Monday, 30 August 2010

What is liberalism?

As this blog puports to be a liberal blog, I suppose I had better at some point define what I mean by liberalism.

So here goes.

My first part of the definition is to say what I do not mean by being a liberal.

It does not (necessarily) mean electoral support for the Liberal Democrats.

I supported the Liberal Democrats at the last general election, and I intend to support them at the elections to come.

But Liberal Democrat policy can (in my view) be illiberal. For example, I fail to see how transferring powers to EU institutions over which there is little democratic control accords with a liberal approach.

Nor does liberalism mean libertarianism.

I sometimes say on Twitter that a libertarian is a liberal who still lives with their parents.

But this may be a little unfair.

A possibly better definition is that whilst a liberal accepts the possible need for government and law in any given situation, a libertarian will not do so unless it is strictly necessary.

For a liberal, the question is perhaps how much government and law is required; for a libertarian the question instead seems to be whether government and law is needed at all.

Furthermore, the liberalism I support does not have the US sense, which appears to me to be that of a social democratic approach within the confines of a distinct constitutional and federal framework.

And liberalism also contrasts with conservatism, in that the former admits the possibility of improvement by way of government and law, whilst the latter broadly denies the possibility that government and law can make anything better, only less worse.

So what do I mean by liberalism?

Well, in the first instance I am seeking to invoke the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and of other Victorian liberal thinkers.

For although, they were (sadly) often quite earnest - and those that try and improve things do tend to be rather earnest - they were generally right, whilst those who were more superficially attractive - such as Disraeli and Salisbury - were generally wrong.

But it is more than mere Victorian nostalgia.

Liberalism is not some Victorian doctrine (say, like, Marxism) struggling to adapt to a very different world.

For me, liberalism is the presumption in favour of the autonomy of natural persons in any given situation.

As such it is a doctrine which can be applied in political, economic, social, ethical, and religious contexts.

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy.

And any such interference - whether by legal instrument, the coercion of state power, the intrusion of the press, or the imposition of a value system - should only go as far as is required and should always be open to question and challenge.

In this way liberalism accepts as problematic the various situations where the individual and the wider public interest clash.

The liberal does not have the easy answers available to the conservative or the socialist on one hand (with their respective presumptions against progress and in favour of state power) or to the libertarian or the anarchist on the other (with their denials of the general efficacy of government and law).

Liberalism is the only doctrine which both values human autonomy but also accepts its limitations, and which regards government and law as potentially good things.

Flowing from this priority placed on human autonomy then come the more practical applications of liberalism: due process, equality and diversity, freedom of expression on public matters, a private space on personal matters, free movement of peoples, internationalism, free trade, an evidenced-based approach to policy and law making, and so on.

Each of practical applications are also good in themselves, and (only) in a liberal framework do each of these applications cohere with the others.

And so this is why I am a liberal.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


MattJ said...

Nice post but I disagree that libertarians are necessarily liberals, using a US analogy I think a libertarian could often associate themselves more fully with the republicans (left or right leaning) than the democrats, but then I think our views on those that declare themselves libertarian differ somewhat.

For me, those I've met that have declared themselves libertarian have leaned more to the right than the left, focusing entirely on individual liberty, individual wealth, individual freedom. Its the 'I'm alright Jack' or sociopaths political bolthole and is populated by people who think the disadvantaged are disadvantaged by choice.

I'm not frothing socialist, but those that blow the libertarian trumpet do sicken me somewhat.

aljahom said...

Very interesting.

And as much as I like the picture of liberalism you paint, there are a number of obstacles stopping me moving from the libertarian position.

For example, you say, "And liberalism also contrasts with conservatism, in that the former admits the possibility of improvement by way of government and law"

I note you carefully circumlocuted the word 'belief' there, but that's what it amounts to.

If I were to ask for examples of cases where government and law had actually given rise to improvement, in the last 40 years, it'd come down to beliefs for most people.

