The UK is embroiled in major political and economic crises. Now more than ever we need fresh new approaches to increasingly intractable policy problems. But today's uncertainties also require us to rethink our political values and beliefs.
Predictably, though, Demos isn't really offering anything new. The Demos writers want to return to a more classical, less statist form of liberalism, one drawn particularly from the nineteenth century liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill.
Nonetheless, I found one of their pamphlets, Liberal Republicanism, interesting enough. It sets out a case for liberalism, one that aims to be persuasive but which highlights instead a key weakness in liberal thought.
The pamphlet defines liberalism in terms of autonomy (the individual authoring or determining his own life goals) and equal freedom. There are references to autonomy and the self-determining individual scattered throughout the text:
The ideal animating this essay is that of a liberal republic, in which individuals have the power to determine and create their own version of a good life. The 'good society' is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course ...
A republican liberal prospectus recognises that a self-authored life requires both independence and individual capability ... Liberals ... do not assume that the conditions for a self-directed life emerge out of thin air ... the liberal state has a special responsibility to ensure that people have the necessary capabilities for autonomy ... (Introduction)
It is precisely because liberals insist that each individual is the author of his own life that they end up as the fiercest defenders of equal liberty for all. (p.16)
This is the all too familiar liberal autonomy theory. The authors even sign on to the idea that autonomy is what defines our very humanity. They quote with approval Isaiah Berlin who believed that paternalism is dehumanising because:
it is an insult to my conception of myself as a human being determined to make my own life in accordance with my own ... purposes. (p.25)
Similarly, the authors themselves write:
Permament reliance on others for money, ideas or life plans deprives people of the most human attribute: the ability to choose. (p.27)
It's all inevitable?
The really interesting part comes next. The authors argue that liberalism is inevitable. We have no choice but to accept it. People are always going to disagree about values and the proper ends of life. Therefore, there can be no common good, but only tolerance for widely diverging individual wants and life plans. What's needed, then, is freedom from other people trying to define our lives for us:
There can never be agreement about the values and purposes of life ... Individual people will disagree fundamentally about the ends of life. The gay bohemian atheist and the fundamentalist Christian husband are unlikely ever to approve of the other’s lifestyle or views.
They may be made unhappy by the other, and a liberal does not assume that a more diverse society will necessarily be a happier one. But diversity of opinion ... is both inevitable and valuable.
A republican liberal society is the best possible response to the irreconcilability of different points of view. The liberal good society is not based on a forlorn appeal for everyone to share the same values, but on the assumption that people do not, and will not, share a specified conception of social justice, the good life or the ‘common good’. Diversity is a fact of life, and a ‘good’ society is one governed by rules and procedures that recognise this fact, rather than wish it away. One of its key values, therefore, is tolerance.
The idea that it's all inevitable is hammered away at here: there is a repetition of terms such as "never be agreement", "unlikely ever to agree", "inevitable", and "fact of life". This sense of inevitability, combined with the fact that such divergences in values really do exist, might make the argument sound persuasive to some. We might then be willing to follow John Stuart Mill in thinking that,
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.
But there's a sleight of hand trick to the argument. The argument is framed so that only some aspects of a common good are ever considered, such as those relating to lifestyle or religious beliefs. If it's impossible to establish an agreed common good in such matters, then it might seem reasonable that we can only orient ourselves to our own discrete, divergent individual lifestyles and ambitions.
What isn't considered is the overarching common good that continues to exist, even when there are divergences in personal values and lifestyles. That is the "social good" - the good of the distinct human society that we identify with and value. To act for the continuation of this society requires a working concept of a common good as well as a framework of governance for making decisions about this good.
Take, by way of analogy, a school. Schools, just like societies, do not hold together by chance. They are subject to competitive pressures and if they fail to perform adequately they will be merged or closed.
Schools, therefore, do function on the basis of a common good. There will not only be some kind of vision statement about what the school aims to achieve, but there will be decisions taken about how best to organise the school and to design the curriculum to achieve these aims.
If there are signs of failure, such as declining enrolments or poor results, there will be debate about causes and responses. Most schools have a complex structure of committees and positions of responsibility involving all the staff and some of the parents and students in making these decisions, although responsibility lies ultimately with the principal.
So the discipline of keeping a school afloat requires that we recognise and work toward a common good, and establish the means of governance to do so.
It's the same when it comes to working toward the continuance of a distinct human society we belong to - except that we are dealing with a more significant and meaningful common good.
If you want this society to continue, then you won't limit yourself, as John Stuart Mill did, to pursuing your own good in your own way. If we take the "life" of our society as a starting point of a common good, then other common goods follow. You will need, for instance, a replacement birth rate. How do you achieve this? What is required to encourage people to commit to family life and parenthood? You won't want your best and brightest to emigrate. What might encourage them to feel attached to their own country? You will want, in a national emergency, your young men to be willing to fight for their country? What could draw this kind of response from them?
There are significant benefits to individuals in recognising such common goods. It means that the sacrifices we do make take on a larger meaning. The sacrifices of parenthood become part of our contribution to a larger entity, as do our sacrifices at work. We feel ourselves to participate in, to have a share in, the achievements of the larger society, whether these are cultural, sporting or scientific. We care about, and therefore feel connected to, the standards of life for others in our society and for future generations.
Liberals don't place the individual within a society in this way. Individuals do still have material needs in a liberal society, so there is a strong sense of individuals existing within an economy. But there is little concern with what is needed for the upkeep of an existing society. Signs of decline draw only a muted response from most liberal politicians. How vigorously, for instance, have liberal politicians reacted to falling birth rates? Or to disrupted family formation?
When we consider these basic facts about the life of a society, the liberal formulation of a scattered, arbitrary, individual good rings false. What room does Isaiah Berlin leave for a living society when he writes of his "conception of myself as a human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily rational or benevolent) purposes".
At least some of our purposes aren't just our own - they flow from what the society we are committed to needs from us for its existence.