The two liberalisms

Interesting post by Stuart White at Next Left on the coming battle for liberalism.

Clark argues that the Conservative/Liberal coalition gives “Orange Book” Liberals like David Laws and Nick Clegg an opportunity to reposition the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre-right rather than of the centre-left. The Orange Bookers’ aim:

…has always been to reassert the credentials of ‘economic liberalism’ against ‘social liberalism’ – without, they would say, wishing to deny the truths of social liberalism. In essence, this means: a greater willingness to use markets and to tolerate their outcomes.

Clark goes on to suggest that what this highlights is a distinction between two types of liberalism: the “economic” liberalism of the Orange Bookers vs the “egalitarian” liberalism of those who follow in the footsteps of liberal political philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Clark writes:

Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified.

Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures – some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements – can be justified. […] But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for “leaving money in people’s pockets”.

In contrast, for egalitarian liberals:

the ‘free market’ is simply one possible “basic structure” for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which “basic structure” to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure – including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements – to achieve justice so understood.

On this view, taxation and “redistribution” are not invasions into people’s pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally “theirs”. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

To put it another way:

one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free market distribution.

That, incidentally, is the big difficulty I have with classical liberalism (and with its more rough-spoken offspring, libertarianism): the refusal to acknowledge that existing economic structures reflect historical and embedded injustices which only worsen to the extent that they are not actively redressed.

Clark cites the Child Trust Fund as an example of how the two liberalisms differ: for an egalitarian liberal, the CTF is a means of redressing the perceived injustice of some children starting life with inherited capital and some without; for a classical liberal it is “just another government spending program that has been arbitrarily tacked on to the market economy”.

Clark concludes that liberalism of “the egalitarian, Rawlsian kind” has been “driven to the margins of British politics”. With the Liberal Democrats now firmly under the control of the Orange Bookers, and Labour’s liberal credentials badly damaged by its record on civil liberties and state encroachment over the past decade, “no mainstream party now speaks for liberalism in this sense”.

I hope that, in opposition, Labour’s egalitarian liberals – of which I’d tentatively identify myself as one, despite not really getting on with Rawls – will indeed “take on their party’s authoritarians and anti-pluralists”. The omens for the short term are not good, with leadership front-runner David Miliband keen to justify the Labour government’s policies on many civil liberty issues. (See this recent tweet from Miliband, and my exasperated response.)

However, as I’ve observed before, opposition does tend to make parties more liberal, just as government tends to make them more authoritarian. So there are reasons to hope that Labour may once again become a comfortable place for “egalitarian liberals” to stand, and to work with others of similar instincts but differing (or no) political affiliation.

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