I honestly and genuinely see almost no improvement that has been the deomnstrable result of government or law in my lifetime.

NHS? I think not.
EU? Not, certainly not.
Drug laws? Ha!
Human Rights Act? LOL.
Equality Act? Pffft.
Police Reform Act(s)? No way.
Anti-terrorism laws? Hardly.

Need I go on?

You also say: "The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy."

This public interest test, however conceived, is subject to interpretation, and the power is in the gift of those who hand down interpretations.

The media, the politicians, and more importantly overall, the government whips. Then we have the judiciary, who seem to relish interpreting poorly drafted laws in peavish, unreasonable and unjust ways. We also have the police and their plastic flunkies who spend much of their careers making the law up on the hoof, to satisfy whatever bee they have in their bonnets this week.

Where are the safeguards that prevent a liberal agenda turning into a socialist nightmare and massive, publicly funded, cock-up?


Mr Civil Libertarian said...

Matt, that's because you're looking at the Right wing, Cato institute type libertarians. It's much more of a broad church, just as Socialism is.

Alice said...

I believe a police force was Robert Peel's idea. And whatever they do now, that's certainly better than relying on local landlords and their private armies!

Is it up to a government to invent new things? I don't think so. They and their country should be deciding what to take up once it's been invented - and give it space to try out. Perhaps. I speak as someone without expertise in that area - I have no idea about liberalism versus libertarianism.

Anyway, I liked this post, and - just an idea - please could we have some historical ones such as about John Stuart Mill and how his ideas have influenced society and whatever else over time?

jaclong said...

I completely agree that there are cases when the public interest means individual autonomy should be curbed, but the debate is surely about what constitutes a justifiable case and how far the action should go in each situation.

Discussion needs to cover:
a) what "public interest" means
b) how far is "only as far as required"

and a big question also on
c) whose voice should we listen to or judge from, or trust!
As discussed above when creating the necessary implement of law should we hear the views of the majority / of elected representatives / of "qualified" people / of pressure groups / religions / of special interest groups...)

If an individual feels their interests are not met by new laws, what is their redress? Is it to use their voice to object, and at some point should they simply recognise that some of their own views are not in line with the public interest?
What happens when people begin to believe their own views are not in line with the public interest?
Yes, it's tricky isn't it... especially in a diverse society.

Looking forward to commentors being liberal with their replies ;)

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

I'm a a Brit, but in my experience of living and working in the US, a 'libertarian' is just another term for a confused Republican; only with even more defined views on why any meaningful discussion of 'commonwealth' is only two steps short of outright Communism. And the definition of 'liberal' also has different connotations depending on which side of the herring pond it is being used. Those of a GOP/Republican persuasion tend to use it almost exclusively in the pejorative - ditto 'progressive'.

Any way, back to the question. If you've not yet read The Guardian and Observer journalist, Andrew Anthony's, book, 'The Fallout: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence' then I can recommend it; the specific quote from it, too large to post here, I've emailed you, Jack, as it gives a rather lucid description of 'the liberal condition'.

MattJ said...

AJ, Yes you do need to go on. Listing institutions and laws followed by 'pfft!' or 'hah!' isn't an argument.

Are you saying things would be exactly the same or better without the NHS? Or are you saying they would be exactly the same or better for YOU?

I'm not sure what you're measuring this against or where you are getting your evidence from. Is it possible that in the midst of your railing against people's 'beleif's' that something works, you're just pushing your own belief system?! Of course not, that would be hypocritical.

Sure, I have an element of faith in the NHS, faith backed up by the evidence that we don't decide whether to leave people to die in a skip based on the size of their bank account.

Oh wait. I just spotted the phrases 'liberal agenda' and 'socialist nightmare'. Do you write for Anne Coulter?

Devil's Kitchen said...

"I'm a a Brit, but in my experience of living and working in the US, a 'libertarian' is just another term for a confused Republican..."

