Liberal Equality – David Howarth delivers Social Liberal Forum’s annual Beveridge Lecture

You always come away from a David Howarth speech with your brain fizzing with excitement. Our former MP for Cambridge did not disappoint tonight as he delivered the Social Liberal Forum’s Beveridge Lecture in a hybrid event hosted online and at the National Liberal Club. Our newest MP, Sarah Green, a former Director of the SLF, was in the Chair.

The theme for tonight’s talk was Liberal Equality – what should the liberal attitude be to equality.

He started out by pointing out that unequal societies are unhealthier and unhappier – even if you have above average income. The financial crash and the pandemic have hastened an already growing inequality.

He talked about the threat posed by the super rich to our democracy and liberal values.

He looked at how John Stuart Mill’s idea that “the best state of human nature” involves nobody being poor, nobody having the desire to be richer and nobody fearing that they could be thrust back into poverty.

He had some ideas about how we could break up concentrations of wealth and power – capping political donations, state funding political parties by giving citizens vouchers to spend on the party of their choice, capping the amount you could inherit. Before anyone in a blue wall seat has to lie down and grab the smelling salts, the amounts would be beyond the incomes of all but the ultra rich – the sort of amount it would take to buy a national newspaper.

His idea for reforming the House of Lords was to go on the German Bundesrat idea – make it a powerhouse of the regions and nations, giving them a direct link into national legislation for the first time, so you would have Andy Burnham and Nicola Sturgeon and a few Lib Dem Council leaders having an influence.

His “carrot” to balance out the stick was a Universal Basic Wealth scheme alongside Universal Basic Income so that people could use a sum they get at, say, 25 to buy property.

I asked about how we tackle structural racism and sexism and he answered that there should be no social hierarchies in a liberal society and included class in that as well.

There were interesting questions around the monarchy and inheriting family businesses but I’m not going to give too much away because the session was being recorded and will appear on the Social Liberal Forum’s website

It is definitely worth watching.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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18 Comments

  • Philippa Gray 30th Jul '21 - 9:44am

    Thanks for an excellent summary, Caron.
    The lecture was full of interesting ideas. I particularly liked what David said about the role of government: people will accept a level of financial inequality, government should ensure that this does not convert to inequalities of health, educational and particularly power. We all want to be confident that no-one has, or can gain, the power to harm us. This is a great way to distinguish what we want, as liberals, from what the conservatives deliver in practice.

  • I don’t think people should be members of legislative bodies ex officio such as mayors. But there is an argument to have a body like the US senate of around 100 members. May be around 20 regions with 5 senators each elected by PR.

    As Tony Benn said if you give people power then there should be a direct mechanism for depriving them of that power and holding them accountable besides which a mayoral job should be (more than) a full time job in itself. And hopefully the senators would have strong visibility in their regions campaigning for a better deal for their area.

  • Peter Martin 1st Aug '21 - 11:04am

    ‘ “……the best state of human nature” involves nobody being poor, nobody having the desire to be richer and nobody fearing that they could be thrust back into poverty…….’

    This, even though it may have been said over 150 years ago, still sounds very Lib Demy! But it ignores how capitalism works. Most of us who are, or have been, reliant on our regular pay cheques will know that without a job to provide those cheques, or now bank transfers, we would be in a dire financial position. It is that ‘fear’ which gets us up on a Monday morning to do what we need to do.

    Whether socialism would be fundamentally any different is questionable. All we can say is that it would be fairer and more equitable than it is now. But, for example, the post would still need to be delivered in a socialist economy and the sewers would still need to be kept unblocked. Robot technology has still not advanced far enough to have robots do all that. No-one really wants to get up on a cold wet winter’s morning to do most jobs. So how do we make sure the sewers still flow and packages, get delivered?

  • John Stuart Mill was among the most important classical Liberal philosophers and political theorists whose writings and ideas shaped the political economy of the British empire in the era of Gladstone and Disraeli.
    He worked as a colonial administrator for the East India company for 35 years from the age of 17. He published ‘On Liberty‘ in 1859, a year after leaving the company.
    Mill had been schooled in Utilitarianism and held free markets to be the basis of economic development in the tradition of Adam Smith.
    He was a proponent of a flat rate of income tax coupled with an inheritance tax based on the utilitarian principles of equality.
    He defended socialist principles in his ‘Principles of Political Economy‘ and proposed that the whole wage system be abolished in favour of a co-operative wage system. Principles of Political economy became the main University text for economics students supplanting Smith’s Wealth of nations. Mill’s work ‘Socialism‘, argued that the prevalence of poverty in contemporary industrial capitalist societies was “pro tanto a failure of the social arrangements”, and that attempts to condone this state of affairs as being the result of individual failings did not represent a justification of them but instead were “an irresistible claim upon every human being for protection against suffering”.
    His main objection to socialism focused on what he saw its destruction of competition. He argued more for equal opportunity and placed meritocracy above all other ideals. This led him to argue that capitalist economies could be expected in the future to be supplanted by workers cooperatives that collectively owned the capital with which they carry on their operations, and worked under managers elected and removable by themselves. In practice, few enterprises have successfully sustained this model outside Mondragon in Spain and the British Grocery Cooperatives.

