Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is 'social liberalism'?

I read John Harris’s report on the leadership contest in today’s Guardian. Harris approvingly quotes Simon Hughes thus:

What's at stake in the party… "is whether we remain a party committed to greater equality and narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, or whether we become a party like some of the liberal parties in Europe - moving more to the right, seeing it more as a free-market party. But as it happens, the most extreme supporters of that view are not in the contest."

Being an old-fashioned Labour supporter whose core beliefs have never evolved beyond ‘public sector good, private sector bad’, Harris will no doubt approve of this sort of thing.

But I can’t help feeling that those who stress their ‘social liberalism’ and take sideswipes at the Orange Book need to put up or shut up. What exactly do they believe?

Nobody seriously argues these days that in a global economy we can go in for Keynesian demand management, let alone socialist planning, within tariff walls. We have to work within economic constraints. I am sure that even for Vince Cable and David Laws the question about higher taxes for higher earners is not whether it is in principle right, but whether it will actually do more harm than good.

I have never seen a decent explanation of what those who describe themselves as ‘social liberals’ actually advocate as a Lib Dem economic policy, other than dewy-eyed sentimentality about the public sector and nostalgia for the days when it was possible to believe that higher taxes automatically led to better services.

Or to put it another way – does support for ‘social liberalism’ and rejection of ‘economic liberalism’ amount to anything more than a refusal to accept the world as it is?


Wallyxab said...

The comment about Keynesianism seems misplaced. Advocates of demand management, where appopriate, include Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel prize winner for economics and author of Globalization and its discontents) and William Keegan in the Observer - hardly views to dismiss lightly.

The alternative to Keynesian views are those of monetarism and 'supply side' reforms, which did such incalculable social damage in the 1980s - the quack theory of 'trickle down' economics as practiced here and in the US.

'Social liberalism', as I understand it, puts the emphasis of liberalism upon social policy first. That this is wrong - surely you have to have an economy that will deliver the necessary tax receipts for ongoing social reform first - is another issue.

James said...

If there is one positive thing that has come out of this leadership contest its that both of the extremist wings on the "social liberal" and "economic liberal" sides of the party have been discredited.

What has become abundantly clear is that the majority of the party isn't interested in the simplistic "Oranger Bookers" vs "Beveridge Groupies" debate that the extremists - and the media - love to hype up.

In reality, what we have is a creative dynamism between the two which is far more adept at deliering a workable agenda.

Tristan said...

James makes a good point.
I class myself as both economically and socially liberal, I can't see myself as liberal unless I accept them both (which I do instinctively anyway).

Keyenes, I feel, was right for the time of the great depression, but I think that's as far as he intended much of his work to go. Unfortunately he died fairly young and his successors took things to the extreme...
The other great liberal economist of the 20th Century was probably Hayek, who is often characterised as a gung-ho extreme free marketeer. What he rightly did was identify the economic control proposed by socialists as leading to loss of freedom and he advocated choice where possible to let people take responsibility for their own lives and make their own choices rather than be dictated to. This is profoundly liberal.
Even in 'The Road To Serfdom' however he supports policies which are social liberalism, that of ensuring that help is given to those who by bad luck or circumstance find themselves without work and needing support. He points out that there are some problems with this, but is supportive in general terms.

I do get concerned when people talk about equality of wealth. That will never happen, attempts to create it curtail freedom.
What I feel liberals should be advocating is enabling people to get out of poverty. If some people have more money and use that to keep others in poverty that is wrong, but simply to have more money than others is not wrong.

Paul Graham said...

The 'debate' between 'social' and 'economic' liberals is not just about economic efficiency but also about the relationship of freedom and equality. Hughes argues that inequality is intrinsically bad, whereas if you believe in human choice or autonomy then some inequalities are bad, but others are justified, because they are the result of choices people have made. There have been big debates in (academic) political philosophy since the publication of John Rawls's 'A Theory of Justice' which are just not reflected in political debate (debates between people like Ronald Dworkin, Armatya Sen, Thomas Nagel and Gerald Cohen). So-called social liberals are stuck in early 20th debates (New Liberalism etc.).

Iain said...

Against all expectations the debate is moving on. Peter Riddle's article in The Times yesterday does raise questions with which we must engage.,,17129-2051593,00.html
It was clear that Chris Hulne's passage on Manchester Liberalism was listened to at the NW hustings. It is a false to claim that the state monoploy has provided well for the poor and unpopular!

Toni said...

"The comment about Keynesianism seems misplaced. Advocates of demand management, where appopriate, include Joseph Stiglitz..."

I'm sorry, but you seem to use the concept "demand management" quite loosely, if you're to fit Stiglitz and Keynes under the same umbrella. Ever since models of idealized government public goods productions were actually sharpened to fit closer to political realism, no serious mainstream economists have advocated "keynesian demand management", let alone Stiglitz (or can you, please, provide reference for the contrary?)

All and all the whole discussion about "keynesianism versus monetarism" sounds like from a textbook of the 70s. Economics has moved on quite a bit in the last 30 years, I tell you, and keynesian macroeconomic analysis and the monetarists' quantity theory of money all happily coexist today. I think the only people who still like to uphold dichotomies like these are in essence either finding it too hard to let go of their keynesian romanticism (ie. what Iain said) or then they've just simply skipped the boring economics textbooks and concentrated on duly dated polemic articles on economics.

John Locke's Ghost said...

Paul Graham, as you probably know, there are two concepts of both freedom and equality. The two "freedoms" are positive and negative liberty, as described by Isaiah Berlin in his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty". The two "equalities" are equality of resources and equality before the law.

I agree that the so-called social liberals are stuck in early 20th debates. As you mentioned Rawls, Dworkin et al as more recent thinkers, I think it would be propriate to mention also the other set of liberals (classical liberals /libertarians), including Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Loren Lomasky, David Conway, and others.