Economic Liberals Shouldn’t Have to Keep Justifying Their Membership

Earlier this week, there was a furore over the departure over a prominent young classical liberal and member of the Lamb4Leader campaign, Darren Grimes. He wrote a short post on the site Medium, in which he cited the European Union, the refugee crisis, and the ‘social democratic undertones’ of the party as his reasons for leaving. Given his strong views on Brexit, refugees, and the social democratic legacy of the party, Darren probably made the right decision, and I wish him well in his future political life.

What his departure ignited, however, was a familiar chorus of nastiness and infighting directed towards the economic liberals in this party. I am aware term ‘economic liberal’ is considered by some to be nebulous and loaded – Simon Radford, among others, has pointed out that there is no one strand of economic thought that can be rightly regarded liberal, and I am inclined to agree with him – so I will briefly define it for the purposes of this article as any school of economic thought that advocates the promotion of free-market policies over state intervention with the view to improving the wellbeing of the individual.

The argument often proposed is that the Liberal Democrats oppose the enslavement of anyone through poverty, ignorance, or conformity; that economic liberalism fails to emancipate individuals from one or more of these (usually poverty); and so that economic liberalism is incompatible with the Liberal Democrats and its adherents belong elsewhere.

This is a fatally flawed argument, because it places in-house ideological criticism over the theory’s claims to liberalism. To be sure, this does not mean economic liberalism should be above criticism; there have been countless sustained criticisms of the free market over the last century and a half, many of them valid, and as a result, economic liberals have been refining their approach and arguments. It also ignores the failings and criticisms of other economic ideologies; one may argue that running large deficits instead of keeping a finely balanced budget causes intergenerational injustice, and that the paying off of such debts by future generations precludes liberation from poverty or conformity. One might argue a refusal to liberalise planning laws does the same through removing the opportunity for young people to get on to the property ladder. The point is that these are in-house criticisms of liberal ideologies, levied by other strands of liberalism. The Liberal Democrats is not a partisan social liberal, or economic liberal, classical liberal, ordoliberal, or any narrow-scope liberal party. It is a party for those who share our values, who want to promote the wellbeing of the individual, and who want to see emancipation from poverty, ignorance, and conformity. It is infantile to suggest that economic liberals do not share these goals, or that economic liberalism’s failure to deliver is a settled debate. Economic emancipation is at the core of economic liberalism. Its track record – in alleviating poverty, facilitating innovation, empowering individuals, in freeing us from mundanity and routine – is unparalleled. Economic liberals advocate this approach not because they are opposed to the empowerment of the individual but precisely because they sincerely believe that it is the most effective means of empowering the individual. They are as committed to the views of the party and the emancipation of humankind as any other liberal.

No ideology is above criticism, and economic liberalism is no exception. But to regard economic liberalism’s supposed failure to deliver freedom from poverty as a settled fact is to fundamentally misrepresent the character of modern liberalism. We have always been a pluralistic party, and no one group of liberals have any right to tell another group of liberals to leave. Where some individuals – such as Darren – have very deep-seated, structural disagreements with the party, it is probably best for them that they leave, but at their own behest. When we engage in infighting over ideological purity, we distract from being proper opposition in parliament, from effective campaigning, and from the promotion of the values we all share, which, believe it are not, are far more numerous than the values we don’t share.

We can debate the merits of the state versus the market, and we can discuss the most effective approach to help the poor, but we should discuss this as liberals talking to other liberals, not as social liberals and economic liberals fighting one another. So long as one agrees with our core Liberal Democrat values, and is committed to the creation of a fair and open society, we should be welcoming them with open arms, not suspicion and hostility. We have a new leader, a new purpose, and a new political landscape to work in. We’re not going to effectively carry out the #LibDemFightback if most of our energy is directed at one another.

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6 thoughts on “Economic Liberals Shouldn’t Have to Keep Justifying Their Membership

  1. Nice post, Ciaran. Ironically it was making a very similar point to you (there is no such thing as “economic liberals” or “social liberals” but “liberals with different views on which economic means produce liberal ends”) that got me dog’s abuse from the same wing of the party that is now up in arms at similar glee at Darren leaving. I too wish Darren well, and thank you for this post, but civility seems to be short supply in every corner of the party! Here’s hoping people heed your call.
    For those wishing to read the series of articles on liberalism and economics to which Ciaran refers, here is the link http://www.socialliberal.net/shouldn_t_we_listen_to_those_who_predicted_the_crash_part_one

  2. I disagree with your definition of economic Liberalism. One can be a devoted follower of Adam Smith and still recognise, as he did, that unregulated markets are a bad thing and that there is a role for the state – at a minimum – as he put it ‘holding the ring’ Smith is the archetypal economic Liberal – often misquoted by those justifying an economic free-for-all – and reading what he said about the market and about capitalists shows clearly he saw limits to the operation of free markets.
    So I would argue that the divide between so-called economic Liberals and social Liberals is not at all clear. It is often a matter of degree! There is a strong case to be made for the market to have a major role in allocating resources, properly regulated for abuses and monopolies – and I don’t think we’ve got that anywhere near right yet – with some services, especially those with natural monopolies and services like the NHS, which would not be universally provided by the free market, being provided by or at least
    purchased/paid for by the state. No-one for example is arguing for the armed forces, police or fire services to be provided by the market or the major services of the NHS, but there is disagreement on who should provide water, power, transport.

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