Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 7: Rights and Responsibilities

As I read through Reinventing the State, I use a pencil to highlight points I disagree with and want to write about here. With Elspeth Attwooll's chapter on rights and responsibilities I had no use for the pencil, until about halfway through, when I decided to highlight a few good points as well, or I might have nothing to say.

Attwooll brings a refreshing clarity to what is generally a muddled debate and I heartily recommend this chapter to everyone. She clarifies the relationships between rights and duties, between claims (something we might want to be a right) and responsibilities, and between different claims: liberties, opportunities (claims to do or achieve something such as vote or work, that may require the active support of other people), and benefits (claims upon the actions or resources of others).
So if claims, as social concepts, are - unlike desires and demands - conditioned by his morality [referring to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments], then it must also provide us with some idea of their limits, their relative weight and importance and the extent to which and the manner in which, their fulfilment should be secured. None of this can be adequately achieved without a parallel consideration of responsibilities.
This is contrasted on the one hand with fascists and communists who ignore claims and consider only responsibilities to the monolithic society; and on the other hand with supporters of the minimal state who arbitrarily grant liberties and reject opportunities and benefits as if this were a natural law.


Better still, Attwooll has read her brief, and discusses chapter 1 of the Orange Book, in some detail. I struggle with one of her points:
David Laws, though correct in wishing to marry economic and social liberalism, is mistaken in the manner in which he does so. This is because the four different types of liberalism cannot be treated as operating at the same level. ... The tenets of political and economic liberalism are, accordingly, about the conditions for the achievement of their respective goals. By contrast, personal and social liberalism are expressed as goals in their own right.
Perhaps I have misunderstood, but I am not clear why Laws' marriage requires economic and social liberalism to be on the same level. Indeed, if economic liberalism is to be a means to serve social liberalism as an end, it would appear that the difference of "levels" is exactly right.

Nor am I entirely convinced by this distinction between means and ends.
Yet, arguably wealth is unlike other social goods. All these are worth having both in themselves and because they contribute to one another. ... [but] the value of wealth lies in what else it makes achievable.
Yes, it is arguable. But I would argue that the value of all social goods is, like wealth, not intrinsic, but instrumental, that is they are not good eternally in a vacuum, but immediately and to people, according to how people enjoy them.


The chapter concludes with a response to Nick Clegg's suggestion in his chapter of the Orange Book that the appropriate level for social policy is the member state rather than the EU. Attwooll makes some good points against this position - largely points that were anticipated by Clegg, and concludes, a little weakly, that there is a "measure of disagreement about what decisions are best made where", and that it arguable that Clegg has got this wrong. Arguable, yes, you just argued it.

This slight fizzling out of a strong chapter brings us to the end of the Principles section of the book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 6: Liberalism and the search for meaning

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
David Boyle's chapter is a fierce attack on secularism. Why this is appropriate for a book about social liberalism is clear to him, if not to me.

The first big problem here is that the word secularism has two pertinent meanings:

1. Not being religious, an absence of religion
2. The idea that the state should be neutral with respect to religious questions - that the state should not discriminate in any way against believers or non-believers, and therefore that freedom of religion is guaranteed.

Many liberals will be atheist or otherwise irreligious, as I am, and will largely disagree with Boyle's rhetoric. All liberals should support the second kind of secularism. It is no business of the state to tell us what we ought to believe, and it has no special access to any kind of religious truth. (The National Secular Society is an organisation of secularists-1, campaigning for secularism-2.)

Boyle ignores this distinction and launches into a defence of religion and attack on (undifferentiated) secularism. This is dangerous. Yes, people should advocate their beliefs, including political beliefs that are religiously inspired, but there are good reasons to avoid the advocacy of religious beliefs (or atheism) in a political context. This is because it is a threat to secularism-2. Politics carries the implicit threat of coercion, of the idea that what you or I are advocating is good for everyone, and should be adopted collectively.

We are a long way from this ideal in reality. Schools are required by the state to promote religion and oppose atheism. Of course many people believe this is a good idea, but it is blatant and deliberate discrimination all the same.
On both sides of the Atlantic there is the rumbling sound of the secular left girding themselves to hold back the tide of resurgent religion ... and blinding themselves to the inhumanity of secular corporatism.
Can we please hold back the tide of false dichotomies? But note the use of the swear word corporatism to insult secularism, much in the same way that racist epithets are constructed. If I quoted all the examples of this sort of thing, I would probably exceed fair use.