Which is why the Uk Libertarian Party deliberately did not—and does not—associate with the US Libertarian Party.


Cosmic Navel Lint said...

There is another twist here, too: in Australia, The Liberal Party is actually the conservative party. Go figure.

aljahom said...


I don't need to mess around with your straw men.

There's no shortage of evidence that the NHS is not only less than ideal, but less ideal than the approaches used in most other European countries.

The alternative to the NHS isn't nothing and it needn't be the US model.

There should be no element of faith in making life & death decisions on behalf of others.

Nice try though.


Geoff said...

If I've correctly understood your post, you are saying that society is inherently a trade-off between individual rights and collective interests. Liberalism is the bias in this trade-off towards individual autonomy.

The first part is unproblematic: I think most people would accept that framework in one way or another (it has strong echoes of Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau). It's one of the founding principles of most democracies.

The second part is slightly more challenging. The issue is not the bias towards liberty but what is meant by liberty. For example, the difference between social liberalism and neoliberalism. Social Liberalism suggests that the Government involvement in some issues is good for everyone. Neoliberalism argues that the market is the best arbiter of what is good for society and the Government's role is to ensure that markets are fair.

It's this detail that's important. Different people have different views on what is in the public interest and what rights should be preserved. These differences are critical in determining what is perceived as liberal or not.

Will said...

Seat belt law? many lives saved at minimal cost to liberty.
Regulation of water supply? Unambiguous triumph.
Highway law of all kinds? Triumph.
Regulation of Medical Practitioners? Triumph but underfunded so too slow to act.
Smoking ban? Triumph.

Laws are what separate us from Somalia. Where does this idea come from that governance or any kind of collective action is bad? It couldn't be the super-rich pumping their own selfish interests via the media they own could it?

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

DK, having just taken a butcher's at the LPUK website, please would define, specifically, what you/they mean by "freedom from government...", citing cases to support your demand where appropriate?

MattJ said...

Well with such powerful arguments as 'hah!' and 'there's loads of evidence' (there's one straight from the homeopaths), how can I possibly continue?

Natacha said...


"For me, liberalism is the presumption in favour of the autonomy of natural persons in any given situation.

As such it is a doctrine which can be applied in political, economic, social, ethical, and religious contexts.

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy."

This is not so simple, what happens when someone's individual freedom and autonmy is encroached on or threatened by large private-sector organisations; the press or large private sector companies, banks etc? This happens much more often than government interference and is often done simply by intimidation. Who is going to protect the little guy, the small businessman etc. unless there is strong government intervention to prevent this bullying?

Natacha said...

Actually I have recently been a victim of this. When trying to take a private company to court because they were trying to deny me my rights, I was confronted mot only by expensive lawyers who dragged out the case such that I almost ran out of money, but also they used a legal precedent to deny me my rights. This legal precedent had apparently been established by a similar company to that I was being victimised by, and had been established by expensive lawyers against people who could barely afford legal representation of any kind.

If I had not been a particularly stubborn person who was intelligent enough to do some of the representation myself I would have been bankrupted despite being in the right.

RichieRich said...

There is an excellent survey of liberalism by Gerald Gaus and Shane Courtland in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a quite brilliant, free, web-based resource. To whet your appetite, I've posted the first paragraph below. It may perhaps assist in clarifying the type of liberalism that JoK is advocating.

As soon as one examines it, ‘liberalism’ fractures into a variety of types and competing visions. In this entry we focus on debates within the liberal tradition. We begin by (1) examining different interpretations of liberalism's core commitment — liberty. We then consider (2) the longstanding debate between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ liberalism. In section (3) we turn to the more recent controversy about whether liberalism is a ‘comprehensive’ or a ‘political’ doctrine. We close in (4) by considering disagreements as to ‘the reach’ of liberalism — does it apply to all humankind, and must all political communities be liberal?

