I have been broadly uninterested in the interminable debate over the passing of Margaret Thatcher; arguments about whose disgust and loathing is better justified hold little appeal (that being said, there’s an interesting article here which ontology fans may enjoy). Even more tedious has been Twitter, which is now the domain of an intense competition over who can be the most meta in their outrage. The Daily Mail has joined in by promoting outrage over an outrageous attempt to demonstrate outrage over Thatcher’s legacy, culminating in the following amazing sentence about a song from a children’s musical:

“The BBC would not confirm exactly what part of the song would be aired tomorrow, but most of the lyrics contain the offensive phrase.”

The Conservative Party is at a loss to know what to do about an instance of free speech about which they happen to disagree, and in being so demonstrate why I will always find their political philosophy repellent.

I am in interested in politics because to be so is the natural outcome of an interest in philosophy and morality; one cannot really describe the morality of the individual without paying some regard to the society in which they find themselves. If one’s interest in politics springs primarily from philosophy, then the most important principle by which anyone’s politics can be judged is that of coherency. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, if I can see the chain of reasoning behind their approach to politics I can, as a minimum, respect them. The death of Thatcher has revealed the incoherency of conservatism in the UK: at once opposed to taxpayers being hit by pay rises for public servants and then stinging us for a £10 million posthumous bonus for a public servant’s performance in office; at once opposed to restrictions on hate speech, and then clamoring for them when they are the subject of it.

It is a political philosophy that appeals to principle when convenient and emotive rhetoric when principle gets in the way. Moreover, it is a political philosophy that believes in using the State to enforce its incoherent worldview upon the nation: the use of taxpayers’ money to fund a celebration of the life of someone about whom the nation is bitterly divided is precisely that. I dislike it but simultaneously accept it: conservatism is not based on reason, but emotion, and as a liberal I cannot demand that everyone approaches politics in the same way I do. As a result, much like the poor, it will always be with us. It is likely that these two facts are related.

To be a liberal is to be in favour of individual liberty. You’d think this is a pretty clear statement, but like all political philosophies, so much depends on how you define the words that make it up. Today I’m interested in ‘individual’. What makes an individual an individual, in the political sense here highlighted? There are at least two popular definitions.

The first is that of the radically autonomous will, the rational maximiser of utility, Homo economicus. In this definition, the individual is a single unitary will that acts to bring about states of affairs which maximise its utility, a general term which covers whatever the individual’s objectives happen to be. They may be happiness, money, peace on earth or anything else besides. More popular amongst economists and right-leaning types, it has the advantage of making very few claims about human nature beyond that it is fundamentally goal-orientated.

The second is that of the embedded will. Under this definition, ‘individual’ as a term makes little sense, as any particular person is constructed by the society in which they happen to find themselves. They do not act as an individual, but rather in accordance with the social ‘class’ they happen to find themselves in, whatever the appearance to the contrary. The individual is therefore a lacuna of apparent decision-making which in reality is the reverse of what it appears to be: your decisions are made as a result of your position in society, and you merely think you’re making them as an individual. If you think this sounds like errant nonsense, I encourage you read Zizek. This approach is more popular on the left, and has the advantage of capturing the role that engagement with others has in informing thought. One can read Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument as a partial endorsement of this definition; if language is something that must be social in order to have meaning, then our thought is at least in part constructed by the linguistic society in which we find ourselves.

The role both these definitions play in political thought should be clear, and which one you find most comfortable is a useful guide to your political intuitions. For example, I have always found the second definition unsatisfactory: it places society above individual reflection in its methodological approach, paradoxically meaning that determining whether it is correct through individual reflection is impossible. It can therefore only be asserted.

However, the first definition is also unsatisfactory, even though it informs much of my political creed. The radically autonomous will has much in common with the mind/body distinction of Descartes: much like the Cartesian mind, it is not necessarily embodied at all. It can apply to any entity that has goals and utility to be maximised. Gods, if they exist, would be rational utility maximisers. Souls too; economic models could be equally applied to the afterlife as well as this one. Such a broad definition misses something about the very particular experience of being a human on Earth, and more importantly, it is outdated.

