It is understandable why many self-defining 'social liberals' in the Libs respond so negatively when they think that Margaret Thatcher's liberal children are walking amongst them. Andy's misunderstanding is clear from:

But I don't think that they [socialists are] wrong about unfettered economic competition... To subscribe to unreconstructed economic liberalism is in my view a very unhealthy move, and it perturbs me to see quite so many people seemingly making this argument that Lib Dems are people who believe in liberalism both personally and economically, but see the personal bit as more important. In my case, it is precisely because I believe in personal liberties that I oppose economic liberalism in its uglier forms... Now? Cameron, if he actually believed what he projects, would probably be closer to my views than some of the people I see calling themselves Liberals in our party [my emphasis added]

I agree with the sentiments of Andy's post. Yet I helped edit the article Andy is critiquing. Andy is not arguing with economic liberals. People who believe in both social freedom of the individual and the unfettered operation of the market are not economic liberals. They belong to a tradition including anarcho-capitalists and minarchists. Margaret Thatcher fell into this tradition economically but was not socially liberal.

Liberals believe that all concentrations of power are bad - be they the monopoly power of business, state power or the dictatorship of the majority. This is summarised in Lord Acton's much corrupted dictum that 'power corrupts'. The unfettered operation of the market can easily lead to monopoly, corruption, inefficiency and, in extremis, the sort of corporate dystopias envisaged in films like Blade Runner or computer games like Syndicate (which I remember from my Amiga 1200). Liberals try to prevent concentrations of power by devolving and redistributing power so no group, institution or individual in society ever becomes too powerful and can arbitrarily restrict the freedom of individuals. The disagreement between the self-declared 'left' and 'right' of the party is about degree - which groups in society have more power now? The state? Business? Civil society (e.g. trade unions, pressure groups)? There is no question of handing all power to the state and interest groups (socialism) nor by keeping it stored in traditional/worthy institutions (conservatism) nor handing it all to business (anarcho-capitalism/minarchism).

Short summary - split in Liberal Democrat party greatly exaggerated. Return home and play computer games.

9 Comments:

  • At 12:05 pm , Blogger panakea said...

    This is due to the popular use of terms like 'neo-liberalism' and 'liberalisation of markets' (for removal of legislation

    "Neo-liberalism" is actually a so-called "straw man", to which is associated many things which don't have anything in common, except that the opponents of "neo-liberalism" find them objectionable. But there doesn't exist a positive neo-liberal theory, or even a real (organised) movement called "neo-liberals", or even many people who would identify themselves as "neo-liberals". Thus opposing neo-liberalism is actually fighting against shadows.

    As for removal of legislation, that's what liberalism is in large part about. There exists illiberal legislation which restricts people's free action (which doesn't violate the rights of other people), and it is only liberal to remove this kind of legislation. There is other kind of legislation, which exists to prevent people as well as the state of violating the rights of other people, and this is the kind of legislation there should exist in a liberal society.

    People who believe in both social freedom of the individual and the unfettered operation of the market are not economic liberals. They belong to a tradition including anarcho-capitalists and minarchists. Margaret Thatcher fell into this tradition economically but was not socially liberal.

    Now you are unfortunately showing a great deal of ignorance.

    Firts, Margaret Thatcher doesn't have much in common with minarchists or anarcho-capitalists. She picked some bits suited her, but didn't follow the larger principle from which those bits originate from - otherwise there would never had been for instance the Section 28.

    Second, "anarcho-capitalist" and "minarchist" are terms associated to the (American) libertarian movement. The term "libertarian" was taken into use by the American classical liberals in the 1950's, because the term "liberal" had been seized by the American socialists, and the classical liberals couldn't be anymore distinguished from the socialists if they used the term "liberal".

    Later, during the Vietnam war, people who now are known as "anarcho-capitalists" begun to also call themselves as "libertarians". It then became necessary to distinguish the classical liberals from the anarchists, and they were initially called "limited-government Libertarians". Later for reasons of inconvenience a shorter term, "minarchist" (refering to the minimal state) was introduced. But minimal state is nothing else than the night watchman state of the classical liberalism, so in this respect minarchist are classical liberals.

    The minarchists form the bulk of the American libertarian movement, but usually in Europe they call themselves just "liberals", so most of the libertarians you'll find from Europe are actually anarcho-capitalists, which causes misconceptions about libertarianism among the European liberals.

    However,if you meet today people involved in politics in the United States, you'll probably find out, that those who call themselves "liberals" are closer to the European social democrats or even socialists, and those who call themselves "libertarians" are closer to the European liberals. If you read for instace this article from the American libertarian Reason magazine, you'll find out that they symphatise the economic liberals of the Lib Dem party.

    If you want to read a more comprehensive treatment on the relationship of liberalism and libertarianism, I recommend this blog article, written by a close friend of mine.

     
  • At 12:36 pm , Blogger Andy said...

    Thanks for the commments. As both you and Rob Knight have made clearer to me, my quarrel is not with all of economic liberalism. Indeed, I think I may have misinterpreted the bits of LibertyCat's post that I quoted. However, as panakea's comments both here and on my own post show, there do seem to be those who regard all urges to legislate as illiberal, and don't seem to see the very sensible qualifications that Rob, you and I require in building a view of the world based in liberalism.

    Thanks to all those who have responded to the post. I was partially being deliberately provocative with the title, of course to be consistent then a liberal must always be liberal in all areas in general. My focus is simply where there develop conflicts between one set of rights and freedoms and another. In that, I am beginning to suspect that what was originally being said here:

    It is all about priorities. If you support both economic and personal liberalism, think that free markets are best for the whole society, but also think, that the state shouldn't have a say to what consenting adults may do in the bedroom,then you have to choose which is the most important to you.

    is probably exactly what I actually mean.

