Thursday, 10 September 2015
By Nigel Dower
The following essay forms part of the book “Unlocking Liberalism”, edited by Robert Brown, Gillian Gloyer and Nigel Lindsay. The author has kindly given permission for the Social Liberal Forum to reproduce it here.
In the chapter I defend a version of liberalism which is similar to the ‘new liberalism’ of the early twentieth century of T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse, sometimes called social liberalism, liberal socialism or welfare liberalism. It also owes a lot to the ideas of two more modern ‘liberal’ thinkers, namely John Rawls and Amartya Sen. As such it is in broad contrast to the old or classical liberalism of the 19th Century which stressed laissez faire and the minimal state, and also to a modern influential version of liberalism called libertarianism or neo-liberalism which in some respects harks back to the earlier classical liberalism. The guiding question for me is: what makes liberty valuable? The answer put simply is that whilst it is good to have liberty in the sense of not being prevented from doing certain things, what makes it really valuable is one being able to exercise one’s liberty or exercise it properly; that is, it is in large measure valuable if the conditions are in place for the effective exercise of liberty. For instance, it is one thing to have free speech (e.g. there is no law preventing one from speaking one’s mind), it is another to be able to exercise it articulately because one has had a reasonable education. It is one thing to be free to pursue whatever hobbies one wants to (e.g. public opinion or social conventions do not make it difficult), it is another to have sufficient resources to be able to pursue interesting hobbies. For these conditions to exist for everyone in society, many things need to be in place – certain political and legal institutions, the provision of education, access to health care and various forms of social protection. For these to be in place there needs to a general commitment to social justice. Furthermore, in the modern world, if this conception of liberalism is accepted, it has serious implications for any society in the rest of the world and also to future generations who will need the conditions of liberty in place for them too. The idea of liberalism as ‘social liberalism’ does not strictly entail it, but in fact, I shall argue later in the chapter, liberalism needs to be cosmopolitan and committed to sustainability.
What follows is largely a personal exploration of what liberalism means to me today: it does not pretend to be an authoritative analysis of what diffferent liberals today may say, let alone map onto actual Libdem policies.