Liberalism #3 – Reason as a core liberal value.

Historically, Liberalism emerges as a distinct political ideology during the enlightenment, which begins in the middle of the 17th Century. During this period there was an increasing emphasis on rational, scientific enquiry, and people began to question received dogma and religious faith. This broad historical movement influences liberalism in several key ways.

Firstly, the growing importance of human reason in this period, allied to the liberal faith in individualism, leads liberals to adopt an anti-paternalist stance towards government interference. Take the example of legislation requiring road passengers to wear seatbelts. Liberals would question this legislation on the basis that it substitutes the authority of the law for individual judgement and autonomy. Fundamentally, liberals believe that rational individuals make better choices about their own lives than other people, or groups of people. Liberals have therefore argued that the government should not pass legislation designed to make people make better choices, because this paternalistic and coercive interference is an un-necessary infringement of human liberty, and it is predicated on a pessimistic view of an individual’s capacity to make good choices about their own lives.

Secondly, faith in reason led liberals to develop a view that history is characterised by moral and intellectual progress. This view of history has been characterised as ‘Whig history’ by its critics, who argue that such a view distorts history by presenting figures in history as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ based upon whether their actions led to progress towards liberal democratic institutions, or whether they stood in the way of such progress. Critics argue that this perspective risks judging historical actors by our own standards and it risks assuming that historical change in a certain direction was an inevitable product of the ‘march of history.’ Liberals would counter that this enlightenment faith in progress led individuals to throw off the shackles of custom and tradition, which held society back for so long. Thus John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) argues:

History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down. Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down. Savonarola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, it was successful. In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and, most likely, would have been so in England, had Queen Mary lived, or Queen Elizabeth died. (John Stuart Mill, 1867)

Thirdly, a belief in reason led liberals to develop a view of human nature that emphasises the rational and progressive, but also the self-interested and egoistic, elements of man’s nature. This view of human nature leads liberals to have faith that the exercise of reason by individuals will help them to resolve the conflict that is created in society by their self-interest. For example, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)argued for the importance of free speech largely due to the fact that free and open discussion leads to the furtherance of truth, due to its victory in the battle of ideas, whereas the suppression of free speech holds back human progress.

Finally, liberals have had faith that the exercise of individual reason in society as a whole by individuals will lead to the common good. There are several reasons for this view:

  • Firstly, utilitarian thinkers, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) argue that society should be arranged so as to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Since individuals make choices in their own rational self-interest, a society in which individuals are empowered to make their own autonomous choices will be one in which pleasure is maximised. Such a society is in ‘the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being,’ according to Mill.
  • Secondly, classical liberals, such as Adam Smith (1723 –1790) argue that rational and self-interested behaviour can lead to a socially optimum outcome because the operation of the market mechanism ensures that supply equals demand. This ensures that consumers get the goods that they want at a price they are willing to pay, and it means that producers sell the goods at a price at which they are willing to sell. Furthermore, this outcome happens automatically, via what Smith calls the‘invisible hand.’ Thus Smith extols the virtues of individual self-interest in The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Adam Smith, 1776)

  • Finally, neo-classical liberals, such as F. A. Hayek (1899 – 1992) argue that this market mechanism operates almost like a nervous system by ensuring that goods and service are directed to where there is the most demand for them. Crucially, Hayek thinks that this has a political consequence, because the market mechanism can, and should, therefore be used to supply goods and services efficiently, without the need for the state to provide them. Hayek’s worry is that too much state interference in the economy will inevitably erode individual liberty in other spheres of life, ultimately leading to the emergence of an all-pervasive totalitarian state.

Liberalism #2 – Freedom as a core liberal value.

All liberals agree that freedom, or liberty, is a central value that should inform our communal life, but they haven’t always agreed about what liberty is and about what its proper limits are. I will start by outlining the disagreement about what liberty is before explaining how liberals understand the limits of our freedom.

Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997) distinguishes between two concepts of liberty, negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty is the belief that individuals are free insofar as they are not constrained. It has often been described as ‘freedom from.’ A clear example is the case of a man who is handcuffed to a park bench. Prior to being handcuffed the man was free to move around, but his freedom of movement is now severely limited. All liberals would agree that this man’s liberty is being constrained, but some liberals argue that constraints like this are not the only impediment to our freedom.

Positive liberty is the belief that individuals are free insofar as they have the capacity to develop their potential. It has often been described as ‘freedom to.’ A clear example is the case of my desire to be a Premiership footballer. Nobody is constraining me from fulfilling my desire, but I am not free to fulfil this desire without the proper training, skills, and experience. I am free from constraint, but I do not have the capacity to fulfil this desire, therefore I am not free to be a Premiership footballer.

