Perhaps the most effective virtue for a liberal is inconsistency. We do not believe that the state is always the right solution, or that the market invariably has the answer. We know it depends on circumstance. And – this is the crucial point – circumstances change. There are times when the state needs to intervene, and there are periods when its power needs to be constrained. If we ask when intervention is necessary, the simple response is when our society is in crisis – when inequality is so stark that local or charitable solutions can not be sufficient. The contention of Reinventing the State is that we are at one of those moments of crisis. And, what is more, we have to battle not only with the old enemies of poverty, lack of opportunity, unequal life expectancy but also with a new foe: climate change and the destruction of our planet. To my mind, this challenge is also the impetus to a new perspective on our ideology.
Liberals have in their mind a concept of the individual, the essential, irreducible unit of society. When we think of individuals, we do not imagine each of them to be isolated. In each person clusters various communities, of which they are member by birth (gender, race, for instance), by circumstance (physical inhabitance, career) and by inclination (sexual orientation, political persuasion). So many communities that the individual naturally has to choose which of those to privilege in their own self-definition. Those choices and some of the communities themselves will change over a person’s lifetime. This is a liberalism with which we might be familiar. But it is not enough, as the challenge of the environment should remind us. That is a challenge which we have to tackle for our own generation but all the more for future ones – not just for today’s children, but for theirs in turn. In other words, the individual of whom the liberal conceives is a member of the various communities already mentioned, and of a community which includes the not-yet-living.
Does this matter? I think it does, for two reasons. First, because it has relevance beyond that of the environment, providing a longer-term perspective on some of the other issues that we face. Previous generations of liberals, including the New Liberal thinkers of the early twentieth century, had confidence in a concept of progress. In that mindset, future generations could be expected to enjoy an ever better existence which, perhaps, meant that their welfare did not have to be of concern now. Progress is the god that died; we think beyond our own graves with a sense of anxiety, not confidence. But in protecting the heritage we leave, we face another problem and that is the second reason why this matters. We have to ask ourselves how far the ‘not-yet-living’ can be used as a trump card? How do we ensure that our stewardship for future generations does not create unacceptable brakes on our freedom in our own lifetimes?
I don’t pretend I have the answers to those questions yet. But we should be asking the questions.