I am happy to applaud, as Boyle does, the enormous contribution of the Nonconformist tradition to liberalism. Nonconformists - and Catholics - were on the front line in the battle for religious tolerance - for secularism - alongside, in a sense, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical liberal MP who was not permitted to take his seat in Parliament on the grounds of his atheism.

In spite of the shameful past and vestigial present of state-enforced religious discrimination and privilege, of which these nonconformists were victims, Boyle is seeking a greater role for religion in politics. Why? What does he think it has to offer?

  • The sense that there is something beyond the bottom line
  • The sense that people have something unique to offer in their ordinary lives
  • The sense that the people and communities make things possible
Long explanations of each of these is given, but are they necessary? The idea that there is only the bottom line is a straw man. That people have something to offer is obvious. That people and communities make things possible is almost meaningless in its obviousness. Yet this is how "[Liberalism] needs to accept the religious aspects of its own intellectual heritage." Well consider it accepted.

Boyle discusses at length how these finer values of religious social liberalism contrast with materialist fabianism or conservatism. Yet the the leaderships of both other parties are also predominantly religious. The difference between us and them is not that they are not religious, but that they are not liberal.


...such is the emerging animus towards religion ... that any statements about belief that are not utilitarian, including what we believe about right and wrong, are being similarly sidelined
This is a very odd statement. Utilitarianism is an ethical system (a form of consequentialism), that it is to say it is precisely an analysis of what is right and what is wrong. I consider it quite a problematic ethical system but rather less problematic than ethical systems based on deontology.

However deontologists frequently equate consequentialism with an indifference to ethics. And this is Boyle's theme too: Consequentialists have no ethics, atheists have no values, secularism has no meaning. Dude, I don't go to your church, and you won't get me there by insulting me.

By endorsing this popular religious prejudice against the non-religious, Boyle risks losing half of our tradition and many of our allies. I paraphrase:

If we assume ... that Liberals are now emphatically on the side of secularism ... we risk losing half of our tradition and many of our allies.
If we're not to lose one half or the other, perhaps some sort of neutrality is in order? Keep religion out of politics and discrimination out of the state.


There are some suggestions on policy, and I will look briefly at schooling.

I am not one of those Liberals who believe that faith schools are somehow incompatible with Liberalism[!] Of course, children should not be educated in isolation from people different from them, but federated groups of schools - so that Muslim, Anglican and secular schools would be encouraged to share resources or specialist staff - would solve that problem without abolishing the whole idea of a spiritual basis to education.

Where do I begin?
  1. I'm glad to hear the suggestion that there should be some secular schools. Currently all schools are required to be Christian - and promote Christianity - if they are not explicitly some other faith.
  2. This would solve the problem of sectarian division, are you kidding? This is absolute stark staring bonkers. A trip once a month to the curious school with the brown children is not going to result in understanding, friendships and other social ties. What on earth is wrong with different children being in the same school?
  3. The implication here is that the "spiritual basis" to education does not work without sectarian division. Is this really true? Does God not visit any institution with too great a diversity of forms of worship? This is Boyle's implication, but I would have thought that his God would be a little more liberal than this.

Is the alternative banning religious practice from schools altogether? While I don't personally think this would do any harm, I am willing to look for ways to accommodate people with different views.

What I would suggest is that state-funded schools should simply be required to cater for all the faiths (and non-faith philosophies) of all the children who happen to attend. If there are very few children of some particular faith, this may not justify dedicated teacher supervision, but pupils could perhaps run activities themselves, or read together, if their faith body did not wish to provide supervision.

Obviously there are issues to be considered regarding what rights a child has if they are in disagreement with their parents. I am open to arguments here, but I would have thought that a gradual accumulation of children's rights up to the age of 16 would be reasonable.

I do consider the right to change one's religious affiliation, for teachers, parents and children, to be an absolute human right. My suggestion uniquely guarantees this. I consider sectarian division to be a serious threat, which will only be addressed by genuine ties, proper friendships, not token orchestrated comingling. Boyle's support - and that of Labour and the Tories - for continued and increased segregation is reckless. And my proposal does nothing to restrict - it actually enhances - people's access to the faith education they want.

Doubtless I will be told that I have missed the point somehow. That the point is segregation, or governance, or keeping the heathen riff-raff out, or anything else but faith. I dare say those things are the point of the faith school system, but I have ripped off its fig leaf with this alternative.


Is this search for meaning supposed to distinguish social liberals from the Orange Bookers? Perhaps. But, frankly, a search for meaning expressed in entirely religious terms needlessly excludes many potential supporters of the touchy feely stuff. And many economic liberals are religious. So for me this chapter just goes off on a tangent.

