Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson

Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson 

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – if I can write its economics textbooks,”Paul Samuelson,Economics: An Introductory Analysis, 1948

This post I want to take a break from the rather abstract thoughts posted so far, to pay my own brief tribute to a wonderful man Tony Atkinson, who died earlier this month. I didn’t know Mr Atkinson in person but by common agreement he was a giant in his chosen field of academic economics, namely the study of inequality and poverty. Other tributes are here and here.

Not only did he shape the field of poverty and inequality studies with his research, his ability to communicate and his ideas, he also led a series of institutions and approaches that, with for example Thomas Piketty, now shape our discussions of these issues. And he cared about and wanted to solve the issue of poverty, not just research it.

Towards the end of his long career, Mr Atkinson published a work on Inequality that I would highly recommend- ‘Inequality- What Can Be Done?’(1)

The book is not only an excellent primer in how inequality is actually measured, but also how it has changed over the last 50 years, in the UK but in other countries. Most of interest may be the solutions that are offered, born of a life-times thinking about the issues.

You can see him speaking about these ideas here and here 

 

What Did He Call For? 

I won’t comment on these proposals, other than to say this- if we are serious about inequality then these sorts of ideas are what we must debate, and work out how to progress. I would also say they fit very well with the principles I was writing about earlier and that such strong action is justified given the inimical effects of inequality.

 

The 15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s ‘Inequality – What can be done?’

Proposal 1: The direction of technological change should be an explicit concern of policy-makers, encouraging innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers and emphasises the human dimension of service provision.

Proposal 2: Public policy should aim at a proper balance of power among stakeholders, and to this end should

  • (a) introduce an explicitly distributional dimension into competition policy;
  • (b) ensure a legal framework that allows trade unions to represent workers on level terms; and
  • (c) establish, where it does not already exist, a Social and Economic Council involving the social partners and other nongovernmental bodies.

Proposal 3: The government should adopt an explicit target for preventing and reducing unemployment and underpin this ambition by offering guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage to those who seek it.

Proposal 4: There should be a national pay policy, consisting of two elements: a statutory minimum wage set at a living wage, and a code of practice for pay above the minimum, agreed as part of a “national conversation” involving the Social and Economic Council.

Proposal 5: The government should offer via national savings bonds a guaranteed positive real rate of interest on savings, with a maximum holding per person.

Proposal 6: There should be a capital endowment (minimum inheritance) paid to all at adulthood.

Proposal 7: A public Investment Authority should be created, operating a sovereign wealth fund with the aim of building up the net worth of the state by holding investments in companies and in property.

Proposal 8: We should return to a more progressive rate structure for the personal income tax, with marginal rates of tax increasing by ranges of taxable income, up to a top rate of 65 per cent, accompanied by a broadening of the tax base.

Proposal 9: The government should introduce into the personal income tax an Earned Income Discount, limited to the first band of earnings.

Proposal 10: Receipts of inheritance and gifts inter vivos should be taxed under a progressive lifetime capital receipts tax.

Proposal 11: There should be a proportional, or progressive, property tax based on up-to-date property assessments.

Proposal 12: Child Benefit should be paid for all children at a substantial rate and should be taxed as income.

Proposal 13: A participation income should be introduced at a national level, complementing existing social protection, with the prospect of an EU-wide child basic income.

Proposal 14 (alternative to 13): There should be a renewal of social insurance, raising the level of benefits and extending their coverage.

Proposal 15: Rich countries should raise their target for Official Development Assistance to 1 per cent of Gross National Income.

 

 

Sometimes the Perfect Sky Is Torn…

Sometimes the Perfect Sky is Torn- Liberal Principles for a Fair, Equal, Peaceful, Sustainable and Just Society..

‘I’m wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn…’

This week I want to develop my thinking on the building blocks of a liberal society a little further. I’ve argued previously we need a fifth age of liberalism, and that freedom and equality are fundamental parts of that society.

All very well but pretty abstract stuff, so can we begin to take it down a notch and be more specific about the sorts of principles that should inform the design of a liberal society?

Here is my first attempt, with no doubt gasps of horror from proper political philosophers about the merging together of quite distinct philosophical ideas and traditions. If you want a little more theory and a summary of some of the liberal debates, try here. [For what its worth  and to the degree it makes sense I’m a Rawlsian liberal, believing in the importance of negative, positive and republican liberty, and taking a largely pluralist, political liberalism approach and tending towards a state-centred approach which is comfortable to work pragmatically with non-liberal groups but intolerant of intolerance.]

 

What Principles for Society Should We Adopt?

My first two principles come straight from John Rawls and his Theory of Justice (here I’m using the formulation quoted in Samuel Freedman (1))

Principle 1- Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.  (Freedman p45)

As Freedman says ‘The main idea of the first principle is that there are certain basic rights and freedoms of the person that are more important than others, and that are needed to characterise the moral idea of free and equal persons. ..He mentions five sets of basic liberties: liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of association; equal political liberties; the rights and liberties that protect the integrity and freedom of the person; and finally the rights and liberties of the rule of law..’

Quite a lot packed into this first principle and rather wordy, but I touched on much of this in my earlier post on liberty. If you prefer, the Universal declaration on human rights promulgates these rights in more detail.

Moving on, Freedman (p87) gives a version from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice of his famous difference principle as part of Principle 2:

Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Now there is is a huge amount of radical impact implied in those rather dry words- not surprisingly they have been subjected to ferocious debate over the last 40 years.

