Ben Colburn, pictured above (credit to Norman Fraser) was a Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge until September 2010 when he became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He recently gave a lecture to the Social Liberal Forum (Scotland) on the subject of Social Liberal Values. From Monday to Thursday this week, at 10 am, I'll put up a chapter of his lecture. Enjoy - and as I'm away on my holidays, play nicely in the comments threads If you missed it, you might want to also read Robert Brown's speech from the same event.
Defining Social Liberalism
So far, I’ve examined David Laws’s attempt to defend and characterise economic Liberalism as the balanced and harmonious pursuit of four types of liberty: personal, political, economic, and social. Laws uses this vision as a way of arguing for the restoration of economic liberty to centre stage in Liberal Democrat policy, but his argument is flawed: in our imperfect world, we can’t pursue all four types of liberty at the same time, because they are not mutually supportive.
This realization allows us to see what we must do to define social Liberalism. I suggest we understand that position as characterized by two contrasts with Laws’s economic Liberalism. First, social Liberals recognise that we have to make hard decisions, and that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that in a non-ideal world these types of liberty can come into conflict. Second, rather than Laws’s lionization of economic liberty at the cost of the other forms of liberty (for that is, in effect, what his proposal amounts to), the social Liberal takes social liberty to be the heart of a truly Liberal programme. I suggest, in what follows, that this is because it is the main political manifestation of individual autonomy, the central Liberal ideal of the good life.
Let me expand on this by elaborating two reasons to give social
this pride of place.
The first is that the other types of liberty – personal, politics, and economic – have only conditional and instrumental value. Their value is conditional, because they lack value if they’re not combined with social liberty. And their value is instrumental because they are worthy of Liberal concern only because, and insofar as, they promote social liberty.
So, take personal liberty, the absence of coercion and oppression. It’s possible to be totally free in this sense, while still being unable to do anything substantive or interesting with one’s life. Consider, for example, someone who finds herself on an uninhabited desert island. She enjoys perfect personal liberty because there’s nobody around to coerce or oppress her. Nevertheless, she lacks social liberty, because she lacks the external resources to do anything more interesting than making sandcastles and cracking open the odd coconut; under those circumstances, her extensive personal liberty is useless to her in living the sort of life we think the Liberal citizen deserves.
Or, take political liberty. Democratic participation is undoubtedly a good thing, but it’s cold comfort if the material necessities of life aren’t provided, and no use if the citizenry lack the information and understanding to use their political liberty effectively.
A similar point can be made for economic liberty. The market is frequently a powerful tool of progress, and offers participants the opportunity to exchange goods and services to their mutual advantage. But this freedom, to make contracts and exchange private property, is no good to someone who is locked out of that marketplace by poverty, or entrenched disadvantage of some other sort. Against a background of considerable inequalities in wealth, economic liberty is either a figleaf for naked self-advantage (the freedom to climb the Forbes rich list, as Nigel Lindsay put it), or an insulting attempt to mask the way in which the disadvantaged are unable to participate in economic, social and political life on fair terms.
So, there’s a strong case to be made for thinking that social liberty is really the fundamental strand of Liberalism: it provides the conditions under which the other kinds of liberty are generally valuable, because of their conditional and instrumental status. Those kinds of liberty are genuinely important, but they are important because they are usually supportive of our deeper ideals. When we push policies promoting political, or economic, or personal liberty, it therefore behoves us to be sure that we do so in a way which empowers people and extends their social liberty. Otherwise, such policies are at best irrelevant, and at worse actively retrograde to our true aims.
The second reason to focus on social liberty is, as I intimated above, its close connection with the value of individual autonomy. In some of my comments above, I’ve referred to the sort of life that a liberal citizen should expect to lead. Let me make those hints explicit. At the heart of social Liberalism, in my view, is an ideal of the good life; that is, a life lived with autonomy. The autonomous individual is someone who decides for herself what is a valuable life, and successfully lives her life in accordance with that decision. Being able to do so requires a lot in terms of personal, political and economic liberty. But what’s absolutely central to it is the effective ability to use one’s freedom to shape one’s life as one sees fit. Hence the central importance of social liberty for the social Liberal.
So, let me recap. My proposal is that we should understand social Liberalism as a political position which recognises that the good life is one in which individuals decide for themselves what is valuable and successfully live their lives in accordance with that decision. This ideal of autonomy is, at root, what justifies the social Liberal’s focus on social liberty, and it explains why the other notions of liberty must take second place. Personal, political and economic liberty are all extremely important, because of their role in supporting autonomy – but their doing so is conditional upon the conditions of social liberty having been secured first, and their value is anyway only instrumental with respect to our deeper ideals.
 I’ve written about this ideal of autonomy elsewhere; if you’re interested in the philosophical details, you can find most of them in my book Autonomy and Liberalism (
New York: Routledge,
2010). Another Liberal thinker who defended this ideal, although he called it
‘individuality’ rather than ‘autonomy’, was John Stuart Mill, in his
magnificent 1859 essay On Liberty.