Thursday, January 31, 2008

Liberal left manifesto

For many people on the right, the phrase "liberal left" is a contradiction in terms. That's because of the way people on the Marxist left describe themselves as "liberals". But properly, it is a tautology; liberals always sat, historically and metaphorically, on the left of every national assembly. That remains the case, with the possible exception of the Australian Liberal Party which many feel is more accurately identified as a conservative party (this is a possible exception because the Australian Labour Party represents vested interests possibly more completely then the Liberals).

So why are there people who feel the need to emphasise the fact that they are liberal and left? And why do they feel a need to issue a manifesto? In the answers to these questions lies something that is almost an acknowledgement of the contradictions of their position.

Chris Dillow picked up on this discussion and suggested five areas for advocacy. They are a good place to start:

1. Reclaim the concept of freedom. There's more to freedom than low taxes and a formal, legalistic absence of state intevention, important as these can be. Real freedom means the ability to control one's own life. And this sometimes requires state intervention, as Gracchi points out.
Chris has immediately invoked the critical issue: is "positive freedom" - being able to do things, as well as free to do them, a valid concept? Yes it is, but the fact that you understood my use of the word "free" in the preceding sentence demonstrates that the word "freedom" should not be used for this, and nor should any of its synonyms. It was this inappropriate use of language that lead Chris to argue, as I would paraphrase it:
On the one hand low taxes and an absence of state intervention are good, on the other hand high taxes and state intervention are good.
Chris doesn't want to reclaim the concept of freedom, he wants to claim it for state intervention, albeit state intervention he approves of, preferably structured in a way he'd also approve of.

Gracchi's post quotes someone who wants lower taxes and less state intervention, caricatures this as a view that might disallow travel assistance from a specific elderly woman, states that he, Gracchi, would not snatch crusts from the lips of elderly women, and in concluding summarises its central philosophy as follows:
I want that old lady to be independent and look after her husband and I want the state to make that possible.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this post is that the person being quoted disapprovingly had actually been posting in support of the woman's right to travel tokens.

"Independent", in the context of this old woman, has two quite distinct meanings. She is independent, or more so, in her private life if she can travel affordably, as she needs. In addition, she is independent of the state if she is not subjected to excessive demands or intrusions from the state. Gracchi conflates these, saying in effect "this conservative writer argues for freedom [from the state] but if he gets his way a little old lady might have less freedom [of movement]".

What is happening here is interesting. Both Dillow and Gracchi are, I think, doing the same thing for the same reason. Their case is: the freedom of the underclass, of the poorest, pensioners and the vulnerable, in a society without state intervention, isn't worth much. They might be free to do things, but they aren't able to do them, and this can include the absolute basics of life. Such freedom isn't a desirable goal, and there's a moral aspect to that fact. State intervention must at least be adequate for those people. And, even now, even with present levels of taxation, the state is coming up short. That means there's a moral case for higher taxes.

That's a perfectly serious case, whether you agree with it or not. So why aren't they just making it, straight? Why all this wibble about how "important" freedom from state intervention is, even though we need more intervention from the state? Why try to occlude one meaning of the word "freedom" with its opposite, and conflate two different meanings of the word "independent"? In the latter case, why not actually highlight these meanings to the writer's advantage, saying that independence from the state can lead to a horribly curtailed life for the most vulnerable?

In fact, why don't they just plain come out with it and argue that the right is wrong to advocate greater freedom?

I'll leave that hanging, because I think Chris Dillow will answer it for me later, and move to the next of his points:
2. Argue intelligently for equality. One of the most damning indictments of New Labour is its failure to do just this. We can and should do better. We can point out that greater economic equality might actually be better for the economy than low taxes on the rich, and that there's a moral case for equality, partly as a form of pooling risk.
Insurance as morality? No, there might be a practical case for pooling risk, but it isn't a moral question. And don't give me anything about the most vulnerable - exceptions don't make the rule and pooling risk is general. If the vulnerable need help that can just as well be humanitarian as redistributative.

Also note the use of the word "might"; what if it doesn't? We'll also come back to this, but he is conceding that "equality" might have adverse effects. In fact, Chris's most solid argument in this paragraph, the only one he doesn't admit might be wrong, is that there is a moral case for equality. The problem is that this isn't so much an argument as a concession of defeat, coupled with an attempt to place the subject beyond discussion. Nobody who has won an argument has ever had to fall back on the morality of their position.

We are still waiting for the intelligent argument in favour of equality of outcome, indeed for one that even dares speak its name, and not abbreviate it to the single word "equality".

Chris's third point:
3. Exploit the economic slowdown sensibly. This doesn't mean calling for protectionism, immigration controls or old-style Keynesianism. It means pointing out that the big lesson of the sub-prime crisis is that the vulgar free market cheerleaders were wrong. Unfettered markets don't pool risks anything like as well as theory predicts they should. Financial innovation has taken a wrong turning. It's been a way for egomaniacs to gamble, not a way for real people to insure themselves against economic crises. There's perhaps a case for state intervention to encourage the development of insurance markets against recession or industrial or occupational shocks, as Robert Shiller has shown.
Financial markets perform a number of roles, it has been decided. The markets existed before the decisions about what roles they played - markets are what people do when they're not being interfered with, or when they're trying to get round the interference. Markets don't follow rules, but we do analyse them and, as with any very complex system, we try to make decisions about how they seem to behave. The roles we have assigned to them, after such analysis, include pooling risk, and they do perform this role to some extent, but they haven't been designed to do this, and any way in which they haven't done so isn't a failing. They also permit plurality to exist, which is why not every bank is in the same position as Northern Rock. State intervention works against plurality. One of the arguments in favour of markets is that they minimise the extent of failure. To understand why this matters, compare Northern Rock with, say, Black Wednesday.