As I understand what Rawls wanted to say, firstly he said that his two principles in his Theory of Justice were in lexicographical order i.e. Principle 1 should be considered first and then and only then Principle 2. Secondly, Principle 2 means that we should organise our society and economic systems to make sure that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off. Instead of standard economic efficiency, where someone can lose out as long as one or more gain, in a society as envisaged by Rawls (and me!) we should try at the basic structure level to make sure that societies and economies are arranged to make sure the least well off benefit to the maximum possible. Note that inequalities are permitted in this vision, but only to the extent that the outcome for individuals at the bottom is the best possible.

You can see right away how radical that is, and how far we are from achieving it. Rawls has many complex arguments for why this is true, which I won’t deal with here, but do try and read Theory of Justice or reflect on the ‘original position argument’ as a starting point.

Notice though that this difference principle is constrained by the ‘just savings principle’ .Quite what Rawls meant by this is open to debate but I take it to mean that, in arranging today’s society to take care of the least advantaged, we should also think across generations, and ensure we are saving enough human, social, economic and environmental capital to allow future generations to meet their needs. So, unlike the claims of say, (as I understand him) Jonathan Glover, we do not owe an absolute duty to the poor if that means future prosperity is jeopardised. What this means in practice of course is open to debate.

Finally, the second principle demands equal opportunities to the positions, offices and political opportunities of society and that professions and careers are open to all. This carries two meanings- the straightforwardly formal equality of opportunity where everyone has the right to stand for parliament or join a club or pursue a career, and not banned or prevented because they are a woman, black, disabled, Jewish etc. However the principle means much more than that, and takes into its breadth the need for actual ability to pursue these opportunities, and not be prevented by lack of education, opportunity, wealth, confidence and so on. Again, contentious territory but the overall meaning is clear.

 

Building on These Two Fundamental Principles..

Ok now what? Are we any further forward? I would say we are, because once you begin to reflect on the principles and how to embody them in a state and a society, quite a lot seems to fall out from them right away.

If we are to have respect for liberty, then we need formal equality of citizens and so any states that have a two-tier (or more) approach to humanity are out- no slaves, no bans on women working etc. Secondly, the second principle means we need formal equality before the law, and very likely need laws to ban discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and so on.

Thirdly, the radical nature of the difference principle will surely mean we need to intervene using state power to change the outcome of the distributive function of the free market (assuming we have a capitalist state- a big assumption and yet another thing I want to return to in due course). In practice that means pre-distribution, taxation, redistribution and lots more. These are interventions in ways that change the patterns of income, wealth and property distribution and resources, and which would have been anathema to many ‘second age ‘ liberals. But that need to intervene, alongside the need for formal rights for citizens of equality of treatment, surely implies a clear need for a rule of law- both so that people know what the rules of society are, and also that the rules will be fairly and publicly enforced according to known processes.

However there is more- I would argue then that such fundamental interventions, imply certain normative approaches and rules, but that given the winds of societal and political change, we need to ensure protection for their rights and processes in a written constitution based on human rights and embodying liberty, equality and the rule of law. Put another away, use of state power to control economic and social power implies a need to limit and circumscribe that power in a way all can see, understand and support. And that implies a clear written constitution to ensure such rights and approaches.

I would go further and suggest that a society based on these two principles also implies a democracy- the ability of citizens to elect their governments, change them as needed and delegate some of the complex decision making to government in an agreed way, based on clear norms and rules. Of course, we may want to supplement our representative democracy with participative or direct democracy but I will let that pass for the moment. But I simply do not see how Principles 1 and 2 can be met in a society which is a theocracy, a dictatorship, a communist society of forced collectivism, an authoritarian state, a oligarchy or other self-selecting group of leaders etc.

So, I would argue that Principles 1 and 2 imply a third principle, namely

Principle 3- In order to cement the requirements of the principles of liberty and equality in society we need a democratic  society based on the rule of law with formal human rights and equal rights embedded in a written constitution. 

Absent a written constitution and formal human rights, our decision making risks becoming unstable, with important decisions subject to too much heat-of-the- moment political decision making, too much political or public pressure on the judiciary and too high a risk of popularist approaches replacing long-standing principles.

Such a principle should also help ensure the ‘tyranny of the minority’ is avoided, give us all clarity on how important political or constitutional questions are to be decided, provide greater context for our hard pressed judges, and ensure the legal and constitutional protection of minorities.

 

Are You Still Going On?

If this was the 1970s, we might stop here. But the debates have continued to move, and we now know that our stewardship of the environment is reaching crisis point. As I deal with this in my day job, you’ll have to excuse me if I just assert that we have a set of interlocking crises of climate change, air pollution, water pollution and scarcity, resource shortages, marine degradation and many others- all caused by a combination of rising population, rising economic activity and consumption, opportunities transmitted by technological change, and a failure to value environmental services properly. It’s clear that with, for example, climate change, that we are locking in changes that will take 100,000 years to disappear, and are effectively both robbing future generations of the value and common store of nature, and also reducing their opportunities to enjoy what the natural world gives us- resources, ecosystem systems, enjoyment and aesthetic value and so on.

So, a further principle is:

Principle 4 Society should ensure that it properly values the natural world, embeds natural  value within its scientific  cultural, economic and social systems, protects nature in its own right and as a source of value for current and future generations, and acts as a effective and thoughtful steward of natural resources

If we return to the need to ensure equality and manage our resources for the poorest, and to ensure liberty for all then a further insight follows. It is clear that as I wrote in an earlier blog on equality, that too much inequality is bad for lots of reasons- fundamentally because it attacks the ability of people to really be free, to pursue their own life plan, and to realise their full sense of value as a human being.

