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Liberalism and negative freedom

Posted by Matt Walker on July 10, 2011

Do you remember those primary school days when another child would stick their tongue out at you? And when you challenged them  they would  reply, “It’s a free country!”. Back then no one has the capacity to retort, “In what way is this country actually ‘free’?”. Because of course, we are not free to do whatever we want. If we wish to steal someone else’s brand new Mercedes Benz, and hit them over the head with a rolling pin in the process, then we are likely to feel the full force of the law, created by the state and upheld by the judicial system.

The man who resents this infringement on his freedom to steal cars and hit people on the head with a rolling pin might well decide to spend some time on a desert island. For surely on the desert island he would be truly free? There would be no authority above our man, telling him what to do or placing restrictions on his freedom. He could run around shouting at the top of his voice until three in the morning, and ‘steal’ all the fruit from the trees. No one could curtail his freedom of speech, nor make laws which could result in his imprisonment. In this sense, we could argue that our man on the desert island is entirely sovereign over himself. He is free from all external constraint.

And this is what classical liberals espouse. This faction of liberalism suggests that individuals should be sovereign. No authority should unnecessarily restrict a person’s freedom to act as they see fit. But crucially, classical liberals believe in the need for some authority. If there are no rules, a rational human being might well infringe someone else’s rights for their own benefit. Consequently, classical liberals advocate the need for a state based on the notion that people’s rights need protecting. But if that state were too powerful, it would end up encroaching on the sovereignty of the individual.

Hence, classical liberals advocate the minimal state. The purpose of this state is to protect civil liberties but very little else. Over matters deemed to be self-regarding, people can do what they want. But when their actions involve others, and potentially infringe their rights, the state must intervene. This can be achieved via a judicial system, police force, an army, and the legal enforcement of contracts. The aim is to promote freedom by reducing the external constraints placed upon people. This type of freedom is known as negative freedom.

Back to our man on the desert island. He could be said to benefit from negative freedom. But is he truly free?

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Liberalism and the individual

Posted by Matt Walker on July 7, 2011

Political ideologies have a set of core values which make them what they are. Michael Freeden likens this to a room in a house. A kitchen is defined as such because of the furniture within it, so that we couldn’t call a room a kitchen without a perhaps a cooker in it.

Just like a cooker is essential for a kitchen, individualism is essential for our understanding of liberalism. We tend to take the significance of individualism for granted in 21st Century Britain. Our individual human rights are reasonably well-embedded: we vote, we say and think as we please, and have a right to life and own property, all protected by the state. Furthermore, within the consumer society in which we live we are encouraged to value individual choice. So much so, that we automatically expect choice in almost every area of our lives, whether it is buying a new mobile phone or deciding where we should send our children to school. The current government’s NHS reforms are part of the same trend.

To a large extent, 21st Century Britain is the product of over a century of liberal thought. Following the breakdown of feudal society and the onset of industrialisation and enlightened thought, people have increasingly thought of themselves as individuals, rather than part of wider social groups within which their own identities were subsumed. Furthermore, with the development of science and rational thought over the past 200 years or so, adherence to religious belief has declined, which has perhaps encouraged people to  look less beyond themselves, and more into themselves.

Hence, liberalism has focussed on the sovereignty of the individual, stipulating that  was up to the individual and rational human being to decide what was best for themselves, rather than some other authority bossing them about. And once you accept this, it is a very short step to say that an individual’s human rights need protecting.

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The origins of liberalism

Posted by Matt Walker on July 3, 2011

Ideologies are an amalgam of concepts and values which have developed over many years. Put another way, no individual sat down one day and thought, “I know: I am going to create something called ‘liberalism’.” What actually happens is that different theorists and thinkers respond to the world around them and write about it. The works and ideas of these people then start to fit together into a collection of concepts labelled  ‘liberalism’.

Thus, ideologies are very much shaped by the historic circumstances their main contributors lived through. Liberalism emerged in Britain and Europe at a time when personal, intellectual  and economic freedom were not the norm. In 17th Century England, for example, those early thinkers who are now seen to be early liberal  thinkers lived through a time of great upheaval, with a civil war fought over who should govern: the monarch (King Charles I) or Parliament. The subsequent English republic, led by Oliver Cromwell, was strictly Puritan and prescriptive about religious belief. Hence thinkers such as John Locke espoused the values of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

Liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith looked at the world through economic eyes, promoting free market economics during the Industrial Revolution as a counter to economic restrictions which belonged in a pre-industrial world. Hence, liberals became advocates of economic freedom. This in turn developed further because of the social context of a rapidly industrialising Britain, so that by the early 20th Century some people questioned whether economic freedom promoted personal freedom – it perhaps didn’t if you were poor, uneducated, and sick. Hence, these liberals believed freedom was best promoted by a welfare state which helped people avoid such social ills.

Whilst you do not need to know the detailed context in which ideologies develop, it will help you to understand the various concepts and theories by bearing in mind that political thinkers observe the world, identify its problems, and offer solutions to those problems.

