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.



(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!



(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.