It’s equally clear from the history of bad states that too much power concentrated in state hands can be dangerous, as can too much power vested in a powerful and rich few. There has always therefore been a strong liberal desire to ensure freedom and to build equality by giving power to people at the lowest level commensurate with efficiency and the delivery of overall societal outcomes. This freedom from constraint, freedom to pursue opportunity and freedom from malign embedded power is taken to mean a need to disperse power politically and to disperse it geographically. Highly centralised, monochrome states or so-called ‘corporatism’ is out, pluralistic democratic systems at multiple levels and with power spread across what Burke also referred to  as little platoons, are in. This leads me to my Principle 5:

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

Finally, I could not finish without saying something about peace, and international relations. I’m aware of course that in all of this, there are many more experts out there and much more that can be said. None the less, it seems to me that any liberal society must surely be able to peacefully co-exist with other societies, whilst recognising that many states and peoples in the modern world are at various stages of development, and that some toil under systems that we may find repugnant, immoral or simply mistaken (for me that list includes dictators, big men politicians, authoritarian liberal states, theocracies and others). Building on (copying!) the ideas in Rawls’ Law of the Peoples as discussed in Freedman (1), I tentatively suggest the follow starting point as a principle for how we might think about peaceful coexistence in a sometimes dangerous, horrifying world:

Principle 6- Society should respect the freedom and independence of other peoples, observe treaties and undertakings, observe a duty of non-intervention, wage war only in self defence or in defence of other peoples unjustly attacked, honour international human rights, and observe just restrictions when waging war (Freedman p427)

A lot in that rather squashed together principle I agree, but I’d like to add one more related one

Principle 7- Society should come to the assistance of burdened or other peoples living under unfavourable conditions that prevent them having a just or decent political or social regime  (Freedman p427). 

But Wait! There’s Even More…

As the corny adverts say, there is more to say. If you can remember back as far as the start of this post, I had a quote from, Natalie Imbruglia. Why???

Well, my intention was to make a point that sometimes things don’t go well, and we need (despite our best plans) the protection and nourishment of the state, alongside our friends and family and our resources from our own plans. This is an area where I often differ sharply from my right-wing friends, and from those who have never seen or experienced poverty or despair or illness or any other number of social ills. I have been lucky so far in life- I have not had to endure serious setbacks of those kinds, but I have seen them up close in several years of voluntary work, and the supercilious, almost flippant way in which certain conservative thinkers or wealthy people dismiss these outcomes as a result of  bad character, poor skills or work shyness, is just wrong. It seems clear to me that any decent society, based on the principles above, should come to the aid of its citizens when things go wrong. Indeed that it explicitly what Principle 2 is all about. I will say more about this in a future post but for the moment I want to make it explicit.

When things do go wrong, when they go from bad to worse, and when the perfect sky is torn, then we need to know and be guaranteed we will be looked after. My thinking here is heavily influenced by Thomas Meyer’s ‘The Theory of Social Democracy (2)(see especially  p29ff) So my final principle is this:

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

Possibly this principle is a little obscure-but as usual I have gone on far too long so let me return to it in future, and just finish by saying that the risks that globalisation poses to its citizens, or a failure to plan for the rise of robots on citizen’s incomes, or the well known risks of ill-heath, ageing or disease, are examples of what I mean of the sorts of risks to be collectively managed.

So there we have it, a list of the sorts of principles I think a modern, fair , equal, just, sustainable and peaceful society should be based on. I’d love to hear if you agree, or disagree….

Those Principles Again 

Principle 1- Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties,and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.

Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Principle 3- In order to cement the requirements of the principles of liberty and equality in society we need a democratic  society based on the rule of law with formal human rights and equal rights embedded in a written constitution. 

Principle 4 Society should ensure that it properly values the natural world, embeds natural  value within its scientific  cultural, economic and social systems, protects nature in its own right and as a source of value for current and future generations, and acts as a effective and thoughtful steward of natural resources

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

Principle 6- Society should respect the freedom and independence of other peoples, observe treaties and undertakings, observe a duty of non-intervention, wage war only in self defence or in defence of other peoples unjustly attacked, honour international human rights, observe just restrictions when waging war

Principle 7- Society should come to the assistance of burdened or other peoples living under unfavourable conditions that prevent them having a just or decent political or social regime  

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

 

Notes

(1) Samuel Freedman ‘Rawls’ Routledge ISBN 978-0-415-30109-1

(2) Thomas Meyer ‘The Theory of Social Democracy’ Polity ISBN 978-0-7456-4113-3

Equality Matters, Inequality is Bad…

Equality Matters, Inequality is Bad…

 

Recap…

Welcome to any new readers of Liberalism5, a blog where over time I hope to set our new ideas for liberalism. This is just my fourth blog, and I am still setting out the foundation of ideas to inform principles to inform policies and thinking. So bear with me…

To recap, so far I have suggested that, having had roughly four ages of liberalism, we need a fifth. I have hinted at why we need a new age, but will return to that in due course. I’ve set out the importance to a liberal of people having the basic freedoms required to choose their own path through life, the ability to chose for themselves, to have a life plan, even when this means in practice poorer outcomes for them and less rational choices.

I’ve suggested that a liberal analysis of 2016 suggests both that people are being too pessimistic, and also that conversely they are not worried enough. I’ve said that to really attack vested interest, to promote freedom and opportunity we need to look at the basic structures of society (1) , following John Rawls and his thinking.

And finally, at the end of my last post, I suggested that,contra what many believe, for liberalism of the sort I believe in, equality matters hugely, and just as much (if not more) than freedom/liberty. In this post I want to try and set out why.

Here is an early hint- when George Osbourne suggested that we were all in this together, many people reacted with a mixture of laughter, anger, disgust and resentment. But why? Why didn’t that happen (largely) when Churchill suggested something similar in the midst of war?

We Live In An Unequal World…

People know that we live in an unequal world, where some people have much more income, wealth and power than others, both within societies and across societies, between nations and across continents. But many don’t realise just how unequal things are. This video explains the position for the US and this for the UK . It seems to me both tell an important story about how little people appreciate the true position regarding wealth and inequality. That’s an important finding I think and one I will return to eventually.