Charlotte Gore said...

I think this is where you've got a problem:

A possibly better definition is that whilst a liberal accepts the possible need for government and law in any given situation, a libertarian will not do so unless it is strictly necessary.

These two say exactly the same thing except in slightly different terms. A more accurate way to describe the difference between liberals and libertarians (in the non-classical liberal versus modern 'social' liberal sense) would be to say:

A possibly better definition is that whilst a liberal accepts the possible use for government and law in any given situation, a libertarian will not do so unless it is strictly necessary.

Lloyd Jenkins said...

I like your definition of liberalism, but I do wonder if you are co-opting some more general ideas. Liberalism believes in due process, equality, freedom of expression etc. all can exist in -for example- leftist ideologies. They are essentially constitutional principles: they assure a functioning democracy.

What I -as an outsider- think defines liberalism is it's lack of anything beyond the constitutional. Socio-economic issues don't seem to be important. Is there a liberal answer to questions over the fairness of wealth distribution? I don't think so. Am I wrong?

celebremus said...

The EU is controlled by Members of the European Parliament (who are directly elected) working with Commissioners (appointed by the elected heads of member states).

I don't see how your assertion that there is 'little democratic control over EU institutions fits with that.

There have recently been attempts to improve the democratic process for the EU, but some have been derailed by the Anti's / Euro Sceptics, who, presumably are happier sniping rather than helping to make the venture work

charlesbarry said...

I too like to think of myself as a liberal in the same terms as you do.

However, I do not support the Liberal Democrats, because I think that the 'right-wing' of the Labour party is a better mechanism for achieving this aims.

Lloyd Jenkins said...

Your argument so far has been:
1) in establishing the NHS the government did not make progress because;
2) The NHS could be improved upon.

What definition of progress are you using? The OED defines it as 'advancement, development or improvement'. All of those terms make reference to the state of affairs before the act and then the state of affairs after. the fact that European health systems are better wouldn't change the fact that the NHS was progressive: the situation before was worse than after as more people had access to better healthcare.

David Morning said...

@aljahom First point, @MattJ was quite right to call you out on your arguments where you just made (or wrote rather) dismissive noises beside different policies you didn't like rather than giving actual evidence to back up your argument

The problem with your arguement against the NHS is that it seems to be an arguement that it started out wrong, but at the same time you're limiting the time scale to exclude when the NHS is founded. When the NHS was founded, yes, the alternative was nothing. We didn't have any kind of universal health care and needed some way to deal with the fallout from WW2. What you seem to be implying is that we should completely replace the NHS, or should have done so already, with a system similar to that of other countries. This just isn't a feasable idea though. The amount of money and the logistical nightmare which would be involved in switching England to a different system would make Labour's disasterous attempt to digitize the NHS seem like a complete success. Also, you would have to deal with the fact that health care is completely devolved, so you would have to work out how people moving from Scotland or Wales to England would fit within the English system. (I'm using England as the example here, but the same would happen if you changed the system in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland)

I'll agree with you that there are problems with the NHS, but the answer to that isn't to get rid of it in favour of a new system. It's to identify what the problems are and correct them. The alternative is not only expensive and complicated, but could likely put lives at risk as hospitals tried to adapt to an entirely new system.

Also, as mentioned, this is a devolved issue. Each member state of the UK has independant control of their own NHS and the systems have some fairly major differences (Scotland, for example, doesn't have NHS trusts as in the English system). I'd be interested if you have any more specifics on what issues there are with the NHS, but if you're able to provide them it is important to specify which of these systems it is you're referring to

It's also interesting (and a little funny) that the systems you seem to be suggesting are ones which were mandated by government and law, undermining your arguement that government and law can't improve things. Maybe it's our specific government which you have the issue with, rather than the ideal of having (a) government dealing with this? (which could be a very valid complaint to make, but I thing differs from what Jack was talking about with his post, which seemed to talk about the Liberal ideology rather than specifics. It's also something which could be fixed if you were willing to go into politics)

MattJ said...