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What is an ideology: part 4

Posted by Matt Walker on June 29, 2011

On the A2 course we will study a number of ideologies, including the big beasts of the political world, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. In UK politics, we are familiar with the big beasts of the party system, Lib Dems, Labour, and the Conservatives. These three parties have their own ideological baggage which aids (and sometimes hinders) their policy-making, and of course they partly base their appeal on the ideology most closely associated with them.

However, when we are studying ‘conservatism’ for instance,  we are not studying the ‘Conservative Party’. They are two separate things. Political parties are a means of developing mass support for  the policies they develop. Whilst the Conservative Party may be heavily influenced by conservatism, it is a recipient  of conservative ideas, ideas which have generally been produced outside of the party by intellectuals and academics.

Whilst a politician like Tony Blair was the leader of the Labour Party, a party founded upon socialist ideals, Blair himself (and indeed the Labour Party) have adopted ideas from other political ideologies too.

Hence, when we are talking about say, conservatism, and when you are writing about it in your essays, do not conflate the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘Conservative Party’. We are studying ideologies, not political parties.

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What is an ideology: part 3

Posted by Matt Walker on June 27, 2011

Trying to get your head around what an ideology is, is no easy matter. However, Michael Freedon has written an excellent introduction to this area of political study. Early on, he seeks to explain ideology by asking his reader to imagine stumbling across a large rally, with public speakers calling for the downfall of the government. How would they react?

One person might think great, let’s challenge the government and bring them down (an anarchist or socialist perhaps); another recoils with horror, hoping that the police will take a strong stance against a group of people who might turn violent, and might even bring down the government leading to instability and chaos (a conservative); whilst a final passer-by, whilst not necessarily agreeing with the aims of the protest, rejoices at a plural and free society where a myriad of opposing political views can flourish.

Hence, all people look at the world ideologically. Ideology is the prism through which we interpret  and  provide meaning for the world around us. We don’t just look at a protest group and think, “oh, a group of people”. At least, most of us don’t! Most of us will interpret the protest via our previous experiences and knowledge, ideas built up through years of socialisation. It enables us to understand the protest and make sense of it.

Ideologies therefore enable us to decide what action individuals and groups need to take, or what opinions to hold, in response to events and political plans for the future. This could be regarding the meaning of a protest, how a health service is organised, or whether the rich should pay higher or lower taxes.

Or whether teachers should go on strike.

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What is an ideology: part 2

Posted by Matt Walker on June 23, 2011

When I teach a new class, it doesn’t take too long for my students to enquire which football team I support. One reason for this I guess, is that they want to know whose side I am on. People are often like that. Politics, of course, is particularly susceptible to such tribalism, and there are a whole range of concepts and terms which people can use to label themselves, or perhaps to abuse their enemies. Take any internet discussion forum and within 5 minutes someone will be labelled a ‘Nazi’.

Two terms in common usage are Left Wing and Right Wing. We don’t use these terms very often on this course because they are rather simplistic. But as a rule-of-thumb, they enable us to start considering how different ideologies view the world in general, and in particular what the role of the state within that world should be. Below is a simple way of thinking about Left and Right in politics:

 

image

 

As the diagram indicates, the Left is often associated with those who wish to use the power of the state to achieve greater equality, and will often advocate state interference in economy and society. Hence, someone of the Left might favour a state-run health service as this will mean equal access to healthcare for all citizens irrespective of wealth. The state would need to intervene in healthcare to achieve this. The Right, on the other hand, favours minimal state interference, and might therefore advocate that healthcare be run by the free market for purposes of economic efficiency.

There are many problems with this oversimplification. However, most people can get a very quick understanding of someone else’s political point-of-view when they refer to themselves as simply left or right wing.

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What is an ideology: part 1

Posted by Matt Walker on June 21, 2011

As we embark upon the A2 journey, it is worth spending a little time explaining what a political ideology actually is. The introductory chapter in Heywood’s Political Ideologies is excellent for this but it would be better to explore some of the issues he raises later on. Indeed, we will ultimately get a good idea of what ideologies are simply by studying them.

As Heywood points out, historically there have been a number of definitions of ideology. But he eventually draws our attention to Martin Seliger, who defined an ideology as:

“a set of ideas by by which men posit, explain and justify the ends and means of organised social action, irrespective of whether such action aims to preserve, amend, uproot or rebuild a given social order.”

This is where you need to take a little time when reading your textbook. Sometimes you have to pause, take in a concept, continue, and then pause again. You won’t always understand things first time. So what does Seliger mean? Well, an ideology is a set of ideas whereby people think about, explain and justify how they organise societies and how they are governed. An ideology will consider what the outcome of such organisation will be, as well as how this will be achieved. Hence, our end might be a healthy nation, our means might be state provision of healthcare, or for someone else, free market provision in healthcare. Finally, Seliger is suggesting that an ideology may seek to keep society as it is, change it slightly, or completely change it.

Heywood concludes that all ideologies therefore do the following:

  1. offer a critique of the world, as they see it
  2. offer a desired, future  vision of that world
  3. offer a political theory of change from step 1 to 2.