An Oxfam report from 2016 suggested that just 62 people own as much wealth as half the world. Most poorer people have no wealth at all. Most middle income people have some combination of modest savings, wealth from their house, and a pension. However many rich people rely on capital rather than income from salaries. This capital includes housing and property, stocks and shares, government and corporate bonds, rents, dividend income and so on.

Shares of income and wealth for the top 10%, top 1% and top 0.1% have been rising steadily since the 1980s, though with differences in exactly how these play out across countries. Thomas Piketty in his fascinating Capital in the Twenty First Century (2) , points out that the number of billionaires has risen from 140 in 1987 to 1400 in 2013, an increase by a factor of 10. This translates to 5 billionaires per 100 million adults in 1987 but 30 per 100 million in 2013 (p433).

In popular criticism, we attack the 1% (see here for example). However we would sometimes be better to look at the 0.1% and above to see the real astonishing an frankly immoral increases happening.

Piketty also talks in fractions of percentiles, where the inequality and growth in wealth is even more astonishing. The richest twenty-fifth millionth of the world’s population, about 150 adults in the 1980s, and 225 in the early 2010s, has increased in average wealth from $1.5 billion in 1987 to an average of $15billion in 2013, a growth rate 6.3% per annum above inflation. If we then consider the wealthiest one-hundredth million of the world’s population, 30 people or so in the 1980s and 45 in the early 2010s, Piketty reports their average wealth has grown from just over $3 billion in 1987 to almost $35 billion, a growth rate of 6.8% per annum above inflation (p434).

However we look at it, inequality of wealth and income has been rising, and rising fast since the 1980s and we are approaching levels of inequality last seen in the 1880s. At the very highest income and wealth levels of society, these people (especially the super- or mega-rich) are seeing a growth in their fortunes that is simply astonishing.

 

A Conservative Response- Honestly, So What? You’re Just Jealous…

Now an obvious response to all this is, er, so what? Why does it matter that some people are much richer than others? Why does it matter that there is some statistical measure of inequality that is getting worse. Why don’t we celebrate success and stop whining? After all, this very blog started by pointing out how well the world is doing in many areas of measurement, compared to history. If society has been less equal in the past but overall less wealthy, but we’re doing better now, we should be happy shouldn’t we? This is just typical hand-ringing, liberal/lefty nonsense isn’t it?

I have some sympathy. At first sight, too many progressive thinkers are too concerned with redistribution, with public spending and with their next piece of legislation or policy making, to worry about the dirty business of creating wealth and success, or how to change the system. They should think harder, as the much mocked Ed Miliband tried to do with his comments on pre-distribution. (Pre- distribution, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017). (3)

But sorry, conservative thinkers, you are just wrong. Inequality does matter. Equality is important. Peter Mandelson (remember him?) now admits he was wrong to say he was ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting filthy rich’. 

But why so?

 

Why Equality Matters Hugely, Inequality Is Bad and We Need to Change

Many others have written on this so I will state my case using the great work of others. Firstly we know on pure economic grounds that societies that have large patterns of inequality of wealth and income tend to do worse economically in the long run. Joseph Stiglitz, the nobel-prize winning economist, writes on this in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality. (Wikipedia The Price of Inequality accessed 14th January 2017)(4) . Another nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman considers inequality a defining (economic) issue.  The basic point seems to be that wealth distributed more widely is more likely to drive economic growth, jobs, incomes and productivity, than a very unequal distribution.

Along with population growth and technological change, equality is important historically for economic performance. At least, I’d argue history teaches us this lesson- the dead hand of absolutism, dictatorship and feudalism all tended to produce less growth in economic wealth than more equal societies (except when they stole others’ wealth through war!)

But the reasons why equality matters and inequality is bad go much further. Wilkinson and Pickett in their famous book The Spirit Level (5) take a canter through actual societal outcomes- happiness, health, educational attainment, crime and so on, and clearly find that more equal societies do better than unequal ones. Now their findings are controversial and its not always clear to them as statisticians what the underlying reasons  for their fundings are, but I find their number crunching compelling. They updated their 2009 thinking a little more here.

But there is yet more, dear reader. So far when discussing inequality I have talked about income and wealth only. There is much more to life than money and wealth of course. But wealth is an excellent proxy for power in our current society and so a further insidious effect of rising inequality is political and systematic.

When we allow a handful of people at the top so much wealth, we hand them power to influence all kinds of things, unless we work damn hard to put in place controls and restrictions. We see this in the UK and the US with the power of a few to set the tone for much of our media- what our newspapers say, what our TV screens show us- but also how our political parties think and are influenced. We see it in the hidden funding behind think thanks, too often explicitly or (more dangerously) having honestly held opinion but in thrall to ‘obvious’ limits on political choices or citizen led changes.

The power of think tanks, lobbying and cultural messages from the media is very strong, and with too much of that left in the hands of the rich and powerful, our public discourse, our political and tax and public spending choices, and our very thinking risk being distorted. Distorted away from choices for the common good, and towards narrower choices that advance or at least protect vested interests of the rich and the powerful.

A further bad effect of inequality comes from the disconnect of the very rich, and ‘ordinary’ people of society. In a reasonably equal society, the top 1% and the average person may actually interact and know each other- going to the same schools, using the same hospitals, occupying the same physical and even mental spaces. But with the levels of inequality we see now, the very rich tend to split off from the rest of us- and when you add in the effects of wealth on power and politics and public choices as above, this separation is bad to the point of dangerous. It is a cultural, a physical and a mental separation that signals danger and all the ills of rentier behaviour.

So, to sum up- inequality is bad for the economy, bad for societal outcomes we care about, bad for the political process, and even threatens the basic fabric of society by divorcing the very rich and powerful from the rest of society.