I'm not married to the NHS or anything else, I have just yet to meet a single detractor who offers up a viable alternative. I treat this in the same way I treat my work, I am more than willing to listen to people who point out problems so long as they are also coming to me with at least some ideas on solutions - anything else is a waste of time.

Any idiot can point at something that doesn't work (or in their opinion doesn't work) and say 'that doesn't work' - I'm only interested in talking to the people who say 'this is how we can make it better'.

Bender said...

After 30 years of first Conservative and then Labour control, could you explain how the NHS can be considered a liberal institution?

Jim said...

"And any such interference - whether by legal instrument, the coercion of state power, the intrusion of the press, or the imposition of a value system - should only go as far as is required"

As a vague liberal (maybe leaning more towards social democratic) sort, I agree with much of your post. But two things here:

Firstly, I think you need to include intrusion by other individuals and private entities other than just the press.

Secondly, even with that addition, this statement doesn't tell us very much - no-one would say an interference in autonomy should be more than is required. It depends on your meaning of 'required', as others have said. What matters is where you draw the lines.

Nic said...

I like your idea of liberalism but i think the reason you find LibDem policy sometimes illiberal is because they are effectively 2 parties - one of liberals and the other of social democrats.

As a liberal, do you think the home nations should be independent of one another?
Instead of being coerced into this union by a handful of undemocratically elected MPs.

Retired said...

Pope sits in a room and has some thoughts. Gives his decision and orders it be fact. Announces he was spoken to by God.

Attorney General sits in a room and has some thoughts. Gives a decision as a fact. "What thoughts ?" SECRET. He had been spoken to by the god of public interest for his ears only.

I tried arguing to an Attorney General that public interest was already defined. As the dissenting constable HM Coroners Officer in a sudden death case the Crown administers justice and the constable only master is the law itself.

AG thinks otherwise. Access to High Court to challenge the inquest verdict denied. Reasons ? Secret.

So I went forth and the witness treated as the witness of identity clarified he had never seen the face and had never formally identified the deceased (I had run a medical records check revealing that the person identified never had a congenital pes recurvatus that the body featured).

So I ran by the specialist Coroners section of Lord Chancellor Dept. Yep it is an unidentified body destroyed by fire (Cremation) and thus not the Attorney General jurisdiction at all.

No it became the Home Secretary jurisdiction for an HM Coroner to apply for permission to hold an inquest.

An authoritarian regimne tells us what to do. A liberal regime tells us what is in our public interest to do.

If the "State" has a power to limit the freedom of the individual then for balance (and "Freedom") there has to be a mechanism (Crown ?) to limit the power (read the public interest custodianship) of the State.

Mrs B said...

I have always thought that the difference between liberals and libertarians could be summed up as: libertarians think people should be able to do what the hell they like, while liberals think people should be able to do what the hell they like up to the point at which they start hurting other people.
Not as elegant as the way Jack puts it, but it works for me.

Tony Lloyd said...

“For me, liberalism is the presumption in favour of the autonomy of natural persons in any given situation.”

As you have said, liberals are not libertarians. Liberals are quite happy to restrict the autonomy of the individual, but have a presumption of liberty. I think, though, that we can go further than that. There is a difference between collective methods and collective aims and it’s a difference in collective aims that separates the liberal from others.

Liberalism distinguishes itself from libertarianism in holding that society is a co-operative enterprise. We cannot leave thing to the market, for example, without “the market”’s existence. And, despite what Hayek says, “the market” is not formed spontaneously. The basic laws of property and contract form the market whilst regulations shape it. We can’t leave it to “wealth creators” to “create wealth” alone. No roads means they can’t shift their goods, no education means there’s no-one who can make them/ship them/sell them, no market (see above) means there’s nowhere to sell them. Bill Gates is fabulously wealthy, he wouldn’t be if it weren’t for governments.