  • Peter Martin 1st Aug '21 - 9:44pm

    We really ought not to be quite so unquestioning of the supposed great and the good of past eras.

    For example, I just discovered that JS Mill once said:

    “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.”

    This is complete BS even from someone of his era. He somehow hadn’t appreciated that ploughing a field with the aid of a horse and a simple plough is a lot easier than digging the soil with bare hands. Would he have said such a thing if he’d ever had to try out the two alternatives for himself?

  • Peter Martin 2nd Aug '21 - 7:40am

    @ Martin,

    I don’t believe the quotation is out of context if this is what you’re getting at. The next line of: “…They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment….” indicates JSM’s Malthusian inclinations. He was saying that there is no point is increasing the levels of production because this allows the lower classes to increase in number. This cancels out, at least for them, the benefits of the rise in productivity.

    If we were to apply the same principles to contemporary aid, for developing countries, we’d say there is no point because it allows population levels to increase and we end up with an increased number of equally poor people. I can’t see this kind of sentiment going down too well in Lib Dem circles.

    I’m not particularly surprised that JSM would be at least quasi-Malthusian. Those ideas were widespread in the 19th century. It’s a pessimistic outlook. Yes, we should have best possible technology but the benefits do need to be equitably shared out has always been the more optimistic socialist view.

  • David Evans 2nd Aug '21 - 9:36am

    Peter Martin, You really are scraping the bottom of the barrel with your ” … indicates JSM’s Malthusian inclinations” comment, you really are. There was no ‘ … and in the end we all starve’ prediction but simply a statement of fact based on the evidence available to him at the time that “…They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment….” And this was true for the vast majority and remains so for most of the world – just look at China’s 996 culture :-(.

    As for your comment “the more optimistic socialist view” all I can say is that it is one of the greatest triumphs of hope over experience I have ever heard!!

  • Marx believed in the Smithian labor theory of value but added an extended analysis of the relationship between labor and machines.
    Capital is composed of human variable capital (or variable costs) and constant machines (or fixed costs). Marx thought that the organic composition of capital would move higher over time, leading to an industrial reserve army. He says “as the productivity of labor increases, capital increases its supply of labor more quickly than its demand for workers,” thus creating a relative surplus population or an industrial reserve army of unemployed workers (redundant population which helps to keep the price of labor down according to classical law of supply and demand, but not very productive). This led to the divorcing of the means of production from labor, a process called primitive accumulation, which formed two distinct and diametrically opposed classes — capitalists and laborers (proletariats).
    Marx thinks that the creation of wealth produces poverty. There cannot be wealth without poverty because the wealthy gain money from exploitation of the means of production (land) and the working class; the surplus value gained is the “stealing” of value from the laborer. Marx also associates market wages as being influenced by “the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army and this in turn corresponds to the periodic alterations of the industrial cycle.” With high unemployment, workers have less bargaining power compared to capitalists.
    Both Malthus and Marx believed that finite resources woud eventually lead to a surplus population. Malthus argued that it is detrimental to have more resources split among more people while Marx thought that resources are skewed to the upper class in that the surplus population helps them keep the price of labor low thereby increasing their profits by lowering variable labor costs.
    With the current focus on the capacity of the planet to sustain the current consumption driven economic model, the population theories of Malthus and Marx are being revisited in environmental economic studies.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Aug '21 - 10:18am

    @ David Evans,

    You could have condensed your last comment to “Oh no he wasn’t” in reply to my suggestion that SJ Mill had “Malthusian inclinations”. You might want to provide some explanation and/or references to support your viewpoint.

    @ Joe,

    I’m not sure why you’ve brought Marx into the discussion. Marx was quite hostile to both JS Mill and T Malthus, and especially the latter.

    For Marx, Malthus was “a lackey of the bourgeoisie”. He falsely blamed misery and destitution on excessive population growth and the poor themselves. Marx felt the reason for poverty was the imbalance of power between the capitalists and workers.

    Lib Dems perhaps wouldn’t use the first sentence, of the previous para, but the second sentence is pretty much mainstream Lib Dem thought. The more social of the Social Liberal faction may well go along with the last sentence too.

  • Peter Martin,

    Marx’s works deal with the challenges and limitations of capitalism as an economic system on population dynamics and class conflict.
    Marx was influenced by the work of Hegel and regarded the laws of modern society as an inevitable historical process based on moral and human implications. Hegel maintained that ideas evolve according to a continual process of contradiction and resolution and that human history is driven by this dialectical evolution of ideas.
    The theories of Malthus and Marx intersect because they both believe that finite resources will eventually lead to a surplus population, They each reflect on how society changes because of the economic situations of the time: the poor laws lead to overpopulation, 18th century enclosures lead to privatization of land and increasing inequality between capitalists and proletariats, and capitalism leads to more suffering of the working class while the capitalists thrive. Malthus uses logical empiricism to develop his theories, Marx uses dialectic materialism. Marx replaces Malthus’s concept of overpopulation by the concept of a relative surplus population. In industrial capitalist societies, he saw the materialization of technological factors as increasing the amount of production possible per worker and thus decreasing the needed labor force.
    Malthusian arguments remain relevant in analyzing population-resource dynamics. Marx’s project synthesizes a Hegelian, philosophical view of historical evolution with an interest in capitalism. While their theories of population, resource dynamics, and relationship to capitalism may be different in logic and conclusions, their frameworks still serve as useful tools for analyzing historical and contemporary economic debates.
    As this paper contends https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12157696/ “population growth is a critical factor in Marx’s theory of the progressive impoverishment of the working class. However, because of his reluctance to acknowledge the value of the Malthusian contribution, Marx focused his analysis of the labor force under capitalism on the demand for workers and neglected the supply side, which is determined by the growth of population. The author concludes that Marxist theory would have benefited from greater consideration of Malthusian theory.”