Ever since Kant, we have known that the individual will is inextricable from the means by which it perceives the world. Our experiences and thoughts are structured in a particular fashion to which our will is bound; it makes little sense to talk about our experiences outside of the framework of space and time. This approach has been expanded on by a range of philosophers, including Heidegger, who points out that we encounter the world through a web of projects and goals, and that these are in many senses prior to rationality. We cannot encounter a hammer, say, without simultaneously encountering its use. If goals are part of the way in which we encounter the world, then they precede reason and are irrational in and of themselves. While we may make rational plans to achieve our goals, they remain necessarily irrational.

This means there is no reason to presume that we are capable of evaluating our differing goals and identifying which one we prefer in a rational manner. If we cannot do so, then the rational utility maximiser is not simply too broad, it is a fundamentally incorrect way of understanding humans qua individuals. Another way to consider this is to think of the ways in which a human could be teleologically divided: goals for genes, goals for the individual, goals for a society. There is not necessarily a rational way of deciding which of these types of goal to prefer and in some cases they will be incommensurable. I would therefore claim that this Cartesian conception of the individual is highly likely to be fundamentally incorrect.

There is another reason to reject the Cartesian individual, as a liberal: it provides for restrictions on freedom. If we give freedom to individuals qua rational utility maximisers, then in instances wherein they appear to not be rational (i.e. not maximising their utility) and we can identify ways in which their utility could be maximised through restricting their freedom, then we are not prevented from doing so by our conception of ‘individual’ freedom. It is this Cartesian liberalism which lies at the heart of movements like liberal paternalism and much contemporary left-wing thinking. It also informs, bizarrely, the more extreme forms of libertarianism that claim that the mind owns the body and so can sell it into slavery. The notion that the mind can own the body rests upon a separation between the two. The contemporary Conservative Party, much of which is a union between the Cameroonian ‘nudgers‘ and more hard-core libertarians is united in an antiquated understanding of the individual.

I propose that our politics is informed by a very different definition of ‘individual’ to the two above: that of the manifold will. There is no state of affairs for an individual that will necessarily maximise their utility, because they are a bundle of competing goals. Without a rational way to decide what’s best for a person from the outside, the only course for any political philosophy that aims to improve the human lot is to leave much of that improvement up to humans themselves.

‘INDIVIDUALISM RAMPANT!’ the headline might as well of read, rather than the more demographically mealy ‘Generation Self‘. Apparently the youth of today are a source of concern to their elders, this time less in the form of angry old Colonel Blimp types despairing about their lack of a work ethic and more in the form of decrepit socialists bemoaning their lack of attachment to the mighty institutions of the Collective Good.The young ‘uns don’t see the NHS as something they must lay down their very lives for, and are more likely to view those on benefits as being lazy scroungers rather than noble souls down on their luck.

And yet paradoxically (to the Guardian at least) they are bang-on message on subjects like gay rights, not being horrible racists, and women being equal to men. The notion that there could be some kind of connection between a belief in individualism and freedom to live the life you choose unconstrained by society is something that eludes that newspaper’s fine people of letters.

Liberalism is stronger in the coming generation, which should be a cause for celebration amongst liberals everywhere. However, it is important to understand why individualism is on the up. There are two competing narratives:

  • The Guardian reaches for the handy lefty trope of Thatcher being to blame for all the bad things that have ever happened. The children brought up under her austere regime know that this is a dog-eat-dog world and are determined to not be eaten by dogs of any kind. Indeed, some of them are breeding bigger and bigger dogs just to avoid this. Then, in a sign of how ruthlessly capitalistic these young people are, they’re selling them for a profit.
  • Conservatives blame the over-mighty State for taking away things people used to do together and making them the preserve of the faraway man in Whitehall. Remember those wonderful days when the only way to afford healthcare was by clubbing together with the other people who worked at the factory in the scant few hours you had outside of work to build collective institutions, and how if you weren’t working and got sick you basically just died? Weren’t they wonderful? LET’S GO BACK TO THAT.

The wonderful thing about these narratives, like so much political messaging, is that they can both be true at the same time. It is true that Government-promoted individualism will encourage individualism. It is also true that removing the responsibility of looking after your fellow man engendered by his or her need by shifting it into something you do at two steps removed through the taxation system will excuse you of the guilt of failing to help. You can then blame the NHS when it makes mistakes, because it’s making you guilty by proxy.

