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

Author: DaveGorman

An Englishman longtime in Scotland, interested in new ideas for liberalism that recognise our challenges in the 21st century. Loves clouds, ideas, environment and applying liberal thinking to make things better. Speaking in a personal capacity of course.