(Continues from the introduction)
Before I start explaining what Liberalism is, it’s probably a good idea to explain what it isn’t — why the Liberal Democrats are perceived very differently from the reality, and why some of what you think about them is probably wrong.
Since at least the French Revolution, there has been a traditional splitting of parties into left-wing and right-wing. In Britain, the principal left-wing party is nominally the Labour party, although that party has moved very far to the right in the last twenty years compared to its historical positions. The principal right-wing party has always been the Conservative party.
Both of these parties, like all major political parties, are broad coalitions of different interest groups, but very roughly their split is on economic grounds.
The Labour party have traditionally been democratic socialists and social democrats. This isn’t so true any more, as they have moved much further to the right than even most of their supporters would like, but the basic idea animating the Labour movement is, roughly (and I apologise if I caricature this, and would welcome corrections from anyone who thinks I’m missing nuance):
The best way to organise the economy is to have large parts of it controlled by a central government that can redistribute resources to those who most need them, and for the party running the government to retain ties to the working classes by being allied with a mass Trade Union movement.
I don’t know to what extent the modern Labour party leadership agree with that statement, but it’s one that much of the membership agrees with, and can be seen in some of the actions taken by the Labour government between 1997 and 2010.
By contrast, the Conservative party, post-Thatcher, broadly believes:
The best way to organise the economy is through the profit motive. Those who have money at the moment generally have it because they’re better at making money than other people are, and since the only reasonable way to make money is to provide a service that people will pay for, people who are good at making money for themselves are also benefiting society. The best thing government can do is to step aside and leave them to it (and sometimes provide them with a little help if they think it’s really necessary).
I may be over-simplifying, there, but I think that those positions are very roughly correct.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is not an economic position at all.
That’s not to say that there is no such thing as Liberal economics — far from it. Both the most influential economists of the twentieth century, Keynes and Hayek, described themselves as Liberal (although the Liberal Democrat party has always been far keener on Keynes than on Hayek). There is a whole long history of Liberal economics, from John Stuart Mill’s laissez-faire through the Distributists of the early part of the twentieth century to the zero-growth economics advocated by some in the 1980s, and I will be dealing with it more in future essays. Essentially, though, the point of Liberal economics has always been:
An economic system which enables each individual to achieve fulfillment through his [sic] work, which distributes the proceeds of industry to all, and which, denying excessive power to the bureaucracy and to those who own capital, guarantees to each worker the right to share in the direction and rewards of his [sic] labour
Apologies for the sexist language there — feminism and identity politics had not yet become part of the Liberal mainstream when that was written.
The Liberal economic tradition can best be described as a sort of market socialism — ensuring that workers control the means of production, but directly, through mutuals, co-operatives and so forth, rather than indirectly through the state. (Half my Liberal friends will have shuddered at that description because I used the word “market”, the other half because I used the word “socialism”. I’m trying to over-simplify our own ideas here too…)
But crucially, Liberalism has never been primarily about economics. Even from the beginning of Liberalism as an identified philosophy, with John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor), On Liberty did not make the same arguments as Principles Of Political Economy. Mill’s laissez-faire economics were certainly compatible with the politics of On Liberty, but he never claimed that they arose from the same principles — he argued for them on pragmatic grounds .
Rather than being about how one organises the economy, then, Liberalism has always been about how one organises society — the organisation of political institutions, and the distribution of political, rather than of economic, power. The two are interlinked, of course, and so political and economic Liberalism go well together — the Liberal Democrats’ unofficial anthem, The Land, is a call for a land value tax to prevent rent-seeking — but it is perfectly possible to be a Liberal Socialist or a Liberal Capitalist.
Liberalism exists on an axis orthogonal to the conventional left-right axis, which is a terrible oversimplification. A good comparison would be with environmentalism, which is orthogonal to both axes — one could be a right-authoritarian environmentalist, like for example John Aspinall or the Goldsmith family, a left-liberal environmentalist, like many members of the Liberal Democrats, or a left-authoritarian one like many in the Green party.
But this leads to a problem. The easiest way to explain this for harried journalists, or for those politicians who are more keen on pragmatism than on political theory, is just to say “Liberalism is neither left nor right, but in the centre”. It’s only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base.
Liberalism is a unique philosophy of its own, and to think of it as a compromise between the beliefs of the Labour and Conservative parties, in the “moderate centre”, is a bit like thinking of Christianity as a moderate compromise between Judaism and Islam.
In the next essay, I plan to talk about why centrism itself is a bad thing.
1 — Young Liberal Statement, 1970, quoted in Meadowcroft, M. Liberal Values For A New Decade, 2nd edition, North West Community Newspapers, 1980.
2 — I am indebted here to The Thinking Person’s Guide To Liberalism by Conrad Russell for this argument.