As a starting point that is very clear, and this is how we will be thinking about ideologies as we start our course.

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Socialism on Human Nature

Posted by Nicole Berry on May 2, 2010

Socialism can be divided into two main factions: revolutionary socialists and evolutionary socialists. Both of these branches agree that humans are intrinsically sociable and should be left to work cooperatively, and equally, without an overbearing state corrupting them into egotistical individuals. However, the way and extent to which society should be reconfigured to enhance our basic natural state varies between the revolutionaries and evolutionaries.

Evolutionary socialists (e.g. Fabians) believe in ‘the inevitability of gradualism.’ They believe that society is heading towards a complete restructuring as humans are inherently philanthropic and will realise the negativities of capitalism, subsequently wishing to return to their natural state. This process will happen slowly over time with small changes; with each step, society moving closer towards a socialist society comprising of equality, collectivism, and common ownership. People will reject the state and choose to live in self run communes divided into trade groups, working for use not exchange/surplus value, and living without the need for money and competition. Eventually, this will become a widespread phenomenon.

Revolutionaries, in particular Marxists, would argue to the contrary. Although they agree in the inevitability of a socialist society arising, they do not believe the process should be gradual. Because humanity’s corrupt nature, induced by capitalism, is so deeply entrenched in society, society as it is needs to be destroyed and completely reconfigured from scratch. This one massive blow towards the state and capitalism will come from the aggrieved proletariat. To ensure that society is led in the right direction, there will be an interim period in which the proletariat will govern. In this phase they will teach about the benefits of a communist society, and once basic human nature has been restored in all, the state can gradually ‘wither away.’

How does this compare to conservative and liberal views on human nature and role of the state?

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Conservatism on Human Nature

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 16, 2010

Conservatism as an ideology is reactionary. It emerged in the 18th century to oppose the new ideas brought about by liberals. Thus, we can immediately deduce that conservatives have a pessimistic view of human nature. However, it is not quite that straightforward.

Early conservatives believed that human nature is ever-changing. To base one’s principles on this inconstant would lead to a flawed philosophy; hence the rejection of dogmatic principles and doctrines, and a preference for pragmatism, following the changing demands of society as they come. Therefore early conservatives denied that conservatism was an ideology at all.

However, Traditional Conservatives demonstrated a belief in original sin. People are blemished from birth, are subsequently irrational, and ultimately imperfectible. Consequently, conservatives believe it is necessary for the state to act as a paternal figure, watching over society and morally, economically and socially guiding people. The state needs to be strong to avoid life becoming ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (as described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.)

In the 20th Century ‘Thatcherism’ arrived. This developed new ideas about human nature, believing that humans were capable of rational thought in the economic sphere, yet not in the moral/social field. New Right thinkers, and Thatcher herself, called for a strong authoritarian state in terms of law and order, yet minimal state interference in the economy. Thatcher’s assured analysis of society and human nature allowed for this apparently contradictory role of the state (known as the ‘Paradox of the New Right’) to be put into practice, and opened up the doors for dogmatic principles to flood into conservatism.

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The Tories: ‘We are all in this together’

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 14, 2010

The Conservative Party have offered us all an ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’ (the longest invitation known to man,) shunning the traditional manifesto in an attempt to portray themselves as ‘modern, progressive Conservatives.’ At the heart of this ‘invitation’ is the vision of the ‘big society’ not the ‘big state.’ What the Conservative’s are pledging is bottom up governance, with people having the power to take decisions into their own hands, transferring power from national to local level. A huge emphasis has been placed on social responsibility, which we all hold as a member of British society. The Conservatives believe promoting greater responsibility is the way to patch up our ‘broken society.’

As with the Labour Party, a concise summary of what the Conservatives hope to do to achieve a more cohesive society is outlined on the Conservative Party website. The broad outline consists of:

1. Acting now on debt to get the economy moving
2. Getting Britain working by boosting enterprise
3. Making Britain the most family friendly country in Europe
4. Backing the NHS
5. Raising standards in schools
6. Changing politics

Despite this one nation conservatism being all very High School Musical, the specific policies demonstrate the serious commitment the Conservatives have to regenerating Britain. The Conservative’s say they will:

• Cut the number of MP’s by 10%
• Cut ministerial pay by 5%
• 1 year public sector pay freeze (excluding the million lowest paid workers)
• Stop the paying of tax credits to earners of over £50,000
• Power for constituents to sack MP’s
• Linking GP’s pay to results they deliver
• An annual limit on non-EU migration
• Ability for parents to set up new schools
• Head teachers to have final say on discipline problems
• Raising stamp duty threshold to £250,000 for first time buyers
• Cutting National Insurance for first 10 employees of new businesses

The list goes on. But check out the details on the links below.

The Liberal Democrats have been quick to criticise the manifesto with the generic claim that they are the ‘same old Conservatives.’ Gordon Brown also condemned the manifesto saying it had a ‘hole’ in it. But have the Conservatives done enough to convince the electorate otherwise?

BBC: At a glance

The full manifesto

Video

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