Outwith my sneering at both ends of the political spectrum, I do agree with them on the point that they share, which is that compassion is a virtue which should be fostered regardless of how individualistic you are; you can believe in absolute freedom from the individual, zero taxes on everything and a nightwatchman state and still think you should care about the least well off. Lack of compassion is a serious character flaw. The institutions originally charged with fostering compassion, the churches, still do good work at a local level, but at a macro level have bafflingly decided to devote their time to reacting against the sweeping tide of liberalism, which in itself says nothing about the compassion their creed requires. Compassion remains a requirement of a society in which people actively want to participate: a liberal society requires that people have the minimum of compassion for their fellows sufficient to be in favour of their freedom.

We therefore do require some kind of civil institution charged not with fostering a vision of the collective good, but with the compassion that can lead to people freely agreeing to such visions. . It can’t be the State; it will never be the job of Government to prescribe morality in a way which goes beyond the law. It can’t be the churches; the metaphysical commitments they require for their compassion are now beyond the interest of much of British society. And it certainly can’t be the unions; they have too frequently revealed themselves to be the guardians of sectional interests. So what can it be?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Recapturing Rationality

September 4, 2012

A rational man is one who aims at goals and takes action to achieve them. This is a definition of rationality currently in vogue in some schools of thought. However, it is a fundamentally uninteresting definition: ‘goals’ are construed as whatever a person was aiming to achieve with an action, and so any action is rational. If every action is rational – because every conscious action must aim at a goal – then there is no such thing as an irrational action, and the very word becomes meaningless. By inference, I can describe the aimless swimming of a goldfish as ‘rational’; I know naught of fishy goals, and it is not for me to say when they are rational and when they are not.

While this is not an incoherent position, we should be wary of any stance which says that a commonly used word is being used incorrectly by the rest of mankind; humility is a useful intellectual virtue. Is there another definition of ‘rationality’ which captures the useful insight that rational action is the preserve of the individual while still retaining the distinction between rational and irrational in a coherent fashion?

Luckily, there is. Regular readers will know of my affection for the work of Fleischacker on liberty, and it provides a useful steer here. The first question we should ask is what we mean when we say ‘action’. The definition above considers ‘action’ to be basic, without considering what it is we do when we act. However, this involves a rather basic conceit: that in the split second of decision-making about whether to, say, kill the fat man, we somehow weigh all the pros and cons of each potential act. Of course we do not; our brains are not hyper light speed quantum counting engines. Rather, we act in accordance with the principles we have accepted and considered in advance, before we were thrust into such a situation. What we do when acting is not to assess every possible outcome, but rather to make a judgement: this context falls under this principle, so this action should be performed.

The creation of these principles is something we do when reflecting, or opting to adhere to a particular moral code. It is in the practice of these principles that they are reinforced, and we become more likely to act in such a way in future. This leads us onto a useful definition of rationality: acting in accordance with our principles.

Our principles are self-determined, even if we are signing up to someone else’s – that remains our decision. As a result, only we can determine whether we have been acting irrationally or not. I can state quite categorically that I am more likely to act irrationally while drunk, for example, which captures the common intuition about the meaning of rationality quite happily.

Moreover, this definition of irrationality – failure to determine the correct principle to apply to a particular context – is something which is only known to the self, and so cannot be a tool for another to step in and remove one’s autonomy, unless one wishes it. This may prove useful to members of that particular school I linked above, who do seem to worry so about such things.

Everyday Arete

August 22, 2012

Did you see the Great British Bake-Off last night? Well, one of the twenty-something lads won, but the bad-teeth fella got kicked out after he got his plaits wrong. I spent much of the episode lusting hungrily after the various bready products portrayed on screen, and largely in incomprehension proportionate to my terrible cooking skills.

But still, it got me thinking: cooking is a skill, and a skill in which a great many people take pleasure. It is simultaneously a chore and an arete; a pain and an excellence. Clearly it is an excellence which our culture celebrates, judging by the number of cooking programmes and celebrity chefs our culture produces. It stands alongside singing and dancing and DIY as an arete which is simultaneously accessible to all and the subject of media offerings which have mass appeal. There is clearly a market in providing the public with examples and illustrations of excellence in a given skill, just so long as that skill is open to everyone to try.

