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.
From social liberty to liberal policy
The discussion so far has been rather abstract. What we need is a way to convert social Liberal theory into a set of practical yardsticks by which we can judge proposed policies. In what follows, I suggest five principled questions we can use to decide what the truly social Liberal platform should include.
The first source of inspiration comes from the relationship between autonomy and liberty, as described above. I’ve said this already, but it’s worth repeating: to say that the value of personal, political and economic liberty is only conditional and instrumental is not to say that they aren’t vital parts of the autonomous life. People’s lives do generally go better if they enjoy such liberty. For one thing, it gives them the space to determine the shape of their lives for themselves, rather than having it imposed on them by state direction, social sanction, or the shackles of poverty. For another, people are generally better judges of what’s in their own interest than an outside agency can be, whether that agency is government, commercial interest, or just other interfering citizens. Obviously, people sometimes make bad decisions, but so do governments; on the whole it’s better to leave people to get on with things themselves.
On the other hand, for the reasons given above, guaranteeing personal, political, and economic liberty isn’t always enough. They must go hand in hand with other factors if they are to support what really matters, which is to say the ideal of individual autonomy underwriting social liberty. Merely removing coercion, or giving people options within a market place, won’t be enough. Most importantly, those forms of liberty aren’t much use if individuals don’t have access to full and accurate information about their options, or the wherewithal to understand that information. Under those circumstances the exercise of uncoerced choice (whether in private life, in politics, or in the marketplace) will in the long run tend to degrade the quality of the options available, rather than enhance it.
So, the social Liberal will echo the economic Liberal in arguing for a substantial degree of personal, political, and economic liberty. But this must go hand in hand with measures to secure the sort of supportive context which avoids the problems I’ve just sketched, on pain of self-defeat. This means, when deciding on our social Liberal agenda, that we must ask the following:
1. Does this genuinely give people greater personal, political, or economic liberty, by increasing the extent and quality of their options?
Some policies apparently motivated by the desire to extend choice in fact do nothing of the sort – take the privatization of the railway network, for example. True social Liberal policies will be ones that don’t merely appear to extend liberty, but actually do so, by genuinely increasing the range and quality of the options people enjoy.
Still, as I said above, the bare possession of those options is worthless absent the conditions of social liberty which ensure that people are able to take advantage of them. The crucial condition here is information and understanding. So, we must also ask:
2. Will people have the information and understanding necessary to make effective use of their choices?
If our answer to either question is ‘no’, then the proposal should be rejected, or at least shelved till we’ve provided other social or institutional structures which provide the necessary guarantees.
The second source of inspiration for our social Liberal tests of policy comes from an aspect of autonomy that I’ve not emphasised so far, namely a concern for individual responsibility.
As this point, many will recoil in horror. Talk of ‘responsibility’ in contemporary politics usually masks something distasteful and illiberal, for example the demonization of recipients of state benefits, which is merely a modern echo of old Toryish distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor. When it’s not, it signals vacuity. (Witness David Cameron’s vague appeal for an ethos of ‘social responsibility’ in the wake of the 2011 English riots, or Ed Milliband’s contentless ‘responsible capitalism’ as the solution to the banking crisis.) Reflecting on this, we might rightly think that the rhetoric of responsibility is only ever an attempt to disguise a lack of fresh thinking, with a tabloid-pleasing moralistic twist.
It is high time, then, to reclaim the concept of responsibility from the moralizers of both left and right. We must, because responsibility is as important a component of the ideal of autonomy as is social liberty. To see why, ask yourself what it really means for people to live their lives successfully? What does it mean to own one’s life?
The answer is: the autonomous individual is responsible for her life: she takes charge of her destiny and shapes her life as she sees fit. People are responsible when their lives go well because they make it so. Therefore, a Liberal should seek to guarantee the conditions under which individuals are genuinely responsible for their lives.
As before, this implies that there is an important role for personal, political, and economic liberty in social Liberalism. People aren’t responsible for lives which are characterized by coercion and oppression, so we should seek to eliminate those. It is good that people are able to take responsibility by contributing to the communal political enterprise through democratic institutions. It’s good that people can shape their lives through free choices in the marketplace: they thereby exercise responsibility in forming their lives, and claim responsibility for at least some of the consequences of their choices. Furthermore – and this takes a little further than I’ve argued so far – respect for responsibility means that the social Liberal must seek to reduce how far people’s lives are dominated by state power: dependency and domination preclude true responsibility.
