Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Socialism and a liberal dilemma

I’ll never quite cut the mustard as a polemicist. Each time I post something controversial on this blog I then worry that I’ve been rather horrid to the person I have criticised.

So, pondering my last post on obesity, I should point out, in fairness to Sandra Gidley, that she is doing no more than reflecting a strategic dilemma that the Liberal Democrats face at the moment.

Here’s what I mean. Most Lib Dems would agree that they want the party to be liberal. But they also want it to be ‘on the left’. Unfortunately, for the past century left–right discourse has not been about liberalism versus illiberalism but about socialism versus capitalism. As a result, many liberals worry about being too anti-socialist in case that puts us on the right.

If left means socialist then the correct left response to any social problem is to say that it can and should be ameliorated, or even solved, by increased government action (and spending). When confronted with the Department of Health report on obesity, a Lib Dem spokesperson may consider the ways of responding.

One, distinctively liberal, response might be to say that while obesity is a real problem, in the end it’s a matter of personal lifestyle choice and something the government can’t easily solve, even if it has a duty to make sure people have access to the right information. But to many people this smacks of complacent, uncaring Toryism. In short, it sounds like a right-wing response. (I should say here that I don’t think its right wing, because I believe progressive politics should be about setting people free to make their own choices, not about bossy, authoritarian government. But let that pass.)

A second option would be to agree that obesity is indeed a serious issue and welcome the fact that the government has recognised this and is doing something to tackle it. This would reconcile the liberal versus left dilemma, but is a rather uncritical position for an opposition party to take.

That then leaves the third response, which is the one Sandra Gidley has chosen, namely to say that it’s a terrible problem, a ‘time-bomb’ even, that the government isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle it and ought to be doing far more. This is no more than the standard response of many Lib Dem spokesman to any number of social issues concerning public health, safety child care etc.

Unfortunately, the end result is that on these domestic issues we have little to set us apart from the other parties beyond saying that we always want a bit extra public spending, state intervention and government bossiness than they do.

In my view the collapse of socialism in the last decade of the twentieth century was a chance to redefine progressive politics along liberal lines. Unfortunately, too many Liberal Democrats cling to the comfort blanket of the (essentially socialist) nostrum that to be on the left must always mean supporting more government.


Joe Otten said...

Yes, unfortunately it is part of the bread and butter of politics, if a report suggests a problem, to attack the government for not solving it.

Now if there are social democratic solutions to obesity on the table I am happy to hear them and might support them. I'm no puritan.

But the problem here is that there aren't really any state-interventionist solutions to obesity. So intervention amounts to bribing GPs to lecture on the subjects of diet and exercise.

By all means criticise the government if they aren't doing something better than this against obesity that they could be doing. But please, please, please, let's not have any "we must do something" panics, with no clear idea of what particular somethings would be any good.

Your more general point is also a good one. It is difficult to show how much you care by leaving people alone. And it is easy to think that all the problems of the world exist because we care too little. And although I probably do care too little in some respects, I don't think it is honestly possible and sane for me to care more for people in general than they care for themselves.

Liberal Legend said...

I totally agree with you on this blog. Having witnessed socialism's failures at first hand I do think we have a unique opportunity to recast progressive politics in a liberal framework.

Education is the key but you have to let people stuff themselves if they choose to. The only alternative would be to reintroduce rationing which is far from liberal. Let's avoid the nanny state like the plague and don't be afraid to criticise those within and without the party who follow the socialist road on occasions.