But the need for collective action does not decide to what end we take that action. I think this is where liberalism distinguishes itself from other ideas. (Very) crudely many justify the restrictions on liberty being for people’s “own good”, or identify some “greater cause” which trumps individual interests. If collective actions need to be based on the self-defined interests of individuals much of liberalism follows. Secularism immediately follows: freedom of religion advances the (self-defined) interests of those who are religious, “religions” have no interests to protect. The liberty to take your own decisions on self-regarding acts follows. A theory of individual rights follows as a necessary way of deciding between interests were they compete. Even the Liberal Democrat idea of local-through national-to Europe government follows. Decisions that effect local people should be made locally, national collective action should be decided nationally and pan-European issues should be decided by our representatives in Europe.

So let us add:

“Where liberty is restricted in order to take collective action the aims of the action are the self-defined interests of the individual members of the collective”

Niklas said...

As usual, a well-written and insightful post :)

I do have one question though (also raised by others in this thread): could you give a closer definition of the sort of "public interest" that justifies restricting individual autonomy?

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy.

As it stands this could be accepted by many ideologies; it is the definition of the limits to individual autonomy that separates them. Do you lean towards Mill's harm principle, for example?

Another comment is that some liberals justify state intervention if and only if it increases someone's practical freedom - this is Amartya Sen's idea of freedom as capability.

Speaking of Victorian precedent, you echoe (intentionally?) Gladstone's famous quote about the difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals:

I think that the principle of the Conservative Party is jealousy of liberty and of the people, only qualified by fear; but I think the principle of the Liberal Party is trust in the people, only qualified by prudence.

There is a lot of truth in that even now.

Niklas said...

I would also like to make another point, though some people may find this provocative.

Both conservatism and socialism/social democracy believe in paternalism, and in both cases they believe that part of the role of the state is to make paternalist interventions to improve society in some way (or in the conservative case, to preserve delicate social structures from attack or decay).

Virtually everyone in the Western world (and a great number of people elsewhere) all agree that government should be exercised through some kind of democratic process.

The unspoken assumption required to prefer democracy over technocracy (rule by experts), theocracy or aristocracy is that most ordinary voters are capable of making sensible, informed choices about very important matter of public policy and law. (In most democracies voters delegate the detailed forming of policy to elected representatives, but that still requires enough intelligence to evaluate candidates' policies and ideologies.)

For me this means that "social democracy" is a contradiction in terms. Social democrats believe that the free choices of individuals can often lead to bad outcomes for them and for society as a whole (e.g. economic inequality, or bad schooling). Because of this they support paternalistic state intervention to correct the results of "wrong" choices, or indeed to make "wrong" choices illegal.

I believe there is a logical contradiction in believing that the overwhelming majority of citizens can make informed choices (and that a majority will make the "right" choice) for important matters of public policy, but that many or even most people cannot be trusted to make the "right" choices for themselves.

Only liberalism accepts the tacit assumption justifying democracy while also being explicitly commited to defending individual autonomy.

Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville very cogently argued that a democratic paternalist state would never last because citizens who lose the practice of choosing for themselves would lose the ability to choose wisely in elections. See this chapter of Democracy in America:

teekblog said...

Cracking post as ever Jack, some very interesting points raised and comments pursuant.

I'm especially interested in Tony Lloyd's distinction between collective methods and aims, and the allied point that Niklas makes about paternalism - and I feel that the discussion these two provoke around Jack's thoughts would not be complete without recourse to Amartya Sen's capability theory.

My interpretation of liberal thinking says that although the fundamental unit of measuring freedom, progress and justice is at the level of the individual, there are occasions where the collective can be better at delivering greater freedom, progress and justice than the individual could alone. And this is because I synthesise (and/or consolidate) freedom, progress and justice into one concept - capability. Crucially, it's the capability to live the life we each value that is important, so state (or corporate) interventions designed to decide aims/directions of choices are not legitimate, but those designed to increase our capability to make our own decisions are.

