Rethinking Liberalism 7: what are the liberal blindspots?

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I started this series of essays because I thought liberalism, to say nothing of Liberalism, was at a low ebb and needed some fresh thinking. I started with the easy bits. Big questions, like the future of capitalism, but not ones that make liberals particularly uncomfortable. This is an old strategy to deal with something big and difficult. If you clean up the easy bits first, what remains looks less intimidating. But I have been a bit underwhelmed with the results, which are well within the spectrum of ideas that are regularly discussed by liberals. After a few weeks break, including a refreshing holiday, I think it is time for a change of direction.

All political philosophies have difficult bits: areas where the principles conflict with each are, or seem inadequate in the rough and tumble of the real world. Socialists want to clamp down on businesses to stop exploitation, and yet crave the tax revenues that will only come if you give businesses some serious rope. Conservatives yearn for a less intrusive government, but are annoyed when they find this gives people the freedom to behave in what they see as antisocial ways – and on which their views tend to be very narrow-minded. Liberalism is no exception. Liberals have blindspots.

I call them blindspots because most liberals behave as if these difficulties aren’t really there. Many have created a sort of alternative reality in which these problems don’t arise. Or they simply change the subject. But this is damaging in two distinct ways. First, it means that we don’t talk about many issues that bother people, and are therefore perceived to be weak or lack credibility. Second, when liberals do get their turn in government, and have to confront these intractable problems, liberal ranks are torn apart. The pragmatists are seen as betrayers of liberal principles; the fundamentalists are seen as people who will not come out of their alternative universe to confront the real world. The British Liberal Democrats in the last four years are a case study in both of these phenomena.

But even identifying what these blindspots are is hard. Because we rarely talk about them in any depth. We seem afraid of what we might find if we do. But this blogger is not running for electoral office, and so should be less frightened of tackling difficult issues. I think my time in this series is most constructively spent identifying and discussing these issues – in the hope that liberals can, in due time, work their way through them to an updated political philosophy. I feel a bit inadequate to the task. I have not read great tracts of John Stuart Mill or even Conrad Russell. But then, maybe spending so much time reading great men can be part of an evasion process.

Anyway, today I will make a start. It is time to move from the abstract. What are the liberal blindspots? Here are few problems to get us going:

  • Dependency. Liberals feel that people should have equal chances. Poverty is usually not a choice, but stems from some form of bad luck. So we offer help to redress the balance: cash handouts, subsidised housing, and so on. But very often this help creates a relationship of dependency between those being helped and the state. This does not worry socialists – but it does worry liberals because dependency is disempowering; it reduces freedom.
  • Free riding. Liberals like rights to be unconditional, since that gives individuals the maximum power. But that creates the opportunity for free riding: people who take but do not give back. Since many rights (health care, education, minimum housing standards, etc.) cost money, the opportunities for free riding are manifold. Progressive taxation, asking the rich to pay more, makes things worse. Free riders not only undermine the financial viability of entitlements, they undermine the sense of community solidarity that underpins unconditional rights.
  • Oppressive communities. Liberals like the idea of strong local communities. These balance the need for a strong central state. They give individuals more weight, and a greater sense of control. Members of strong local communities are generally happier than those of weaker ones. The word “community” even gets into the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution – the place that the party’s core values are set out. And yet strong local communities are not liberal, open places. They often  promote uniformity and are hostile to outsiders, especially those from other cultures. For many liberalism is a reaction to the oppressive nature of strong communities.
  • Multiculturalism. This is closely linked. Often immigrants form strong local communities that don’t gel with their neighbours, and challenge liberal values. Conflict often ensues. This is a worldwide problem; neighbouring communities from different cultures may live side by side in peace for a long time, and then there is an explosion. The mechanisms of liberal democracy don’t seem equal to the task. And yet forced integration is illiberal.
  • Fighting crime. There are bad people out there, who have no interest in promoting a prosperous, inclusive society. They want to steel our money, or even kill us as participants in some imaginary war. These people adapt quickly to the modern world. But liberals often seem more interested in theoretical notions of privacy belonging to a different age.
  • Postcode lotteries. Universal rights create expectations that vital state services should be more or less the same everywhere. Strong local democracy suggests that different local communities should be able to make different trade-offs that match their own priorities and preferences. But this creates variations that are derisively referred to as the “postcode lottery” – your actual entitlements to universal rights depending on where you live.
  • Managing businesses. Businesses are at the heart of our society; we don’t just need them, we need them to be prosperous and innovative. This is at the very heart of any strategy to combat poverty. But liberals often see businesses as a threat, to the welfare of their employees, their customers or anybody that gets in the way. Liberals dream of cooperatively owned businesses, grounded in their local communities. And yet, valuable as such businesses may be, they do not provide a credible template for the majority of forward-looking enterprises that society needs.
  • Migration. Migration of people from other countries provides a flashpoint for most of the issues already mentioned. And yet it is undoubtedly a dynamic force, and a vital escape valve.

I’m sure I could go on. The agonising of liberals over events in Iraq and Israel shows liberals in a bit of a post-colonial muddle – though that affliction is hardly unique to liberals. Still we have enough to get started.

Just looking at the list of problems, I think a can see the outlines of a more general one. Liberals paint a picture of an ideal society, based on Goldilocks local communities with just the right amount of cohesion. We want all countries to follow that idea. But we also believe in universal rights; a fundamental equality of all people. And yet many of these people want to use these rights to take themselves and society in a different direction. Perhaps they have an alternative ideal; perhaps they just want to promote themselves in what they see as a rat race. We are getting to two muddled – the society we are trying to create, and the what should apply to everybody in the diverse here-and-now. And we do not address the issue of how a liberal society coexists with others made up of people who have freely chosen something different.

In this light liberals need to rethink their cherished framework of universal rights. That is what I will attempt in future essays. I’m feeling uncomfortable already. Good.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking Liberalism 7: what are the liberal blindspots?”

  1. I look forward to reading the follow up essays. You might want to read some Anthony Appiah who does great work on Cosmopolitanism. You may find some interesting ideas in his work.

  2. Thanks for this article. I believe that looking at our thinking is very important. We all want to make the world a better place, but must of us don’t really know how. I know this from my own internal dialogue – nothing gives me greater pleasure than imagining the things I would do if I had unlimited power, and they usually involve me being utterly unreasonable – like banning advertising! Political thinkers need to do better than that, but it is extremely difficult. You are brave for taking up the issue – good luck!

  3. Great piece, thank you for sharing it.

    You´re on the money as regards Oppressive communities. Related to this is another consequence of devolving power. As powers are dispensed according to local need as we´d wish, it is possible that people´s rights may no longer be equal geographically. In Spain the principle of decentralisation has been taken about as far as it can go and there are concerns that citizens have a legal right but in certain regions this has become less effective on account of how regional governments organise things. It is something to think about.

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