Author Archives: Daniel Duggan

The social justice argument for a Universal Basic Income

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Recently, there has been much discussion regarding the desirability of a Universal Basic Income. Arguments used to justify it range from providing security, to alleviating poverty, to increasing freedom, to nurturing a sense of social cohesion. However, one of the most persuasive arguments is that based on justice: on each getting what is their due.

Historically, liberals have tended to be most familiar with, and sympathetic to, John Locke’s justification of property ownership. For Locke, the world initially belonged to everyone, but by individuals mixing their labour with land they came to own it (the possibility that such individuals should simply lose their labour seems not to have occurred to Locke). As long as those who do not possess land, including their descendants, are better off than they would have otherwise been (those who, for example, own no land and work the land of others have, Lockeans would suggest, avoided the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and are thus better off) then the distribution of property, including to later generations via inheritance or sale, is justified.

However, another liberal tradition, one we might call a ‘left-libertarian’ one, and including Henry George, a proponent of a Land Valuation Tax, takes a different view. The world was, and remains, commonly owned; we are all joint heirs to the world. For the left-libertarian, those who claimed ownership of land deprived the community of its assets and, as a result, those who benefit from land ownership today, whether by inheritance or sale, may be likened to the recipients of stolen goods; the passage of time does not turn a wrong into a right. As the Victorian thinker Herbert Spencer wrote in 1851, “The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen: not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers: blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax” (Spencer would later adopt a much more conservative attitude towards land ownership; some time ago I purchased a letter by Spencer in which he made clear his refusal to permit the republication of the above and other similarly offending passages). Essentially, for such left-libertarians, much wealth today rests on illegitimate grounds.

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Housing, Liberalism, and Mutualism

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Liberals have long believed that wide property ownership, serving as a bulwark against state tyranny, is essential to the preservation of liberty.  However, our pluralism has ensured that we have historically been committed to a diversity of housing models, including social housing. With the need for our party to engage with, and empower, communities who often feel forgotten, and deprived of real power over their lives, Liberal Democrats must offer a clear, distinctive, and liberal approach to social housing. What should this look like?

In recent years, various local authorities have brought their housing stock under their direct control,  replacing arms-length management organisations, and other local authorities, including my own, Gateshead Council, are planning to do likewise.

However, both of these models – the ‘partial privatisation’ offered by arms-length management organisations and the (local) statism of in-house control –  suffer from the same weakness: they deny tenants meaningful control over the management of their homes. Just as ‘Tenant panels’ and ‘Focus groups’ are not a substitute for participatory democracy, the opportunity to lobby local Councillors, in the hope that they will come to aid of a tenant, ignores the need to decentralise and devolve power to the level at which it should be exercised: with the tenant. Both of the above models exemplify the stale and dull bureaucratic managerialism of much of local government and are premised on a paternalistic ethic that has little, if any, concern with empowering local residents to take ownership of their communities.

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Reforming capitalism: The need for popular ownership

In the wake of coronavirus, how should Liberal Democrats think about and approach capitalism?

For those on the left this pandemic is confirmation that capitalism has failed; without significant state assistance it lacks, we are told, the resilience to manage in times of crisis. As a result, socialists declare that the market must be restrained, tempered, and tamed. Crucially, however, it is the state which is to be charged with achieving this. We must, we are told, have more taxation and greater regulation as well as greater state spending.

In contrast, for those on the right this episode has confirmed that we need more, not less, of the Chicago school thinking that has dominated so much economic thought since the days of Thatcher and Reagan: we require, we are told, less taxation and fewer regulations.

Contrary to the above, Liberal Democrats should draw on our rich intellectual heritage and demand a new, reformed, and radical form of capitalism. The hallmark of such a vision should be one in which capital is much more widely owned than is currently the case and in which as many people as possible own capital.

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‘Power for All’: A Liberal agenda for the future

The question of what the Liberal Democrats should look like, and stand for, in a post-coronavirus world is being increasingly asked. Indeed, we already have hints of the future directions of Labour and the Conservatives and it would not be surprising to see both indulge in the politics of nostalgia and advocate a return to their favoured status quo in response to this health crisis.

In the case of the Conservatives this may translate into a continuation of the neo-liberal agenda that has dominated so much economic thinking for the last forty years (a call for ‘Reaganomics’ has already appeared on ConservativeHome).

In contrast, for Keir Starmer’s Labour, particularly given how many Fabians belong to his Shadow Cabinet, it may appear in the form of a call to return to a statist, corporatist, technocratic, social democracy that dominated Britain for some thirty or so years prior to the triumph of neo-liberalism.

Just as Labour and the Conservatives failed to provide a radical and transformational response to the 2008 financial crisis, the possibility that they will fail to do so in response to this crisis is not a small one.

Both responses are, however, uninspiring and backward-looking and liberals must resist the temptation to favour either. Additionally, the alternative of merely splitting the difference between the two, picking and attempting to stitch together elements from each ‘vision’, must also be opposed.

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Voluntarism, statism, and coronavius

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What kind of world awaits us after the coronavirus pandemic and how should Liberal Democrats respond to it?

One, not unlikely, scenario is that those on both the right and left may feel that the pandemic justifies a larger, and more intrusive, state. Whereas the former may express such statism in calls for a ‘bio-surveillance’ state, with the inevitable restrictions on civil liberties that this entails, the latter’s statism is more likely to be expressed in terms of a greater role for the state in economic life. Liberals, however, should emphasise the need to develop and expand the third sector – voluntary groups, cooperatives, and mutuals – in the new political world that awaits us.

During the pandemic, a spontaneous spirit of voluntarism, self-help, and mutual aid has emerged in communities throughout Britain. Indeed, although local councils have much to be proud of, it is apparent from my experience as a Councillor that mutual aid groups, established and run by volunteers, have been able to contact and help those who local government, for various reasons, have been unable to reach.

Despite our party’s long commitment to ‘community politics’,  in recent years the emergence of voluntary-run libraries, community centres, bowling clubs, and other services has all too often been justified in terms of financial necessity and, sometimes, with a sense of regret. Such negative arguments overlook the positive arguments in favour of the voluntary principle, within which local communities control and run services, not least the benefits gained by the volunteers themselves. As J.S. Mill wrote,

A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest – who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern – who expect everything to be done for them, except what can be made an affair of mere habit and routine – have their facilities only half-developed.

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Recent Comments

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    @Martin. First of all, thanks for the generally supportive comment of my efforts. And sorry about the slip-up. It is partly (but not entirely) due to scheduling...
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    Reading through the New Liberal Manifesto it certainly marked us out from our opponents as a modern social liberal party . I would have liked to have seen a lit...
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    Flu, not flue, sorry, typos!...
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    Matt Great piece, this is not and ought not to be seen as a flue. Your reason is the best, practically as in this country with a very poor level of publiuc p...
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    Peter You as always here are sensible and realistic. With this too much in fact. There is no pandemic ever that we as a species have made endemic. They all c...