Understanding liberalism

The Economist recently published an article on liberalism and how it has evolved over time.

They explain how liberalism started as a small government movement, focusing on free trade and economic freedoms, but eventually started to include advocacy for public goods such as free education and healthcare, as well as social freedoms. The inclusion of these things, which necessarily meant an increase in taxation and the size of government, was explained by The Economist as an attempt to mitigate the harsher effects of the free market and to protect “liberal” societies from the extremes of communism and fascism. In this explanation, the “left wing” aspects of liberalism are some sort of compromise with its core vision of economic freedom. However, that doesn’t fit very well with our understanding of liberalism today.

In the United States and Canada, a “Liberal” essentially means someone who supports left wing economic policies (i.e. high taxation, spending and wealth transfer), but also someone who supports extensive social freedoms (gay marriage, minority rights, etc). US “Liberal” economic policies are the children of Keynes and Marx.

In mainland Europe and Australia, a Liberal most often refers to economic freedoms, and so refers to people who prefer smaller governments and less wealth transfer, and a greater role for markets and free enterprise.

In the UK, the “Liberals” are a centrist sort of party, wedged in between the trade union, working class roots Labour party, and the small-government, pro-business Conservative party. In Japan, the “Liberal Democratic Party” is a “right-wing conservative party” formed to oppose the Japan Socialist Party after the war. Its policies are economically “liberal” in some senses (privatisation of state owned enterprises, liberalisation of the economy), but illiberal in others (favouring agricultural protectionism and subsidies). Socially, the party is illiberal (opposing same-sex marriage).

How did such a divergent set of political come to be encapsulated in a single word?


A better way to understand liberalism

Liberalism can perhaps be better understood as a political belief in the sanctity of the individual. It is a political doctrine that seeks to protect individuals from the power of groups. What exactly does it seek to protect? It seeks to protect individual freedoms. The political framework we’re using here breaks those freedoms into two categories: economic and social. Economic freedom is the right to the fruits of your own labour, while social freedoms are the absence of restrictions on behaviour that doesn’t impose costs on others.

I think that the freedoms that liberalism seeks to establish are pretty well known and understood. However a much less frequently discussed question is: protection from whom? The usual answer to this is “the group” or “the collective”, but in order to understand the diverse meanings of liberalism today it is useful to define two groups: the state and the family.


The State and the Family

I have picked these groups out of the large number of groups to which we all belong because not only are they the two main groups which liberalism is concerned with, they are also two groups which are in constant competition with one another for the loyalty of the individual. This last statement will take some explaining.

An effective (and therefore, strong) state requires public servants who are capable of placing the wider public interest ahead of personal or family interests. Strong kin loyalty undermines the state through corruption and nepotism, and throughout history successful states (and institutions) are those which have managed to overcome the agent problem posed by their servants. It’s important to note that the root of the agent problem isn’t individual greed or selfishness. It’s family loyalty. Putting one’s children (and other kin) above strangers. It’s such a natural instinct that in most circumstances, we would judge someone to be contemptible if they didn’t put their children’s interests first.  However an effective state needs its servants to do this. Some examples of the State recognizing that family and in particular, children, being at the heart of the agent problem are:

  • the introduction of celibacy by the catholic church
  • the Jainissaries and Mamluks (slaves classes abducted from foreign lands as children who became powerful a administrative and military class – a status which was initially non-hereditary. Indeed, the Jainissaries were even banned from marrying)
  • the concept of the eunuch administrator (perhaps the most effective way of preventing children)

Conversely, a weak state favours the emergence of strong family units – indeed, they make them necessary. In developing countries, the complete absence of state provided welfare makes one’s extended family vital for surviving an economic setback. Families are larger and closer-knit than in countries with a generous state social safety net. In developing countries, one’s loyalty is first and foremost to the institution which will look after you in bad times: family. In practice, this translates to a society of lots of small family run businesses, a large informal sector, a weak state and an unproductive corporate sector, both of which struggle to overcome agent problems such as embezzlement, patronage and nepotism. It leads to the situation where family units (e.g. the Mafia in Southern Italy) becomes a parallel justice and security system.

It is only when citizens start to put the “wider public” interest (i.e. the state interest) ahead of personal and family interests, that states start to become effective and strong. And the corollary is that state strength, to the extent that it can provide for the individual, necessarily reduces the power families hold over the individual.

(Note that these broad generalisations do not mean there are no people in developing countries who manage to uphold the wider public interest, or that there are no people in developed countries who fail to. Of course, there is a spectrum of behaviours in both. The generalisations are about the centres of those behavioural distributions, and about the set of incentives faced by people in the different societies).


Inventing the individual

There was once a time when the state-family divide didn’t exist: when we were wandering around hunting and gathering. The “state” was the family. In this world, liberalism did not exist and could not exist, because the concept of the individual didn’t exist.

In a tribal society, an individual owns virtually nothing, because there are no means to store and secure wealth and moreover, no agreement from the wider group that anyone should be able to do this. Pooling of virtually all resources is expected and is the basis of survival and kinship. The development of agriculture and ability to store food between harvests radically changed the possibilities for resource accumulation, as compared with nomadic societies. Agricultural surpluses made possible economic specialisation, large settlements and inequality. Towns (and cities) changed the dynamic of human relations. No longer were people confined to mix with the 70 odd people – mostly kin – they had known since birth. Economic relationships could now be established with non-kin, not on a reciprocal altruism or pooled resource basis, but on a purely transactional basis. Resources could buy independence from one’s clan. And the possibility of independence from the clan (and from parental and patriarchal authority) set the scene from the invention of the individual.

From these early beginnings, there is a long story about the tumultuous establishment of the concept of the individual. Along the way, the following milestones were passed: women came to be regarded as something other than chattel, as fully autonomous people, equal to men in spirit, soul and intellect, if not strength. Slavery was held to be abhorrent – a crime against the natural, freeborn state of man. Murder was no longer a simple matter of damaging some other tribe’s property, but an affront against everyone, which had to be punished and could not simply be compensated with cash, camels or pigs. Today, we tend to think of Old Testament injunctions like “an eye for an eye” as fairly backward, but at the time this punishment was a liberal departure from the legal tradition. An eye for an eye insisted that all criminals, regardless of social status, had to be treated the same, and it insisted that the rich could not simply pay “blood money” and avoid punishment. This new moral code was part of the recognition that all individuals were God’s creations, with whom God had an individual relationship, and who had some intrinsic, sacred value.  The Reformation can also be understood in the light of the fight for the individual – it was a claim for each individual to have direct, unintermediated access to God in his or her own native tongue.

Those of us who grew up in the West take our wide range of individual liberties and rights for granted – indeed, we consider them natural rights. However we should remember the biological reality of our individuality is in constant tension with another biological reality: that we are physically derived from our parents – we were once (literally) part of their bodies. Also, the vast majority of genes which built our bodies (and determines most aspects of who we are) is also present in everyone around us. From the gene’s perspective, you and I are just two out of the billions of bags of meat strolling around looking for ways to make more of that gene, two wagers in a race where the gene has placed a billion bets. We have as much individuality as a grain of sand on a beach. We are also socially interconnected with others – humans cannot mature individually. We can only grow to productive and reproductive age if we are nurtured by others. Not only are we by nature social creatures, we also depend heavily on others just to exist.


Limits of individuality and the basis of anti-liberalism

The biological and social reality of our interconnectedness with other humans is part of the basis of the claims others make on both our resources and behaviour.

Behavioural claims are justified on a wide range of grounds: God, nature, authority, sanctity, purity, social harmony.

These are not behavioural claims about preventing theft or violence, or other costs you might impose on others. These are behavioural claims about controlling your interactions with other people, particularly non-kin and people from other tribes, but also about what you say. The anti-liberal people we think of as “conservatives” tend to hold strong claims around marriage, sex, contraception, and mixing and collaborating with foreigners and non-kin (e.g. migration, foreign aid efforts to stem climate change, which necessitate wealth or advantage transfer to foreigners). However anti-liberal “progressives” also (increasingly) make behavioural claims around what you’re allowed to say or write, and what you’re allowed to wear or even eat (cultural appropriation, veganism, etc), rather than just the resource claims that the left typically make.

Resource claims are justified on concepts of fairness, justice, equal opportunity, human rights, shared effort and collective ownership of individuals (e.g. “you didn’t build it on your own” – Obama’s (in)famous assertion that generated such fury among Republicans), and social harmony.

The common thread through both behavioural and resource claims is a denial of absolute individuality, which of course partly reflects biological reality. These claims are a recognition of the fact that we do not exist in isolation, and our well being depends on the way we interact with others. As such, others have considerable claims over us. The idea of an action which doesn’t affect others makes little sense in this highly interconnected and interwoven view – a communal view.

Liberalism doesn’t necessarily deny the interconnectedness, but it places more importance on individual freedom and agency. Liberalism tries to establish and protect a space for the individual, separated from the group. It makes a radical and relatively modern claim: it’s my life.

Anti-liberals oppose this view – the group always takes precedence over the individual.


From one individual to many liberalisms

From this single reference point for liberalism – protecting the concept of the individual – we can more easily see how liberalism comes to translate to a diversity of political beliefs.

