Saturday, 24 November 2007

What I believe in a (slightly spooky) nutshell

Sometimes I struggle to explain why I am a liberal and what it is all about.

That might sound crazy, but the conversation almost always either gets lost in blue-skies philosophical maxims ("the greatest amount of individual freedom possible that does not constrain the freedom of others"), or else becomes bogged down in specifics (school choice; welfare reform). I guess the fact that I'm usually in a pub does not help, but the simple explanation has always failed me.

Thanks to Rob Knight (who takes his lead from The Devil - read into that what you will!) I am remineded that at the heart of liberalism is self-ownership: "I own my life and all that results from it. Therefore nobody may take my life or its product from me, nor impose their will upon me; neither may I do so to others." Tristan Mills mentioned this six months ago, but it seems it takes a cartoon to help me remember.

This 8 minute Flash film sums it up brilliantly. Sadly, it is also slightly spooky: as I commented to Rob,
"I agree with everything they say, but I do feel like a 6 year old in Brave New
World, getting my latest lesson in how to be a constructive citizen. Pass me the
Soma!"
Still, it's a good basic introduction to the premis of liberalism. Having explained the bases, it should be easier to move on to the specifics without assuming I'm mean, selfish or a Tory.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Argh! You're now the third person I've seen in as many days taking that flash video seriously. The flash is an excellent introduction to something, but that something is libertarianism, not liberalism.

"I own my life and all that results from it. Therefore nobody may take my life or its product from me, nor impose their will upon me; neither may I do so to others."

Well, let's examine what is meant by 'product' first. The flash works off the Lockean idea that from the 'mixing of my labour with the land' I create things to which I have natural property rights. I also, you might notice need to own the land. Or rather, we might go one of two ways on the matter: either by mixing my labour with the land and making 'product' to which I have an inalienable right I must also own the land, in which case there must be natural rights to land and property ownership OR I do not need to own the land but have a natural right to the product of my labour anyway which in most capitalist systems I am not taken to because the person who owns the land (whether naturally or not) is taken to have prior claim to the product of it. This is where Marx's notion of alienation comes in: I am alienated from the product of my labour to which I have a natural right under capitalism.

Depending on what way you go here you either have natural property rights (bad - rules out mandatory redistributive taxation) or you have alienation (also bad, rules out capitalism). A more liberal approach would be to understand both property rights and the right of ownership of the products of one's labour as consequences of the political system and as such just in so far as they are compatible with fairness.

"Nor impose their will upon me; neither may I do so to others."

Rot. I impose my will on others all the time. Why may you not kill me, because it is my will that you do not. As a result there are institutions of punishment to try to coerce you out of the mindset of wanton killing should you venture into it. All laws are restrictions on the will and (usually) all laws originate as a result of the will of those outside the agent themselves. The liberal way to explain the balance is usually to talk about maximising the freedom one has to live ones life in so far as this freedom is not imcompatible with that of others. In other words, there's an equilibrium game going on, where we're trying to find the optimum balance of freedom; which liberalism understands as an end in itself. Unlike socialism which sees material equality as being the end in itself, or social conservatism (conservatism isn't really a political philosophy) which seeks to maximize a particular conception of 'good conduct' with its legislation.

A similar equilibrium can be set up for redistributive justice, whereby we say that the reason for redistributive taxation is to ensure that no one is worse off for being in society than they would be if they weren't (no one is force to adhere to the system of rules etc which make up the polity if by doing so they end up in a position worse off than if they didn't - this is easily achievable given economics (since Smith) has been recognised to be a non-zero sum game. The rich and talented achieve their freedom from the violent reprisals of those who are not, the poor and talentless achieve some redistribution of wealth from the rich.

Given neither labour or the tories have a coherent philosophical background for their policy making, it would be nice if the lib dems understood their own and stopped relying on flash animations made by Nozickians.

Kit said...

Argh! Dear anonymous,

Just because some pesky socialists have tried to redefine "liberal" to mean the exact opposite does not mean we all have to use that definition.