These two different ideas of liberty lead to radically different ideas of how society should be structured so as to maximise liberty. Classical liberals believe that liberty should only be understood in a negative sense. They therefore want to limit the constraints that society, and the state, impose on individuals. This leads them to believe that liberty is best maximised by limiting the size and scope of the state to providing the right to ‘life, liberty and property’ (Locke, 1689). They see the state as a ‘necessary evil’(Thomas Paine, 1776) and therefore want to limit its interference in the lives of individuals. This kind of state is often referred to as a minimal or ‘night-watchman state’ (Lassalle, 1862). It would typically provide a police force, a legal system and an army, although some minarchist thinkers believe that even these services can be provided by the private sector, thereby eliminating the need for a state altogether.

Modern liberals, by contrast, believe that negative liberty does not go far enough and that people cannot maximise their liberty without also having the capacity to develop their potential (positive liberty). They therefore endorse a much larger, more interventionist state that provides goods such as education, healthcare and a welfare system. Modern liberals believe that this state support is justified because only a healthy, well-educated individual with a safety-net to fall back on will have the capacity to develop their potential, and hence maximise their liberty. This kind of state was advocated by William Beveridge (1879 – 1963), who argued for the need to eliminate the five giants plaguing society; namely ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’ His view was that eliminating these evils was an essential step in creating a society where people could develop their potential.

Although they disagree about its definition, all liberals believe in liberty, but no liberal is in favour of absolute freedom of the individual. Giving everyone absolute freedom would risk allowing people to use their freedom to transgress or abuse the liberty of others. A simple case arises when I drive my car to work. If I were to disobey the law and drive on the opposite side of the road to everyone else I would cause chaos and disorder for hundreds of other road users. The exercise of my freedom of movement would result in everyone else’s liberty being curtailed. My freedom of movement is not absolute, because I must recognise that if everyone is to have the right to move freely, this entails that I have a duty not to hinder other people’s free movement. John Rawls (1921-2002) thinks that this is so important that he argues that a basic system of liberties needs to be guaranteed by the state as a first principle of justice. He argues that we should have liberty insofar as it is compatible with the liberty of others. As can be seen in the example, it is necessary to have laws governing road use in order that everyone can enjoy free movement. My freedom does not give me the right to infringe upon the freedom of others.

In order to protect our freedom it is necessary that a clear set of rules is laid down and that those who break the law are punished. This gives the state a vital role in protecting our liberties because it is the state that guarantees that the rule of law is upheld. To understand the importance of the state in protecting our freedom political philosophers have imagined what society would be like without a state. According to the 16th Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a stateless society would be plunged into a state of nature in which each man would pursue his naked self-interest. In such a condition men would have absolute freedom, but their liberty would be constantly in peril. Without the state to police things such as property rights men would resort to brute force in order to enforce their claims. Hobbes thought that this would lead to a permanent condition of ‘war of all, against all’ in which life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

In order to solve this problem it has been argued that people would band together and agree to the creation of a state by signing a social contract. Citizens would mutually agree give up some of their natural liberty in order that they are protected from the harm caused by others. The state would provide security and would guarantee basic liberties, and the citizens would be able to exercise their liberty without the interference of other individuals.

But the social contract creates another problem for liberals, because a powerful state is also a potential threat to our liberty. After all, for a state to function as it needs to it must have a ‘monopoly of legitimate physical violence in a territory’ (Weber, 1919). Thomas Hobbes argues that the state needs to possess absolute power in order to carry out its functions because it must have the power to do whatever is necessary to guarantee peace and security. He describes the state as being like a mighty leviathan, and he explicitly rules out any separation of powers or limits to the state’s authority. A liberal philosopher, John Locke (1632 – 1704) takes a different view. He agrees with Hobbes that the state of nature would result in a condition of war, but he argues that there is a danger that the creation of the state could pose an even graver threat to our liberties. As a result of this worry, he argues that the state’s power needs to be severely limited. The state should exist to guarantee the ‘life, liberty and property’ of citizens, but aside from this the state should be small, and its power should be limited.

This balance between security and liberty is at the heart of many debates within liberalism. For example, politicians in the West have been grappling in recent years with how best to tackle the threat of terrorism, without undermining the liberties upon which our liberal democracy rests. A helpful starting point to answering questions like this is provided by the Victorian thinker and statesman, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). In his classic work, On Liberty, Mill argues that individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as their action doesn’t harm other people (the harm principle). His argument is supported by the idea that individuals know their own good better than other people, and by the thought that self-directed activity is more morally valuable by virtue of being autonomously chosen. He believes that a society characterised by liberty will lead to the betterment of society as a whole because a system predicated upon maximising individual liberty is in the ‘permanent interests of […] man as a progressive being.’ He foresees individuals engaging in ‘experiments in living’ in order that they can work out what it is they want to do with their own lives. For Mill, it is only be exploring our own individuality that we can achieve the higher pleasures and live a worthwhile life.

