Thursday, March 29, 2007

From Adam Curtis to the Beveridge Group: negative freedom and economic liberalism are not dirty words

I see that it is almost a month since the last post on this blog. In the meantime I have been tied up variously with local politics in Watford and researching Liberal party temperance policy in Edwardian Britain. Various posts have been planned but somehow never written up.

The first of these was going to have been about the re-launch of the Beveridge Group at the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate in early March, the most recent about the final part of Adam Curtis’s documentary on BBC 2, The Trap - whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?. Perhaps now, and rather belatedly, I will attempt to revive this blog by drawing a link between the two.

The flaws in Adam Curtis’s attack on Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty have been admirably fisked by Thomas Papworth (thorough and analytical) and Alex Wilcock (inspired, impassioned and without paragraph breaks) These do such a good job that there is not much for me to add about the programme itself. But what struck me about Curtis’s argument was the way in which many people the left (including Liberals) have allowed themselves to be duped into believing that so-called negative liberty (i.e. personal freedom and absence of coercion) are nasty right-wing concepts that smack of greed and selfishness and which we ought to be against.

It is true that much of the rhetoric of the Thatcher revolution was about individual freedom. But the Thatcherites’ commitment to that cause was always highly selective. It certainly didn’t extend to social policy – remember Section 28 anyone? But instead of contesting the ground of personal liberty with the right, and promoting their own rival vision, many liberals seemed to conclude that if we are against the Tories and they think personal liberty is good, then it is something that we should regard with suspicion.

In fact, the cause of personal freedom, in the sense of absence of state restriction, has always been an important part of the liberal/left tradition, from supporting free speech to abolishing slavery through to campaigning for homosexual equality. True, the left always had its coercive streak too – witness Liberal support for prohibitionist temperance campaigns in nineteenth-century Britain. But the role of restricting state intervention in people’s personal lives is one that the Liberal left should not meekly concede to the Conservative right.

Which brings me via a rather clunking link to the Beveridge group launch and the opposition of the various speakers – most notably Paul Holmes MP – to the concept of economic liberalism. (For outsiders, here I should say that the Beveridge Group is an internal Lib Dem ginger group which is seen as being on the left of the party and more-or-less opposed to the notorious Orange Book.) Whenever I hear fellow Liberal Democrats attack ‘economic liberals’, I’m always tempted to ask: ‘So you’re an economic what, exactly? Illiberal? Social democrat? Stalinist? Surely, social liberals who want to spread wealth more fairly through society ought to have some idea of what sort of economic approach will be most effective in generating this wealth.

Again, I suspect that because back in the 1980s some Thatcherite Conservatives described themselves as economic liberals, many Lib Dems feel that economic liberalism must be synonymous with Thatcherism and therefore bad. I have never shared this view. For me, being a liberal ought to mean supporting liberal approaches to all aspects of public policy – on economic as much as social questions. If Conservatives try to usurp the concept of economic liberalism, we shouldn’t let them.

Economic liberalism ought to be economics as practised by Liberals. And that includes being part of a reformist tradition. The economic policies of nineteenth-century Liberals were about removing arbitrary restrictions to wealth creation and economic participation. And even in the supposed heyday of laissez-faire it didn’t stop Liberal governments passing legislation to promote public health, enforce better conditions for factory workers or grant increased powers for municipal corporations. And again, Thatcherite Tories were not exactly consistent in their economic liberalism. We didn’t hear much about free movement of labour across international boundaries, for example.

For me personal and economic liberty are important elements of the progressive Liberal tradition. It is true that they are not exclusive to that tradition and just as there are collectivist and libertarian liberals, there are paternalist and liberal Tories. But there is no reason why belief in individual freedom and liberal economics should be seen as crypto-Thatcherism and the fact that some Lib Dems do so shows a lack of confidence in our own intellectual inheritance and allows our political opponents define Liberalism for us.


Bishop Hill said...

The broad thrust of this piece is correct. I would take issue with one point.

Clause 28 was a response to a perception (rightly or wrongly) that a majority parents didn't want homosexuality promoted in schools. It's not inherently illiberal to grant them this wish. Indeed one could argue that it would have been much more illiberal to allow the minority to dictate to the majority. These are the sorts of decisions that politicians have to take when you have a nationalised education system. Mill, of course, recognised the horror that state education would bring about.

Now if the education system were privatised then these decisions would largely disappear. Unfortunately, now the Consertatives have dropped their support for education vouchers, this is unlikely to happen. I don't suppose the LibDems will be any different, although I haven't given up hope- particularly having read the rest of your post.

Tristan said...

Good post. You summarise many of my feelings.

What the Tories did under Thatcher was to actually take on some Liberal policies (again).
The Radicals/Peelites/Whiggs/Liberals won the argument for free trade and economic liberalism against Tory/Conservative opposition in the 19th Century.

The Tories then abandoned this several times whilst flitting back occasionally. Eventually they largely conceded to the protectionism of socialism, until Thatcher came along as an anti-socialist who saw economic liberalism as a tool to destroy the socialist consensus.

Throughout this, Liberals stuck to free trade as a principle. Generally they stuck to less government intervention rather than more and looked to economic liberalism rather than socialist and nationalistic economics (I do think there was some giving in to socialist theory, much of which seeks the same ends as liberalism, but through different means).

I have come to my views on economics (still developing, but definitely in the liberal camp) through reason and seeking to promote freedom and well being of all in society and the world.
I think that makes me liberal, not conservative.

Freedem said...

One wonders what you saw and if it was different from what I saw.

What I took away from Curtis' movie was that the whole "Positive vs Negative freedom" was a trap (hence the name)because it wound up with a definition of freedom (or rather two of them)that was narrow, fantasy based, (to say nothing of paranoid) and not about actual people.

Perhaps under emphasized (as it was done ad nauseum in previous films) was that it facilitated in both cases the worst sort of corruption, and anti liberal results, because Game Theory can itself be gamed and as long as there is an ideology, authoritarians (RWA's)will respond to it and so called SDO's will jump into the positions of power.

Much research published across the Web starkly shows why this is always a bad thing.