The problem with liberalism

Update: This post has been published over at Liberal Conspiracy here. To keep the discussion in one place, I will close the comments on this post. If you have any comments please post them here.

What do you think the word ‘liberal’ means?

Perhaps if you are American, you are thinking of what Europeans call social democrats. Maybe some Europeans think of it as some kind of wishy-washy centrism that can’t decide between left and right. In certain countries it may have something to do with a pro-business approach. If you’re Australian it probably means the same as conservative.

A pre condition of liberalism might be the existence of free markets. Or maybe liberalism is to do with equality of some kind or another. Animal rights? Environmentalism? [insert trendy cause here]? Smith, Mill or Kant? Etc, etc. It seems to me that the word ‘liberal’ is about as useful as words like ‘that’ and ‘thingy’.

As such, it wasn’t really a surprise that the name of Sunny Hundal’s new ‘superblog’, Liberal Conspiracy, provoked some debate about the nature of liberalism when it was launched a month or so back. “My liberalism is more liberal than yours” and that type of thing.

I would agree that, looking at the list of contributors, ‘Socialist Conspiracy’ might have been a more apt title. For instance, Jonathan Calder noted the lack of Liberal Democrats involved.

It looks like a conspiracy against Liberals.

In fairness, apart from the title (which I actually find quite amusing — it makes a good point), the site is describing itself as liberal-left rather than just liberal. Fair enough I guess, although I always thought that people describing themselves as ‘liberal-left’ were really just socialists trying to duck jibes about the Judean People’s Front.

Even the design of the website looks rather more socialist than liberal. The dark maroon colour scheme, Impact font and spatter marks make it look like some kind of SWP-affiliated website.

Anyway, liberalism. The thing that vexes me about this is the fact that — you guessed it — I describe myself as a liberal. This is mostly because I don’t know of a better term. (If you don’t know about my political views, take a look at my position on the political compass.)

When I describe myself as a liberal that means I am talking about limited government. It can’t be no government. Liberalism can’t be the same as anarchism. The question becomes “how big can a government acceptably be?” And even the most hardcore libertarians (as in the free market kind, lest there be any confusion) see the need for a government in order to protect property rights and prevent force and fraud.

A liberal (excuse the pun) interpretation of that could still leave quite a wide scope for government intervention. It might not be too controversial, for instance, for a government to step in when an activity causes a clear and unambiguous negative externality.

The classic example of a negative externality is pollution. A factory may dump pollution into a river that runs into land owned by another person. The government is duty bound to protect this property, so it would have to step in. Incidentally, I don’t think this approach is too far removed from Mill’s “harm principle”.

Liberalism “doctorvee style” goes a bit further than this. This is why you would tend not to find me using the word ‘libertarian’ to describe my political views. In my view, the government should also step in to prevent certain kinds of market failure. For instance, public goods will be under-supplied by the market.

I find it difficult to imagine how, for instance, street lights would be paid for in a strictly free market system. I can be a (critical) supporter of the BBC and still describe myself as a liberal without flinching because the BBC is a non-rival, non-excludable public good.

But for me, the bottom line is to be suspicious of any extension of government power, and to resist it unless there is overwhelming evidence of the need for it. If you take civil liberties and economic efficiency seriously, there can be no other way. History tells us to treat governments with contempt. When did you ever hear of a riot happening because the government was too small?

Given that most left-wing solutions to any problem usually involve a liberal (sorry) dose of extra government intervention, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Liberal Conspiracy found itself at the receiving end of some jibes about the term ‘liberal-left’ being an oxymoron. I think this is a tad unfair. It is possible to be left-wing / collectivist and anti-government at the same time (all I can say is, good luck solving the free rider problem).

However, it is not difficult to find instances of the Liberal Conspiracy being distinctly illiberal. One of the first posts on the blog was defending the government’s idea of forcibly keeping children in education until the age of 18. Not only that, but the writer, Mike Ion, said:

I struggle to understand why anyone on the Left of British politics could oppose Gordon Brown’s moves

It’s quite funny how I decided that my version of liberalism should keep the ‘liberal’ name. Has anybody got any better ideas?

For what it’s worth, I think the ‘liberal-left’ should just drop the pretence and call themselves socialists.

As for the (free market) libertarians? David Farrer grappled with this a few weeks back, and lamented the fact that both the ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ tags have been stolen by leftists. I like his suggestion of using the unstealable “Real Fascist Bastard” tag.

But perhaps they could take inspiration from one of Hayek’s favoured terms. How about calling themselves catallactists? It would be a bit difficult for a socialist to use that one with a straight face!

1 comment

  1. Duncan – I think you make some great points. Can we run this on LC to spark a debate (as a guest post)?
    You have my email as part of this post. Please do let me know.