But there is one more thing I want to discuss, more important than any of this.

 

Equality is Fundamental to Human Dignity and Agency

I suppose we could just about live with all of the bad effects above. After all, an unequal society can conceivably still create more average wealth than a more equal one, even given the distortions, the poorer outcomes from being less equal and the corrosive effects of separation. After all -this is one of the conservative arguments from above that I have yet to address.

This argument can be summarised as ‘a rising tide raises all boats’– better to be poor in a rich society than equal in a poorer one.

But sorry- Wilkinson and Pickett are able to show that this often isn’t the case.

But the objection goes deeper than a statistical objection based on outcomes. It does to the heart of what it is to be human, and to be a social being, and to have the freedom to pursue your own life plan. Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society. Too often rich people fail to understand that basic fact about poorer people. But people are people, regardless of income and resources.

When people don’t have that (dignity and access to resources), as clearly many feel they do not at the moment, we get the reaction to Osbourne I mentioned at the start of this post. We see cynicism and resignation, we see chaotic families descending into despair and abuse and fatalism. We see turning away from political processes, or a turn to nationalism, popularism or worse. A lack of what people call agency has been shown to drive all kinds of negative impacts on health, on life choices, on life expectancy and on wellbeing.

So, it is not just the absolute wealth that I have that matters (beyond a minimum) as per the conservative argument- it is fundamentally whether I feel I am an equal citizen of equal worth, with all the dignity, freedom and ability to execute my life plan that I expect.

It is this fusion of freedom with equality which is distinctively liberal I believe. It is this combination which is fundamentally radical, and drives (or should drive) changes to how we structure society. Both John Rawls and equally Ronald Dworkin have written extensively on this and what it means.

It was a lack of appreciation of this by Blair and Mandelson, despite their many achievements, that I believe ultimately corroded people’s faith in them. It is why, for example, the SNP are  to this observer, merely synthetic progressives really seeking a change in constitutional arrangements whilst leaving many other aspects of the system intact. Because as soon as you accept this need for fundamental liberty and equality, you need to accept the need for radical change.

It is this radical change that I want to turn to as the blog develops further. Thanks for reading.

Notes

(1) Standard Encyclopaedia of Philosophy John Rawls accessed 14th January 2017 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/

(2) Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty First Century Belknap Harvard ISBN 978-0-674-43000-4

(3) ‘Pre-distribution’, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017

(4) ‘The Price of Inequality’, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017

(5) Richard Wilkinson Kate Pickett The Spirit Level Penguin ISBN 978-0241954294

A Word Or Two About Liberty

A Word Or Two About Liberty…

Liberty is one of those words that was rather exotic for me when I was younger- apart from the famous statute I wasn’t really aware of its importance, nor did I give it much thought. If anything, I used the word freedom (but not much!). I suspect plenty of people are the same, and may wonder why it’s such a big deal, so I thought in the early days of this blog, some thoughts on liberty and why it matters to a liberal would be useful, as preclude to more specific thoughts in future. I am, by the way, taking freedom and liberty as synonyms, though no doubt someone may want to tell me that’s taking liberties in itself (see what I did there?)

Liberals and Liberty…

It’s pretty clear that liberty is something important to liberals. The preamble to the UK Liberal Democrat’s constitution mentions it, and the Wikipedia definition of liberalism says this:

“Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.”(1) (Wikipedia, accessed 7th January 2017)

Or try this from Edmund Fawcett’s ‘Liberalism’

‘Liberals, it is said, believe in liberty. Indeed they do’ (p1)(2)

John Stuart Mill, a very famous thinker and writer of the 19th century in his defining work ‘On Liberty’ felt liberty was a cornerstone of society:

“John Stuart Mill opens his essay by discussing the historical “struggle between authority and liberty,”describing the tyranny of government, which, in his view, needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens.” ((3) Wikipedia- On Liberty- Accessed 7th January 2017)

So far, so obvious. But why the big focus on liberty and freedom?

Freedom and Liberty Matter…

Recall in my second blog (We Need a New Age I Tell You!) I said that there were various stages of liberalism. And as someone rightly pointed out, I neglected to mention the role of struggle and conflict in securing these freedoms. And the early liberal focus on liberty came from the view that much of government/rulers/religion since time began had been a tyranny, an active impediment to the freedom of the individual, a negative force. So much has been written on the importance of liberty but it comes down to this.

A liberal fundamentally believes that each person is of equal value and has a right to determine their own life path, so long as that path does not ruin the rights of others to pursue their own aims. This came from the struggle to free minds, actions and lives from the (perceived) suffocating grip of churches/religions/social status/cultural norms/nationalisms and various other forms of societal control.

A liberal believes that freedom is fundamental and that you cannot coerce someone into leading a life of maximum value, and that choices made by individuals are theirs to make. That does of course lead to all sorts of complications, when people make self-defeating, stupid, selfish, irrational or just plain wrong decisions and life choices. It does mean that people could turn out less happy and fulfilled than if the state or religion just maintained control. It presents all kinds of dilemmas for well-being fellow citizens and governments. But, fundamentally, if you don’t believe in personal liberty and the right of an individual to chose their own path,within reason, then you are not a liberal.

What Are These Freedoms? 

There are lots of places that define what some of these freedoms are. Many are so-called negative freedoms, as defined by Isaiah Berlin ((4) Wikipedia, Two Concepts of Liberty, accessed 7th January 2017) – that is the freedom from obstruction or coercion, the right to do something without being blocked. The corollary of that is positive freedom, the positive ability to act in order to deliver a positive outcome in accordance with your life plan. It is more than just absence of coercion, but is the ability to take a full and active part in society, to exercise your freedoms so as to be able to do what you want, act on your desires, and have a reasonable chance of delivering your aims. This is hugely contentious and contested territory of course, and I will come back to it in time. But for the moment, I think these distinctions are useful.

