On Freedom

by Dominic Blackwell

Freedom is a big subject and I don’t intend to try and address all of it here. This is more about a few aspects which I think get often misrepresented and abused and also about a gap in the political spectrum which results from lack of clarity in these areas.

In a political context, people sometimes try and separate political and economic freedom. Political freedom encompasses the right to vote, free expression, independence of institutions such as the judiciary and the press and so on. Economic freedom has been used in two senses. From a broadly pro-capitalist perespective people talk about freedom of markets and free movement of labour. Meanwhile on the left people talk about freedom from want or some similar formulation describing citizens having access to the basic neccessities of life and essential services.

However, I think all of this could be made a lot clearer. The starting points are the fundamental ideas of democracy and capitalism, which have been fundamental to westerrn civilisation in modern times. Both have their weaknesses, but it would seem to me that no-one has proposed a credible replacement for either that is not substantially worse.

Here is where freedom comes in. Democracy and capitalism require citizens to be free actors in politics and economics. They require individuals to be able to make uncoerced decisions to vote, buy and sell. The missing piece here is the state. The role of the state is important in both democracy and capitalism but there is a tendency for there to be polarised positions on this, both of which miss a very important point.

The traditional anti-statist position sees the state as an agent of oppression and proposes the limiting of its powers. The extreme end of this is in libertarianism, but more temperate forms of this view exist on centre-right today. The traditional pro-statist position sees the state as a force for good, ensuring fairness and restraining individual greed. Again there is an extreme form of this in the ‘hard left’ and a more moderate version in the centre-left.

But I think both sides miss a crucial point. Let’s start with politics and democracy. If the state has too tight a grip you end up with a totalitarian state which is clearly anti-democratic. However if you weaken the state beyond a certain point you do not get democracy, you get anarchy. If there is no rule of law you do not have free speech — you have rule by whoever has the local monopoly on force. This is a warlord controlled society and you see it in many places described as ‘failed states’. So the state needs to be strong enough to hold the ring for democracy but limited so it cannot inhibit the democratic rights of its citizens.

Now a similar argument holds with economics and capitalism. If you have an over-powerful state you have a command economy. There is no private property and citizens are effectively slaves of whoever is in power. But weaken the state too far and you do not have functional markets. You have an oligarchy where a few become hugely powerful and dictate economic terms to the rest of society. There are no absolutely free markets – protecting competion and the system prevents freedom for monopolists and, for example, a free market in the bribery of judges.

So in both cases what is needed is for the state to act as a neutral guarantor of the rules to protect the rights of its citizens without taking over itself. Democracy is impossible without the rule of law. Capitalism is impossible without fair arbritration over property rights and the possibility for contracts to be enforced. The state can have further roles if its citizens choose. Even in the most nakedly free-market societies there is some form of welfare system. Public servivces are provided at levels democratically chosen by the citizens paid for out of taxes collected under the rule of law by the state.

So, that’s the general theory. Now for the gap in the political spectrum. I will focus on the UK here but I think similary analyses may well exist elsewhere. On the centre-right in Britain politicians have been in favour of reducing the power of the state economically, limiting regulation and having the state do less in public services. However this has often been combined with an opposite position when it comes to law and order and particularly on areas of private morality where there has been an appetite for the state to get more involved.

On the centre-left, there is a resistance to the state interfering in private morality but a much greater appetite for state intervention in the economy to tax and to redistribute wealth to create some form of ‘fairer’ society.

But when you look at the above analyses there is a missing viewpoint. What if you believe in a correctly-sized state in political and economic terms? What if you do not want the state telling consenting adults how to live their lives or trying to re-engineer the wealth distribution in a way which might have good intentions cannot be consistent with economic freedom?

The missing piece here is individualism. The centre right attacks individualism because it wants to have a ‘big society’ and impose traditional family values. The centre left attacks individualism because it values solidarity and collectivism and sees acting in your own interest as selfish or greedy.

I on the other hand see the individual as fundamental to both democracy and capitalism. To the exent you attack the individual you make people less free. And while the state should not oppress the individual it must exist and protect the capitalist and democratic systems. I do not want to be governed by oligarchs or warlords.

For most of the political history I have witnessed in the UK there has not been much of a representation of the views I have expressed. The Conservatives have espoused the traditional centre-right position and Labour the traditional centre-left position which the centre party (now the Liberal Democrats formerly the Liberal/SDP alliance) holding a more moderated version of the centre-left view. New Labour was relatively centrist in its economics but as their period in power went on the anti-individualism inherent in a lot of centre-left parties took over. Ironically this led them to take authoritarian stances on personal freedom which even the Conservatives could not support (compulsory ID cards?).

There may be just the glimmers of hope for representation of politically and economically liberal views. The so-called Orange Book written by prominent Liberal Democrats was panned at the time by activists who were scandalised by its rejection of traditional centre-left values. Yet by the strange set of political accidents set in train by the 2010 General Election, many of the Orange Book authors have ended up in government. Because they are part of a coalition, they have been temporarily freed from their activists and may be in a position to implement some politically and economically liberal policies.

Of course this is all very uncertain. It is impossible to predict the trajectory of British politics given the earthquake of the proposed spending cuts. The Liberal Democrats in the coalition are under severe pressure on both sides. On the one side is the anti-cuts factions which may derail the coalition and annihilate the party electorally. On the other are some Conservatives who will want to use power to entrench traditional values, ‘protecting marriage’, restricting reproductive freedom and strengthening the role of faith groups.

We certainly live in interesting times. But my views on freedom transcend any local political circumstances. I hope one day they will get a better hearing in mainstream politics.

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