Chris White writes: Liberty, Equality, Happiness – and most of all the Environment

Less than one year since the Coalition was formed we aren’t doing so well in by-elections (with the notable exception of Oldham East and Saddleworth).

This was totally predictable.

We knew in May 2010 that those who backed us because we were a leftish alternative to Labour would walk away. So would those who liked us as a protest party, forever out of power. And those hacked off with Brown and Labour authoritarianism were likely to flirt with Miliband, even if he currently stands for nothing at all.

Our core support remains, and in addition there are still many who admire the fact that we had the guts to rescue the economy rather than jeer from the sidelines.

But we need to have fresh reasons for people to support us.

As we head towards Spring Conference we should perhaps ask: ‘What are we for?’

At heart, of course, is the basic concept of Liberalism, Mill’s harm principle: let people get on with their lives so long as they do no harm to others.

Isaiah Berlin termed this ‘negative liberty’ and insisted that there also needed to be a positive side: the right to choose who governs society. Many would add the ability to access the resources to exercise their liberty.

From this we quickly develop the idea that we should resist the current tendency to atomise society – putting power and taxes in the hands of the unelected and the unaccountable. We should also insist on greater equality, not least because without reasonable levels of income the poorest cannot reasonably exercise their political liberty.

But we can and should go further. Layard’s Happiness reminds us that we have tended to judge public policy on the basis of improvements in national income. This is at odds with our Liberal Benthamite tradition: the recognition of the importance achieving the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Nowadays we have a far greater armoury of research to justify Bentham’s insight and this allows Layard to derive some important consequential policies (some surprising):

  • Taxes should be used to improve our work life balance and reduce inequality, not least because inequality itself (not just poverty) causes unhappiness
  • Family life (including marriage) should be cherished
  • We should subsidise activities which improve the life of communities
  • A high priority should be given to tackling unemployment
  • Children should be protected entirely from commercial advertising
  • Children should receive ‘moral education’ including empathy with others
  • There should be more spending on tackling mental health problems.
  • We can also derive the need for localism, as the means by which communities are freed and made more democratic.

What about the environment? In a world where we look for greater happiness rather than greater national income, the environment at last has a chance.

This week’s Carbon Plan – launched by our most successful Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne – forms a key part of our Liberal tradition.

And a part we should celebrate loudly.

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14 Comments

  • @Dane – I prefer our constitution to be honest, yours seems pretty meaningless to me and pretty tory/whigg-ish too.

  • Would that be the Bentham who invented the Panopticon and thereby pre-empted the cctv, id card and DNA database culture that has been the prime justification for denouncing the Labour government as authoritarian? Or, would it be the one whose utilitarian doctrine offers the prime justification for Yarl’s Wood, control orders, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the new found Liberal interventionism of the present government?

  • “What about the environment? In a world where we look for greater happiness rather than greater national income, the environment at last has a chance.”

    How are these fine words compatible with the Government’s proposal to build a major transport link (HS2) through a beautiful area of outstanding natural beauty (the Chilterns)? This scheme will hugely damage the environment – construction will destroy unspoilt countryside and valuable wildlife habitat and subsequent operation will generate intrusive visual and noise pollution, and all for a small saving in transit time and (it is claimed) a “greater national income”. As a Liberal Democrat voter (for the previous twenty or so years) I will judge this Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular by their actions, not their rhetoric or claimed aspirations. (And I have no connections whatsoever with the route of HS2, so I do not write as a NIMBY!)

  • Terry – Look beyond the rubbish about speed, that really is not the point with HS2 and I don’t know why the Coalition are so obsessed with it. The one successful aspect of rail privatisation – freight – has resulted in very significant pressure on space on the existing West Coast Mainline. HS2 would provide very much needed capacity on the west coast of the train network. Speed is a red-herring, the only significant speed savings would likely be on a London to Scotland route and that is already budget airline territory.

    More generally, the article seems to be based on an assumption that ‘happiness’ can be spread in a more optimal way than is GDP defined wealth. This is, of course not to say that GDP wealth is well spread, but surely the author overlooks the vast qualitative increases in human well-being that have come from the economic growth of the past two centuries?

    It may well be true that conventional GDP does not make a good job of factoring in externalities to growth, pollution being one. However that rests on an idea that all externalities are negative. Technology for example, spurred by growth has resulted in much longer life expectancy. That is not gauged by conventional GDP either, though I think we can agree that life is good.

    I do worry that the promotion of ‘happiness’ is infact an attack on the growth that we all need, founded in an environmentalism that often skates close to dogma.

    I suspect people may want to shout at me now.

  • Simon McGrath,
    How is taxation a deprivation of liberty? And, if it is how can it be justified at all?

  • @JRC – I don’t think Chris was suggesting that Bentham is perfect…. He was not, after all, wholly liberal, that came later with his pupil Mill. But he was one of the first to advocate many liberties which we now take for granted. Incidentally, the panopticon was a prison, not the whole of society, so I don’t think it is fair to say it pre-empted ID Cards etc…

  • Dominic Curran 9th Mar '11 - 1:13pm

    “We knew in May 2010 that those who backed us because we were a leftish alternative to Labour would walk away. So would those who liked us as a protest party, forever out of power. And those hacked off with Brown and Labour authoritarianism were likely to flirt with Miliband, even if he currently stands for nothing at all.”