It is true that markets are justified by their advocates in various terms that include the pooling of risk, but there are other justification, such as plurality - but also including freedom. It's good if people can do as they please. American readers can skip the next sentence. Doing as you please means going to the cinema with your partner to see whatever takes your fancy, including the "Life of Brian", it doesn't mean crapping on your neighbour's lawn.

The mention of the financial turndown is, I think, a device here. The importance of issues like immigration tracks the rate of immigration, as well as the financial cycle. In some ways the mention of this turndown is odd in this list of much more general principles, but it's really very shrewd. It allows objections to immigration to be blamed on the worsening financial conditions, and then displaced onto "egomaniacs" - including the big bonus earners we've all learned to hate instead of seek to emulate. Now objections to immigration are really objections to egomaniacs, and what could be fairer than that? Trebles all round, problem solved: there are no other problems for the most vulnerable, for the stick-in-the-muds, for the ordinary people of Britain, and especially England, that stem from immigration. It's all those bastards in the City.

Let's move on to point 4:
4. Challenge authority. The really big fraud uncovered this week at SocGen wasn't Jerome Kerviel's trading. It's the pretence of every boss everywhere that they are in control of their organization. They're not. Managerial effectiveness is a fiction. What looks like good management is either an illusion or the goodwill and competence of workers.
Good stuff, but what about it is inapplicable to big government? And from that unanswered question follows another: why advocate systems that require bosses if you're dead set against bosses? Points one, two and three above require the intervention of bosses, according to Chris's line. Then he points out a problem with top-down leadership. It's almost as though this leftist has hit his head against reality and become a liberal.

And he agrees:
5. Lose faith in big government. A lot of the right's objections to the welfare state are based not so much upon hostility to redistribution as upon the belief that the state is too big, unwieldy and incompetent. They're right. The liberal-left should think how state services can be provided with less red tape. This doesn't mean blind privatization, not least because this can crowd out the altruistic motiviations of workers that keep schools and hospitals going. It just means thinking about organizational design.
Chris is good enough to point out where the right is correct but draws the wrong, or at least an incomplete, conclusion. Schools and hospitals keep going in countries where they aren't run by the state, and Chris is wrong to fail to point this out. It is not a given that the state must run these facilities, but it is a given, as he points out, that large, hierarchical organisations are inefficient. There's an obvious conclusion to be drawn there, but it isn't drawn. Why not?

Perhaps it's partly because of one particular Big Lie: the idea that it matters to health workers, or teachers, whether they're employed by the state. Does it really? Is the ownership of their employer more important, or even remotely on the same playing field, as the needs of their patients or students? I hope not. I hope altruistic nurses don't think to themselves "I'm working for the state, and that's all that matters" rather than "here's a patient, what does this person need?" But perhaps that is what they think. Perhaps the "liberal" left has it right.

No, I don't think so. And nor do they. That's why they mention "freedom" so often. It's why they want to call themselves "liberal". Both usages are false, and I think they know it. They are in the position of a devout Christian faced with the evidence for evolution by selection. They know it's right. They don't like it. But the mainstream characters will try to incorporate it, saying that God created the conditions for evolution to occur.

Marxism is fundamentally centralising. It always has been and, at least if these posts are anything to go by, it always will be. The inability to deal honestly - and it is ultimately a matter of intellectual honesty - with ideas like freedom and independence prove that. If the state helps someone, they are not independent. Let's just revisit Gracchi's money quote:
I want that old lady to be independent and look after her husband and I want the state to make that possible.
I want x to be independent, and so I want x to be dependent on the state. This is risible, but only because of the way it is phrased. This would work better: "I want x to be independent, but she isn't. So I advocate state aid to help her get around". Someone on the right might say: "I want x to be independent as well, and if she wasn't taxed so heavily she could be. So let's stop making her dependent".

Then we could have a reasonable, even decent, conversation. But in the meantime we have to deal with what we have. I left a question hanging: why don't they just come out with it and say the right is wrong to advocate freedom? The answer is, as points 4 and 5 show, that they know the right isn't wrong on this point. But they are married to a particular doctrine - Marxism - that makes this admission impossible. That's why they try to distort language. They're saying: "x is right, so y = x". I'm sorry, but Marxism does not equal freedom. It never has, and it never will. And as the preoccupation with the words liberal - deriving as it does from the root of the word "liberty" - and freedom demonstrate, even Marxists know freedom matters. They also know - the second of my hanging points - that equality of outcome has no reasonable or moral justification. They just can't admit it, yet.


Unknown said...

An excellent post that sums up many of my own issues with the inconsistencies in so-called "liberal" reasoning. I consider myself a Liberal - and I try and express that consistently, which sometimes results in accusations of my being "Conservative". Meanwhile, the "liberals" are all over the shop but usually espousing a version of internationalist social democracy.

Pointing this out doesn't exactly endear you to people though - hence their resort to ad hominem calls of "You don't agree therefore you are a Conservative (or worse)".

Anonymous said...

"positive freedom" is about command over resources i.e. about wealth; it has nothing to do with freedom in the sense of liberty. Or, to put it another way, its use is usually just a low debating trick.