Example. A liberal believes the State should provide certain public services. Not because they cause people to behave in a particular way that would be 'for their own good,' but rather to enable (empower, equip) individuals to decide how to live.

Specific example. We do not educate in order to indoctrinate with set views - that would be an illiberal education. But we do provide State schools - to give people the capability to better their lives as they see fit. Same applies to NHS - which despite the views of some is overall an excellent model of healthcare delivery - we don't provide a health service that prescribes what everyone's BMI should be, but a service that helps people attain the level of health they value.

State action, therefore, that enhances people's capability to live their lives as they wish is legitimate, that which seeks to chose what that life should look like is less so.

Lloyd Jenkins said...


I think other theories' relationships with the individual are more complex than you give them credit for.

Representative democracy, I think, is based on the assumption that people are able to make broad decisions on matters of principle. It hands power to the candidates with the closest to that principle base and lets them apply those principles to particular circumstances.

The problem with this is that people can be -understandably- irrational: they might champion a particular principle (e.g. wealth redisribution) but object to a policy that must follow from the principle (e.g. progressive taxation). The state is only 'paternalist' insofar as it forces people to accept the logical consequences of the principles that they enunciated.

rachit said...

I'm relatively new to the blog but this is an excellent discussion.

However, there appears to be a contrast with classic definitions of liberalism in the one given by Jack, which has been touched upon by some comments (apologies if I am making the same point as anyone, you got there first if so).

Qualifying personal autonomy with the public interest seems to be closer to utilitarianism in principle than liberalism. Traditionally, liberalism would only allow, at most, interference with liberty in order to prevent harm, and at the least, no interference with liberty at all (as with Rawls' rather extreme position).

However, allowing significant public interest to override personal autonomy is indistinguishable from a utilitarian philosphy that sees firstly, public interest and public utility as synonyms and secondly has a presumption that personal autonomy increases utility. In short, both would generally favour autonomy, but would allow exceptions for policies in the public interest/utility such as public provision of healthcare or taxation.

I'm not saying that this makes the belief less worthy; in fact I'm more inclinced to agree with this than with Rawlsian liberalism. But it is worth acknowledging the similarities with that other Victorian school. J.S. Mill, after all, despite his undeniable impact on liberalism, remained a utilitarian.

Steve Jones said...

I think, in quoting John Stuart Mill's as an influence, you have to be very careful not to have liberalism slipping into Utilitarianism. There is a very strong stream of Utilitarianism in much Liberal and New Labour thinking as well as the NHS and many of those who would have a tendency to act in a paternalistic way.

The danger of Utilitarianism, harmless as it sounds, is that it tends to value only the tangible and measurable. If you take that to the limit it can be seen to justify the curtailment of all sorts of personal liberties on the basis that it is for the greater good. At its extreme, this lead some people to the Eugenics movement. Of course nobody from the liberal groups would follow that now, but Sweden and Canada had such operational state policies well into the latter half of the 20th century, and I think it is still possible that the "greater good" argument could lead us to further infringements on individual liberty.

Some, who do align themselves to liberal views, are not, in my view primarily of that ilk. Ben Goldacre has several times argues for setting sentencing policies solely on outcomes based on a randomised trial. Personally I think that issues of justice and justice appearing to be seen to be done are important too. (I think his approach is technically flawed too, but that's another matter).

Then there are the various political proposals or actions for things like increased use of CRB checks, obesity campaigns through to detaining people with "personality disorders" which have been justified on Utilitarian grounds.

For the record, I think that Jack is far more on the liberal than utilitarian side, but there are many in the "liberal establishment" that, in my view, are not.

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi rachit

I think you mean Nozick rather than Rawls.

