Before coronavirus made its appearance, the decline of liberalism from its highwater mark of the late 1980s was already the focus of attention (see blog of January 2019). The massive outlay of public finance and explosion in public debt associated with mitigating the economic effects of the coronavirus, together with social distancing measures to control the spread of the virus, and direct government interventions in the production and allocation of scarce items, means that the role of the state has now expanded dramatically. If liberalism was teetering before the coronavirus, it now seems on the floor. Some economists claim to have found a new 'paradigm' for market organisation in the post COVID 19 world.
Of course, liberalism does not deny the need for the state to try to provide reassurance and social protection in times of emergency. It represents an aspiration for a political system in more ‘normal’ times. The question remains about the validity of this long-term vision.
The debate is muddied by different definitions of what liberalism is and is not. There are a number of different ‘liberalisms’. Some are easy targets to attack. This blog attempts to define what is mainstream in the liberal tradition. It selects three particular features:
The individual in a social setting
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously asserted that ‘there is no such thing as society’. This was contrary to mainstream liberalism. For mainstream liberals there is indeed such a thing as society. The focus is on the interaction between individuals and the social setting.
The view that liberalism focuses exclusively on the individual, and that the social whole is an artificial construction, stems in large part from the account given by Adam Smith of self-interested behaviour in the market. It was strengthened by Jeremy Bentham’s subsequent depiction of individuals who maximise their own ‘utility’.
The view that mainstream liberals look on individuals as rationally calculating where their own self-interest lies, and that the social whole is no more than the sum of individual preferences, stems also from what is known as ‘methodological individualism’ in the social sciences and particularly in economics. Methodological individualism has proven to be a highly useful investigative and predictive tool. However, social scientists acknowledge that the method involves simplification and abstraction.
In the case of Adam Smith, ‘self-interest’ was only one part of his account of human nature from which he built his theory of social systems. Also integral to his view of human nature was our ‘sympathy’ for others, fundamental to his theory of justice, and ‘conscience’, fundamental to his theory of social norms and ethical relationships.
Adam Smith’s more rounded and complete view of individuals and their social relationships was illustrated in 1756, in an exchange between him and Rousseau. Rousseau saw social awareness leading to a division between individual desires and social norms. For him, education becomes necessary in order to inculcate socialization. Adam Smith responded that our sensitivity to others is sufficient to bring personal norms into alignment with social norms. According to Adam Smith, we are motivated to adopt social norms because we can make ‘before and after’ judgements on the effects of our actions. In addition, we can place ourselves in the role of an ‘external observer’ who can also observe and make judgements on the interactions.
The exchange between the two illustrates that, in the mainstream liberal tradition, the individual is not treated in isolation. On the contrary, the account of the individual is tied together with their social interactions connecting to the social whole. The liberal concern is to avoid an emphasis on the social whole coming at the expense of attention to individuals.
Treatment of the individual
The attributes of human nature and the normative
Adam Smith based his theory of social systems on what he asserted were fundamental attributes of human nature. He wanted to find an empirical base for the social sciences analogous to the observations and theorising of Isaac Newton in the natural sciences. Methodological individualism can be seen as an offshoot of his 'didactic' method. However, the attributes of sympathy and conscience that Adam Smith included in his ‘didactic’ method have not generally been copied, leaving only self-interest..
For the mainstream liberal tradition, the basic assumptions about the individual are normative and focus less on the attributes of personhood and more on the treatment to be given to persons. There is suspicion of claims about ‘rights’ based on expansive attributions of what it is to be human, and a similar scepticism about grouping attributes under a general umbrella such as ‘dignity’. Rights are open to endless claims about what it is to be human; ‘dignity’ is also seen as inviting open-ended claims (see blog Nov 2018).
A key reason for this focus on treatment, rather than the purported attributes of personhood, is that expansive claims lend themselves to abuse in mobilising the collective authority of politics and the law. Claims are asserted without sufficient regard to such questions as the effect on others, including, ‘who pays’. The liberal mainstream has wanted to narrow down assertions of rights mainly to procedural rights, such as freedom of expression and association, applicable to everyone without taking away anything from anyone else, and less open to abuse by particular claimants.
In today’s world where what we consider to be the attributes of a human are being challenged by AI, genetic engineering and robotics, a focus on treatment appears prescient.