  • Peter Martin 4th Aug '21 - 9:33am

    @ Joe,

    Maybe you could write a OP on Marxist dielectical, and Hegelian historical, materialism from a 21st century Lib Dem perspective? I’d make a comment if no-one else does! I first came across these concepts many years ago at Uni. A close friend at the time was studying history and she did a reasonable job of explaining it all to me! I think I was one of the few on my Physics course who had even half an idea on what it was all about.

    My retaliation was to try to explain some Quantum mechanical concepts but she never quite grasped those! But of course we aren’t meant to, which is an an even harder concept to follow.

    But it did strike me how odd it was that many hadn’t moved on from 19th century concepts and so were stuck in the past. I don’t believe Marx’s theory of value is quite right tbh, but it can cause certain hostilities in left wing circles to say something like that. Even worse than admitting to supporting Leave! And it’s amusing to ruffle a few Lib Dem feathers by questioning what JS Mill actually believed in too.

  • Peter Martin 5th Aug '21 - 7:12am

    @ Martin,

    I think I might have noticed that you do have a problem with understanding that opposition to the highly neoliberal EU can be anything other than from a right wing perspective. Can I suggest you do a little research and, for starters, look up what Tony Benn used to say about it? Also Jeremy Corbyn too before pressures of Labour leadership forced him to change. You’ll find plenty more if you do a little research.

    Malthus was of the opinion that aiding the poor simply encouraged them to increase in number. You’ll find this attitude in the Tory party today. You might want to read up a little more about what he was actually advocating rather than what many assume he was saying. He is generally understood today to be concerned about population levels generally whereas he was really only concerned about overpopulation in the dependent poor. It was perfectly fine, for example, for the Duke and Duchess to have lots of children but not for someone who actually did the work to support the Duke and Duchess.

    This is quite different to your concept of concern for the environment. It’s not the poor who release the most CO2 into the atmosphere! So there is really nothing in Malthusian theory for the modern environmental movement. If we must have a level of population control it needs to be applied to everyone and not just the poor.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusianism

  • @ Peter Martin, “Maybe you could write a OP on Marxist dielectical”.

    That’s a new one on me……. getting the hiccups in the middle of a mis-spelt dialectical assertion.

  • Peter Martin 5th Aug '21 - 1:15pm

    @ David,

    Ok so I’ve annoyed you sufficiently to pick me up on a typo! I did hear someone once refer to it as dielectrical materialism. Not quite up there with artificial incineration or describing someone as occupying the centre ground of the political rectum, but amusing enough to an electronics engineer like myself.

  • @ Peter Martin You never annoy me, Peter. More an amused chuckle than a frown.

    I believe spell checkers come free and have the benefit of red underlining.

  • Peter Martin,

    you write above “My retaliation was to try to explain some Quantum mechanical concepts but she never quite grasped those! But of course we aren’t meant to, which is an an even harder concept to follow.” I think the same argument can be applied to Hegelian historical materialism.
    A concept of dialectics is the law of the ‘interpenetration of opposite’. This law quite simply states that processes of change take place because of contradictions – because of the conflicts between the different elements that are embodied in all natural and social processes.
    Probably the best example of the interpenetration of opposites in natural science is the ‘quantum theory’. The theory based on the concept of energy having a dual character – that for some purposes. According to some experiments, energy exists in the form of waves, like electromagnetic energy. But for other purposes energy manifests itself as particles. In other words, it is quite accepted among scientists that matter and energy can actually exist in two different forms at one and the same time – on the one hand as a kind of intangible wave, on the other hand as a particle with a definite ‘quantum’ (amount) of energy embodied in it.
    The basis of quantum theory in modern physics is contradiction. But there are many other contradictions known to science. Electromagnetic energy, for example, is set in motion through the effect of positive and negative forces on each other. Magnetism depends on the existence of a north pole and a south pole. These things cannot exist separately. They exist and operate precisely because of the contradictory forces being embodied in one and the same system.

    Marxism posits that every society today consists of different contradictory elements joined together in one system, which makes it impossible for any society, any country, to remain stable or unchanged. The dialectical method, in contrast to the Aristotelian method of formal logic, attempts to identify these contradictions, in an effort to get to the bottom of the changes taking place and leads students of Marx ultimately to advocacy of communist revolution.

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