Is liberalism wrong – and how would we know?

A couple of hours on Twitter is more than enough to see the acolytes of political philosophy A assuring the world that everyone who believes in political philosophy B is stupid, immoral or more than likely both. The favour is typically returned in kind.

And yet anyone who’s acquainted with that slightly curious place known as the “real world” knows there are many highly intelligent, moral and clear-thinking people in pretty much every camp. Anyone who thinks Burke, Mill or even Marx had nothing worthwhile to say is a fool.

Who’s actually right? Are our political philosophies just religions in which we must simply have faith – you follow your creed and fight your holy wars in the ballot box?

Or maybe it’s all subjective – perhaps there’s no way to determine that, say, Social Democracy is right and Conservatism wrong and we just have to accept them as different viewpoints or moral codes.

Since these things make a big difference to our daily lives, that seems like a counsel of despair.

How might we test our own political beliefs and see if they hold up? There’s no point doing anything too large-scale – like following a whole country under one sort of government. There are too many variables. No-one says “Here’s an experiment to test the whole of modern physics” for the same reason. People devise smaller experiments where more variables can be controlled or accounted for.

There’s also little point in setting up a contest between dogmas. Let’s suppose I come up with a way to test some point of disagreement between liberals and conservatives – my grand experiment. Is it likely that my conservative opponents would agree with the way I’ve devised the test, or with my interpretation of the findings? Experience says not, and I don’t suppose I’d agree if they came up with something.

What we can do, though, is to devise tests for our own political beliefs. Suppose I want to test whether my views on sentencing policy are correct. How might I do it?

I need to come up with a hypothesis and a test or experiment first – there’s no point starting with the data as I know how good we all are at interpreting data to fit what we already believe. I need to find data I’m not familiar with – otherwise the test becomes circular – so I might devise a hypothesis about the relationship between sentencing and crime levels in some other western countries and then go and look at the data for those places.

I need to publish what I’ve done so others can see it, conduct their own research and together we can figure out where what our political philosophy predicts meets with reality and where it falls short.

Since most of these philosophies are based on outdated 19th century ideas about human nature and the way societies work, and our understanding of both of those has moved on massively in the last few decades, I’d be pretty staggered if any of them turned out to be completely correct.

We should step up to the mark and test our own political beliefs. It won’t be too hard – social scientists have been doing much the same thing for decades: they’re pretty good at it. Or do we have to accept that political creeds are more like conspiracy theories – inherently untestable? I hope not.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

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22 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Oct '12 - 1:05pm

    A good question! I think in some respects it is not really about proof. Some people will never change their views because they like the ideology they believe in. Many years ago Norman Tebbit used to describe Nelson Mandella a terrorist and a communist,Today he admits he had the wrong view on Mandella, yet fundamentally his ideology has not changed.
    Ideologies ebb and flow thorough time. In the 1960s it looked as though Keynsian economics had replaced Hayak economics, until Thatcher became prime minister ( a time that coincided with cheap North Sea oil and low commodity prices in general). Then following the disaster of light touch regulation of the Financial institutions, Keynsian economics are being revived – albeit not yet in western governments.
    Neo-conservatism is an obvious failure in recent times – given the decline of US power it is hard to imagine that will be coming back although the US Republican Party may still get elected next month. In the UK I see no prospect of any political revival of “family values” – a coded term that justifies the hatred of gays for religious reasons.
    I think in the years ahead the impact of global warming – currently one of the main drivers behind food inflation – will have a huge impact on the politics of every nation. I fear this could lead to an increase in authoritarian governments – I hope I am wrong but I think there will be a lot of desperate people out there.

  • John Richardson 17th Oct '12 - 1:50pm

    I don’t think you can even define a good outcome in a universal way. Conservatism and liberalism, e.g., seek to deliver fundamentally different ways of thinking about an individual’s relationship with others and the state. Whether you want to live in the kind of society they each seek to deliver is not really something you can reason about, IMO.