    Chris – i ‘walked away’ in November last year after 19 years of membership, camapiagning and standing as a candidiate. I never saw us as a leftish alternative to labour – although i do think that my and the party’s centre of gravity is to the left – nor do i want us to forever be a protest party unsullied by power. I was extremely upset at nick clegg’s post-election admission that he didn’t believe in a gradual approach to deficit reduction – ie that our leader is a neo-liberal in economics, which we as a party are not – and at his/our subsequent adoption of all things tory, especially the quasi-privatisation of the NHS and the effective abolition of council housing for future tenants. i fear the party has lost its own identity in order to show how great coalitions are, and i hear no noises that our MPs believe anything different their our new tory masters, except when entrapped by the telegraph, which frankly isn’t good enough.

    all is not well for the party, and your belief that our ‘core support’ will see us through is, i fear, mistaken (albeit in a wonderfully liberal democrat optimistic way). what is our core support anyway? 10%? how many fewer MPs and councillors, AMs, and others will that be?

  • Chris White 9th Mar '11 - 1:34pm

    I did not suggest that we could rely upon our core support. That is the point of the article: we need to start thinking again about what we stand for in order to move our beyond our core support.

  • Ed The Snapper 10th Mar '11 - 7:30am

    “We knew in May 2010 that those who backed us because we were a leftish alternative to Labour would walk away. So would those who liked us as a protest party, forever out of power. And those hacked off with Brown and Labour authoritarianism were likely to flirt with Miliband, even if he currently stands for nothing at all. Our core support remains, and in addition there are still many who admire the fact that we had the guts to rescue the economy rather than jeer from the sidelines.”

    This is another LibDem article that insults the electorate and makes out those who voted LibDem last year are idiots. I am not surprised that the LibDems are down to less than 10% support and are losing third-place to UKIP. And has the economy been “rescued” then? There are still millions of unemployed and underemployed.

  • Simon McGrath,

    For taxation to be justified on the grounds that it promotes a greater good then it cannot be true that property is absolute. It is, by your reckoning, to be decided by the greater good. Therefore the rightful income of an individual is that which remains after taxation. The individual’s liberty to dispose of their income as they will, is therefore unaffected by taxation and thus cannot be considered a deprivation of liberty.

    Only if we consider the gross income and assets of an individual to be their rightful and proper entitlement, and, that the ownership and disposal of it is intrinsic to their liberty, can taxation be said to deprive them of liberty. If we consider the income to which an individual is entitled, and, that the disposal of it is intrinsic to liberty, and, if the market rewards some individuals to a greater extent than their entitlement and others less than their entitlement, then, taxation and redistribution is the restoration of liberty to those who are under-rewarded by the market. Taxation under these circumstances does not deprive liberty it redistributes it.

    If we take Bentham’s utilitarianism in to account, can a system that deprives an individual of liberty only to redistribute it elsewhere be wrong? The ultimate goal of utilitarianism is to maximise utility. If you lose your spending power, (and, by your reckoning therefore your liberty), but I gain an equivalent measure of spending power has utility been maximised? No, utility remains the same. Therefore the greater good has not been served. It is a zero sum game. Therefore, even though I am deprived of liberty. If my lack of liberty is restored to its just level and yours is also then taxation has maximised utility but it cannot then be declared that you have suffered a deprivation of liberty unless it also concluded that your liberty stands at whatever level you can achieve within the market and that any levelling down from that is deprivation. So, Bob Diamond’s income now standing at £6,000,000+ for the present year has set his potential liberty at this level, given your thesis that individual liberty is variable dependent upon income. If the greater good determines that he is not entitled to such a level of income and reduce it to £5,995,000, has he been deprived of liberty? Apart from the freedom to randomly spend money there is no aspect of life that we would describe as a component of liberty that would be restricted by halving his income through taxation so how has taxation deprived liberty in such a case?

    If we justify the deprivation of liberty by it being to the benefit of the greater good can it be claimed that the greater good will always trump liberty? As I have described above, the case for taxation stands without the need to restrict or deprive the individual of any liberty but if it did could the greater good be sufficient justification for such a restriction?

    So no Simon, I don’t think it is obvious.

    Henry,
    I don’t think Chris was making such a suggestion either but calls to utilitarianism and the list of policy suggestions that follow call into question a whole raft of Liberal Democrat campaigns against the authoritarianism of the last government whilst, at the same time questioning the direction of the government which he supports and which is rapidly retreating from the gains made by the last government in those same policy areas, gains that are dismissed on the ad hominem style dismissal of everything labour did to produce the most liberal decade in the history of our country on the basis of some civil liberty infringements that are justified under the self same doctrine of utilitarianism upon which Chris is calling. Yes the Panopticon was a design for a prison but utilitarianism justifies all of the things I stated it pre-empted. As Simon says, liberty can be deprived for the greater good.

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