What I Mean When I Call Myself A Liberal

I was meant to write a couple of posts on comics and a short story today, but I appear to have developed logorrhoea on totally unrelated matters, don’t I? Oh well…

One of the big things I hear a lot from people is that they don’t actually know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, or what liberalism actually is. This is especially true at the moment, with the Parliamentary Party being in a coalition with the Conservatives. It’s also not helped by American English having a fundamentally different meaning for the word ‘liberal’ than Commonwealth English, and by British sites like Liberal Conspiracy (a Labour mouthpiece) using that meaning.

I wouldn’t presume to speak for the rest of the party, but I thought if I wrote something on here at least my readers would get some understanding of my own political position.

This will be incoherent. Large chunks of it will go against party policy. Some of it is utterly wrongheaded, I’m sure. I have a very good understanding of issues to do with civil liberties, electoral reform, LGBT rights, and so on – I’ve spent a fair amount of time investigating these issues. I have almost no understanding of economics, so when I talk about that I’m probably going to contradict myself and talk shit.

So this is what *I* mean when I refer to *myself* as a Liberal. I joined the Liberal Democrats and decided to call myself a Liberal because, of all the political parties that matter electorally in England, the Lib Dems’ policies come closest to the idiosyncratic list below. They’re not the same as that list though. In some cases that’s because of a compromise between principle and pragmatism – you can’t get elected on the platform I’m going to describe. In many others, though, it’s because people who are cleverer than I, who have more knowledge of the issues, have thought long and hard and come to a different conclusion. As few of those conclusions seem obviously immoral or absurd, I go along with them until I understand the issue better.

I’m going to break this up into three sections, Freedom, Hatred of privilege and Democracy, for the three things that motivate me most.

The Lib Dems’ most important text is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor). In particular, the ‘harm principle’ seems to me the single most important point of principle, from which all else should follow:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Not only is this morally right, it is also the pragmatically correct attitude. Anyone who has studied cybernetics knows that to control a system you must have as many options open to you as there are degrees of freedom in the system (this actually follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the single most basic law of physics). It is, quite simply, impossible as well as undesirable for a government to try to control its citizenry in every detail of their lives, as the last government did. Assuming each person in a country of sixty million has five options open to them that the government cares about, to get them all to choose the option you want them to would require the government to have 5^60,000,000 (that’s roughly 8 with forty-nine zeroes after it) different options open to it. The only way for a government to control people’s behaviour successsfully is to choose a very, very small number of things it’s interested in, and for those things to be things that most people wouldn’t do anyway. Laws against murder and theft can be somewhat effective (though never 100% effective) because the vast majority of us don’t want to kill or steal anyway, so the government can concentrate on that small number who do.

It’s also possible for laws to work when they’re setting an arbitrary convention – we all agree that we need to drive on one side of the road and not the other, and that it’s better if we all follow the same rule. Nobody has a huge emotional attachment to driving on the left or right, so the government can set a standard and everyone will follow it.

From this follow various other things – laws against free speech, against drug use, against private sexual practices, none of these can ever really work, and where they exist they should be abolished.

Hatred of privilege
Despite the above, Liberals are strong advocates of the rule of law. Those laws which we do support should be applied equally to everyone. Either murder is illegal, in which case all murderers should be prosecuted (though there should be no aspect of vengeance in this – people’s liberty should be limited only in so far as it’s necessary to prevent further harm to others), or it isn’t, in which case none should. And the same rules – rules of evidence, burden of proof and so on – should be applied across the board. These rules should also be biased *against* conviction – if we are going to restrict someone’s liberty, that’s a big, important thing to do, and should only happen if we’re *ABSOLUTELY* certain it’s the correct thing to do.

Having different rules for different people is the original and most important definition of privilege – it comes from the Latin privi legium, private law. And privilege in every sense is something I, at least, want to defeat.

In many cases, this means clearing away bad laws that privilege one group over another. Getting rid of the stupid rules regarding marriage, for example, or allowing immigrants to vote, getting rid of the House of Lords with its appointed and hereditary rulers (and especially getting rid of the bishops from within it, who privilege one religion over all others by being there).

There is also such a thing as economic privilege, however. You can’t be totally free if you can’t eat, or you don’t have healthcare, or you never learned to read or write. There’s a reason both Keynes and Beveridge were Liberals.

Now, while I’m no economist so this is probably the weakest part of this, my view is simple. Every human being should, to the extent it’s possible, have a roof over their head, food, clothing, enough education and access to information to take part in society, and enough medical access that they don’t suffer needlessly. Any society in which that’s not the case is not one which I would call civilised.