  • Simon Titley 17th Oct '12 - 2:45pm

    There’s a fundamental problem with Iain Roberts’s opinion piece, in that he confuses values with policy. The example he cites, of the relationship between sentencing and crime levels, is a matter of policy. Our policy prescriptions will vary over time but will be informed by our values.

    Ideology, as Jedibeeftrix correctly points out, is a system of values. It cannot be ‘proved’ or ‘disproved’. The efficacy of policy, on the other hand, can. Even then, because of differences in values, our idea of a good outcome may not be the same as those of a Tory or Labour supporter. For example, I agree with Geoffrey Payne that “Neo-conservatism is an obvious failure in recent times”, but I can imagine that anyone who desires greater disparities in wealth and power, and the destruction of public services, would not agree.

    If politics were ultimately a question of evidence, there would be no need for politics. We could simply appoint a set of technocrats to run the show. It is because we must resolve differences of values and interests that we need democratic politics.

  • jenny barnes 17th Oct '12 - 4:13pm

    Evidence. Hmm. Take the discussions about badger culling, drug policy, or going back a bit the transmission of cholera…
    In these cases the desirable outcomes are probably widely agreed. Reduce TB in cattle; reduce the harm done by drugs; minimise the spread of cholera. But the evidence is heavily contested. So presumably there is something in the policies that is also a desired, but undeclared, outcome? Badgers are cuddly charismatic megafauna – we like to criminalise as many people as possible – disease is caused by unwashed poor people? Not trying to put these together in a consistent ideology, of course.

  • It depends what you mean by liberalism and what you mean by conservatism. If you have a society that in political terms is defined as liberal and you want to preserve it the impetus to do so is fairly obviously a kind of conservatism. Similarly a lot of what is currently considered Conservative is actually the expression of a radical right wing economic ideology. I suppose it really depends on what you want to conserve and what you want to reform.

  • David Allen 17th Oct '12 - 6:42pm

    Simon Titley is basically right. Politics is about values. There is no way one can prove, scientifically, whether an equal or an unequal society is “better”. Each individual who votes can make a choice as to what values he or she would prefer.

    However, “values” does also include the question of how highly one values the application of technocracy. The old SDP, it seemed to me, was a party which placed a high value on technocratic solutions. For example, while Right and Left slugged it out over income distribution and strikes, the SDP advocated an incomes policy. Rightly or wrongly, the SDP values were “Let’s get some independent experts in to take charge and produce a rational solution”.

    The opposite extreme is, of course, that represented by the Tea Party and the climate change denialists, whose values are “Don’t inconvenience me with unpleasant facts, I know what I want, and that’s jam today and jam for Number One. Technocrats can go hang”.

    It’s a valid question to what extent our values should encompass respect for technocrats. The SDP example shows that like anyone else, technocrats can simply get it wrong. However, the Tea Party type of approach is surely far worse.

    I’d go for “cautiously in favour” of technocracy. Which means, employ lots of technocrats, listen to what they say, take the p*ss out of them as well from time to time, and make them listen to people. But above all, make sure they stop you from implementing crazy political ideas which aren’t going to work (are you listening, Messrs Lansley, Gove and Duncan-Smith)?

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Oct '12 - 9:47pm

    Or do we have to accept that political creeds are more like conspiracy theories – inherently untestable? I hope not.

    There are certainly some which are clearly testable and some which are clearly not. The ones which are not tend to be based on disagreement over which one of two scenarios is better, where no objective comparison exists. Obligatory thought experiment: choose between curing 100 people of a debilitating disease or preventing 100 people from being made homeless. You can mess around with the details and the parameters all day, but you’ll always be able to find cases where some people go one way and some people go the other, and there’s no way to say which one is right.

