How liberals left liberty behind

Liberalism without liberty

21 09 14.How liberals left liberty behind

Liberalism isn’t often associated with the left.  And yet, liberalism historically shaped many of the left’s political projects. In interpreting freedom not only as non-intervention by the government, but as what made people autonomous individuals, able to make their own life choices, left-leaning parties were inspired by liberalism. Yet over the years, freedom was dropped off the menu of values the left cared about, interpreted to mean merely the freedom of markets. But liberty might be about to make a return, writes Toby Buckle.


Ideologies are by their nature restless. Nothing about them ever stays constant. They perpetually shift their policy positions as wars, economic shocks, and changing social norms force them to adapt. More than that, their core values – the way they invoke justice, or equality, or freedom – exist in a state of continual mutation as they process new ideas, arguments, social norms, events and developments in rival ideologies.

Take liberalism: over the last few generations the core arrangement of concepts in most of its mainstream expressions has shifted significantly. Liberty – or freedom – has moved from a central (if not the central) value to a less prominent, possibly even adjacent, position. Not only is the value invoked less by liberals, but the nature of their conception has changed. Possible interpretations of freedom, such as self-development, have been dropped and, by so doing, closed the door to possible pathways of argumentation. 

Ideologies are by their nature restless. Nothing about them ever stays constant.


Liberty and the welfare state

British varieties of liberalism from the tail end of the nineteenth century through to the middle of the twentieth placed freedom at the heart of a radically transformative political project that utterly changed the nature of the state and our relationship to it. For most of human history the primary economic function of the state has been to extract surpluses to fund the military (and some luxury spending by rulers). By the start of the post-war era both our conception of it and its reality had shifted to a mechanism to ensure the wellbeing and advancement of its citizens.

Arguably the zenith of this project was the Labour government of 1945-51. In the space of a few short years it created the NHS, making healthcare free at the point of charge, instituted a “cradle to grave” welfare system including pensions, sickness benefit, and unemployment benefits, nationalized many key industries, passed significant workers’ rights reforms, and made free secondary education a right for the first time.

What is interesting is the extent to which the arguments made for this radical project of creating the welfare state revolved around freedom. To many readers, this will all sound like a socialist project, one motivated by a desire to secure welfare, equality of outcome and the like. Not a liberal one aiming at freedom of life choices.

The transformation though has its origins in both ideologies. The Labour Party, under the overall header of a ‘Democratic Socialist’ party was (and is) a coalition of liberals, socialists, and everything in-between. Liberalism and socialism, as ideologies, both pursue a variety of political values that change over time. These values systems can have both divergences with each other, but also areas of potential overlap.

In this overlap – the ideological seed of the modern welfare state – liberals and socialists saw different things. Universal education or welfare benefits were, to socialists, a means of increasing equality, of raising the welfare of the working class. To the liberals, they were a means of liberating them: People being more educated would allow them more life choices, hence more freedom. Having more economic security would make them less dependent on employers, and so more able to freely choose their own lives.

Universal education or welfare benefits were, to socialists, a means of increasing equality, of raising the welfare of the working class. To the liberals, they were a means of liberating them: People being more educated would allow them more life choices, hence more freedom.

The Beverage Report – in many ways the blueprint for these reforms – again and again posits freedom as the ultimate goal of which they are in service. Not only is freedom more frequently mentioned than by modern liberals, its antonyms were different - “want”, “ignorance”, “squalor”, and “disease.” While the document is not a work of political philosophy, one can still sketch an outline of the conception of freedom at work here: Freedom is not simply non-interference by others, it is to be able to autonomously make your own choices, and by so doing, develop yourself as a person. This freedom can not only be constrained by other individuals and groups, but also promoted by them.

This conception of freedom has antecedents in liberalisms going back over a half century. For John Stuart Mill, writing the 1860’s, freedom was so tightly related to individual autonomy, development, and progress he could simply use “the free development of individuality” as a shorthand for his ultimate ethical goals. It was, as he put it, “an end in itself”. This led to his famous ‘mixed’ formulation (combining both non-constraint and autonomy) of freedom as “pursuing your own good in your own way.”

For Mill the realization of freedom involved both non-interference (within certain spheres) but also that individuals be educated, that they live in a pluralistic society with a wide range of views and lifestyles. Are you, after all, really free to make your own choices if you lack knowledge, training in thinking systematically, and the example of others arguing for their views and showing you what different ‘modes of living’ look like in practice?

Liberalism’s incorporation of the welfare state as a tool of promoting freedom came later in British liberalism. Twentieth century liberals began – tepidly and with reservations – to reconceptualise the role of the state, and imagine, as the British liberal writer J. A. Hobson did “the nationalization of charity.” Alongside this policy shift came important conceptual reformulations – the traditional association of poverty with bad character gave way to viewing it as a denial of the opportunities needed to fulfil a range of human needs and interests. The liberal individual became more gregarious, more situated within sustaining social relationships.

The ascendancy of this vision took time. Persistent phantoms of the underserving poor and the centralized state haunted the imagination of inter-war liberals - fears that the ideology would never quite banish. By the time it reached its high point during post-war reconstruction however there would be no going back. The world had changed. Mainstream British liberals would never abandon their commitment to pluralism, universal education and healthcare, and some form of a welfare state, but their justifications for them, the conceptual patterns surrounding them, would shift.

The diminishment of this developmental conception of freedom was also slow. Through the cold war, the economic turmoil of the 70’s, and the ascendancy of a right-wing libertarian conception of freedom in the Thatcher revolution, it faded out step-by-step. Even in 1992 the Labour party’s manifesto referenced books with titles like ‘Socialism and Freedom’ and included (then Party leader) Neil Kinnock’s proclamation that “at the core of our convictions is a belief in individual liberty.” This though was a thinner conception, relating primarily to equality of opportunity. By the time of the “New liberalism” – or ‘third way’ - of Clinton and Blair, the distinctive emancipatory tone of British liberalism had been clearly lost.

