Sunday, October 15, 2006

An explanation, at last

The time has come to explain this blog's name. Some, I’m sure, have been waiting with bated breath. I should start by saying the my first idea was mores liberales. But that looks on screen like a case of Manuel’s Fawlty English. There are certainly mores liberales in heaven and earth than some would credit. But the Latin noun ‘mores’ is also an English noun which you’ll recognise – customs or habits. And so, with a slight change of case in order to avoid confusion (for that we would not want, would we?), we have: ‘about liberal habits.’

I see at the back of the class an objection from our Blairite friend in Liverpool. He’s waving his arm about, eager to make his point –‘but liberalis isn’t the same as liberal.’ Thank you for that intervention and it is a point well-made. It is here that the dread e-acute word makes a re-appearance.

For, the term liberalis comes from a time when there were free men and those not so free. A liber was a free man in contrast to a slave. ‘Liberalis’ and thus liberal is merely the adjective which derives from that. Even in the classical world, however, a ‘liberal custom’ was not just what a free man would do, but what he (excuse the gender imbalance for the moment) should do. It was implied that a free man should act in certain ways and, most particularly, be educated in certain skills. The concept is still with us or, at least, with our American cousins when they talk of the liberal arts (which we call the humanities, as in those skills which are needed to achieve the full potential of a human – a very Renaissance concept).

But, as everyone is now free, what is liberal is what is suitable for every individual. Quite so, but let’s not lose sight of how recent that insight is. And here’s the point: go back to John Stuart Mill, writing On Liberty in the 1850s, and you’re in an era where the majority still lacked the vote. He might have wanted to alter the gender imbalance by ensuring both sexes had the vote, and he might have been in favour of universal suffrage but he wrote in an age where only the few were ‘citizens.’ And all citizens, he said, should be entitled to debate any issue, as long as they had informed themselves. That is, all citizens should be educated – and the State should compel that education but not be, he suggests, the main provider of it.

So, this brings us back to that feared e-acute: if those who can (and should) be fully involved in political society are the ones who are informed enough to add to the debate, then few would be allowed. Mill was the voice of a liberalism before democracy was achieved. Half a century later and the debate had moved on: the issue becomes how to ensure that everyone can engage in political society, irrespective of their background. Liberals recognised that, at times, that could only be achieved by the intervention of the state. Liberalism, in other words, is about achieving an equality of opportunity and striving for social justice through all the means available.

The reason for this long posting may now be clear: it’s to make it clear, early in my time here, where I stand politically. Mill is a formative influence on Liberalism, but he can not be its guiding light. Later thinkers from T. H. Green to L. T. Hobhouse should take the credit. When the Adam Smith Institute praises my ward colleague, he’s right to take umbrage at having given succour to the suckers. Their idea of ‘classical liberals’ [sic] is an impoverished concept, still-born when the term was invented. They talk of liberals when they actually mean libertarians. But, as we accept, ‘liberal’ has historical resonances of freemen, but certainly not of Friedman.


tristan said...

I disagree - Milton Friedman is a liberal.
US Liberalism (what is now more commenly called libertarianism) did evolve in a different direction after independance, but it is still firmly part of the liberal tradition.

Milton Friedman's life work has been to free people. Granted, he sought to free people from state oppression, to live their lives as they wish rather than as the state (or rather its functionaries) tell you you should rather than the positive liberties which some focus on, but you cannot have the positive ones without the negative.

Like the Liberal Democrats, he saw that the state has a place, but that that place is to be limited and that an all encompassing state will harm people's freedoms and their quality of life.
He is motivated by wanting to improve people's lives, but he knows that big government is not the way to do it.

His policies on education are to enable the best education for all as that is necessary for a modern society in which all can engage as much as they are able. The current education system in the US fails at that (as does the UK system).

His tax policies are more redistributive than any a socialist has envisaged, but they also seek to encourage individual initiative rather than state dependance.
(the negative income tax is directly redistributive, the poorest are given money in accordance with their poverty, no messing around with tax credits, or welfare, they are given the means to control their own lives, and not penalised for working).

The ASI are narrow minded, they don't take Friedman as fully as I think they should, I don't recall them recommending a Land Tax (although Tim Worstall, who writes for them does).

Classical Liberalism is a strand of liberalism thought which should be listened to, criticised when necessary, just as the liberalism of Beveridge needs to be. They are products of their time, Beveridge was seduced by the socialist thinking of the time, the ASI by the anti-socialist thinking of Thatcher.

When liberals reject swathes of their inheritance out of hand, I think it does great harm to them. The ASI does this with 'New Liberalism', but we as a party should not.

Jonathan said...

Mill wrote that "If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilisation, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part of those things; there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued, and the adjustment of the boundaries between it and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty."

Hobhouse said that "The teachings of Mill brings us close to the heart of Liberalism", but the shift from Mill to the positive liberty of the new liberalism was shown by J.A. Hobson when he pointed out that the question new liberals must ask themselves is "What are the equal opportunities which every Englishman requires to-day in order to secure real liberty of self-development?"

Who follows the tradition of Hobhouse and Hobson in the parliamentary Liberal Democrats today?

Jock Coats said...

I agree with Tristan. Friedman is definitely a liberal. And so is Adam Smith. The problem with Adam Smith is the ASI. Conrad quotes from Adam Smith in his Intelligent Person's Guide. And though I have not had the gusto to read all four hundred and thirty seven volumes of Wealth of Nations it seems to me that far more than the think tank that bears his name he did have quite a well thought out idea of services that ought to be provided by government or communally in order to underpin and even out some of the effects of markets.

I still think that the history of liberalism in the last 200 years has been trying to find our way back to the ideals of Locke and Payne and Smith in an increasingly complex world (especially post-Marx when this alternative vision was presented) - life was easier for them because they only had so many variables and we have a lot more.

The challenge is to build the smallest state possible whilst giving everyone a level playing field (equality of opportunity) in which to choose for themselves how to live and how far to take their potential. In my opinion we are almost as far from a level playing field as it is possible to get, but there are signs of hope (one of them you and I are going to talk about tonight!).

I am also only too aware that this is a massive turn-around for someone who when a councillor seemed to think that the best provider would always be the public one whatever the cost...:)