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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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Liberalism on human nature

Posted by Nicole Berry on April 12, 2010

During the 18th Century new religious, political and philosophical ideas were emerging under the umbrella term of ‘The Enlightenment’. During this time, liberalism was establishing itself as a political ideology, bearing new ideas about human nature and from this the ideal role of the state.

Both types of liberalism (modern and classical) have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham perceived humans as rational beings who act in their own self-interest by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Classical liberals would argue that if humans are inherently reasonable and self seeking, then a successful society can based on meritocracy without the need for an overbearing state to control us. Jeremy Bentham argued that the state should only intervene in the case of ‘other regarding actions’, i.e. cases in which an individual’s freedom imposes upon another’s.

The modern liberal T.H Green suggested that people have a natural desire to enhance others’ welfare as well as their own. Hence, people are both philanthropic and egotistical. In redefining what it means to be free after viewing the negative outcomes of the Industrial Revolution, this philanthropic instinct suggested that the state should help those in need, enabling them to achieve the same fulfilment as others through the provision of state welfare ( as proposed, for example, by the Beveridge Report in 1942). In the economic sphere, however, the state should remain firmly in the background.

This optimistic view of human nature regards the state as a precautionary observer with limited interference, contrasting with the austere paternalism necessitated by a conservative’s pessimistic view of human nature.

Should we be so optimistic about human nature?

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Does inequality matter?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 1, 2010

parenting or wealth Whether inequality matters or not is a big question and one that is central to modern politics. At AS level, students need to grasp the differences between Labour and Tory ideas, and this question is arguably central. At A2, the issue of equality features right across the study of ideology.

Last week, a government commissioned report stated that the rich-poor divide is wider than it was 40 years ago. The top 10% of the population have assets worth £853,000, whilst half the population earn less that £20,000 a year. The report also found that men on average earn more than women, Bangladeshi and Pakistani five year olds are developmentally  four months behind their white counterparts, whilst the bottom 1 per cent of the population are on average nearly £4,000 in debt.  The report stated that more needed to be done to achieve a level playing field or an equal starting point in life for everyone.

The report did state that all parties were agreed on this, but that is not entirely true. Various Labour ministers recently have pointed out that differences in wealth between families means that many children are automatically disadvantaged. A few weeks ago, however, David Cameron whilst acknowledging poverty as a factor, stated that it was  "not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting"  that mattered most.

As we would expect, the Labour Party emphasise class and inequalities in wealth as a barrier to equality, whilst the Conservatives stress the importance of the nuclear family.

Poverty or up-bringing? What do you think?

Posted in Conservatism, Liberalism, Political Parties, Socialism | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Who was John Maynard Keynes?

Posted by Matt Walker on October 25, 2009


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Controversial Question Time clips

Posted by Matt Walker on October 22, 2009


Posted in Democracy and participation, Liberalism, Multi-culturalism | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Question Time and the BNP

Posted by Matt Walker on October 22, 2009

image Tonight, the BNP leader Nick Griffin will make his controversial appearance on the BBC’s Question Time. Channel 4 did an excellent report on this, exploring the tension between allowing freedom of speech and the risk of giving the BNP beneficial publicity. There is also an interesting interview with Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who describes an unpleasant encounter with Griffin. Click on the links to watch the videos.

Channel 4 News report

Margaret Hodge interview

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Should freedom of speech ever be curtailed?

Posted by Matt Walker on October 20, 2009

Voltaire A couple of issues this week have combined quite powerfully to raise the issue of freedom of speech. Jan Moir, a columnist for the Daily Mail, wrote an article about Stephen Gately’s death, with alleged homophobic inferences. This resulted in 21,000 complaints to the Press Complaint’s Commission after an internet campaign which led to calls for Moir to be prosecuted or sacked from her job.

This Thursday, Nick Griffin, leader of the racist BNP, will take his place on the BBC’s Question Time panel. Labour’s Peter Hain has suggested that the invite should be reversed because the BNP were acting illegally by not opening up its own membership to ethnic minorities.

Freedom of speech is an important pillar of liberal thought. But it is not a simple concept. Should we stick with Voltaire’s (1694-1778) dictum that, “I detest what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it”? Or should we invoke the liberal concept of toleration, and claim that those who espouse intolerant views should not be allowed to do so.

It would be interesting to get some comments from you guys on this. Should we be like Voltaire, and accept  the right of Moir and Griffin to say things we consider offensive, or should we limit the platform on which they publicly air their views?

Channel 4 News video

PCC to examine Mail Gately column

Hain BNP warning rejected by the BBC

Posted in Liberalism | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Adam Smith: invisible hand or moral sentiment?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 21, 2009

Adam Smith Whilst studying Heywood’s Political Ideologies last week, one of my A2 students drew attention to  the author’s view that unlike neo-liberals, Adam Smith “certainly did not subscribe to a crude utility-maximising model of human nature.” What does this actually mean? There’s no simple answer to this!

Adam Smith is a very famous exponent of the free market. Indeed, the right of centre Adam Smith Institute is a major proponent of free markets and does so in the great Scot’s name. Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand suggests that social wellbeing is achieved by allowing utility-maximising individuals to pursue their own personal gain. If we all pursue our own profit, then we will have a profitable economy. The best thing that government can do is to liberate the economic capacity of the individual by removing itself from economic activity.

The neo-liberals of 1980s British Conservatism claimed to be the inheritors of Adam Smith. In fact,  Thatcherites married Benthamite utilitarianism with Smith’s invisible hand to suggest that the free market would result in a better, perhaps morally superior society. For neo-liberals, human beings are primarily economic agents.

However, according to Professor Iain McLean of Oxford University, an alternative view of Adam Smith is possible, something which Heywood alludes to when discussing neo-liberalism. Professor McLean argues that  Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, marks the latter out as a man of the Left, not the Right. Smith was in fact well aware  that markets fail and that selfishness is not the prime motive of human behaviour. Furthermore, when market outcomes fail to produce ‘the good society’, the state has a role in correcting it, suggesting that those in need require a helping hand. This is quite different to the neo-liberalism of Thatcherism, which has more in common with Samuel Smiles’ notion of self-help.

Interestingly, according to Simon Lee in Boom and Bust Gordon Brown has tried to reclaim Adam Smith from the Conservative Party, by emphasising how the invisible hand should cross palms with the moral sentiments of government support for the disadvantaged.

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