Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The only freedom worthy of the name?

I recently reviewed a pamphlet titled Liberal Republicanism. The authors of the pamphlet were adamant that there could be no common good. There are only individuals pursuing their own individual purposes. The authors began their work by quoting the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.


What are the consequences of taking such a view? If you believe in a common good, as traditionalists do, it's easier to accept a certain kind of social differentiation. It's possible to accept that there are differences between people, and between different groups of people, that might affect their social role and the way they contribute to society.

For instance, if there is a common good, it's possible that men and women might contribute to it, on average, in different ways. So might the middle classes and the working classes. A working class person might not, on average, contribute as much to high culture. He might, though, contribute to popular culture, to the economy, to family life and so on.

A liberal cannot so easily accept this kind of social differentiation. If individuals must be free to author their own lives in terms of whatever purposes are selected by them, then all life paths must be equally open.

But how do you make all life paths equally open? There are two basic approaches. The first is to assume that social roles are so flexible and robust that they can be filled by anyone without any negative effect. They can, in other words, only be added to and enriched.

So if women were to become 50% of the combat troops in the army, a liberal would be likely to have faith that this would not pose a risk to the existing culture and role of soldiering, but that the distinct qualities of women would only enrich and add to what already exists.

A few years ago, Lawrence Auster discussed another example at View from the Right. A Muslim woman in a headscarf, who was opposed to the public display of hair, applied for a position as a hairdresser at a very trendy, cutting-edge, punky hair salon in London. She won a considerable payout when she complained about not getting the position. Here we have the liberal insistence that all life paths be made equally open, alongside the assumption that this won't impact negatively on an existing social role or institution.

What is another way that liberals can make all life paths equally open? They can do so by assuming that the differences between people aren't so great; that the differences are mostly socialised and can be evened out.

This is what the authors of the Demos pamphlet seek to do, albeit in a relatively moderate way. They want to make the "capability" of people more even. Their argument is that justice means doing what we want and that we must therefore make people more evenly capable of leading lives of their own choosing. Here are some excerpts from the pamphlet to give you an idea of the thought processes at work:

Where people lack capability they lack the opportunity to make of their life what they would ... Injustice flares up when people cannot do things they want to do, things they value ... A capability approach focuses on the ends of life rather than the means ... It is about the independent power of people to live as they would like to live ... the opportunities of people to lead lives of their own choosing ... the hope that every person can become the author of her own life ...


Some liberals go further than trying to even out "capability". They accept that in order to make all life paths equally open, people have to be considered to be the same (i.e. they have to be interchangeable or, to put it best, undifferentiated).

Here is how one liberal describes her view of men and women as being undifferentiated:

We are all human beings. We are all similar lumps of fleshy matter that moves and grunts and goes around its daily business.


In practice, modern liberalism follows both the approaches that I have set out. If difference is recognised it is assumed to have no negative effect on existing social roles, only the possibility of enrichment. Alternatively, difference is downplayed: it is assumed to be socially constructed and to have no necessary influence on an individual's life path.

So it doesn't mean all that much when liberals claim to welcome diversity. It's not difficult to welcome diversity if you assume that it can only enrich and if you think that people are essentially the same anyway.

What is it that liberals enthuse about when speaking of diversity? It isn't the fact of significant differences between people, sufficient to change the real character of a society, including some of its distinctive, finer points. Rather it's merely a change to the surface aesthetics of a society: its colour, bustle, taste and accent.

It's not easy for liberals to accept that they might be wrong on these secondary points. If liberals are wrong about the effects of diversity, then it means that the underlying principles of liberalism are, at the very least, impractical. And liberals seem to prefer hope to doubt when it comes to their own first principles.

1 comment:

  1. "What is it that liberals enthuse about when speaking of diversity? It isn't the fact of significant differences between people, sufficient to change the real character of a society, including some of its distinctive, finer points. Rather it's merely a change to the surface aesthetics of a society: its colour, bustle, taste and accent."

    Exactly, left liberals don't actually belief in mulitculturalism in a deep sense, so they don't have much to lose by promoting it. Multiculturalism to liberals is merely about different ways of cultural expression - that's probably why people like musicians, actors and writers are so keen on promoting it.

    By contrast, conservatives see multiculturalism as a high stakes business with potentially profound consequences in terms of important socio-economic issues like crime, corruption, living standards and mental health.

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