Now hold on, you might say, I’m a keen wood-whittler and there’s no prime-time show showing how best to carve your own oaken squirrel. The only thing you need to whittle wood is some kind of knife and a bit of wood. This is true, but the barrier to involvement in wood-whittling is not its accessibility but the difficulty associated with achieving excellence in it. It is much easier to paint a room well with the minimum of practice than it is to carve a gargoyle made of chestnut. The learning curve is, in this instance, a clear barrier to The Great British Whittle Off being a thing.

Why is this important? There’s a strange inclination in the philosophical world to describe ‘excellences’ and ‘virtues’ as things that pertain to ‘higher’ pursuits; MacIntyre uses the example of chess to illustrate his theory, and of course classical Aristotelian virtues mainly relate to aspects of interpersonal relations and personal conduct. However, in doing so we miss out on a whole set of arete that actually matter to people, and in doing miss out on some important insights into the nature of virtue.

For example, MacIntyre claims that ‘real’ virtues can only exist in a small community or polis, that in a vast and alienated capitalist society the only ethical theory possible is a bleak emotivism. Cooking demonstrates that this is untrue. The reason The Great British Bake-Off exists is that there is an appetite for the celebration of excellence amongst a public MacIntyre and his followers believe to be only expressing emotive preferences. If the arete identified through the judging process were unpalatable to the viewers, they would switch off, and if arete identification was a mere emotive process in our society there is no reason why one baking practice should be favoured over another. But, given we are now on the third series of this show, this seems unlikely. What it shows is that the great meta-community of baking fans, brought together through this shared experience, is capable of identifying and celebrating virtue through an aggregate of individual preferences. While the show has gurus, they only receive their status as gurus through their excellence being agreed by the community, rather than by the rules and traditions of a Baking Brotherhood. The internal excellences wrought by the practice of baking are ones determined by all participants, no matter their skill. The preference of each participating individual determines the community, not inner rules of the community itself. Virtues are emergent, not wholly defined by a historical context to which a novice must adhere.

Therefore, we can coherently talk about arete in a market economy. Virtue can exist in a capitalist system; we do not need the polis when we have tele-vision.

Over on Crooked Timber, Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) have put up an interesting argument claiming that the commonly understood objective of libertarian ideology, freedom (defined as the absence of coercion) does not necessarily imply that a market economy is the best way of organising society. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, the cornerstone of a market economy, the freedom to enter into contracts of your choosing, is not necessarily freedom-maximising as it is entirely possible to sign away your freedoms when signing a contract. Whether contracts are freedom-maximising is therefore an empirical question not amenable to philosophical analysis, and cannot be used as an ideological plank.

Secondly, an economy in which the price of labour is its value in the marketplace permits coercion within the workplace; changing jobs is not a frictionless process and the cost of changing jobs can be sufficient in particular contexts (e.g. debt, supporting a family) to prevent a worker from selling their labour elsewhere. This permits out-contract coercion on the part of the employer; the example used by BRG is an employer demanding a female worker sleep with him or lose her job.

The above are sufficient to demonstrate that libertarian principles are not necessarily freedom-maximising, which would appear to defeat what is commonly held to be the point of the ideology. However, over on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski thinks differently:

“I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. […] What makes restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.

If you asked the philosopher in the street what the core value of libertarianism was, I’d be amazed if ‘freedom’ didn’t make up a majority of the responses. However, the above represents a wholesale retreat from the value, into the domains of rights and consequences. In order to spell out what this means, let’s consider the three questions that would be asked by three groups of people when considering how to organise society, the Neo-Lockean Libetarians, the Consequentialist Libertarians, and the liberals (small ‘l’, most definitely):

1) How do we organise society to best protect a given set of rights?

2) How do we organise society to best achieve a given set of goals?

3) How do we organise society to maximise freedom?