Update: At Pickled Politics, Sunny, and Terry of the NSS lock horns in the comments.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 5: Me, Myself and I

Simon Titley combines a profound insight into the nature of the changes in society and self-perceptions in the last few decades with what seems to me a degree of back-pedalling with regard to the virtue of the changes and of individual autonomy over group conformity.

The first theme here is that our escape from the conformist social forces of the past has brought with it an atomisation of society, leading to alienation and unhappiness. While I agree that happiness largely does depend on good quality relations with other people, I remain somewhat skeptical that the conformist past was really that great in this regard.

The second theme is that material overconsumption is a symptom of a spiritual malaise that has been brought about by this breakdown of social structures. I am largely unconvinced of this too. What evidence is there of a spiritual malaise, other than that few people go to church any more? Aren't all these problems as old as the hills?

So when Titley writes...
"However the process of individual liberation has proved something of a double-edged sword because, although it has enabled most people in Western societies to lead easier and more pleasant lives, it has also led people to forsake social cohesion for material individualism, and to abandon deferred pleasure for instant gratification."
I have a some problems.

First, the equivocation over individual liberation is appalling. Sure, we are freer to make certain mistakes than we were. When we were not free, similar mistakes and more were made on our behalf, and were much worse for it. While individual alienation is a problem, collective alienation, one subculture or racial group from another, reinforced by the strong social ties of a group identity, was and is responsible for far more harm.

Second, it is not clear when Titley refers to "social cohesion", whether he is indeed referring to strong social ties, civic society, and so forth, or to the willingness of people to pay taxes to support others' pensions, health care and unemployment insurance. I should think a high tax society could be atomised as easily as a low tax one; and spiritual societies can be as reluctant to spend tax money on social insurance as less spiritual ones. This abstract language risks lumping together quite separate phenomena.

Third, I suggest there is a strange error going on here with all this bewailing of materialism. I don't think people object to higher taxes thinking the extra money would bring them true happiness. It won't, and for the same reasons, a bigger state and more redistribution will not bring anybody true happiness either. Anybody who says "you shouldn't care about money, so give me your money" is obviously not heeding their own advice.

To be fair to Titley it is not clear that he is advocating what I criticise, but to be brutal, it is not clear that he isn't. Except where he builds on these particular sandy foundations, there is much that is good in this chapter: the roles of the media and politics and the dangers of statist solutions.


I would like pick up one further very significant observation. In discussing whether power has shifted from governments to corporations, Titley points out, correctly in my view, that the perspective from inside the corporations is one of powerlessness. Consumers are fickle, and reputations can be destroyed in an afternoon. I would argue that there are profounder reasons still for corporate powerlessness: if there is clearly only a single most profitable course of action, there is no choice but to follow it. So there is little true freedom of action even at the top.
"The traditional analysis is that consumerism has shifted power from governments to corporations. A more plausible explanation for what is going on may be that power has evaporated altogether."
Well. Stop the presses, and burn all the books of political theory. There is no power any more. Of course there is some exaggeration here, but there is also a grain of truth. My question: Is this a good thing? Is this anarchy, in a good sense? If nobody has power, then nobody has power over us. Could this grain of truth grow into a more secure guarantee of freedom than has ever existed before?

And why no comment from Titley on whether this evaporation of power is positive sign or not?


One thing I am looking for in Reinventing the State is whether it makes a successful rejoinder to the Orange Book, which argued that there is no conflict between social liberalism and economic liberalism. Almost as an afterthought Titley joins the battle:
"What should mark out social liberals from economic liberals is their support for social solidarity."
Surely support for social solidarity marks out social liberals from many who aren't social liberals. Economic liberals can be found in both camps. This may seem a pedantic objection, but if the best rejoinder is this thinly-veiled abuse of economic liberals, I don't hold out much hope.

I agree with Titley on the importance of social 'glue', and the more material aspects of social cohesion. However, he advocates this almost with the context of a moral panic about rampant unhappy materialist individualism. Urrggghhh.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 4: Global Giants

Matthew Taylor surveys the progress and lack thereof in tackling Beveridge's 5 giants: want, squalor, disease, ignorance and idleness, in the UK and globally. For good measure, a sixth giant, the environment, is added.

I should perhaps have mentioned earlier that chapters 1 through 7 come under the heading Principles and so we have here another chapter, much like Duncan Brack's, analysing the problems, and not saying a great deal about what should be done about them. We have been impressed that squalor, disease, ignorance and whatnot are no good at all. No kidding.

