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A case for Liberalism

Updated: Apr 30

Conservative or Socialist? Right Wing or Left Wing? It may be that other options are available. I'd like to make a case for Liberalism. I could make a case based on policies - opposition to war in Iraq, extra penny on income tax for education, plastic bag charges, or the desire for closer links with Europe - but I want to look at the Philosophy behind this idea. So using Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, I want to suggest that liberalism values liberty (in two senses of the word) as well as fairness and equality.

Balancing two types of Liberty

Liberals as the name suggests are keen on Liberty. Yet the word liberty is understood in different ways. The Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that there are two types of Liberty. In the English speaking world, we have tended to focus on negative liberty - that I am free from coercion. This means you are not going to make lots of laws to force me to behave in a certain way. I have the right to smoke, to drink, to worship or not, to choose who I vote for, to dress how how like etc. It is this understanding of liberty 'being free from...' that liberalism to some extent shares with the Conservative.

However this isn't the only possibly understanding of freedom. Imagine Bob the slob. Bob is free to sit watching trashy TV, eating chips and drinking lager every day in his underwear. In one sense (negative liberty) Bob is free but in another sense he is not. We might think that there is so much more that Bob could enjoy and become in life. In continental Philosophy, the idea of positive liberty addresses this. It considers what are we 'free to be and do...' Hence people can be through education and encouragement better versions of themselves and be free to live better lives. It is this understanding of Liberty that liberalism to some extent shares with socialism

Berlin's essay recognises that the two understandings of liberty are always to some extent in tension. Focus purely on the negative version and society could become quite anarchic, we do actually need some constraints! Focus purely on the positive and we are in danger of trying to shape people in ways that they may not want to be shaped - extreme left wing politics may at times be guilty of this

Negative Liberty and Mill's non-harm principle

One way of figuring out the boundaries of negative liberty comes from John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political and moral philosopher, who was a liberal MP for 5 years. Mill suggests that a government should allow as much freedom as possible, only making laws for situations where I might harm others with my actions. So I am free to live how I wish, I should have free speech and expression and the right to associate with whoever I wish. For a liberal, a law only needs to be made if someone is going to be harmed by my actions - so we need a law against assaulting people but not against extreme sports where any injury is my own!

This principle is more important than ever in our postmodern world. Mill argues that we need people living in different ways so that we learn more about what does or doesn't work. No one has the authoritative answers. Mill argues for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts - no one else is harmed by these - even if some people disapprove. This principle of liberty and minimal government intervention is key to liberalism

Positive Liberty and the Rawls-Nozick Debate

Whilst we may be free from government interference due to the minimal state that Mill suggests, there will be a limited amount of positive freedoms we will enjoy if we are born into the wrong circumstances. The American Political Philosopher John Rawls in his famous debate with the Conservative Robert Nozick argues that government also needs to intervene to address some of life's natural injustices. Rawls and Nozick famously debate the salary of Wilt Chamberlain - one of America's leading basketball players. Nozick's position is that Chamberlain through his talent has earned his fabulous wealth and it is wrong to take what is his - through increased tax - to give it to others. For Nozick, fairness is about keeping what is rightfully yours. Rawls does not accept this; he argues that the government is right to tax people like Chamberlain at a higher rate so help reduce disadvantage, he calls this equality of opportunity. There are likely to be people who through no fault of their own are unable to get as far as they could in life and it is right that they get help. Liberalism sides with Rawls in suggesting we should take action on the grounds of fairness and equality.

The veil of Ignorance - fairness and equality

To develop his ideas, Rawls devises a famous thought experiment. He asks us to imagine that we are all about to be born but we don't know what situation we will be born into: we may be male, female, black, white, rich, poor, disabled, gay, straight etc. If we didn't know what our situation in life was going to be, what 'rules' would be want in place.

Rawls suggests that firstly, we would want a system of basic rights and welfare to ensure that no one was discriminated against and no one starved. Secondly, you would want the opportunity to get as you as you could based on your talent, but not everyone has the same opportunity in life - so you would from behind the veil of ignorance accept the principle of asking the well off to pay a little more to support the disadvantaged to give them equality of opportunity.

So the Liberal is committed to Liberty in both senses. You should be free to live as you wish provided you don't harm anyone else; but there is a wider social responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves to bring about equality and fairness.

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