  • Some interesting examples of where liberalism is apparently wrong by Jesse Norman (Tory MP for Hereford & South Herefordshire) in the Newstatesman 2 weeks ago, link below.
    The examples highlight the confusion between Libertarianism / Liberalism. The first one’s explicit and in context the I the next two sounded like they were more swipes at “liberalism” than him trying to distance himself from the radical economic right wing of his own party.
    1) ban on smoking in public places as an example of an illiberal measure that worked.
    2) take a much tougher attitude towards the supermarkets. There is lots of evidence that they destroy social capital
    3) tension between retailers, peddling popular junk, and a public interest in containing an obesity epidemic
    . . . don’t think we’ve heard the last of those arguements, confused though they might be

    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/10/jesse-norman-impeccably-conservative

  • Iain Roberts 18th Oct '12 - 8:16am

    The criticism that I’ve confused values with policy is an interesting one – and something I’ve given a good deal of thought to over the years.

    In this particular case, I’m comfortable that I’ve got it covered: I’m explicitly not suggesting some sort of conservative vs liberal stand-off; but that we could test whether or own understanding of our own philosophy is correct .

    On the wider point, a core set of values is an important part of a political philosophy; but it isn’t all of it. There’s a lot more to any mature political philosophy than a set of values: there has to be, for it to be in any way useful. For example, political philosophies include conceptions on how individuals function and how society works; which are among the things that allow values to be translated into policy.

  • Iain Roberts 18th Oct '12 - 9:08am

    Simon – my political philosophy is about more than just a set of values. I agree that if someone sees their politics as no more than a set of values that then jumps straight onto actual policies with no other foundations, that’s pretty much impossible to test.

    I don’t think that’s actually the case for most people, though. As I’ve mentioned before, when you study political philosophies, you can’t help but notice that they’re also based on conceptions of human nature and how societies work.

    For me, saying that I can’t even test my political philosophy against *my own views of what it should achieve* is a crystal clear sign that it’s not very useful. It may be a nice to have, but it’s clearly not guiding my politics in any meaningful way, as I can come up with a wide range of contradictory policies which would all fit the values (yes, of course I can, because I’ve just said there’s no way to test them).

    This is political philosophy as a religion or pseudoscience; and for me it simply isn’t good enough. We can do better.

  • Keith Browning 18th Oct '12 - 10:07am

    Liberalism is a simple concept – it is one that allows you the freedom to change your mind, something that is unlikely to be tolerated in other political philosophies.

  • thinkers have ideas; ideologues have ideologies; demagogues have galleries; diplomats have doctrines; politicians have constituencies; liberals discover methods.

  • Richard Dean 20th Oct '12 - 7:05pm

    It’s absolutely vital to be able to test out policy ideas – for instance Land Value Tax (LVT) is claimed to have benefits by some, and to create damage by others, so doing it might be a great leap forward or it might be a disaster. SImilarly for Citizen’s Income (CI) , and for the idea that QE will solve the financial crisis.I can imagine a couple of ways a political philosophy might be shown to be wrong

    > by showing that it was inconsistent with itself
    > by showing that it does not produce the outcomes it predicts when it is put into practice

    But it’s certainly difficult – is it inconsistent for a freedom lover to believe in life imprisonment for murder? The second type of test might be done by trialling ideas in particular parts of the country and seeing what the outcomes are, before extending the policies more widely, But not for LVT or CI or QE! Maybe we just have to try it and see.

    If laisssez-faire economics is expected to lead to boom but produces bust, then we should conclude that those economics don’t work, but there are so many variables it’s hard to know. There would be other complications, such as the machinations of people who want the philosphy to fail – and an example here would be the UK’s troubled relation with the EU and Eurozone. But in the end an inclusive philosophy should be able to take that sort of problem into account.

    In the modern world we use computer to model economies, so it might also be possible to use computers to model the effect of political belief systems on the behaviours and welfare of populations. Perhaps the advertising industry may already be doing this, with a view to finding out how best to stimulate people to choose one set of product dependencies as opposed to another. Might not be too difficult to extend that to political choices too!

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