Nozick argued from a strict (negative) rights based approach resulting in a libertarian stance (you can’t tax, for example, to provide welfare because that tax violates someone’s rights).

Rawls saw room for much more intervention. He thought that the state should act to secure a distribution of welfare and opportunity consistent with unprejudiced opinion. The test for unprejudiced opinion was what society you would like to see if you did not know which position in that society you would hold. (As opposed to the JOK test of “what would you think if you left home?”)

@steve I think that making utility defined by the individual goes some way to checking this “greater good stuff”. The main problem I see with utilitarianism is that a crude utilitarianism allows making one person worse off just because a lot of people would be a lot better off. The rights and wrongs of sending someone off to a dodgy country to be tortured is, in strictly utilitarian terms, just a case of adding up the agony that person will go through and seeing if its less or more than the bad effects that would result from not torturing him. In principle there is nothing in utilitarianism to stop inflicting agony on one person because it results in millions having a nice cup of tea. A rights theory would make the distinction, but then a rights theory starts to drag you in the direction of libertarianism!

rachit said...

@ Tony Lloyd

Thank you; a complete misstatement by me. I was meaning to refer to the lexical priority of liberty in Rawlsian justice so I meant that in Rawlsian liberalism, liberty is prioritised above all else (not that no infringement is allowed, just that liberty is valued above all other values).

Re the problems with utilitarianism - this is a problem, though it is made less stark (but not by any means extinguished) if one considers the long-term effects of causing harm to one person. Taking your example, if torturing one person to prevent a mass killing seems like a short-term utility no-brainer, torture could still be rejected as a rule if it caused widespread mistrust of police & intelligence services and alienation of groups of society, if this all added up to more than the pain caused by killings. (the possibility of comparing these elements is a separate problem altogether)

Michael said...

aljahom writes:

"If I were to ask for examples of cases where government and law had actually given rise to improvement, in the last 40 years, it'd come down to beliefs for most people."

What have the Romans ever done for us, eh?

aljalom carefully selects a time in which major government initiatives have been missing in action thanks to the dominance of the Thatchers and Reagans. If we go back just a bit farther, government and laws have brought things like, oh, weekends, minimum wage, occupational health and safety regulation, good basic health care for all, a safety net against disability and poverty, public education.

The closest the West has had to libertarianism is the late 1800s in the US and England (in the good old days when 'volente non fit inuria' and contributory negligence meant industry could literally chew up and spit out workers with impunity) and it is because of the economic booms and busts and the grinding poverty for vast numbers of workers of those times that governments did end up stepping in and actually doing things for actual people.

Libertarianism is a utopian scheme much like pure anarchy or pure communism. Any of them would be perfectly fine if people would just be perfect, and none work in the real world. They are fine fantasies for pubescents who think there is some single solution to the worldk's ills but something one grows out of because, well, it's more complicated than that.

Mike from Ottawa

Peter Risdon said...

Samuel Brittan suggested that liberals put the greatest emphasis on personal freedom, conservatives on authority and socialists on equality. That seems like a reasonable one-liner. But it's a matter of emphasis, not absolute. You can have liberal-socialists, or even liberal-conservatives.

Some of this post was hyphenated.

SadButMadLad said...

"Seat belt law? many lives saved at minimal cost to liberty.

Harm against a person is something libertarians do not believe in. So this is ok.

"Regulation of water supply? Unambiguous triumph."

Same thing.

"Highway law of all kinds? Triumph."

Not so much. ANPR, speeding cameras, CCTV. Traffic fines, parking fines. Not all good.

"Regulation of Medical Practitioners? Triumph but underfunded so too slow to act."

To ensure that no harm is done so good.

"Smoking ban? Triumph."

The worst example you could have given. Smoking is legal. Why should it banned. Second-hand smoke is not that much of a problem, especially not outside or rooms set aside for smokers. Do some research into who is saying that 2nd hand smoke is dangerous. You'll say that banning drinking is the next thing to do.