Monday, August 23, 2010

A quick note on liberals and liberty

Anyone following the Australian elections might have noticed that the Liberal Party there is the right-wing party, equivalent to the Republicans in the US or Conservatives in UK. Yet in the US 'liberal' is a term most often associated with centre-left social democrats. So is liberalism a left or right-wing perspective?

In the mid-19th century millions of Europeans were still living under absolutist monarchs. Often these governments severely censored free speech, discriminated against religious and ethnic minorities and enforced the unpopular remains of medieval feudalism on miserably poor peasants. In parts of Eastern Europe peasants were still forced to perform compulsory labour for their landlords (called 'robot' among Czechs, from which we get the modern term for mindless labouring machines).

In 1848 a wave of revolutions across European capitals were led by liberal reformers, and these liberals wanted... liberty. They demanded religious liberty, freedom of speech, emancipation of Jews and serfs, access to free markets and so on. Many of these 'classical liberals' believed in the importance of individualism, and they worried about demands from the urban working class for unemployment aid that could only be funded by increasing taxes and, therefore, by assaulting economic liberties. Liberals, who months earlier had been rebels, began to find themselves threatened by a new wave of radical rebels - early socialists.

The problem was simple: an economic crisis in the 1840s had created widespread urban unemployment, while bad weather had driven up the price of food. For many there was no political template to their unrest, they were simply starving and determined to seize enough food to survive one way or another. Philosophers like Karl Marx tried to harness and direct this rage and various socialist movements sprung up across Europe.

The liberals, then, were pro-capitalist, firm supporters of the need to protect private property, and as such they were terrified by the violence of the radical working class movement with its demands for greater government intervention and unemployment aid. These early liberals were, economically speaking, far to the right of modern Republicans or Conservatives.

At some point the term 'liberal' switched from a supporter of individual liberty (and opponent of government intervention) into a supporter of the kind of social democracy they had once opposed. In the late 19th century the British Prime Minister William Gladstone led the Liberal Party into government where he supported a series of Irish Land Acts. These acts responded to Irish nationalist and agricultural violence by gradually empowering the poor Irish Catholic tenants to buy the land they worked on from Protestant landlords. This was a direct attack on the property rights of landlords that earlier liberals took so seriously.

The end result was that a number of different movements became associated with liberalism. In the US 'liberals' tended to be socially liberal - in favour of legalising abortion, divorce, prostitution, gay rights and possibly recreational drugs - but economically interventionist. Some liberals had come to oppose liberty, strongly advocating protectionism and social welfare, forcing through tobacco laws, seatbelt laws and controls of advertising. To distinguish themselves from this confusing new interpretation of liberalism, modern supporters of social and economic liberty sometimes call themselves libertarian.

8 comments:

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  4. Absolutely right. I have some friends who are liberals but when you listen to their political perspective they are closer socialism or even Marxism which are ideologies that are by no stretch of the imagination liberal. They have a weakness for utopias, but utopias can only be totalitarian. Liberals today believe in freedom of and from religion, freedom of speech and a host of other freedoms but what they don't seem to believe in is a freedom from government. In today's society western governments interpret and enforce what is right and wrong. Surely true liberalism is where individuals can decide for themselves, based on an objective morality, what is right and what is wrong. Governments have vested interests and can never be relied upon to give unbiased judgement.

    Liberals today are only liberal as long as other individuals agree with them. An example, Silvio Berlusconi (a man I thoroughly hate) once said in relation to islamic countries: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its value understanding of diversity and tolerance."

    I can't see what's so wrong with this statement. But liberals went crazy because he employed a freedom of speech that on this occasion was not politically correct. I defy someone to prove Berlusconi wrong here. For my money liberals were actively trying to curtail his freedom of speech and were for once showing their real hand i.e., the title of 'liberalism' is only subterfuge. Give me an example of an Islamic country that lives up to the ideals Berlusconi mentions here? His speech was not defamatory, there was (and still is) a large element of truth in what he said (for a change). Liberals today are too left wing. If there was a balance between left and right wing liberalism and we might be on to something. The extreme right will always win over/defeat a society that is too politically correct for its own good because of the left's delusional sense of liberalism.

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  5. As a side note, socialists (who for some unfathomable reason call themselves liberals) love the new technologies that capitalism produces. Collectively they say one thing but individually they don't have a care for the poor Chinese woman who assembled their iphone. I wonder will Eamon Gilmore change the name of his party to iLabour to reflect this contradiction?

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  6. I think it's useful to look at "positive rights" and "negative rights" in this. Negative rights are the rights to be free from oppression. For example, the right to free speech, to religious freedom, to economic freedom (freedom from taxation, regulation and so on), freedom from being enslaved or robbed.

    So negative rights are rights FROM oppression.

    Positive rights are rights TO things: the right to work, the right to social welfare, the right to healthcare and so on. The early liberals I describe here were mainly concerned with negative rights because they wanted to be free from oppressive monarchs. But the early socialists wanted some positive rights, the major one at the time being the "right to work".

    The problem is that positive rights may only be given by denying some negative rights. The socialists mentioned here pressed for Work Houses for the unemployed in France, but of course this meant that the economic liberty of others was infringed as their taxes went to pay for the unemployed.

    Likewise if governments forces businesses to employ ethnic minorities or people with disabilities, yes they empower those individuals but they do so at the expense of employers' own liberty.

    This is a perspective I was never taught in school or college: the positive rights many people demand self-righteously can only be delivered by robbing people of freedom.

    However today the truth is that almost all political parties support broadly the same thing: social democracy, meaning limited intervention in the market. The Conservatives or Republicans might want less government intervention but they won't get rid of it completely. Even under Bush, for example, the US government paid a lot for healthcare. So the major debate today is only the extent to which we want governments to interfere.

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  7. I haven't made my mind up about much of this stuff yet, but I think it's a good principle to keep government intervention to a minimum. One guy I've discussed this with online says government should only step in to fix "market failures". (The anarcho-capitalists deny there is any such thing.)

    Err on the side of liberty.

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  8. I don't think governments should step in only to fix market failures as your friend says. Privatised profit and socialised debt is completely unfair. Finding a balance between free markets and government regulation is the trick. It obviously isn't just that simple but in principle I think it makes sense.

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