If an ideology’s primary goal is the self-development of autonomous individuals, markets are one potential tool that can be used to achieve that.

This was not – as the contemporary socialist left would have it – a total capitulation to “neo-liberalism”. Much of the surrounding architecture remained, the vision was still undeniably progressive, but without its central pillar.  The Labour party sought an accommodation with many of the ‘free market’ reforms of the Thatcher era. A strong focus on the positive power of the private sector would be built into the progressive vision (liberals have always believed in markets as a tool to promote freedom and the common good, but here they became the primary focus, with the state a supporting partner to them) while maintaining the role of communities and the state to equalize opportunities.

The left commitment to education, for instance, endured, but as a pre-condition of entrance into the labour market, not individual self-development. As Michael Freeden puts it, the new formulation placed “individual liberty on a path instrumental to employability, rather than on a path that connects to autonomy.”

If an ideology’s primary goal is the self-development of autonomous individuals, markets are one potential tool that can be used to achieve that. They can be permitted in prescribed areas in which they will be useful, and designed, structured, and managed so as to benefit individuals and groups. Under the “New liberalism” this conception has disappeared; the state’s role is to prepare individuals for markets, provide them with the resources to enter them, and (in some cases) protect them from their excesses.

On social issues too freedom has receded. Gone are the days in which activists would call for the ‘liberation’ of women or LGBTQ individuals by rethinking oppressive social norms that limit our ability to pursue our own good in our own way. Now the focus is on equality and representation within existing structures, even among the more ‘radical’ advocates of social justice. This is a laudable goal to be sure – and certainly preferable to the nostalgia one sees on the right for more brutal and constraining social hierarchies – but one wonders what lines of argumentation we have foreclosed. 


Towards a new liberalism?

With all that said, it is intriguing to look at how liberalism today is thinking about its mission in the one place it is most clearly in power – the United States. Biden surprised many observers by being much more willing to ‘go big’ than they expected. Under the header of COVID relief his administration spent 1.9 trillion dollars - the equivalent of Italy’s entire GDP-  on a dizzying variety of initiatives that, as a package, represent the largest downward distribution of wealth in the US in my lifetime (if not much longer). And this, if the administration gets its way, is only an appetizer for what is to come. A duo of bills generally, if inaccurately, termed ‘infrastructure’ are currently under consideration that would spend multiple times this amount on social care and environmental measures. Whether they can emerge, or emerge unscathed, from the truly Byzantine realm of congressional procedure remains to be seen, but the ambition alone seems to herald something new.

Tackling poverty never ceased to be a liberal aim – even at the height of ‘New’, centrist, ‘third way’ liberalism these regimes did reduce poverty rates - but the scope of the mission was limited to compensating individuals for bad luck.

This is often interpreted as the growing power of the ‘left’ within the Democratic Party, and to some degree this is true. The type of democratic socialism represented by Bernie Sanders has gone from a tiny fringe to an important element of the coalition. But it is important not to overstate this, socialists are still are very small minority within the congressional caucus. More than anything, what seems to be happening is mainstream liberals are revaluating their priors about the scope of state action necessary to secure a liberal society.

What I find especially interesting is not just what they are doing (or attempting), but why. Tackling poverty never ceased to be a liberal aim – even at the height of ‘New’, centrist, ‘third way’ liberalism these regimes did reduce poverty rates -  but the scope of the mission was limited to compensating individuals for bad luck. The modern Democratic Party seems to have quietly shelved this approach, and its associated targeted programs. Universal credits and mailing out checks are the order of the day. Key positions on economic policy are being filled by progressives who see their role not just to restrain markets but to direct them, to structure their parameters so they deliver particular societal goods. It’s not proof positive, but this suggests that (perhaps even subconsciously) the conception of individual liberty at play here has shifted from the state simply preparing individuals for the market, to helping to provide a broader range of societal conditions necessary for their autonomous growth.

Even more intriguingly, anti-trust policy is clearly being thought of with reference to a conception of freedom as non-domination. Staffers in the Biden administration are not merely asking the traditional economic questions of large firms – does it have dominant market share, can it set prices? – but what power does it have, and how accountable is that power? Facebook, for example, does not set prices, nor is it a traditional monopoly, but the role it can play in supporting or undermining democracy and public trust is massive. Philosophers term this ‘freedom as non-domination’ or republican freedom (not to be confused in this instance with the Republican Party). It’s never named as such by contemporary liberals, but that’s clearly what it is.

Could we be seeing the groundwork for a modern 21st century liberal conception of freedom emerging? It’s hard to say. Mainstream Democratic Party public-facing rhetoric continues with the (now old) “New liberal” rhetoric – plodding liturgies on ‘communities’, ‘families’, ‘hard work’ and the like. In the UK the Labour party seems bound by structural disadvantages in our electoral system on the one hand, and persistent in fighting on the other. And across the world right anti-democratic authoritarianism remains an existential threat.

But something is changing. Liberalism without liberty has run its course. It was showing its age after the 2008 crash, and the duel shocks of Brexit and Trump showed the limitations of what it could imagine. It needs to adapt, and fast - in a post-Covid world it can seem positively antiquated.

I highly doubt what will follow will be a simple return to the Mill’s conception of freedom, or Beverage’s for that matter - the world has changed too much. Nor do I think a picked-up and dusted off democratic-socialist ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric will emerge ascendant anytime soon.

But something new is coming. It always is. Ideologies are by their nature restless.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation