The problem with liberalism

1:00 pm - December 13th 2007

by Duncan Stephen    

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What do you think the word ‘liberal’ means?

Perhaps if you are American, you are thinking of what Europeans call social democrats. Maybe some Europeans think of it as some kind of wishy-washy centrism that can’t decide between left and right. In certain countries it may have something to do with a pro-business approach. If you’re Australian it probably means the same as conservative.

A pre-condition of liberalism might be the existence of free markets. Or maybe liberalism is to do with equality of some kind or another. Animal rights? Environmentalism? [insert trendy cause here]? Smith, Mill or Kant? Etc, etc. It seems to me that the word ‘liberal’ is about as useful as words like ‘that’ and ‘thingy’.

As such, it wasn’t really a surprise that Liberal Conspiracy provoked some debate about the nature of liberalism when it was launched a month or so back. “My liberalism is more liberal than yours” and that type of thing.

I would agree that, looking at the list of contributors, ‘Socialist Conspiracy’ might have been a more apt title. For instance, Jonathan Calder noted the lack of Liberal Democrats involved.

It looks like a conspiracy against Liberals.

In fairness, apart from the title (which I actually find quite amusing — it makes a good point), the site is describing itself as liberal-left rather than just liberal. Fair enough I guess, although I always thought that people describing themselves as ‘liberal-left’ were really just socialists trying to duck jibes about the Judean People’s Front. Even the design of the website looks rather more socialist than liberal. The dark maroon colour scheme, Impact font and spatter marks make it look like some kind of SWP-affiliated website.

Anyway, liberalism. The thing that vexes me about this is the fact that — you guessed it — I describe myself as a liberal. This is mostly because I don’t know of a better term. (If you don’t know about my political views, take a look at my position on the political compass.)

When I describe myself as a liberal that means I am talking about limited government. It can’t be no government. Liberalism can’t be the same as anarchism. The question becomes “how big can a government acceptably be?” And even the most hardcore libertarians (as in the free market kind, lest there be any confusion) see the need for a government in order to protect property rights and prevent force and fraud.

A liberal (excuse the pun) interpretation of that could still leave quite a wide scope for government intervention. It might not be too controversial, for instance, for a government to step in when an activity causes a clear and unambiguous negative externality.

The classic example of a negative externality is pollution. A factory may dump pollution into a river that runs into land owned by another person. The government is duty bound to protect this property, so it would have to step in. Incidentally, I don’t think this approach is too far removed from Mill’s “harm principle”.

Liberalism “doctorvee style” goes a bit further than this. This is why you would tend not to find me using the word ‘libertarian’ to describe my political views. In my view, the government should also step in to prevent certain kinds of market failure. For instance, public goods will be under-supplied by the market.

I find it difficult to imagine how, for instance, street lights would be paid for in a strictly free market system. I can be a (critical) supporter of the BBC and still describe myself as a liberal without flinching because the BBC is a non-rival, non-excludable public good.

But for me, the bottom line is to be suspicious of any extension of government power, and to resist it unless there is overwhelming evidence of the need for it. If you take civil liberties and economic efficiency seriously, there can be no other way. History tells us to treat governments with contempt. When did you ever hear of a riot happening because the government was too small?

Given that most left-wing solutions to any problem usually involve a liberal (sorry) dose of extra government intervention, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Liberal Conspiracy found itself at the receiving end of some jibes about the term ‘liberal-left’ being an oxymoron. I think this is a tad unfair. It is possible to be left-wing / collectivist and anti-government at the same time (all I can say is, good luck solving the free rider problem).

However, it is not difficult to find instances of the Liberal Conspiracy being distinctly illiberal. One of the first posts on the blog was defending the government’s idea of forcibly keeping children in education until the age of 18. Not only that, but the writer, Mike Ion, said:

I struggle to understand why anyone on the Left of British politics could oppose Gordon Brown’s moves

It’s quite funny how I decided that my version of liberalism should keep the ‘liberal’ name. Has anybody got any better ideas? For what it’s worth, I think the ‘liberal-left’ should just drop the pretence and call themselves socialists.

As for the (free market) libertarians? David Farrer grappled with this a few weeks back, and lamented the fact that both the ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ tags have been stolen by leftists. I like his suggestion of using the unstealable “Real Fascist Bastard” tag.

But perhaps they could take inspiration from one of Hayek’s favoured terms. How about calling themselves catallactists? It would be a bit difficult for a socialist to use that one with a straight face!

This is a guest post. Duncan Stephen, aka DoctorVee, blogs here.

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Reader comments

Liberalism is a contested term – with a history further back beyond Mill, and since Rawls. I don’t see what the problem is.

The ‘no true liberal…’ brigade just need to get over themselves.

Socialism is a (slightly) less contested term. I doubt you’d find many contributors here happy to call themselves that.

I started off worrying that Liberal Conspiracy wasn’t liberal enough, but it seems to have got a lot better 🙂

Liberalism: philosophy, not a philosophy.

As for the (free market) libertarians?

How about “classical liberals”.

“Left classical liberal” would probably be too much of a mouthful to catch on.

And here we are all fighting over which label to apply to ourselves, all because we live in the age of the soundbite.

FWIW I call myself Millian Liberal. And then nobody gets me confused with the pro-censorship idiots that call themselves Liberals on my local council.

Quite, how hard is it to just call yourself what you see yourself as and correct people if they get the wrong end of the stick? 😉

This political naming business causes endless confusion.We’re all Humpty Dumptyists to some extent – we use words to mean what we choose them to mean.

For me, liberalism means that governments are – or should be – the servants of the people, and not the other way round.

8. douglas clark


Just guessing here, but don’t you mean The Red Queen? What the hell, you use words any way you want!

No, it was Humpty Dumpty.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

The best definition I’ve heard of a liberal, and the only one under which would class myself as such is “A tory without his kicking boots on”. There’s no automatic connection between liberal and left, the left have just hijacked liberalism to make themselves sound more acceptable. Very few “liberal lefties” are anything other than wannabe stalinist authoritarians

The problem with the free rider problem is the assumption that everyone is pursuing maximum material advantage at any one time for minimum effort, which just isn’t the case. Rational choice theorising is highly reductive and offers very little assistance when coming to understand the process and persistence of collective mobilisations.

As for liberalism, I have to say the title of this blog gave me pause before I added it to my main blogroll, which is reserved for socialists. The inclusion of Dave Osler on the contributor’s list just clinched it. For me, liberalism, outside of core ideas of small state, political liberty, and market capitalism, means being all things to all people. It allows one to occasionally appear radical without having to upset the status quo.

Just my two pennies.

For me, liberalism, outside of core ideas of small state, political liberty, and market capitalism, means being all things to all people. It allows one to occasionally appear radical without having to upset the status quo.

I agree with that. It used to be radical… now it seems to be in a state of confusion over what it means rather than where we should go…

Re: Sunny #13

It’s not just confusion. At heart the average liberal (as opposed to lib-dem) in this country is just another of Thatcher’s children and will cheerfully vote for all sorts of things they claim to oppose when it is under the aegis of a Tory government.

As Matt Murno said they are “Tories without their kicking boots on” but that doesn’t mean they ever get around to standing up to Tories who have their kicking boots on.

As such, it’s hard to see why they’d be interested in political co-operation with a “liberal-left”.

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