To be more specific, liberty involves (now) a series of well recognised civil and political rights, which include things such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom from bodily coercion and sexual assault, absence of torture, freedom of religion, right to life itself, freedom of conscience, to hold personal property, to vote and participate in political processes, freedom from racism/sexism/homophobia, right to privacy and so on.

So, as you can hopefully see, liberalism places a huge premium on liberty, and for good reason.

 

But That’s Not All! 

This post is already too long, but I have barely scratched the surface of this issue and will return to it in time. But a few things remain to be said.

Liberalism with its focus on personal liberty is not the only political philosophy to do so of course. But I hope to show over time why liberalism is distinctive.

Liberalism and liberals tend to (should!) be automatically more distrusting of the absolute power both of corporations and private power, but also crucially of state power, and for reasons that should now be fairly obvious. It is why in practice liberal democrats often disagree with left-leaning and Labour thinkers, that we think reach too quickly for state power in their desire to achieve positive outcomes.

Liberalism is decisively NOT libertarianism, a tempting siren-like and superficially attractive doctrine, that turns out to be completely false, selfish and falls apart under the gentlest of analytical scrutiny.

Over time, some formidable thinkers have applied their minds to the positive element of liberty, and see it as imposing substantial duties on governments and societies to help people achieve their life plans. Others will know more than me, but if you are interested then the work of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and of course John Rawls, are instructive. See for example the capabilities approach.

 

Finally…What About Equality?

Many people labour under the (false) impression that liberals and liberalism is all about an obsession with personal freedom- the right to take drugs, or engage in protest or be free from invasion of civil liberties like governments secretly reading your emails. It is of course those things, but it is more much. Being liberal does not mean being libertarian, and it definitely does not mean placing the individual above all else, in a sad, floating, atomised existence divorced from society. Liberals place important on community.

But the most important thing to say is that modern liberalism (or at least the most convincing version of it for me) treats equality as equally important. it does not only have an interest in equality, it defines it as a central element of its thinking- to the surprise of many. So it is to equality and why it matters that I must turn in the next edition of this blog.

 

Notes

(1) Wikipedia-  ‘Liberalism’ Accessed 7th January 2017

(2) Edmund Fawcett ‘Liberalism- The Life of An Idea’ Princeton University Press 2014 ISBN 978-0-691-15689-7

(3) Wikipedia- ‘On Liberty’ Accessed 7th January 2017

(4) Wikipedia- Two Concepts of Liberty 7th January 2017

 

We Need a New Age I Tell You!

We Need a New Age I Tell You…!

I kicked off this blog yesterday with some (rather rambling) thoughts on why I want to blog and what I want to blog about. A couple of people have already kindly asked what’s behind the ‘LiberalismFive’ idea so I thought a brief (ish) explanation is in order.

The New Becomes the Accepted 

We do naturally tend to assume that what is commonly accepted today has ever been thus, and is the correct and only way of seeing things. Ask a fisherman if today’s fish stocks are ‘normal’ and they often say yes- however despite me knowing very much less than them about fishing I can pipe up and say ‘sorry, historically fish catches were much larger, more bountiful and with much bigger fish'(1) . Or to take an example from the excellent Clay Shirky (@cshirky) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Everybody) with any new technology we can divide people into those who never accept or adopt the technology, those who adopt but are always conscious of its newness and innovativeness, and those for whom it is just there, and invisible/accepted. Interestingly that changes over a lifetime-with those who see for example see telephones as invisible, always being aware of say social media or video-calling, but the younger generation treating them as invisible. I’m willing to bet today’s 20somethings will always be conscious of robot helpers and driverless cars when they come whereas their kids won’t.

The point being that, taking a long enough perspective, we can track great progress in Europe in terms of liberal ideas, and my suggestion is that, having seen four great ‘ages’ of liberalism, we now need a fifth.

I’ll say more as the blog develops about what I think this fifth ‘age’ should involve, and why, but for the moment, what were the previous four?

Ages One and Two- Shaking Off The Religious and Economic Shackles

I’d count the first age of Liberalism as involving that time in the 17th century onwards where, in beginning to develop science, and beginning to demand the restriction of political absolutism, we experienced increasing freedom to hold different religious views (and sometimes even none), and where the power of monarchs and rulers began to be restricted by parliaments, law-makers and the rule of law itself. Gradually, the age of enlightenment meant that at least for some (often white, often privileged, often men), the freedom existed to hold different religious, political and personal views on life and how to live it. One might, very simply, consider it the beginnings of a rights based approach to personal and political freedoms- to worship as you want or not at all, to speak up as you wished to, to associated with whom you wished, and crucially for many, to define and clarify property rights.

This is of course a very simplistic view, very Western and full of holes, but it gives a flavour. Thinkers range from Locke, to Kant, to Winstanley and Lilburne, to Rousseau and John Wilkes, amongst many others (shout out for the Baron D’Holbach!) and many on my list would not be considered liberals in the modern sense (that great figure Jefferson for example owned slaves for much of his life).

As time went buy, a combination of population growth, empire building, growth in the theory and practice of capitalism and huge technological change increased the benefits that flowed from a more open and trade-led economic view, as opposed to that merely zero-sum view that led to wars of acquisition, or mercantilist views, or closed economies. This is what I would term very broadly a ‘second age’ of liberalism.

