My outlook is broadly liberal, socially and economically. I am passionate about individual freedom, think markets generally work well and believe that competition is usually a powerful force for good. But I am also convinced that governments need to intervene vigorously to make a reality of equality of opportunity and help the less fortunate.
This is a centrist (perhaps a centre-right) take on liberalism. Like other right liberals, he associates individual freedom with the market; like left-liberals, he looks to the state to intervene in society to create "equal freedom".
If you think this makes him a soft and cuddly kind of liberal, think again. He is enough of an intellectual to draw out the radical logic of liberalism.
I wrote recently that,
Liberalism recognises only the individual parts of society: millions of autonomous, choice making individuals ...
How does Philippe Legrain define society? He describes it as,
a framework of the aggregated individual choices made by others - "society"
He puts the word society in scare quotes to suggest its lack of real existence; all that really exists for him is the sum total of choices made by individuals.
The full quote is this:
Everyone is torn between the urge to do their own thing and the need to live with others: individual choice therefore exists largely within a framework of the individual choices made by others - "society".
If "society" is just the sum total of choices made by individuals, then society can be anything and everything:
In this context, ‘society’ can mean everything from a family to a group of friends, a workplace, a village, an urban neighbourhood, a national society that sets its own laws, or a global sense of humanity that aspires to common norms such as human rights.
Oh, but it can't be a traditional community, based on a particular people or place. Legrain follows liberal orthodoxy here too. The orthodox position is that individual autonomy is the supreme good; whatever we don't determine for ourselves is therefore a restriction from which the individual is to be liberated. We don't choose to be members of traditional communities but are (mostly) born into such traditions; therefore, thinks Legrain, they represent a coercive tyranny and should be replaced by new chosen communities:
Misplaced nostalgia for the erosion of the coerced local communities of old – the flipside of which is liberation from the tyranny of geography, social immobility and the straitjacket of imposed national uniformity – should not blind us to the richness and vibrancy of the new chosen communities, be they groups of friends from different backgrounds, multinational workplaces, environmental campaigns that span the globe, or online networks of people with a common interest. Solidarity is alive and well when British volunteer doctors treat AIDS sufferers in Africa, when friends take over many of the roles that family members once performed (or failed to perform), and when the membership of pressure groups never ceases to rise.
What Legrain is really arguing here is that the older national communities, such as the French, the English, the Dutch and so on, are coercive tyrannies from which people should be liberated and replaced by newer, superior, voluntary communities such as "groups of friends from different backgrounds", multinational workplaces, pressure groups or environmental campaigns.
We are to be "liberated" from our nationality, and perhaps even from our biological family (which is also unchosen after all), and instead experience the richness and vibrancy of belonging to "groups of friends from different backgrounds" or "online networks of people with a common interest".
Can you really be liberated to something more trivial?