Wednesday, February 03, 2010

 

Love and Liberty VI – Equal Voices, Different Choices (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.6)

Today’s somewhat belated instalment of my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for moves on to Liberty in Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism. From Locke in 1689 to the Liberal Democrat Constitution (and headed by my favourite home-made Lib Dem slogan), I summarise the Liberal view of the state – why it’s necessary, but why it also has to be kept in check. What should be the balance between Liberalism’s different values, or between the power of the state and everyone else? And what was Conrad Russell’s simplest statement of what Liberalism’s there for?

Liberty: Equal Voices, Different Choices

Liberals put freedom first. To make freedom real for everyone, it can’t be separated from love for every individual. That’s why the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution seems such a wise balance. In practice, liberty is dependent on a measure of equality and community. To guarantee universal liberty requires a degree of universal restraint, one of many paradoxes that Liberalism embraces. Otherwise, liberty can’t be widespread or secure; unbridled individualism results in too many individuals being crushed, but even the rich and powerful would be forced to guard against the fear of constant attack. To guarantee liberty, you need certain level playing fields – in particular, equality of opportunity and equality before the law. To exercise freedom and create equality, communities must be formed, then carefully watched to ensure they themselves do not arbitrarily remove liberties.

Liberalism and the State

Liberals don’t see the state as a bad thing in itself. Neither increasing nor reducing state power or ownership can be viewed as an absolute good, for every circumstance; it depends what it’s there to do, and whether (and how) it works in doing it. Conrad Russell described Liberalism as not about minimum government, but minimum oppression. In more vivid words, he said Liberalism is around to stop bullying. That is the key reason why Liberals need the state, however drawn we might be in theory to the raw liberty of anarchism. There are too many bullies which are too powerful for individuals to fight on their own; in any case, the state can’t duck out and leave everyone to oppress each other. This issue of power is a central one for Liberals, going to the heart of the protecting and enlarging of liberty.

Liberty must be protected by and from the state. The state must have the power to create opportunity, and prevent bullying. Poverty and unemployment, for example, are barriers to liberty that the state can help break down by offering opportunities. Law can restrain bullies from thieves to bad employers, and defence exists to protect a state’s citizens being bullied by aggressors they have given no consent to – while governments must band together to stand up to giant, transnational, corporate bullies. However, Liberals are not starry-eyed supporters of state power. The state itself can threaten freedom of speech or action, make unfair or simply over-prescriptive laws, or bully people out of choices through offering too conditional opportunities. An over-strong state has always been the biggest bully for British Liberals, and Liberals from the proto-Liberal philosopher Locke onwards have sought ways to restrain its power.

Since 1689, Liberalism Has Been Making the Philosophical Case To Check State Power

John Locke’s first way to limit the state’s power to bully was the ascending theory of power; power comes from the individuals governed. This rises naturally from the Liberal view of the importance of every individual, and explains why Liberalism is so closely connected with democracy, and with limits to what even a democracy should be allowed to do. The radical Liberal idea of the 1960s, community politics, is still all about working with people to take power and use it. It means actions should be taken at the lowest level they can be decided, with a pluralism of power structures – the best way to stop one centre of power bossing everyone around is to set up another centre of power so that no one level can greedily exercise total authority. Liberals are dead-set against monopolies of power, monopolies of ideas and economic monopolies – all are at best unhealthy and often a positive danger.

Liberal internationalism has understood for a long time that if power starts with the individual, it can be shared at any level without threatening identity. For many actions, the lowest appropriate level will remain the individual. It’s simply not the state’s business to stop people choosing their lives for themselves where possible; as people are so much more likely than a remote government to know their own neighbourhoods, work and private lives, the state would only cock them up anyway.

Locke’s other key notion was that power must be bound by rules. That is why the Rule of Law is so important for Liberalism, hanging vitally not on subjection to the law, but equality before the law to prevent arbitrary force – applying the same rules to strong as to weak, majorities as to minorities and governments as to citizens, and not applying any rules specifically to penalise a particular group. If the law singles out one set of people to pick on unfairly, what reason do they have to obey it? Every individual must be treated on an equal basis, as an individual, by the law for a Liberal society to win respect for law and society, not compel it. Laws made in secret or for partisan advantage, or which are enforced selectively, are fundamentally ilLiberal, and increase people’s insecurity – as Shirley Williams said:
“The rule of law becomes hypocrisy if it means the ruler’s law.”
Breaking the Chains

Liberals are more than sceptical of revolutions unless there is absolutely no other way to change things; too many people get trampled along the way, and there’s no guarantee things will come out better the other side. I once wrote that Liberalism was an ideology of permanent revolution. I was wrong. It must be, however, an ideology of permanent evolution, always adjusting to new circumstances, but rarely at such a breakneck speed that people lose their security. Liberals see their work will never be finished – opposed to utopianism right from the proposition that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. Rather than only looking as far as knocking things down, Liberals are builders and refashioners, looking for a better way and willing to listen to all ideas for one, aiming for structures that are open and adaptable enough to change, not have to be broken. The purpose of those structures, though, should be to break the chains on individuals.

In a Liberal society, each person must have the information to make their own choices. Everyone must be equipped with skills, involved in decisions, encouraged and enabled to be an active, questioning individual. For people to make confident choices about their lives, they will be interdependent as well as independent; active government and thriving communities must provide the security, and often the resources, to take up opportunities. But merely providing is never enough. To have the chance to fulfil their lives, people must be guaranteed the power of self-reliance and taking action responsibly on their own behalf, without being told what they can or can’t do when it doesn’t harm other people. For that reason, when the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution talks of balancing liberty, equality and community, it sets out guidelines on how to achieve this: it says that
“no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
Liberalism’s approach is made clear from this great line; these three evils are evil not just in abstraction, but still more so because they block freedom.


Even eleven years later, I recognise a lot of today’s piece as incredibly familiar – I suspect it flew straight out of what I’d always been saying the Liberal Democrats stood for, and I know that it owes an enormous debt to Conrad Russell, reading his work, listening to him and sometimes arguing with him. My friend, my Liberal guru and an outstanding historian of the Seventeenth Century, few FPC meetings a decade ago would go by without his finding a parallel to some Seventeenth Century political event and opening a contribution with something along the lines of, “In 1647…”

I’ve also often written on the Rule of Law. Neither Labour nor the other Tories believe in it, because they’ve never believed in any limits to their own power – for them it’s ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. Labour thinks laws are only part of their ‘cause’, to order society as they want it, and they ignore laws that get in the way of their higher purpose; for the Tories, laws have always applied only to the ‘little people’. You might be interested in a new study about just how power corrupts and powerful people make excuses for why they can get away with things, but others can’t which I read about the other day via Paul Simpson.


You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!


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