Mill also had important things to say about the freedom of thought and expression. It has often been thought that our freedom of speech needs to be policed in order to prevent offence that might be caused to others. For this reason, denying that the Holocaust happened is illegal in many countries, including Austria, Israel and Germany. Mill believed that freedom of thought and expression was important because it is only by error colliding with truth in debate that progress can be made, and he was therefore in favour of all speech that did not directly incite people to commit harm. The famous case is that of an angry mob outside of a corn dealer’s house. In this situation Mill would not allow people to yell ‘corn dealers are starvers of the poor’ because this is very likely to lead to direct harm to others. In all other instances he would favour absolute protection of free speech, even if the speech is grossly offensive. Mill worries that the absence of free debate leads to opinions being held as ‘dead dogma, not living truth.’ This is why liberal thinkers have ardently defended free speech, with Voltaire (1694 – 1778) even declaring that ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’*

*Voltaire didn’t actually say this. It was attributed to him by a biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1903. Still, it sums up the prevailing view amongst liberals, like Voltaire, about the importance of free speech.

Liberalism #1 – An overview of liberal political thought.

Liberal ideas are so central to life in modernity that it is easy to forget that liberalism first emerged as a radical and revolutionary doctrine, culminating in revolutionary wars in the United States (1776) and in France (1789). Early liberals challenged the authority of the established church, the authority of Kings, and argued for a society with the individual at its centre. Liberalism’s fundamental claim is that individuals should be able to do what they like, as long as they respect the rights of others. Liberals believe that government is justified through the consent of the governed, and they call for a society in which individuals have the opportunity to exercise their talent and ability to rise and fall in the social hierarchy.

In stark contrast to this, many pre-liberal societies were based upon the absolute and unquestioned authority of divinely ordained monarchs who ruled over an ordered and hierarchical system where each man knew his place within a rigid social system and in which people’s moral lives were governed by the teachings of the established church.

In the 17th Century Kings claimed to rule by divine right, a doctrine propounded by Robert Filmer (1588 – 1653), and attacked by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. He argued that the King’s authority over his people can be traced back the authority bestowed by God on Adam, and that the King’s subjects have a duty of passive obedience to the monarch. Liberals challenged these ideas, arguing that consent is the only legitimate basis for political authority. Social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632 – 1704) argued that authority is agreed to because, in the absence of the state’s authority, men find themselves in a state of nature, in which there is a constant state of war. Men therefore agree to form a social contract which creates a state and a sovereign with the authority to provide order.

The religious dominance of the Catholic Church, which had already been challenged during the reformation in the 16th Century, by thinkers such as Martin Luther (1483 –1546) and John Calvin (1509 –1564), was further challenged during the enlightenment, which started in the middle of the 17th Century. The reformation had fractured the Catholic Church between warring Protestant and Roman Catholic factions, which had weakened the authority of the Church of Rome. The enlightenment further weakened the power of the Church over men’s minds. During this period there was an increasing emphasis on rational, scientific enquiry, and people began to question received dogma and religious faith. This led to an ‘age of reason’ in which scientific inquiry, observation and experimentation were seen as being the true pathway to moral and intellectual progress.

Toward the end of the 18th Century, due in part to the revolutionary writings of thinkers such as Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), there were revolutionary wars in America and France, with the American Federalists fighting for their right to have “no taxation without representation,” and the French revolutionaries rallying behind the cause of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as represented by the three colours of the modern French flag.

These political and intellectual currents meant that the 19th Century was, in many ways, a liberal century. As industrialisation took off in Western Europe and America, workers moved from the towns to the cities and from agriculture into industry. The emergence of capitalist society further eroded communal life and led to the rise of individualism. Whereas in pre-liberal society men would have been tied to the land and to their feudal obligations to the aristocratic landholders, they were now free to work for themselves in factories for an emerging capitalist class. At the same time, capitalism generated a great deal of wealth and lifted the living standards of many, but this brought with it rising inequality and insecurity. In the same year as the American revolution (1776) the classical liberal thinker, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), had argued that a free market society, in which individuals pursue their own self-interest, would lead to social good because the market would ensure that everyone’s needs are met, without the need for state interference. Classical liberals in this period argued that individuals could only be truly free in a society with a limited state and a free market.