So is there nothing new for me to nitpick? If only.

Taylor writes

But while the absolute poverty [Beveridge] fought has largely been slashed, relative poverty is a scourge that is growing in force. As the gap between Britain's rich and poor continues to widen, certain goods that most of society takes for granted are increasingly inaccessible for the worst-off, and without them they are unable to engage fully in modern life and so are denied the opportunities that are available to others.

I maintain that there is considerable confusion caused by casual use of the terms relative and absolute. For the most part, being too poor to buy things is a form of absolute poverty - arguably being unable to afford an essential £1million life-saving medical procedure is a form of absolute poverty. The exception is for "positional goods" that are limited in supply, and therefore expensive in proportion to the spending power of others. The inability of many to get on the housing ladder is therefore a kind of relative poverty.

However what seems to have happened is that people looking at the difference in spending power between the poor of today and those of Victorian times observe correctly that the former are relatively better off, and so cannot be absolutely poor, and must be relatively poor. And so in order to be serious about fighting poverty you have to talk about relative poverty not absolute poverty.

Well I suppose I will not succeed in single-handedly changing the terminology of this debate, but here goes anyway. The above paragraph describes the relative prosperity of today's absolutely poor compared to the poor of the past. That is to say they suffer less absolute poverty than the poor of the past, or of the third world. Although there is less absolute poverty in the UK than there was I see no reason to stop taking it seriously: we do after all have more wealth with which to fight it.

I would rather not talk about relative poverty or (material) inequality unless someone is made absolutely worse off, directly by somebody else's prosperity. Examples of this are few and far between. If relative poverty were really the problem, it could be solved by taking opportunties and wealth away from the fortunate even if this did nothing for the poor. It is madness even to hint at this course of action. Do you really think the poor are so well off that no improvement in their wealth is necessary??

Of course I am not using absolute to mean total, or to the greatest extent, simply as the opposite of relative. But many use it differently, and here is the cause of the confusion. Perhaps it is better to say that the poverty we face is neither absolute nor relative, according to the commonly used over-simplisic meanings of those words. It's just poverty.

Taylor may be right that certain goods are increasingly inaccessible - such as housing - but this is a terribly weak claim, when most goods are more accessible. That poor people are unable to engage fully in society is nothing new. Taylor is trying to show that relative poverty, not absolute poverty is the cause of much hardship, but he is utterly failing to do so.

Bizarrely, Taylor finishes the section like this:
For the middle classes at least, 'lifestyle fulfilment' is the new benchmark of quality of life, as the top tiers of their hierarchy of needs - food, shelter and so on - are satisfied. And many people are dissatisfied. The pursuit of essentially material goals often fails to bring long-term gratification.
The intention here is obviously to say that we middle classes should not be bellyaching about our material position, that true happiness lies elsewhere. Well yes obviously; Epicurus was happy with some cheese, the company of friends, and the chance to think his thoughts. But there is a double standard here - the same poverty of material ambition could be suggested, for the same reasons, to today's poor. Such stoicism would be an even greater comfort to a poor person than a rich one.

Frankly, these questions of personal philosophy are no business of politics. It is not for the state to judge our goals, it is there to protect and if possible enhance our freedom to pursue them, whatever they are. (Which implies a duty to ensure we don't trample on others.) When the state tries to make people good, the result is failure and tyranny.

Taylor claims to have offered 'a framework for a new, reinvigorated, inclusive, global path for British Liberalism'. No. Sorry. There is much analysis, and most of it is very good. It is worth reminding ourselves of the 5 or 6 giants, charting successes and failures. There is little policy, this is a chapter of principles, and not new principles that I can tell.

But what struck me about this chapter was the note of pessimism. I realise that it isn't much of a rallying call to say that some problem or other is actually getting better. But then I don't think poverty is such a minor problem that it needs to be hyped up. There's pessimism in the quotes above, but there's more:
overcrowded mass populations...depending on increasingly interdependent transnational industries, means that we are more vulnerable to plague and its consequences than ever before.
No. We were more vulnerable to plague during the Plague. The rising world population is a direct result of our ability to grow food and fight disease. Death rates do not match birth rates the way they used to, and we should recognise that this is essentially a positive story.
Mankind has created the perfect laboratory conditions for plague.
No. The laboratory is a work of nature, and mankind is fighting disease better than ever before.
People are forced by poverty and ignorance into work which does not meet their needs...
In other words, their lot before these poor job opportunities existed, was even worse.

Anyway, that is quite enough pessimism for my liking. I would expect a new, invigorating framework to look a little more at what is working.