Tom,
Would you agree with the phrase "taxation is theft"?

Tom Papworth said...

Anonymous,

I'm not going to quibble with you about semantics. I consider this to be liberalism because it is based upon individual freedom. If you want to label it something else go ahead; I'm interested in effects, not labels.

"I own my life and all that results from it..."

I have no problem with land ownership, and as Hernando de Soto has demonstrated, it is property rights that separate the rich nations from the poor. I have been to several countries where people are not allowed to own title to the land on which they live; they consequently live in shanties and are unable to leverage the wealth to generate capital with which to better themselves.

There is a risk of "alienation" if one makes these rights absolute, but of course that would then infringe on the liberty of others (freedom of movement etc.). This can be solved by society by conveying a form of property rights (say, long leases/"freehold") and taxing the value of the land (but not the improvements). Thus the unearned wealth is redistributed to society while the individual keeps the product of their labour and has security against which to borrow.

You say that this is bad becuase it rules out "mandatory redistributive taxation" but you fail to establish why. Personally, I can see no automatic merit is "mandatory redistributive taxation"; it is just an excuse for people who wish to help other people to do so with the money of third parties. There is justificaiton for taxing for public goods, but I believe the entire system of lump sum transfers between segments of society is problematic (as well as being a cess-pit of corruption on a grand scale, as parliamentary parties lard their supporting demographic groups at the expense of less supportive groups - e.g. Tories taxing workers to subsidise farmers; Labour taxing workers to "compensate" miners).

"Nor impose their will upon me..."



The argument that "you not kill me, because it is my will that you do not" is Reductio ad absurdum, and therefore sophistry. What that leads to is not liberalism, nor libertarianism, but anarchy. Every liberal recognises that freedom must be limited at the point at which freedoms clash: as I noted in my text, liberalsim seeks "the greatest amount of individual freedom possible that does not constrain the freedom of others". That is covered by the part of the film that talks of asking others to help defend one's freedoms - which we do through the medium of the state.



Your suggestion that "the reason for redistributive taxation is to ensure that no one is worse off for being in society than they would be if they weren't" fails to explain why redistributive taxation always goes way beyond that proscription. As people living outside society would be condemned to living as hunter gathers (or at the very best, subsistance farmers) and having to defiend their lives and livlihoods, everybody is better off in society. Even the poorest in society have food water, clothing, shelter and warmth (with the exception of a tiny margin such as the mentally ill, for whom the state should certainly step in as a provider of last resort).



Your last sentence ("The rich and talented achieve their freedom from the violent reprisals of those who are not, the poor and talentless achieve some redistribution of wealth from the rich.") makes absolutely no sense to me so I cannot even begin to address it.



Anyway, I'm happy with the flash video. I think it's a place form which to start; no more. As most of the people with whom I discuss these issues in the pub have not had time to scour the Liberalism section of the library it is nice to be able to get past first principles as quickly as possible. And it works, too. See what an interesting debate we're having!

Tom Papworth said...

Kit,

As the above should make clear, the answer to your question is "No."

I believe all taxation can be theft, and I believe some taxation is theft, but I also believe that there is a place for taxation to
* redistribute unearned income (from monopolising land, for example, or bandwith)
*finance public goods (I have no time for free-riders), and
*to support those who are unable to support themselves (but not those who are unwilling).

I also believe that society is wise to ensure that nobody is so badly off that they have more to gain by overthrowing society than by maintaining it (the mistake the Tsars made, among others). I do not agree with the current policy that that minimum level includes ownership of a television.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:17, libertarianism is just the label American (classical) liberals adopted after American socialists had stolen the word liberalism. If you rather identify yourself with the American "liberals", in European terms you are actually a socialist.

Tom Papworth said...

Anonymous the Second,

Indeed. A point that was explained by Hayek.

(Who? Never heard of him!)

Tristan said...

I'd say all taxation is theft, it is taken under threat of incarceration.

However, it could be argued that some of that theft is morally justified.