For liberals there are two key normative elements in the treatment to be accorded to individuals:
First, liberals maintain that respect for the individual involves allowing people to decide and judge for themselves, or to exercise their own autonomy of judgement. Of course, we don’t always make good decisions for ourselves, or make good judgements about what is best or prudent for ourselves. But, in addition to showing respect for the person, the liberal attaches value to the learning process. We learn by our mistakes. For the liberal, social systems are always in flux; learning is an important part of social adaptation as well as individual development.
The second value is the importance of showing respect for the person by giving equal treatment to individuals. This is not because people are equal in their personal qualities or capacities, but because, as a normative proposition they should be treated as though they possess equal status. Great inequalities of wealth in society are troubling for the liberal tradition because they result in inequalities of status.
Equality under the law
One important reflection of equal treatment and status is reflected in the principle of equality under the law. The rule of law is valued by liberals as a system of social coordination and as a constraint on the arbitrary use of power in society. But, in order that the law does not simply convert itself to become an instrument of government, it is crucial that everyone must be treated equally under it, including the wealthy and the powerful. Adam Smith was very much aware of the distinction between a system of law as actually practiced and justice, or law as it should be. Equality under the law is one element in bringing a system of law closer to the principles of justice.
The treatment of authority and power over
For mainstream liberals, to possess and to be able exercise power over others in society requires a special justification. This is because any such power can be used to force the choices of the powerholder onto others, and to limit their freedom to choose for themselves and to make their own decisions. The ideal of ‘limited government’ is the mantra of mainstream liberals.
The ideal of limited government means that those who hold power must exercise it within agreed rules and agreed institutional boundaries. The need for rule-based behaviour applies to the power of majorities as well as to the power of elites. Democracy itself is seen to be better than alternative forms of government, but itself is ‘good’ only within the context of rules and institutions that set limits. Support for the rule of law fits naturally into the broader concept of government under the rules and as a check on the misuse of authority.
The market order
Liberals support a market system for a mix of both empirical and normative reasons. From a normative perspective, the ideal of limited government means space should be allowed for as many transactions as possible to be carried out in the market. This is because a market order, despite its shortcomings, offers individuals an area to make their own choices in life.
From an empirical perspective, since the time of Adam Smith, liberals have also seen the market as the most efficient system for allocating resources and for generating wealth. At the same time, market failures provide one important class of reason for liberals why collective actions and collective decision-making will be needed. Adam Smith identified education as a public good that would be underprovided in a purely market system.
Adam Smith also opened the door to a more subtle ethical perspective on the market. He wrote that his account of justice constituted the indispensable ‘main pillar’ keeping social systems together without which all systems fall apart. The link between his view of justice and his account of the market seems to centre on the role of contracts in maintaining a market order. According to Adam Smith, uncertainties about ‘distant relationships’ meant that our sympathy for others would often be weak and thus, market contracts would often have to rely on the law for their enforcement. He thus seems to open the door for contractual relationships in the market to be viewed from the perspective of justice and fair treatment.
Mainstream liberalism follows Adam Smith in acknowledging market failures, in supporting a market system from a normative perspective as much as from an efficiency view, and in giving special attention to contractual relationships.
Spontaneity and design
Not all liberals buy into the need for collective action even in the face of market and contractual failure. They emphasise the advantages of ‘spontaneous’ order flowing from repeated interactions between individuals. According to this view, derived from David Hume, cooperative institutions and rules of behaviour will evolve through experience of what works to produce cooperative solutions and what does not.
Mainstream liberalism, however, finds a place for the deliberate design of institutions and rules of behaviour. Abstract ideas often shape our actions, for better and for worse, and it is important to map and to respond to their influence, as well as for liberals to generate their own ideas about design. Concepts that are crucial to the idea of limited government, such as the separation of powers, and the rule of law, derive in part from abstract ideas as well as from observation and experience.
In addition to wanting public institutions to be placed within a system of limited powers, liberals ask a further question about power holders. It is about whose interest and benefit a rule or an institution serves. This question is in large part the legacy of Jeremy Bentham who wanted all public measures, rules and institutions to be measured by their utility. As a general principle, maximising utility is open to many criticisms. However, in the more limited form of ‘useful for whom’ the question is a valid test of institutional purpose and one incorporated in the liberal mainstream of scepticism about big government.
Conclusion: core beliefs
This blog has suggested that mainstream liberalism can be defined in terms of three core propositions:
In a situation of a civil emergency, such as addressing a pandemic, or in wartime, the collective will come first. In more normal times, the liberal viewpoint seems likely to show a continuing strength in contending with other, rival perspectives.