Now, the position being advanced by Zwolinksi is that libertarians are asking the first two questions, rather than the third, and that freedom (of various sorts) is frequently found to be the answer to them both. The problem is that in both cases freedom as a value is secondary – if there is a better way of organising society identified in response to those questions, then freedom will be eschewed.

As a result, the root of libertarianism is applied incorrectly: the philosophy is only incidentally related to liberty, and even then only on a empirical basis. If a way is found of protecting property rights that involves surrendering some civil liberties, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. If a way is found of maximising prosperity that involves shackling people unable to pay their debts to some kind of work engine, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. By allowing the name ‘libertarianism’ to be associated with a creed that supports liberty only as a matter of likelihood, our political discourse is tarnished. I would therefore call on anyone discussing the subject to eschew the term in favour of something more suited. I would opt for Possessionism.

A Liberal Metaphysic

May 31, 2012

An interesting challenge over on Crooked Timber: given the willingness of liberals to dismiss the religious metaphysic of morals through the likes of the Euthyphro dilemma, are they able to provide a metaphysic that justifies their moral claims?

While the instinctive response of a liberal may be to dismiss such requests as irrelevant, or metaphysical requirements as the exclusive domain of those making religious claims (which is broadly what CT does), such a response would be intellectual cowardice. If nothing else, it is always an interesting puzzle to attempt to derive one’s position from first principles; indeed, it helps to illuminate those parts of our thought about which we are not quite as certain as we would like to be.

So let us begin. The first step is to reject the moral requirement placed here: liberalism does not necessarily make overt moral claims, but rather ethical claims.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect: a moral claim relates to whether a particular action is good, while an ethical claim relates to whether a quality of character is good.

This distinction is important, because it allows us to illustrate what some traditional philosophical problems are really about. Consider the classic problem of who one saves from a burning bus: a child, or a middle-aged doctor on the brink of a cure for cancer? Such a question reveals our moral intuitions, but it does something beyond that: it allows us to contemplate and refine them.

This is crucial, because in a real-life situation one would not have time to weigh up the pros and cons of either action; one would simply have to act. What we want to do then, if we are looking to act morally, is to train our moral intuitions to respond correctly when under pressure – to cultivate our character so that the responses we provide when decisions are demanded of us are the right ones. Our response to the requirement to choose whether or not to kill the fat man is not determined by our split-second decisions at that point, but rather by our ethical character. The ethical act lies in the consideration of the decision, rather than the decision itself.

The problem, of course, is that we do not know which decisions are correct, and so we do not know what sort of character we should cultivate. Religion, in general, attempts to short-circuit this process by claiming that a range of decisions are correct, and so we should develop our characters in particular ways. It does this by making metaphysical appeals to features of the world which are not accessible to any of our traditional five senses. Liberalism, the argument goes, does not appeal to these ‘external’ features, and so makes ethical claims which are, in a sense, wholly arbitrary.

This may seem unfair, but it is a claim which can withstand some consideration. We are thrust into the world in possession of goals, whether they be simple aims to satisfy desires or more complex ethical and moral objectives. These goals are a precondition of our encountering the world – we perceive the world through them along with our other categories. It is useful to refer to Heidegger here – we encounter, say, a hammer through the nexus of our goals that a hammer can help us achieve. No object is outwith a use-value in terms of our objectives, as it is those goals which help bring it to life.

The problem is that use-value is fundamentally uncertain. So, the use value we ascribe to a hammer could be wrong. When we think our goals are best served by using the hammer to build a treehouse, those goals could be best served by using it to bludgeon to death a passing squirrel. The squirrel-killing use is not given to us by the hammer, but by the relationship between the hammer and everything else in the world, only part of which will be accessible to us at any given point.

Any decision we make in pursuit of our goals is therefore arbitrary, in the sense that it is made without any certainty as to whether it is the absolutely correct decision or not. This applies to any goal, whether it be religious or otherwise in nature. We do not know whether our aim of not killing is best served by cultivating a passive disposition, or whether a seemingly threatening disposition will preclude us from ever having to kill. The religious can, at least, be confident that not killing is the right thing to do. How they go about ensuring that they do not is still up for grabs.

