The beauty and the beast of liberalism

There is a beauty to liberalism: a certain degree of modesty and respect for our limitations as human beings, especially our knowledge; a righteous scepticism towards the ability of bureaucracies and control freaks to prescribe what is right and good for the rest of us.

In the real world of here and now however, liberalism has jumped over the fence of moderation and is pronouncing here there and everywhere what is best for everyone, actively prescribing huge changes in the social fabric of modern societies while also, notably, demanding strict social conformity.

It is perhaps worth invoking John Stuart Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’ here:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This principle seems frightfully out of date now: as a platform for government, it is minimalist and clearly inadequate. But it also makes little sense when pressed up against the reality of modern life, in which we are compelled to do all sorts of things whether we are doing harm or not. Moreover, it is liberals that we find in the vanguard of attempts to control and compel us further down pathways of change.

Liberalism is now ideology. It uses the same language found in Marxism and other ideologies, of inevitabilities, overarching societal needs and a conviction that it has the answers. It has come a long way since Mill.

For economic liberal ideology, you need look no further than the powerful aviation lobby, which has done a job on the media, getting it to accept without question that London airport expansion is inevitable and it is only a matter of where – Heathrow, Gatwick, both, Boris Island?

As the former CBI head and trade minister Digby Jones explained it on the Daily Politics (43 mins in) on 13th May, “the nation” “needs” to expand both Heathrow and Gatwick. 

If you want Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and to Frankfurt take the hub traffic, the best thing to do is don’t expand Heathrow....we need both.”

 No is an answer, because the nation and especially the airlines and business, will know where they stand. The political class, because they want popularity, will have basically said, ‘let’s be a second-rate nation – over to you Germany.’ That’s what ‘No’ means.

You can see the underlying contempt for democracy characteristic of the ideologue, for the message here is that not doing stuff that people don’t like is actually bad for us, the people. False consciousness isn’t an exclusively Marxist idea.

It reminds me of a lovely passage in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s diaries from 2000 in which he attends an IPPR seminar on airport expansion at which a London Chamber of Commerce 'android' says: "We can't afford to opt out of the 21st Century” - to which Mullin replies, "At this rate the 21st Century won't be worth living in."

Whether Britain’s destiny is to become one big airport remains to be seen. At least it will be easy to leave. If being a second-rate nation means being a democratic one untroubled by constant noise, pollution and stress, then it doesn’t sound so bad.

The social liberal ideology of diversity is not a million miles away from this, for it takes as a matter of faith a need for constant change, to replace what is not diverse with what is. Superficially neutral on forms, it favours change over sameness and familiarity, uprooting rather than settling, rupturing rather than nurturing and maintaining. It is for fixing situations by importing from elsewhere rather than respecting what we have: growth by acquisition not organic.

As the Dutch Labour Party thinker Paul Scheffer has written:

It ought to go without saying that an open society is characterised by divergent outlooks, lifestyles and beliefs, but even in a liberal democracy there are limits: not everything that’s different is valuable. Embracing diversity indiscriminately is tantamount to protecting traditional habits and customs from critical scrutiny.”

That unthinking embrace reminds me of what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called: “a vacuous tolerance that engaging nothing, changes nothing”.

There is a version of the good here. Deriving values from facts, the ideology of diversity takes as its core value a mathematical conception of variation. From an ethical point of view it is completely lacking in content.

The economic and social forms of liberalism constantly intersect, overlap and support each other in seeking to tear up existing forms of life, creating change and forcing people and the wider natural world to adjust or variously face existential defeat and actual extinction.

As Karl Marx put it rather well about capitalism, 

All that is solid melts into the air.”

We could do worse than revisit Mill’s original liberal ‘harm principle’ here; for though it leaves a lot to be desired as a platform for government, it is rather more interesting and worthwhile when reconceived as an ethical principle to help frame how we deal with diverse others. The idea that we should let others do what they like as long as they don’t harm anyone else seems like a pretty basic foundation for any decent society or state, not least one as diverse as Britain today.

Take the Austin Mitchell affair as an example of how this works. By invoking the word ‘rapists’ to describe Pfizer’s approach to AstraZeneca, the veteran MP has drawn the full force of conservative and supposedly liberal opinion demanding him to apologise, including from his own Labour side. He is apparently offending against diversity, but this is an abstract conception. In practice he has done no one any harm, with the possible exception of Pfizer’s board of directors – and I think they are perfectly capable of handling themselves.  At worst, he is ‘guilty’ of using language poorly, and if there is a politician not guilty of that once in a while, I am yet to be made aware of them. 

The attempt to police speech in this way, attempted widely on the supposedly liberal-left of politics, is profoundly illiberal.

Thinking about the harm principle ethically puts the onus on the individual and institutions to refrain from harming others. Good and bad, harm and non-harming can be pretty subjective though, so in practice the principle means holding back and letting things be when it is not clear and obvious that harm is being done, or where there are reasonable competing conceptions of whether an action is harmful or not. 

If I insult your religion or your religious/non-religious beliefs, I may make you feel bad, but I am not actively harming you; I am attacking an idea. However if I attack you for being religious, then I am stepping over a line, for I am attacking you and deliberately attempting to harm you; you have a right to your beliefs and I am doing you harm by attacking you for them.

A version of liberalism like this does not prescribe what and how people should be, as long as they do no harm. It lets people be as they are, and develop as they want to develop. It is therefore perfectly compatible with existing and diverse forms of life, as it doesn’t privilege certain forms over others but rather privileges ethical behaviour.

Ideological liberalism is very different, and arguably tears up the foundations of what it means to be liberal. It does prescribe. It imposes change, in economic and social life. It holds up diversity as a value in itself.  It seeks to irrupt existing forms of life, to uproot what is rooted – land, people and the natural world – to discontinue or discard them if necessary for a general good manifested in the latest GDP figures for example. Both economic and social liberalisms as manifested in our public life now are faith-based ideologies, intersecting and complementary, and dependent on an ethic of sacrifice of the natural and human world that is mostly kept hidden from view.


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