My personal favoured method for this is a citizens’ income, which used to be Lib Dem policy but was scrapped as too radical, but the current ‘universal credit’ welfare reforms come very, very close to it. In this, rather than the government giving people housing benefit, money off prescriptions, money for childcare, whatever – a bunch of vouchers and tokens you can only use for one thing each, and which require a great deal of administration – the government just gives everyone enough money to pay for those things and says “here you go”, trusting them to do what’s best for themselves. (Yes, I know there are problems with this. There are problems with every system. This is my ‘ideal world’ system.)

But how is this to be paid for? If someone works hard and earns money, we don’t want to take that off them. If you go down a mine and dig up a load of coal for a couple of hundred quid a week, should you be paying half that to someone else who can’t be bothered to work?

Well no, obviously not. However, not everyone does work. There’s a huge class of people who get their money not from work but from rent-seeking – either from actual rent (landlords) or from the exploitation of other monopolies (bankers, people who live off ‘investments’).

There are only two ways I can think of of getting money, either by creating wealth by making or thinking of something (‘workers by hand and brain’ as the old Labour Party Clause Four had it), or by exploiting government-created monopolies (for example ‘intellectual property’ laws or mining rights to an area).

It’s the latter which should be taxed far more than income from actual work, as a way of redressing economic privilege. Monopolies are effectively gifts from the government (which is to say from the population at large) to individuals, and those individuals should repay the bulk of the wealth they get from these gifts back to the population. Someone who builds or designs a house is creating wealth – there is something there that wasn’t there before, that’s of value. Someone who rents the house out, however, is not creating wealth, just taking advantage of a pre-existing inequality (they have a house and their tenants don’t).

Hark! The sound is spreading from the east and from the west!
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest!
The land was meant for the people.

The hatred of privilege ties very strongly into the need for freedom. Unless a transsexual, polyamorous, black person with cerebral palsy born on a council estate has the same tools to make the life she wants for herself as Prince Harry does, then she is less free than he is. (Of course, it may also be that Prince Harry would quite like to stop being third in line for the throne and become a juggler in a left-wing arts collective, but is being stopped from doing so by his position in society. Privileges can hurt the privileged as well as the unprivileged, though usually not as much).

If we are to assume that a government should exist at all, then we want that government to have a few properties. We want it to not do anything that the majority of the people in society think is intolerable. We want it to protect the rights of minorities, no matter what the majority think. And we want it to be effective – we want its actions to have the intended consequences.

The second of these is best solved by some kind of constitution or bill of rights – in the UK the European Convention on Human Rights and its incorporation into British law with the Human Rights Act fulfil this role. Things like this, while a departure from pure democracy, are necessary to prevent democracy turning into tyrranny. (I could easily imagine a situation where the majority of the population decided it was OK to murder fat nerdy blokes called Andrew if they really got on your nerves by writing overlong blog posts. I don’t particularly want such a law to be passed, even if it was the democratic will of the country).

Handily, our third requirement is best solved by feedback – the more information you can get into the system the better. This is handy because it also fulfils the first criterion, that government should not do anything that the majority find intolerable. If we have some kind of democratic system, then these criteria are fulfilled handily.

Some might argue for direct democracy – people voting on every issue. There are problems with this, however. Partly, the problem is that people’s opinions aren’t consistent – I could very easily see a majority voting “yes” to “Should we spend more money on the NHS, education and fighting crime?” *and* to “Should we cut your taxes by a thousand pounds a year?”. The other problem is that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the issues. I think of myself as a fairly well-informed person, for example, but I have absolutely no idea whether the seven billion pound loan to Ireland that Britain just made was a good decision or a bad one.

So the best compromise is representative democracy – everyone votes for the person or persons who they agree with most on the subjects they know about, and make it that person’s job to find out everything they can about every subject necessary for government. This actually works quite well, because votes in aggregate will produce someone who’s a good compromise on all competencies – people who know about civil liberties will vote for candidates who are strong on civil liberties, people who know about economics will vote for candidates who are strong on economics, so a candidate who is strong on both will get both sets of votes.

However, our current First Past The Post system isn’t a very effective way of getting this information into the system, because a single cross every five years, in a seat where for the most part a maximum of two candidates have a chance (which is nearly all of them), is a rate of one bit every five years. To put that into perspective, for an individual voter to get across the information in this post up to the end of that last sentence would take 520,320 years (assuming elections every five years. If they were every four years, it would only take 416,256 years).

