Recently divisions have reawakened between the two economic wings of the Liberal Democrats. The more right-wing economic liberals and the more left-wing social liberals. Boiled down as far as possible they disagree on one thing – The degree to which state intervention in economics is primarily a source of reduction of (economic liberals) or promotion of (social liberals) liberty.
Recently there have been declarations that one side or the other in this debate are not “true” liberals, or even that they do not belong in the party. This is ludicrous. The Liberal Democrats are a broad church. However, this does not mean its future direction should be broad and vague enough to champion both economic and social liberalism. There is good reason economic liberalism cannot and should not lay claim to the future of liberalism in the United Kingdom.
The fight between economic and social liberalism often seems like a modern problem, caused by the relatively modern merger of the Liberal Party with the Social Democrats. However, it is not new, it is an argument that was fought and won by the successes of National Insurance and the New Deal by the British and American liberal governments of the early 20th Century. Not only did these efforts to expand the role of government to protect and support those in unemployment or ill, they laid the foundation for a welfare state that has never been turned back. Despite the fall of Lloyd George and Roosevelt shortly after, their Conservative successors never repealed their first steps in the welfare state. Instead the rest of the twentieth century involved leaders of both the right and left making progressions and concessions to the state’s role to support citizens as a liberal state ensuring freedom from poverty, insecurity and the exploitation of employers. Country wide national pensions, natural health care and health and safety laws followed.
But if the case for state sponsored support and regulation originally laid back by the Liberals has already been won, why are those same Liberals fighting against the state and further regulation in a battle with newcomer Social Democrats over the soul of the party?
The answer is two-fold, the first demographic, the second political. Firstly, the core demographic of the Liberal Democrat membership is overwhelmingly white, middle class and educated. This hasn’t been so much a conscious effort as an almost accidental side effect of their more nuanced position on politics. This demographic simply does not need the protection of the state as much as the rest of society. They are often well off financially, with the protection of wealthy parents and a strong education that will set them far less at risk of unemployment or being trapped in employment where they are exploited. Secondly there is the libertarian/classical liberal fringe of politics. With the developing authoritarianism of the Conservative Party there is no other natural home for Classical Liberals. They see the Liberal Democrats as being the only real home for those who place individual liberty foremost, and they are right. The Liberal Democrats are the only real champions of individual liberties.
The problem comes when this largely privileged wing of the party push beyond their championing of individual liberties into challenging the historical successes of the liberals in social liberalism and pushing back progress in state support. It is the challenging of efforts to broaden the state’s role in protecting freedoms from poverty, exploitation and persecution in the name of individual liberty that they are able to champion with comparatively little threat to themselves.
Recently there have been demands that economic liberals need not have to defend their membership of the party. This is absolutely valid, but this does not mean they should not have to defend the validity of economic liberalism within Liberal Democrat policy and the future of the state. Too often they have taken attacks on their ideology as attacks on their person when the two, in politics, should not be conflated.
Put simply, economic liberalism is conservative. Not in that it belongs to the Conservative Party (which has long since abandoned libertarian ideals for moral policing) but in that its demands, carried through, would set back social and state progress a century.
Placing individual liberties before all else is a privileged demand possible only from a position where the security of state regulation, protection and support is no longer a concern. Where job seeking is a case of picking the best possible job rather than taking any possible income available. Where exploitation leaves the easy decision of quitting and finding something else or sheltering beneath parental economic wings rather than grinning and bearing it because there is no other option. Where the concept of a living wage enforced on employers can only be a greater affront to liberalism than a life unable to afford basic necessities because not only have they never been in that position but very few of their peers will have done either. Where the market is a force for good because it largely benefits them, rather than exploits them.
The failure of laissez-faire economics as a form of liberalism is evident. It takes only a glance across the Atlantic to see it in action. Rampaging and increasing economic inequality, with a tiny minority holding as much wealth as half of the rest of the population. Manipulation of politics, healthcare and (ironically) individual liberties by powerful economic vested interests. A failed education system, healthcare held together by a thread against political football of “pro-market” politicians and a political system incapable of even stopping rampant spree shootings due to the weight of the coercive forces of oppressive interests against them. A dedication to the myth of trickle down economics and “wealth creators” that has left average wages stagnant for decades as the richest get richer. We can see what happens when individual liberties trump liberties from all oppressive forces and the result is deeply illiberal – a stagnant median economy where slavery to poverty, discrimination and ignorance is common and coercion by powerful financial vested interests is a part of life. In a further hammer blow to letting the market run rampant as an attempt to bolster social wealth it turns out it manages the opposite, according to OECD research. It its results are not only illiberal, they are ironically damaging for the market.
Economic liberalism is the invasion of a preoccupation on individual liberties on other forms of liberty. Rather than placing all liberties on an equal footing it sees individual liberties as superior – over those (or believing they double as) liberties from oppression, poverty, ignorance, and from the lack of food, shelter and warmth. It is a view of equality of opportunity and freedom of choice shaped only by a view of the world where without state intervention everyone is as free to make choices and take opportunities as one another – rather than one where race, class, sexuality, gender, disability, poverty and sheer misfortune dramatically change the reality of this “equality”. Blind to a world where liberty of opportunity, to do and choose whatever is best for you, is hamstrung by pre-existing inequalities that prevent any such liberty being realised no matter how hands-off the state acts.
Social Liberalism is the future of the party precisely because it does not turn a blind eye to these inequalities. It realises that liberty in choice is impossible without liberty from prejudice, exploitation, poverty and ignorance. It champions using the state to reign in the excesses of capitalism to support liberty and equality across the board to achieve a real equality in opportunity, even if this means not making individual liberties of the privileged a primary concern. It uses regulation and limitation to channel the positive forces of capitalism and social progress to benefit the whole of society, rather than those few most able to reap the harvest of market exploitation. It broadens the appeal of the party beyond a middle class, white, educated, male elite to everyone whose best interests can truly be championed by liberal policy making.
Those who do not believe that our present state of affairs is deeply illiberal for reasons above and beyond individual liberty are simply not paying attention. The deep-rooted inequalities of our society make equal individual liberty, no matter how important, simply not possible without a wider dedication to social liberties that even the playing field before declaring an equality and freedom in opportunity. Without harnessing, regulating and guiding capitalism to public good the concept of real individual liberty for all is a myth.
Economic liberalism has good reason to be part of the party. It is a reminder of individual liberties as a core of our values and the Liberal Democrat party is the natural home of such values. However, as much as individual liberties must form a core of liberal values in Britain, they cannot champion liberalism alone. Only social liberals, with a dedication to combating all coercive and oppressive forces of inequality and illiberalism can appeal to a wider demographic and achieve liberty that truly is for everyone.