Individuality plays out on various stages in life. In terms of our political axes, it plays out economically, and socially. Part of being autonomous means being able to lay claim to the fruits of your labour – anything less is a form of partial slavery, a point made by libertarians like Ayn Rand. Another part of being autonomous is being able to choose one’s partner, or partners, and to have full control over one’s reproductive organs. The latter mainly concerns women, of course, as they bear virtually all of the costs of reproducing. And so, efforts to control reproduction have had to focus on controlling women – they are the ones who make the physical investment. It’s interesting to speculate what life would be like if a substantial effort or investment were required from men in order to reproduce. My guess is that we would live in a very different world, one in which male behaviour was strictly controlled and circumscribed.

So where do the threats to individual autonomy come from? Who is “the group”?

The State and the Family are the two (broad) groups which compete for the loyalty of the individual, and in return, each group offers protection to the individual against other groups (families, tribes, the State or other States).

In the early days of liberalism, the authority of the family over the individual was well established. Liberal efforts were largely about securing economic freedoms – if not necessarily for individuals within families (e.g. women or children), then at least for the heads of households (i.e. men) – which in effect meant liberating men from the suffocating grip of authority, which held them in various forms of servitude. Slavery, feudalism, serfdom, indentured labour, guilds, monopolies, oligopolies and collusion, tariffs, exclusive charters, restrictions on where one could live, one’s profession, etc, were all examples of economic extortion, rents and expropriation, inflicted on behalf of the powerful, by the State, on the weak. These protection rackets continue to proliferate, particularly in the developing world.

Economic liberalism stems from efforts to protect individuals from the predations of the State, which in effect made it a defence of the weak against the powerful.

As these liberties were secured, more attention was then paid to the other group oppressing individual autonomy: the family. As economic restrictions on the scope for individuals were removed, it became apparent that the scope of freedom for every individual (in particular, women and children) was constrained by their family circumstances. Removing the nation-wide restrictions for entry to a profession mattered little if one’s father forbade one from entering it. Allowing women to attend school counts for little for the girl whose parents are too poor (or choose not) to send her.

And so a second front opened for liberal action, which was determined to increase the scope for individual autonomy and self-fulfilment by liberating them from their family circumstances.

This second front was to some extent at odds with the initial economic freedom objectives of liberalism, because the liberation of individuals from families requires action from the State. It requires the State to pay for your education or healthcare if your parents can’t, or won’t. It also requires the State to protect you from family violence and authority.

This is an important point. The “left wing” elements of liberalism, which involve resource transfers and therefore, a larger state, are not some sort of fudge to take the edges off the harshness of economic liberalism, as proposed by The Economist. They are part of the same overall project, even if they are in tension with economic liberalism. They are part of an inherent contradiction in liberalism.

In the West, we have constructed States which offer considerable protection for individual autonomy from family circumstances. The State will not only pay for your education, they will compel your family to educate you. It will not only pay for your healthcare, it will remove you from your family if they deny you access to that healthcare. The State will (attempt to) prevent your family from physically abusing you, starving you, raping you, or cutting your genitals (if you’re female anyway). In fact, some western states go extraordinarily far in their effort to secure individual autonomy from family. If you want to leave home as an adult, perhaps to escape family conflict or authority, the States may (in effect pay) for you to do this, regardless of whether you can support yourself or not.

Again, this is consistent with liberalism. Liberalism is about securing the possibility of individual agency. Again, it’s a defence of the weak (children, women) against the powerful (their parents, men).


The limits of liberalism

Now it is possible to see how as the scope of liberalism (and individual freedom) widened, liberalism may have reached its limits. Rather like a balloon that is no longer being inflated, in order to increase freedom in some part of the balloon, we need to squeeze it in another. Widening access to higher education might mean higher taxes, and less economic freedom. Economic freedom in some western countries (e.g. in western Europe) is heavily burdened by the expansion of individual freedom in terms of public education, healthcare, and unemployment benefits. This ends up reducing opportunities for employment and self-actualisation through work, earning and self-reliance. On the other hand, in other countries (e.g. the US), the balance is tilted more to economic freedoms, but at the expense of a higher dependence of family circumstance, which reduces social mobility, increases precarity and vulnerability to employer exploitation.

Understanding liberalism through the lens of establishing and protecting individual agency and autonomy can explain how the word is now applied to a wide range of political beliefs. Underlying these beliefs is the same goal, but the multiple facets of individual freedom mean that after a certain point, liberalism is – in effect – in tension with itself. This is the point western societies have reached, and so we should understand (genuine) debates about liberalism as often being about trade-offs.

Until liberals understand the underlying philosophy of liberalism, and its resultant internal tensions, we will be unable to present a coherent response to the anti-liberals.