In 2009 the two men wrote a piece for Demos titled The Liberal Republic. It is a restatement of basic liberal philosophy. Here is how it begins:
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, rather than a perfect shape to be carved by the elite, out of the crooked timber of humanity.
Liberals demand that people be permitted the space to construct their own life; republicans insist that power be held in people's hands. A republican liberal prospectus recognises that a self-authored life requires both independence and individual capability. But it is founded on the conviction that people are in charge of their own wellbeing. By contrast, conservatives on left and right prefer power to be exercised by institutions, rather than people. They fear that, in the end, people do not know what is good for them.
That's very orthodox. The "animating ideal" is that of autonomy: individuals, it is claimed, should have the power to live self-determining and self-authored lives. What matters is the self-determination, not what individuals happen to choose. Part of the justification for this is that only individuals know what is best for them.
But does liberalism really end up, in practice, looking like this?
The answer is largely no. For instance, Reeves and Collins seem to imagine that liberalism will make people more capable and independent. So far, though, it has done the opposite: it has made a larger number of people dependent on state welfare and it has dissolved the moral beliefs and standards which once encouraged people to make the kind of life choices which would leave them "capable and independent".
And just stating it this way makes clear what the problem is. If you tell people that there are no right choices, but only the goal of making your own choices no matter what they are, then how can a society hold to the standards which once encouraged the more sustainable kind of life choices? How, for instance, do you maintain a culture of family life through which women can be supported to raise a family without state welfare? How do you support a culture of masculinity which encourages the stronger and more resilient qualities in men?
Second, liberals do end up telling people how to live their lives. It's interesting, for instance, that Reeves was a policy director for Nick Clegg until 2012. Nick Clegg is the political leader who has called the traditional family "absurd"; who wants men and women to be "liberated" from their traditional identities; and who wants "international governance" to replace that of the national state. Those are three radically intrusive interventions into people's lives and hardly neutral.
So why does this contradiction come about? The problem is that it is not neutral to choose autonomy as the "animating ideal" of society. That in itself is a value assertion - and, as it happens, it is a very radical value assertion. Therefore, liberals will be biased in how they want people to live and they will have to intervene radically in society to make their value the dominant one.
For instance, take Clegg's hostility to the traditional family. Clegg doesn't want people to be interdependent, he wants them to be independent. That means women must be independent of men. So instead of relying on a husband for financial support, a woman must instead fund herself through a career or be supported by state spending. Furthermore, if your ideal is a self-authored life, then motherhood, which is a traditional and "biologically predetermined" role won't seem as good as a uniquely chosen career path. And so the focus becomes the question of how to liberate women from a motherhood role, which then requires radical interventions into family life, into our identities as men and women, into levels of state subsidies for childcare and parental leave and so on.
Third, the liberal claim is that they are allowing people a greater opportunity to create their own version of the good life. If that were true, then the ordinary person would feel immense gratitude to the liberal politicians of the past 50 years. Instead, the ordinary person feels disempowered and cynical toward the political process.
One reason for this is that there is a built-in flaw in the liberal claim. If your ideal is that of a society in which millions of individuals are each pursuing their own version of the good life, then you have already greatly restricted the kind of life that individuals can lead. Since humans are created for a life together, within families and communities, the deepest ways that we express and fulfil ourselves require a social setting. But if your field of vision is limited to the self-determining individual pursuing his own independent course, then how do you get around to upholding the social settings which make the most important expressions of self possible?
What tends to happen is that liberals end up focusing on those aspects of life which can be chosen at a purely individual level. That might include travel, consumer choice and entertainment (i.e. lifestyle choices). Most of all, though, liberalism ends up being boiled down to "self-expression through a creative, influential and high status career." You need to be an academic, or a medical specialist, or a concert violinist, or an author, or a speechwriter to a prime minister or something like it to really live up to the liberal ideal.
That's one reason why the liberal ideal leaves many people with more ordinary jobs cold. It's difficult to fit such work into the liberal narrative, and so many people continue to attach importance to more traditional values, such as those of family, identity and community. Although liberalism has certainly had an influence over popular culture, it has mostly been an elite view that has been pushed in a top-down way onto society.
That's another reason why it jars to hear Reeves and Collins claim that liberalism is the populist position in contrast to a more conservative, elitist view. It is not conservatives who dominate the institutions; if anything, there is a flaw in the conservative understanding of politics which makes conservatives not take institutions seriously enough. It is liberals who have dominated the institutions and forced "elite" views onto the general populace.