On the other hand, a ranked preferential system like the Alternative Vote (which we will be voting on next year) or Single Transferable Vote (which the Lib Dems like) gets *FAR* more information into the government. In my constituency last time, only Labour or the Lib Dems could have won, so I had a binary choice between those two candidates if I was voting for an MP – one bit of information. On the other hand, there were eight candidates on the ballot. If I’d been able to rank my preferences, that would have given me 8! different ways of expressing myself. That’s 40,320 different options, or on the order of sixteen bits of information. Government is going to reflect public opinion much better – and be more effective – if voters have 40,320 choices than if they have two.

So, anyway, that’s roughly what *I* mean by being a liberal. It may not be what other liberals mean, but I think it’s close to what a lot of them think. If you’re a liberal and vociferously disagree, please do so in the comments – I’ll be very interested to see to what extent people agree or disagree with this…

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13 Responses to What I Mean When I Call Myself A Liberal

  1. zanyzigzag says:

    This is excellent, thanks v much for writing this, it helps sort out my own political views when someone is able to clearly state the basic facts and ideas behind a political party. Very well done! :)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you. Please don’t think of this as any kind of official guide to the Lib Dems – I’m pretty sure that almost every member would find something to disagree with there. At the same time, though, I think most *would* agree with it in the broadest outlines…

  2. Cat says:

    You don’t mean your a two faced liar who would say one thing to get elected then?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No. I don’t. If nothing else, just looking at the post I made last night should tell you that much. (Assuming you are literate enough to read it, which from your comment I doubt. I know that’s an unfair comment, but then so is yours).
      It is actually possible for other people to have different political positions from you, and to work for those positions honestly and with the intention of trying to change things for the better. Generally speaking, it’s not especially productive to go looking for things explaining their positions and then just dumping random insults there.
      If you have any questions that are actually related to the content of this or any other of my posts – even hard ones relating to the Coalition and how its policies differ from those in the Lib Dem manifesto – please feel free to ask them. If you have any more random insults, please feel free to go and fuck yourself.

  3. K says:

    If I was to write a “Why I am a socialist” it would look almost identical to this but with a few additions. I don’t say this to accuse you of vagueness, your points are clear and well grounded, but I think they describe what is central to liberalism rather than what distinguishes it from other viewpoints on the left, which is harder for outsiders to pin down.

    It could be clarified by a companion post “Why I am not a Social Democrat”, though I realize that might come across as combative.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Interesting point. I tend to describe myself by the formulation (which I got from Mat Bowles, who I think got it from a biography of John Stuart Mill) as “a liberal, a democrat and a socialist, in that order”. What I mean by ‘socialism’ though is more co-operatives, mutuals, workers’ associations and suchlike, which are all part of a Liberal tradition, rather than state socialism (though I have a rather wooly, unformed economic outlook).

      Personally, my differences with social democrats are, as much as anything, a matter of nuance – there have certainly been times when I’d have been happy to vote for the Labour party, though not recently. It’s about emphasis, though – someone who defines themselves as a socialist or social democrat first and foremost will, if forced to choose between freedom and equality (an artificial and false choice, but still…) choose equality, whereas if I were forced into the same false choice I’d choose freedom.

      There’s also the fact that I’m dubious about state control of many areas. I think it definitely works in the case of, for example, the NHS, but I tend to favour the formulation (which I think Michael Meadowcroft came up with) of “the market where possible, the state where necessary”, while most social democrats would tend to (to caricature their view perhaps unfairly) say “the state where possible, the market where necessary”. I do think the state is ‘necessary’ in rather more cases than many other Liberals I know do, and this is why I’m a member of the Social Liberal Forum.

      But there are people who would agree with what I’ve written in the main body of the post, and who I would consider to be true Liberals, who would not consider themselves of ‘the left’. If I were given my choice of coalition partners, I would choose the Compass wing of the Labour Party, the Co-Operative Party and the moderate wing of the Greens. There are other Liberals, though, who would choose the Ken Clarke wing of the Tories and maybe the Libertarian Party or something – but they’d still agree with me about everything I said.

      And there are plenty on ‘the left’ who would disagree with pretty much every word – notably most of the leadership of the Labour party for the last couple of decades.

      To use a crude analogy, what I’m calling ‘liberalism’ is, roughly, the bottom left quadrant of the Political Compass. I think many who self-define as primarily ‘socialist’ or ‘social democrat’ are also there. But many who call themselves ‘social democrats’ are also in the top left quadrant. I’m happy to work with them, but they’re happy to work with people in the top right quadrant (such as David Blunkett or Gordon Brown) while I’m not.