Very much the ‘classical’ liberalism of the 19th century, with debates mixing empire with trade, rules about ownership and limited liability of companies with emerging concerns about the effects on workers, the 19th century saw a huge upturn in the desire to advance the economy, using the new insights of economists, a growing understanding of how trade and open borders and economic growth could enrich society (or at least some of it). I’d include in this period a growing reaction to the horrors of unchecked capitalism, the reaction of Marx, the introduction of restrictions on working conditions and child labour, and the beginnings of the gathering of economic statistics to support an understanding of why trade mattered, how incomes were changing, and how the state could support and develop these patterns. Classic liberalism also began to consider a whole range of issues associated with this growth, and how to reconcile personal freedom with the larger impersonal forces unleashed. And of course, it neither neglected nor solved the problems of freedom of religion, conquest or state and power flowing from wealth.

The emphasis I would argue blended both a concern for religious and personal freedoms, with a desire for economic liberty as well. I think it’s no coincidence that this period also saw huge growth in movements of workers, with the first unions established, the first acts introducing systematic controls on pay and conditions, child labour, and even some controls on pollution. No coincidence that over this period we see key developments in democracy itself, from the eroding of the power of the monarchy, to the reform of electoral conduct, to the massive extension of the electoral role (see for example the chartists and their demands). Key figures could include a huge range, from ‘liberal’ politicians such as Gladstone, Palmerston and Lord Russell, to John Stuart Mill, John Bright or Richard Cobden (yes dear reader, I greatly simplify for the sake of some brevity.)

I take this period of the ‘second age’ to close at roughly the close of the 19th century- as we began to understand and take action on the social consequences of this personal and economic focus and the negative and clearly unfair impacts it imposed on people and society.

 

The Third and Fourth Ages – Social Protection, the State and Today’s Politics

Continuing my simplistic gallop through history, I’d argue that the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, saw a new bargain being struck. That bargain, between capitalists, companies, workers and the state, recognised that the levels of inequality being reached were not healthy, that more needed to be done to protect workers and the more vulnerable members of society and that doing so was not only a moral imperative but also an economic one- with a huge growth in the role of the state. Some in the paternalistic tradition also feared for the consequences of ignoring the demands of workers and the urban and rural poor.

Key developments included in the UK the beginnings of a state pension, the beginnings of a comprehensive welfare state, further controls and improvements to workers lives, and the gradual movement of education and a host of health and protection services from private, charitable and religious provision, towards that of the state itself. Key figures at this point might include JA Hobson, LT Hobhouse, the great reforming liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman, Henry Asquith and Lloyd-George, and the early work of Maynard Keynes. In this period from roughly 1900-1945 we see great advances in the role of the state, arguably the beginnings of some gender equality, an increasing recognition of the tensions of being ‘liberal’ whilst maintaining an empire, and continued if patchy improvements in the social protections for the young, the old, the weak and the infirm.

Finally, from 1945 onwards we reach my ‘fourth age’ of liberalism. Here, many of the great innovations in public policy are solidified, increased and become mainstream- from the founding of the NHS to the introduction of lengthy compulsory education, the expansion of Universities to allow for many times previous numbers. We see the introduction of an extensive environmental protection system and the  slow rolling back of hundreds of years of environmental damage. We see the end of empire (in theory at least) and the building of extensive social protection systems covering (again in theory) a citizen from cradle to grave. We see enormous improvements in the lives of UK citizens- from health to life expectancy, from likelihood to experience violence to educational attainment, from material possessions to contact with other cultures, from growth in home ownership and decent standards of housing to greater mobility and flexible working patterns. Finally, over the last 20-30 years we see new norms developing to embrace more gender equality, formally and in practice, with similar trends for gay people, and very recently for transgender people. Ethnic minorities and minorities in general are given more formal rights of redress, and in the UK we gain rights under a UK human rights act.

That is- in very broad brush terms, what I mean by the four ages of liberalism to date. I would argue that enormous strides have been made, and we would do well to remember that progress. My view is that there never was a golden age – a time when all of society flourished, when minorities were respected and protected, when the environment was cherished, when racism was non-existent and communities lived together in harmony and peace. We can make strides and we have.

But I want to use this blog to argue that we now need to move on. That the increasing tinkering associated with liberal thinking just won’t be enough going forward. That, like many, I think the pace of change is accelerating in many ways, and needs more fundamental addressing and consideration. That, as 2008 and 2016 have shown us, too much power resides in the hands of too few, poorly understood and rarely challenged. That the increasing tendency to assume that a new form of politics based on advocacy, and lots of small interest groups working away for technical changes and legislative victories, isn’t enough. That we need to look at the basic structures of society and the signals we send.

My aim is to try and show why we need a new age, and offer a small contribution to how that might be developed, and what it might look like. As this blog develops, I want to move from these rather abstract thoughts to  evaluations of much more specific ideas, but knitted into a coherent political philosophy. Time will tell!

 

Notes

(1) http://vps103892.vps.ovh.ca/pdf/the-ocean-of-life-fate-man-and-sea-callum-roberts.pdf

 

Don’t We Need To Think A Bit Harder?

Don’t We Need To Think A Bit Harder?

About this blog

Hello and welcome to the LiberalismFive blog. Here I hope to offer some thoughts about new ideas and new directions for liberalism, in the hope that others may both read and found something of use. If nothing else, I may clarify my own thoughts as an indifferent void looks on…

Why LiberalismFive? I’ll say more another time but my suggestion is that, having seen four ‘ages’ of liberalism, it’s time for a fifth. And here is where I want to consider new ideas, and work out how they might add up to something worth debating and considering.

As I need to remember more often, my perspective is mostly Scotland and the UK, with a dash of European insight and some global thoughts sometimes. But I’ll rely on some (any?) readers to keep me right on that.

Onto business…

2016 and Its Discontents 

Like many, I was dismayed by quite a few things in 2016- the ongoing horrors in Syria, Russian old-style power games, the Brexit vote, the election of a ignorant, anti-science pro-privilege huckster as US President. And of course the sad death of many famous people.

