In defence of liberalism
By Frank Hardee
If you think about it, socialism relies heavily on defeasability. In other words, people point to living examples of socialism and the response of most socialists is to say: ‘But that is not ‘real’ socialism’. Proponents of the free market do the same. Their response? ‘But that’s not real capitalism‘. Why can’t liberals have their ideal liberalism? Here is Frank Hardee, a lecturer in politics, arguing strongly for the idea of real liberalism.
Although this is ostensibly a piece about political ideas, I have been asked by the editors to lay out my own political views. Let me make it clear that in the UK I tend to vote Liberal Democrat (and am a party member) not out of some tribal loyalty, but rather, because they best fit the values that I describe below. And while the voting system in the UK does not promote plural politics, I think it is important to have that liberal voice at the table as best we can. I would, of course, consider voting a different way and for different candidates if they bought into the ‘liberal vision’. There are members of the Green Party, the Labour Party, the SNP and even the Conservative Party who are fellow travellers along the liberal cause. To take a very current example: it’s funny but also enlightening to see that the real liberal opposition to this shockingly authoritarian government has united the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats as well as the Tory libertarians of Sir Desmond Swayne and Graham Brady. To me this is a good thing – politics is not red side vs blue side or ‘socialist vs capitalist’, it is about coming together on issues to promote the cause of freedom.
Towards the end of the two-year A Level Politics course, I run a lesson entitled, ‘Will the real liberal, please stand up!’. We hear the term ‘liberal’ and means so many different things to different people. In the States it is used as a term of insult to progressives on the left by the conservative right – ‘those libtards…’! In the UK, the socialist left equate liberalism with neo-liberal economic doctrine espoused by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan. In the international sphere, realists dub anyone who holds the vague notion that national sovereignty is not the most important global political idea as a ‘IR liberal’.
Liberalism is at its heart about individual freedom, a belief that human beings are rational and liberals believe in tolerance.
Global socialists rail against the ‘liberal world order’ and the ‘liberal Washington institutions such as the IMF and World Bank’. Feminists like Kate Millet and Carol Hansch see liberals as weak and not going far enough to smash the patriarchy.
Being a liberal in the 21st Century is not easy – you get it from both sides, and here in the UK it is very hard to get a word in edgeways when both the system and prevailing wind has been against you. Having said that, this article argues that there is still a place for liberalism in the world today and not only that, but the type of liberalism that I am about to describe is actually desired by the majority of the world’s population.
It’s necessary to go back to basics and define what we mean by liberalism – this could be a whole article, heck, a whole book in itself, but I’ll try and reduce it to a few key sentences.
Liberalism is, at its heart, about individual freedom; the belief that human beings are rational. Liberals believe in tolerance; although potentially selfish in nature, people have the capacity for cooperation and helping others. A firm commitment to education, equality of opportunity and the belief in a genuine meritocracy are also characteristics of liberalism. By meritocracy I mean those who are given the same chances in life should be allowed to rise and fall based on their informed and rational decisions. On the face of it, all good? Then why is liberalism attacked to vehemently in the UK today?
The attack from the right
The attack from the right is probably the easiest one to deal with. They argue that Britain is a traditional nation and that its traditions should be upheld. They argue that society is organic and has a natural hierarchy that needs to be maintained. This conservatism manifests itself in many aspects of British society: the uncritical reverence for the monarchy; the importance conservatives place on traditional Christian ideas and values; the support for tough law and order, and the desire to create a homogenous society – which has led to the anti-immigration agenda they have been pushing since the 1960s.
Save getting rid of the monarchy (which may take some time), a liberal would argue that society and social attitudes are changing as, on the whole, the world has become more informed and people are better educated. The more rational humans are, the better they can distinguish between fact and fiction – antiquated ways of seeing the world will fade and die out.
The attack from the left
The attack from the left is more difficult to understand, but it boils down to an economic argument. Socialists caricature liberals as those who subscribe to neo-liberal economics and they call them selfish. For them, these liberals are simply out to tread on the poor. They point to the Jacob Rees-Mogg’s of this world as evidence of capitalism gone mad.
The attack from the left is more difficult to understand, but it boils down to an economic argument.
While I agree that liberalism has been taken in that direction by some, there is a modern liberal defence to contradict the attack from the left. I don’t agree with the Marxist analysis which states that there are different competing classes pitted against each another. As a liberal I believe that we are all individuals and that to group people together misunderstands the complex and varied nature of the human race.
However, I do agree with socialists in this sense: it is a good idea to have a well-funded and functioning welfare state. However, this is not for the same reasons the left gives. Here I want to draw upon the work of the liberal philosopher, John Rawls and his Veil of Ignorance Theory. The reason I want a well-funded welfare state is not because I believe in an abstract idea of social justice and egalitarianism, but because I don’t want to have to pay for healthcare in the event that I am unlucky in life and get dealt a poor hand. The liberal justification invokes self interest. We get the same outcome as the socialists, but for individual rather than collective reasons.
This is a topic people have been concerned about recently. In fact, Gavin Williamson, in my view the worst Education Secretary we have ever had, is planning something I actually support. As a liberal, I am prepared to abandon tribalism and give him credit for it. He intends to ban ‘no platforming’ in universities. For a liberal, this is a very important thing to do. Academic discussion and debate is the key to rationalism. When reasoning people are presented with the evidence, the truth emerges in debate.
For example, as a gay man I believe homophobic views need a degree of exposure to the light in order to demonstrate that they are incoherent, abhorrent and wrong. You can only discredit ideas by facing them head on rather than by pushing them underground where they fester. Some people on the left are not confronting these ideas readily enough, they are avoiding necessary confrontations.
It used to be the left who were champions of free speech, not the right or the centre. What’s gone wrong? When I consider myself as an example, my views have changed. I am certain that in the past as a younger, and less experienced man, I might have said things that I probably wouldn’t say now – but as a liberal I tolerate that in myself.
As a liberal, I hope to change and adapt my views as I educate myself and become a better person I have faith that the majority of people will think and do the same, so do not judge me, or them for their missteps if their missteps are an essential part of the development of their thought.
Liberalism moving forward
For me, a decade of populism from both the left and the right, from Trump, Brexit, Orban, Bolsonaro to Chavez and the ANC, has failed the people it claims to represent. The time has come to reignite the liberal flame; and there are signs that the 2020s is the decade for its resurgence.
There are democracy uprisings in Myanmar and Hong Kong, global cooperative action on climate change, and the idea that the global economy should be based on fair and free trade rather than protectionism is strong. Biden is rolling back the illiberalism of Trump with an impressive and rapid series of measures.
Liberalism is … an optimistic ideology which harnesses human potential and moves us forward to a better and higher level of understanding.
Despite appearances, our world looks more and more progressive and inclusive and based on the liberal idea of individualism, where the achievement of inalienable human rights and personal freedom of choice seem both possible and desirable for everyone on the planet.
Liberalism is about freedom, about hope – it’s an ideology which harnesses human potential and moves us forward to a better and higher level of understanding. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I hope that after a decade, a century of failed right wing and left wing radicalism, comes a new dawn of liberal hope.
Frank Hardee is a politics lecturer at Holyport College, Master in Charge of Universities and Eton Relationship. Frank is a Manager and teacher between two schools. He studied PPE at Oriel College, Oxford. He’s from Greenwich London, son of the famous comedian, Malcolm Hardee. In his free time he is a quiz master.