      • K says:

        Interesting, I’ve never thought about the liberal tradition as extending to co-ops and unions, that explains your position more than anything.

        And I think you aren’t so much caricaturing the social democrat position on state vs market as inventing one, the conflict on the left is more between people who think that bottom-up mechanisms are always preferable to top-down, and those who plump for whatever is at hand.

        Similarly I don’t think many socialists recognize your distinction between economic freedom and equality, seeing the latter as a symptom of the former, defined primarily as reducing rent-seeking and exploitation. Which is my problem with the economic compass, though your example allied parties conveyed the same relationship more fairly.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Co-ops and mutuals have always been *very* much a part of Liberal tradition, and remain so – this year’s manifesto called for a Mutuals, Co-operatives and Social Enterprises Bill and have a specific minister in charge of encouraging them. The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have generally been less keen on Trade Unions, but I think that’s an inconsistency in the party’s thinking, brought about more by the unions giving financial support to Labour – any consistent Liberal philosophy must say that unions are A Good Thing, even if the party has sometimes been against their actions in practice.

          I have known people who actually think that state action is always and of necessity better than bottom-up action, but I’ll take your word for it that they’re a small minority at best – though I think at least some ministers in the last government thought that way.

          And I didn’t make myself very clear – I wasn’t talking about purely economic freedom there. Also, I was definitely saying it was a very artificial and wrong distinction – I believe, like you say, both go hand in hand. However, *if*, to give a ludicrous example, banning everyone from listening to the music of Celine Dion were to make the poorest 10% of the population a hundred pounds a year better off (I choose this example because it’s absurd and could never happen in real life), I suspect most who think of themselves as socialists first and foremost would be more likely to consider the ban than those who think of themselves as liberals first and foremost. However, please note that I think in practice *freedom and equality go hand in hand* and such situations would rarely occur.

  4. K says:

    Well I’m sure there are politicians who always prefer state action, having only a hammer and all, but I think that Bennites and so-on promote highly intrusive economic measures because they don’t believe communal action can achieve the relevant ends. I agree with the distinction you make between the two groups, but I don’t think it’s a matter of priority.

    As to freedom and equality going hand in hand, I agree but am slightly surprised, the impression I got from places like Crooked Timber was that liberals regarded things like the minimum wage as a trade off between freedom and equality, whereas socialists see them as increasing both. I am glad to learn that this is not the case, at least for the liberalism in question.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Some in the Lib Dems did see things that way – they tend to be the ones who’ve never had to work a minimum wage or below job.
      Personally, my view is that yes, trivially, it is a restriction on some kinds of liberty – it’s a restriction on the liberty of bosses to pay employees starvation wages. But the amount of freedom it adds to the minimum-wage worker is much greater than that taken from the employer, and so overall it increases equality.

      However, in an ideal world it wouldn’t be necessary, because without rent-seeking and monopolies, and with a citizens’ income, we would have a situation where all contracts were being entered into between equals, with equal bargaining power, and for mutual benefit. We wouldn’t then need minimum wage laws because we wouldn’t have ’employers’ and ’employees’ in the sense we have now, but freely-associating colleagues. But that’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime, and the minimum wage is definitely necessary until then.

  5. Niklas Smith says:

    This will be incoherent. Large chunks of it will go against party policy. Some of it is utterly wrongheaded, I’m sure.

    Well, it’s certainly not incoherent or wrongheaded (although I have a partial quibble with the landowner example). It’s actually a really good post.

    As for distinguishing liberalism from socialism/social democracy, the preamble of the Constitution of the Liberal Party (pre-merger) does a rather good job:

    “The Liberal Party exists to build a liberal society in which every citizen shall posess liberty, property and security and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Its chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual, and in all spheres it sets freedom first.”

    Contrast that with the wooliness of the first sentence of the preamble to the Lib Dems’ Constitution: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which noone shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” (My bold.)

    I am very much a fan of the “no one shall be enslaved…” part (so I suppose that makes me a social liberal, at least in a basic sense) but as you say, when presented with a choice of desirable values a liberal by definition would choose freedom first.

  6. Andrew Hickey says:

    Thanks for that. I’d not read the pre-merger preamble before, and it does sound slightly preferable to me to the current one (though both have their good points – I prefer the explicit ‘fair, free and open society’ to ‘liberal society’).

    And yes, the ‘no-one shall be enslaved’ is the single most important part of the preamble to me, too. It’s one of the reasons I joined the party.

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