There’s no doubt that, if you’re a liberal, the next few years look harder than expected, with many recent gains in terms of climate change, international relations and peace, equal rights for women and gay people, and even tolerance and open-mindedness apparently under real threat.

Or at least, that is how many commentators have reported it, and there has been lots of hand-ringing and soul-searching about what caused some of this to happen and what we should do about it. I don’t disagree the short-term looks hard, especially if you’re an asylum seeker, an immigrant, someone struggling to get by on their wages or relying on welfare or public services.

But the despair and the gloom prompted me to (finally!) get going on this long-planned blog, as I think both that we are overdoing the gloom, and that conversely we don’t go deep enough in our fears and worries.

It’s Not as Bad As You Think?

Firstly, it’s not as bad as you might sometimes think. This article gives a few charts worth having a look at- I’d draw attention in particular to falling numbers of deaths from conflicts, stalling climate change emissions and the halving of poverty since 1990 as just three. Or try this on falling costs of renewables, or this on progress made with nature conservation. On a longer timeline, the excellent Stephen Pinker’s book Better Angels of Our Nature over 800 pages reviews the evidence for falling deaths from war, murder, and falls in violence generally.

I am aware of course that these are very partial snapshots or choices of statistics; that fundamental problems remains; that for many people and for much of nature the situation is dire; and that many dispute Pinker’s findings and methods. But personally, the evidence is convincing- things don’t always get worse, we can make progress, government is not always useless, modern life is not rubbish.

But this is a rather superficial point, and talking about falls in violence over 500 years is scarcely an answer to those suffering war, or mystified and concerned by what 2016 brought.

Is Isn’t Organised Enough to Be A Conspiracy- But It Is A Planned Approach and We Need To Look Deeper…

Onto my second main point. I believe though that despite what I just said, 2016 was a bad year and there may be bad years ahead. But we need to get beneath the personalities and events and think a bit harder about the nature of our societies, our systems and our incentives.

So, why do I think we’re overreacting and need a longer-term view? Well, we should have expected and be ready that vested interests will always fight back- that those with power and influence at the top of our societies don’t always have the common good at heart. Even if they did, we need to be aware of the corrupting influence of power, the weakening of controls, seduction that comes from only moving in similar circles, that success breeds a feeling it was earned, the intense lobbying of special interests. We need to know that, absorb it and not loose heart, as Admiral Stockade once said.

Let me say right away that I don’t believe in shadowy conspiracies covering global events, with mysterious secret bodies devoted to global domination and the like. That’s not to say that everywhere we look we won’t find networks dedicated to fighting what liberals stand for: fake grass-roots campaigns, fake science, fake news, tame historians, biased and corrupt news and media organisations and a host of other bad things devoted to bad ends, or even just to keep things the way they are now. The Mont Pelerin Society is a good example of some long-term thinking to plan some ideas that over time, have become simultaneously mainstream and very damaging.

But the idea of global conspiracies seems daft to me- things just aren’t organised enough for long enough and anyway, the explanation for why science, liberalism, openness, tolerance and other good stuff doesn’t always win is much simpler.

Yes there are those with wealth and power devoted to bad causes, selfish-ends and holding dismal, demonstrably false world views. We need to know who they are, and oppose them when they corrupt our public debate.

It’s The System But Marx Wasn’t Right 

But the problem lies much deeper than that- at the level of the basic structure of society. That is- the way in which politics, forms of government, industry, media, legal systems, competition, ownership and a host more fundamental elements of society, are brought together and act on us as individuals and our choices and beliefs.

John Rawls in his magisterial Theory of Justice talked about these elements as making up the basic structure of society. 

It is these interlinked, complex webs of basic insights, rules, processes, procedures and so on that determine whether liberal ideas will succeed or fail. Yes there are individuals that act on bad faith, elections that take us backwards, key moments (Brexit!) that could have gone differently if only.

But behind all that, and deeper than that, it is surely this basic structure that we need to give much more focus to, and one in which I hope to locate ideas and policies that could begin to make up a LiberalismFive, a new and more durable approach. [And no, Marx got it wrong, and his path is a blind alley…].

A few examples to close on- it’s my view that we won’t generate the changes we need to make if our basic democracy is weak, if our political parties are considered irrelevant, if our politicians are derided and our young people disgusted by the whole irrelevant game. But tweaks to voting laws and even powers of recall of politicians on their own won’t be enough if people think they have no stake in society and nothing that we debate matters a damn.

But surely people won’t have a stake if we don’t publicly and consistently demonstrate that there really is one rule for all, that the cards are not stacked against you if you are from a  minority, the global south or a poorer family. That society and government care for you and want you to succeed, without stepping over the line into overreach, bossiness and constriction. That globalisation can be a good thing and can work for you, that government and society will be there for you when things go wrong, plans go astray. That we are part of something bigger and that I will if you will…

And things can’t be fair if our taxation, our tax enforcement, our education system, our company law, our environmental custodianship and a host of other elements are not subjected to major change. Tax deductions for the rich, optional payments of tax, overly strict libel laws, poor public infrastructure, housing out of reach of the young, a workforce consisting of the secure and the insecure, the well paid and the badly paid, is not a recipe for a stronger and fairer society.

And indeed, a biased and truth-ignoring mass media won’t help with any of that. It isn’t always someones fault, the answers don’t lie in (only!) attacking the rich and the powerful. They lie deeper- and we surely need to offer solutions that attack the central problems, that consider the common good whilst allowing for personal freedoms, that are capable of lasting and which meet some of the tests of fairness, opportunity, good policy and long-term thinking.

It is these ideas and policies I want to write about, and hope to talk about as this blog unfolds. Thanks for reading.