     
  • At 1:13 pm , Blogger panakea said...

    "as panakea's comments both here and on my own post show, there do seem to be those who regard all urges to legislate as illiberal"

    No, that is an misinterpretation. As I said, I think there exists both liberal and illiberal legislation.

    Liberal legislation typically consists of few strong laws, aimed to protect people against force, theft, fraud and such.

    Illiberal legislation consists of many laws aimed to control the action of individuals, even in the cases when they aren't violating anybody else's rights.

    The current Labour micromanagement policies, ID-cards, limitations to the free speech etc. are all good examples of the kind of illiberal legislation which should be removed.

    There exists naturally also similar legislation limiting economic activities, even in the cases that this activity doesn't violate anybody else's rights. Removal of this sort of legislation is liberal.

     
  • At 1:35 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    As for removal of legislation, that's what liberalism is in large part about.

    Agreed - I should have put 'blanket removal of economic legislation'.

    She picked some bits suited her, but didn't follow the larger principle from which those bits originate from - otherwise there would never had been for instance the Section 28.

    Again - agreed. This was why I put that Thatcher was not a social liberal (e.g. Section 28).

    But minimal state is nothing else than the night watchman state of the classical liberalism, so in this respect minarchist are classical liberals...If you read for instace this article from the American libertarian Reason magazine, you'll find out that they symphatise the economic liberals of the Lib Dem party.

    But the reason article says:

    this group of reformers issued a manifesto that called for modernizing the party by reinvigorating Liberal Democrat policies through a reclaiming of the party's Classical Liberal heritage

    I am an 'Orange Book' liberal. I agree with a lot of the stuff in the Orange Book and some of it (the environmental chapter) is now party policy. However, nothing in the Orange Book advocates a 'nightwatchman' state.

    Someone is confused here... (I'm unsure if it's me, the Reason's magazine's understanding of Lib Dem motivations or what)

     
  • At 2:44 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    As both you and Rob Knight have made clearer to me, my quarrel is not with all of economic liberalism.

    Nah, you're having a quarrel with someone who equates the Orange Bookers with minarchism. They seem to be getting this impression from that US Reason article.

    My understanding from LibertyCat is that the ideological difference between this strand of thought and 'ours' is something to do with property.

    I'll bother him and see if he wants to blog about it - he's spoken to some US libertarians; I haven't.

     
  • At 4:00 pm , Blogger panakea said...

    Someone is confused here... (I'm unsure if it's me, the Reason's magazine's understanding of Lib Dem motivations or what)

    I think it is just that I should have explained myself better.

    The point is that classical liberalism contains the idea of the night watchman state. Many of the classical liberal thinkers, who we all accept as liberals, embraced this idea, but not all of them.

    Minarchism, which you said is not liberalism, is named after the minimal state (which some anarcho-capitalist renamed as some point as "minarchy" as opposed to "anarchy", no state at all). Minimal state is a synonym of the night watchman state, which was supported by some classical liberals, so supporting it doesn't prevent people of being liberals.

    But the name "minarchist" is a bit misleading. It is intended to distuingish those libertarians, who thought that some sort of state is necessary from those, who support anarchy. But not all of those libertarians who aren't anarchists support minimal state. But they all support a limited government, as the older term "limited-government Libertarians" implies.

    Limited government, however, is not the same thing as minimal state / night watchman state. Limited government can also provide some other public services than the army, police and courts, such as education and health care. But the power of a limited government is limited, so that it couldn't violate the rights of people it is supposed to protect against violence.

    Now, if you look at the the American libertarians, some of them are anarchists, some support only a strictly minimal state, and some of them accept a somewhat wider role for the state, though they would like it to be smaller than it currently is. If they think, that the state should secure everybody health care or education, they probably don't think that it needs to produce those services itself.

    "Minarchist" is a term that is mostly used by the American anarcho-capitalists about all those libertarians, who aren't anarchists. Those libertarians, who aren't anarchists, usually call themselves simply "libertarians", regardless to whether they support a strictly minimal state or a state with a somewhat larger role.

    If you look at the more moderate (or "sofcore") minarchists, they aren't very different from the orange book wing of the Lib Dems.

    Here in Europe, though, the term "minarchist" is usually used only of the "hardcore" minarchists, who support only a strictly minimal state. Still, they fit to the classical liberal tradition and are therefore entitled to be called "liberals".

     
  • At 4:02 pm , Blogger panakea said...

    "Nah, you're having a quarrel with someone who equates the Orange Bookers with minarchism. They seem to be getting this impression from that US Reason article."

    Actually I am not equating Orange Bookers with minarchism. What I said is that the minarchists are liberals, not that the Orange Bookers are minarchists. Though in the US they would probably be branded so.

     
  • At 4:20 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Ok, that makes more sense. Thanks, although as per my previous posts -I don't think the Orange Bookers are different ideologically than other Lib Dems.

    The main ideological difference IMO in the party is as LibertyCat has described it - those who think about liberalism and those who don't. Those who don't tend to jump for ideas that sound worthy but are adding extra and unnecessary legislation. This annoys people who think about liberalism and are trying to promote a liberal agenda, but keep having the occasional illiberal policy thrown back at us (rightly) by our opponents.

    Ideological consistency is important for forming a vision we can sell to the British public. Otherwise, we just sound like another group of managers.

     
  • At 5:27 pm , Blogger panakea said...

    I don't think there's a great difference ideologically between the liberals within the Lib Dem party and the American minarchists - there is just some differences in the application of that common ideology.

     

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home