How, therefore, does this provide us with a metaphysic of liberalism? It does so not by appealing to metaphysical features that are inaccessible to us, but rather by appealing to the features that provide the conditions for the possibility of accessibility: our goals. Despite the impossibility of certainty around their resolution, they remain goals, because they are a requirement of the way in which we encounter the world. It is impossible to have no wants while remaining alive and conscious. They bring meaning to the world, because things in the world only have meaning in the context of our goals. A beautiful view only has meaning in the context of beautiful views being something we seek out for the pleasure to be gained from them.

With this in mind, we need to consider how we best seek to achieve our goals in a context in which absolute knowledge is impossible, but relative knowledge is not. We can make claims that a given quality of character is more likely to respond usefully in a given situation than another, in much the same way as we can make the claim that a hammer is relatively better than a sponge at bashing nails into bits of wood. We can do so based on our experience and a broad range of exemplars of different goals and different approaches to reaching them that we can call Other People.

As long as we don’t do anything to excessively upset them, Other People will go about their lives trying out lots of different ways of achieving practically any goal we can possibly think of as a consequence of their enormous range of different characters. We can talk to them and compare notes, co-operate to achieve goals we can’t achieve ourselves, and increase our relative understanding of how we achieve our goals. If we try to control them, then we’ll cut the amount of useful information we can receive, because instead of trying out their own ways of reaching their goals, they’ll be using ours.

The absolutely uncertainty with which we encounter the world makes the freedom of everyone else crucial to our own objectives. Murder, control and other constraints upon other people serve to diminish our potential pool of information. Regardless of what our goals are, our approach to the Good, if there is such a thing, is always best served by liberalism. Without learning from the character of others, we can only cultivate our own in a small, niggardly way. Deprived of the richness of the other, our own characters are lessened.

We approach the world in such a way as to enable others to have freedom not because some metaphysical feature of the world says that freedom is a good thing, but because the freedom of others is necessary to discover how to achieve the goals we necessarily possess as a consequence of being in the world. This is a transcendental basis for liberalism, a metaphysic which says that the beginnings of our ethical character are not given by an external feature of the world, but an internal feature of the way in which we encounter it – which, in itself, is beyond the world, as it constitutes it for us.

A rival to liberalism

May 17, 2012

Flip Chart Fairy Tales has put up an interesting post entitled ‘A post-liberal future‘. In it, they argue that economic and social liberalism has been the dominant force in our politics for the last quarter century, exemplified in both Thatcher and Blair. Both of the large parties have represented an alliance between liberal and illiberal political objectives, with the liberal objectives of both parties winning out over the illiberal. FCFT summarises this thusly:

“As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party.”

FCFT then covers the reasons why this dominance may be coming to an end with the resurgence of anti-individualism in our politics. Certainly, one can see this at opposite ends of the traditional political spectrum – Blue Labour was in essence a call for the privileging of the working-class community over the success of the individual, while Conservative back benchers with a focus on pro-marriage legislation and law and order have a similar bent. It is in essence a debate over what society should prioritise: individual freedom or social capital, John Stuart Mill versus Karl Polanyi.

It is, however, still a debate which is hopelessly confused. UKIP, a party that takes most of its votes from tradition-bound Tories, is lead by a libertarian. The new economics foundation, a thinktank that focuses on bringing in Polanyi-esque solutions to social problems, has a workstream focusing on providing the individual with tools to participate in democratic decision-making. The majority of the UK’s political discourse still focuses on the question of the distribution of economic resources, rather than the moral focus of society.

However, this has not always been the case. The resurgence of social capital in our political discourse is not new, but rather an old thing come again. The political division at the start of the last century between Liberals and Conservatives encapsulated that distinction. For liberalism to no longer become the dominant political ideology would require a realignment along the same lines as the one which originally led to the ‘strange death of liberal England’. To put this in graphic form, it would require a shift of political alliances from this:

To this:

Such a dramatic realignment of our politics seems unlikely. However, there are signs that it is happening. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the No2AV campaign was the willingness of Old Labour and the more regressive Conservatives to sit down together in order to secure the existing voting system. Indeed, we saw Cameron share a platform with John Reid, something almost unprecedented. John Cruddas, one of the architects of Blue Labour, is rumoured to be in favour of an in-out referendum on Europe – something which would put him in bed with the Tory backbenches.