Towards the middle of the century Chartists began demanding political rights for the working class. This led to the Reform Act of 1867, which gave working class people the vote for the first time; something many liberals worried would lead them to vote in a socialist government in their own class interests. The emergence of democracy finally cemented the idea that the only legitimate government is one grounded in the consent of the governed, something that is central to liberal thought.

Finally, in the 20th Century, a new branch of liberalism emerged which argued that for more state intervention into the lives of individuals. Whereas classical liberals had seen the state as a potential threat to individual liberty, modern liberals argued that liberty can only be maximised if individuals have the support to develop their capabilities, in order to reach their potential. This led to the development of the Welfare State by William Beveridge (1879 – 1963), who argued that the state should provide healthcare, education, and a safety net for people who find themselves temporarily out of work. These ideas were furthered by the American philosopher,John Rawls (1921-2002), who argued that liberals should favour a society that works to the benefit of the least advantaged; because this is what we would all agree to if we weren’t biased by pushing our own interests forward. Rawls’ claim is that we should think about matters of justice from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that prevents us from knowing pertinent factors about ourselves, such as our race, our gender, our socio-economic position and our religion. His thought is that if we don’t know these facts about ourselves, we will agree to a society that looks after the least advantaged, because we would worry that (upon removing the veil) we might find ourselves at the bottom of society.

Extra information

There’s a great Radio 4 series that covers the history of English Liberalism which is well worth listening to.

Trump can’t win, this election is now a formality.

I don’t have a good track record predicting elections in recent times, but some elections are not difficult to predict, and this is one of them. Don’t just take my word for it, Paddy Power have already paid out over $1 million on bets placed on Hillary Clinton before Tuesday 18th October.

In order to win Hillary Clinton needs 270 electoral college votes, which is possible even is Trump wins all of the states that pollsters currently regard as being ‘toss up’ states. In other words – even in the worst case scenario for Clinton – she will win the election by two electoral college votes. This is why Nate Silver currently gives Clinton a 87.2% chance of winning, the New York Times gives Clinton a 92% chance, and Princeton University now thinks she has a 98.7% chance. This means that even the most confident prediction only gives Trump a 12.7% chance of winning. For the poker players amongst you, this is slightly better odds than winning an ‘all in’ bet when you hold the worst poker hand (72 off-suit) and it is up against the best poker hand (pocket Aces).

Strictly speaking, this doesn’t mean that a Trump victory is impossible, but a Trump victory is now a huge statistical outlier in the more pessimistic models, and highly unlikely in the optimistic models.

Many will point out that the experts got it wrong in the British General Election in 2015 and in the EU Referendum in 2016. They would be right to point this out, but they should also remember just how close the polling was in both of these cases. In the General Election, for example, the polling suggested a dead heat between Labour and The Conservatives and the actual result was a 6.6% lead for David Cameron’s Conservative Party, giving him a slender majority in Parliament of just 16. This was one of the worst results for the polling industry since John Major clung onto power in the 1992 election, but even so, an unpublished Survation poll conducted on June 6th (the day before the election) predicted the result to within one percentage point. In the case of the EU Referendum the polling was even closer, with the average poll result showing the race to be too close to call, with the result ending up as a slender victory for ‘Leave’.

It was always going to be difficult for Trump to win, as his strategy is based upon galvanising support from disenfranchised white blue-collar workers, whilst retaining the support of the traditional Republican base. The big problem with this strategy is that demographics of America have radically changed since the 1980s.  In the 80s, Reagan won the white vote by a margin of 56% to 36% and he won the presidency. In 2008, Mitt Romney won the white vote by a margin of 59% to 39% and he lost. The difference is that when Reagan was winning elections the white population was 88% of the electorate, whereas now the white, non-hispanic population is just 62.1% of the population, and falling.

As it stands, Trump isn’t even succeeding on his own terms. He will win the votes of white voters without a college degree by a wide margin, but at the cost of alienating white college-educated Americans, a demographic that hasn’t failed to back a Republican nominee for the last 60 years. For example, in a recent poll, 62% of white voters without a college education said they would support Trump, compared with 39% of white college graduates.

The good news for most of us is that (unless the polling is horribly wrong) Trump is not going to win. The bad news is that this election has revealed an America that is bitterly divided. As Adam Curtis argues in his recent documentary, we now live in an age where we engage with politics in a ‘echo chamber’ where our views our constantly reinforced by a social media stream which reflects and reinforces what we believed already. Clinton will therefore start her presidency with a significant proportion of electorate believing her to be the apotheosis of everything that is wrong with America. Healing this schism and uniting America around a shared set of values is not a task that Clinton can complete, but the challenge of her presidency will be to lay the groundwork for a future where America can unite again around a shared set of values.