A devotee of The Orange Book could happily agree to all of this, I think. There are, however, three important elements to individual responsibility which are usually missed, both by the conservative proponents of responsibility, and by the economic Liberal.
First, shrinking the state is never enough by itself. Merely turning a given public service over to the private or voluntary sector won’t solve anything. Dependency on charity, or domination by powerful commercial forces, is absolutely no better than state power. (Indeed, it’s a bit worse, given the weakened accountability.)
Second, if we are going to show proper respect for responsibility – rather than just paying lip service to that idea to provide some spurious justification for demonizing recipients of state benefits – we must also, on pain of inconsistency, seek to eliminate those factors which cause people disadvantage for reasons outwith their control. Many lives are blighted because of entrenched disadvantages for which people can’t be held responsible: their family and educational backgrounds; racist or sexist discrimination; lack of employment opportunities, and so on. To the extent that people’s opportunities are shaped by these factors, rather than their own choices, they lack responsibility for their lives. Social Liberal values require that we seek to eliminate these malign factors. It won’t escape the reader that this requirement has very substantial, and radical, policy implications. It means, for example, designing our education system so as to eliminate, as far as we can, the impact of different family backgrounds upon children’s life chances.
Third, control over one’s own life is not all there is to responsibility. Another equally important element is living up to one’s obligations to others in society. Some economic Liberals treat individuals as atoms – essentially unconnected from any other human beings in society. The social Liberal recognises that things are more complex than that. We are all individuals, but we are individuals who are situated in social and familial networks and groups, which support and partially constitute our identities. Part of what it means to be embedded in a social context like this is that we all have responsibilities and commitments, to each other and to the common good, which are as deep a part of our individual identities as anything else. In particular, we each have a responsibility to uphold and promote the opportunity for others to live a worthwhile life: that is, to decide for themselves what is valuable, and successfully to live their lives in accordance with that decision.
That might sound horribly onerous. How do we, as individuals, live up to such weighty obligations without them crushing any chance for us to pursue all the rich and diverse projects we want to pursue in life? Can the Liberal reconcile the need for public responsibility with scope for private autonomy? The answer is ‘yes’. Public services, communally funded and delivered, allow us to meet those obligations in a way which leaves space for us to live our lives as we see fit in other respects. But that requires that we think about the provision of public services as part of the common good. It is in the public interest to have strong public services because it helps all of us: not just those who need their support at times of vulnerability, but also those of us who are liberated by the communal discharge of our individual responsibilities to each other. What remains, of course, is an individual responsibility to uphold this common good. It is important, when deciding how to deliver our public services, that the Liberal doesn’t lose sight (as The Orange Book sometimes seems to) of the fact that they always secure an important common good, even for individuals who – fortunately! – aren’t at a particular time vulnerable and therefore actively reliant on those services.
Drawing together these reflections on responsibility, we get three further key questions which we should ask of any proposed Liberal policy:
3. Does this proposal reduce dependency and domination, thereby enhancing people’s responsibility for the way their lives go?
4. Does it go hand in hand with measures which seek to eliminate, rather than entrench, pervasive factors which shape people’s lives for reasons that lie beyond their control?
5. Does it protect the provision of public services as a common good, in all our interests?
As with the first two questions listed above, if our answer is ‘no’ to any of these, then, once again, the social Liberal should reject the proposal.
I realise that this is just a sketch, but I think it is a helpful starting point. It offers a useful and consistent test for assessing how Liberal a proposed policy really is, by offering principled yardsticks whereby particular policies can be ‘audited’ for their consistency with core social Liberal principles.
Moreover, from the point of view of someone who wants to defend a robust, rigorous social Liberalism free of a la carte-ism, it also performs the cheeky manoeuvre of taking the concepts at the core of other people’s views – personal and economic liberty, from the Orange Book Liberal, and responsibility, from the conservatives of left and right – and showing how, when they’re properly and clearly understood, they lead in a much more radical direction than their proponents believe. That is why social Liberalism is not merely one way amongst others of understanding our shared Liberal political heritage; it’s the best we have.