A real political realignment would not be an overnight affair, judging by the experience of the old Liberal Party. Rather, it would involve coalitions, insurgent new parties, and a willingness shown by parliamentarians to hop the benches to a place that suits their political goals more effectively. The first two are taking place. We have yet to see any significant evidence of the third.

Today’s announcement by Nick Clegg of measures to facilitate more employee share ownership has been leapt on by Labour media darling Chuka Umunna as an endorsement of Ed Milliband’s ‘Responsible capitalism’ idea. Leaving aside the somewhat audacious claim that Ed Milliband came up with the John Lewis model of business, Umunna’s response demonstrates that Labour have failed to understand the intellectual direction of this Government – and the implications of that for the Labour Party.

I have previously written about how the parties of the Coalition are expressly aiming to use Government to overhaul the way in which the public perceives the private sector, by putting the burden of demonstrating the ethical worth of private enterprise squarely on its shoulders. A drive for greater employee ownership must be seen in this context – co-operatives and mutuals have always been perceived as more ethically sound than models of ownership which concentrate more shares in fewer hands. It puts the cost of an ethical stance on the company, rather than enforcing ethics through legislation. In doing so, it reduces the scope for dissatisfaction with capitalism, limiting the political space open to the likes of the Occupy protestors. It overcomes a very specific challenge: if wages represent a falling share of GDP compared to returns on capital, then the way to overcome this is not simply through higher wages, but the redistribution of capital itself. The share of GDP accorded to wages becomes an insignificant issue.

British liberalism has always recognised that the condition for a free society is the consent of all its members. By moving towards a model which places the burden of securing that consent upon business, Clegg is diminishing the space available for a Labour Party that would seek to secure that consent via the State. Labour’s complicity in this may yet be their undoing.

The Adam Smith Institute is – according to its website – a libertarian thinktank. It promotes free market solutions to policy questions, and individual freedom more generally. It does not pretend that it agrees with absolutely everything its namesake believed, but purports to promote his “belief in humanity and the power of freedom”. I would share that belief – but it’s unclear to me that the ASI understands the same thing Adam Smith did by ‘freedom’, and indeed whether the libertarian understanding of freedom has much in common with the kind of classical liberal understanding of freedom that Adam Smith is understood to have promoted.

I’ve been reading through An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and I’ve been pulling out quotes that appear to me to conflict with what could be called a procedural justice version of libertarianism; a version which may not be held by every contributor to the ASI, but nonetheless appears to inform some of their work.  This post, the first in an occasional series, will examine some of the ASI’s work in the context of the actual words of the Master.

I am using the OUP World’s Classics version of WoN. The following is from Book 1, Chapter VIII:

“What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labour.
“It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily: and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes, the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment. In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.”

Smith is here observing that the freedom of contract between capitalist and worker is, in reality, no such thing. The relative levels of capital each holds distort the negotiation: the capitalist can always afford to hold out for longer. However, within procedural justice libertarianism, freedom of contract is interpreted as absolute: any Government intervention, whether it be through regulation of rights or wages, is an immoral intrusion into a private negotiation.

The above quote appears to indicate that Smith understands that the freedom to make contracts varies between capitalist and worker, in a manner dependent on their relative wealth. This particular freedom appears to be determined less by Government intervention and much more so by possession of capital. Being a strong believer in the power of freedom, I would advocate that some way be found to bring a greater equality of freedom to negotiations between a capitalist and a worker, as an end in itself. I am agnostic as to how this can be achieved, whether it be through the State or through a non-state body, such as a trade union.

However, the Adam Smith Institute has recently put forward a proposal that runs counter to this aim of securing greater freedom of negotiation, which they have dubbed the ‘Self Employment Option’. This calls for greater use of the self-employed status amongst workers, which “sidesteps the burdens not only of PAYE and NI, but also of unfair dismissal, discrimination suits, maternity and paternity leave, statutory sick pay and holiday pay“. The self-employed, being freed from the ‘burden’ of rights, will have less freedom in negotiation than the employed. It is difficult to interpret this in any other way than the ASI having a very different understanding of freedom of contract to Adam Smith.