As Professor Joad used to say on the Brains Trust, (a popular, if somewhat patronising, discussion programme on BBC radio in the 1940’s), it all depends on what you mean by “liberal”. Here are three different ways in which the word has been defined in recent times:
1. By supporters of the free-market right, to mean maximum economic freedom for businesses and individuals, with the minimum of state spending, intervention and regulation
2. By civil and human rights activists and social libertarians, to mean the maximum possible personal freedom, especially in regard to sexuality, abortion, drugs, religion, free speech and the rights of defendants
3. By Americans – by the Right as a term of abuse, by progressives as a badge of pride – to mean federal laws and spending to build a more equal society, and to defend the rights and advance the interests of less well-off Americans
I am definitely a liberal in terms of definition 3, and mainly one in terms of definition 2. I am not a liberal in terms of definition 1. So why do I say that, all in all, I am probably not a liberal?
For a start, I dislike labels whose meaning is either unclear or ambiguous. And in the contest to define “liberal” my sympathies are with the European mainland concept of a philosophy that puts personal autonomy ahead of collective decisions. To me, a thorough-going liberal is someone who wants the state to keep out of both private morality and business decisions.
On that definition, few people are true, 100 per cent Liberals – some libertarians, perhaps, but not many others. Quite a few people are economically liberal and socially conservative (the new Right in Europe and the US); lined against them are those who are economically interventionist and socially liberal (most of Britain’s left, including the Greens).
I belong broadly to the second group – except that I am queasy about taking an absolute position on the rights of defendants accused of terrorism. It’s not that I want them to lose their freedom without a proper trial, or to be convicted on the basis of secret evidence that can’t be tested: we lose the right to call ourselves civilised if we abandon habeas corpus and punish them too readily. But I do believe that we must balance the rights of suspects and the rights of the potential victims of terrorism – that is, all of us, or society as a whole.
And that is the point, for it has a wider application. Balances must be struck in all kinds of ways between the liberal rights of individuals and the collective rights of society. In strict terms, the minimum wage is an illiberal policy, as it interferes in the freedoms of employers and workers to negotiate pay. So is the ban on smoking in offices, pubs and restaurants. Speed limits curb our right to drive as fast as we like, and taxes curb our right to spend what we want. Race Relations Acts and the laws of libel and contempt restrict our freedom of speech. As I support the minimum wage, smoking bans, speed limits, generous, tax-funded state provision, and some checks on what we can say in public, I am reluctant to claim to be a liberal.
Now, there are many people, including good friends of mine, who share these views and insist that they are good liberals. Their argument, as I understand it, is that liberalism has never been a purist doctrine, and that it is perfectly happy with restrictions on personal liberty where the benefits of collectively agreed restrictions outweigh the virtues of individual freedom.
The trouble is that this approach dilutes the definition of liberalism so much that it embraces virtually everyone except crooks, sociopaths and some recent bankers. Who, from the Thatcherite Right to Old Labour’s left-wing, would NOT defend their policies in terms of finding the right balance between personal freedom and collective rules? They would differ sharply about WHERE to strike that balance but not about the FACT that a balance is needed.
If “liberal” is to be saved from being diluted to death, it must revert to its proper, indeed noble, concept of a philosophy that values individual liberty above all else. I want a society in which there are plenty of such liberals, perpetually questioning arguments for collective rules and challenging accretions of state (and, indeed, private) power. They are vital irritants, ensuring that the proper quest for balance does not tip into authoritarianism. However, I believe that many of the biggest problems we face today – from poverty to climate change – require collective action. So while I want liberals to question everything the state does, to probe the motives and measures of every government minister and corporate mogul, and generally kick up a fuss, I don’t actually want them in charge.
And if I don’t want them in charge, I can’t really call myself one of them.
Peter Kellner's YouGov blog