Opinion: Freedom is not a 10 pound note

Q: Mr Huhne. The word “liberal” implies a willingness to allow others their freedom. Since your party – the party of high taxes and economic regulation – respects freedom the least, can we please have our word back? Posted by Tim S on November 20, 2007 10:20 PM

RyanBerks: Right now if I had to think of one thing to differentiate the liberal dems, the only thing I could think of is that they want to tax us more, in a stealthy way of course… bizarre for a supposedly Liberal party!

There are more, plenty more, and not just from outside the party. The concept of freedom is one that all Liberal Democrats should hold dear to themselves. The entire point of liberalism which separates it from conservatism and socialism is that it aims to free the individual (whether within society or without it). This means that the government aims to allow people to live their lives their own way without trying to patronise, or control the actions and thoughts of those individuals.

Conservatism puts government as an institution to keep order and stability; Socialists consider it to be the means of taking control of private property and declaring public ownership of the means of production and establishing equality; and for those of the Third Way persuasion government is the political manager of a country (how frightfully dull) attempting to give people what it thinks they want which happens to be social democratic principles delivered through new right methods and the acceptance of the world view of the new right.

For liberals, however, government is simply nothing more than the tool that allows people to live their life in prosperity and happiness as they individually please. If government is to act then it is to free people from the coercive and inhumane consequences of it not acting and even if this is so it should only act if it has a mandate from those people which its actions shall affect. Government should not take a moralistic patronizing line with its citizens but rather allow them to make up their own minds on controversial personal moral issues even though the views these people come to may be offensive to everyone else, including the liberals themselves. If people are being prevented from doing something that will make them happy but would not harm any other individual then the government has a duty to step in to allow them to do as they wish.

New Labour talks about maximising statistics, economic indicators, social statistical indicators, reducing waiting times, reducing statistical poverty because only the numbers can tell the truth, only the numbers are a true measurement of success in the great challenge of competent political management.

Conservatives talk of the moral nature of Britain, of its degradation under New Labour, parents living in sin, the rights of minorities, gypsies and gays getting in the way of those of the majority, a utopian worship of a Britain long since passed that the government must protect and even strive towards although this fantastical vision of a traditional Britain may neither be historically real or appropriate for the modern world.

Liberals however talk of freedom, individuality, choice and tolerance. People are not numbers, happiness cannot be measured, humans cannot be made happier, better, more moral beings. It is only through them and through their own society that people can make themselves happy, make themselves better and choose their own beliefs. To a liberal there is no set way of life, no right or wrong way, there is only one way of life and that way is your own, you own your own life, and you should choose how to live it. Government is there to stop other individuals, organisations and even, to an extent, situations coercing you and dictating your life, People must be free from coercive force as much as is rationally possible, and coercion must be used only in the prevention of harm and coercion to others. That is my freedom, my liberalism, my liberty and it is one shared, although perhaps not understood, by so many others like me.

There is however a different view of liberty, of freedom and thus of liberalism (for surely the objective of any ideology calling itself liberalism must be to liberate and free people). It is both new and old for it has had its days of fashion come, pass and come again. It is material, it is methodical and it is – that most abhorrent term – economical. Human life according to these purveyors of liberty has a monetary value and it is money that makes us free. Some might say I am being too harsh on these people but it is true, it is liberalism for economists, from John Kay to Milton Friedman, who all believe that you can put a monetary value to human life, to nearly everything in fact, and argue for this view by perpetuating that we already do this in our day to day lives.

When we give money to charity we are putting a monetary value on the importance of that charitable cause, when the government deals out money it puts a value on the amount of lives that money will save, it is fine for the government to lock away a man and take away his freedoms for committing a crime but heaven forbid if the monetary cost is too much. Actions are not taken so much because of moral values but because of the monetary market and the rational limitations this places on us as both individuals and as a society.

Money does place a rational limitation upon the capabilities of governments, firms and individuals but that does not necessarily make these limitations morally right or inevitable. Mixing moral sentiment and economics is the grand inhumane flaw practised by these ‘liberals’ because it ultimately leads to the grand misconception that what is economical, market based and monetarily linked is the most humane and effective way of dealing with humanity’s problems. It is a rule, nay, a dogma that can lead to grand inhumanities from the market based solutions of the British government towards the Irish potato famine to the modern day housing shortage which, in the eyes of these liberals can only be solved by lowering taxes on housing and the opening up of property rights when in reality this simply places more power in the hands of the development companies whose interests lie not in building the much needed social housing that the poor and dispossessed homeless people of this country need but in keeping house prices high, in maintaining the status quo of high profits in exchange for homelessness and hopelessness for those of my generation who one day wish to own a home of their own.

Mitt Romney recently said that conservatism was all about strength and that you made people stronger by lowering their taxes. This is not the view of a liberal; liberalism has never been about strength. It is about justice, freedom and the abolition of unfair undue privilege. However Romney’s conservatism is where the true sentiment lies for these ‘liberals’. Their liberalism lies not in creating justice for all people, not in creating a fair and open society; it lies simply with money, and with the personal gains and strength they believe will come from the government taking back the money it gives to itself and society as a whole in order to give it back to the tax payer. That does not create liberty or equality; in the modern world of corporations and wage labour it merely leads to the privilege of a few and the destitution of those below.

After all, it is not strength that Mitt Romney talks about, it is privilege. Anybody who has heard of or seen the conditions of the working classes in Dubai has experienced the realities of a laissez faire state. They know that it creates a divide between rich and poor, a sense of powerlessness within the lower classes – and how can people possibly be free if they feel powerless to improve the conditions of their own life let alone their society?

Liberals do not argue for a laissez faire state, they argue for a minimal state; or rather a state that among other things takes as little as is necessary for itself. That does not mean the state does not give to society what society wants, it does not mean the state should seek to stop the coercions of capitalists against the workers, of uncontrollable markets against individuals. Liberal state intervention is justified when the people want it and the power of markets does not have the interests of society at heart.

Freedom is not a ten pound note; only the greedy ever feel freed by money itself, if we want to free people truly as liberals we should not look towards tax cuts, economic deregulation and a laissez faire state. We should instead look at the things in society that trap people and stop them from fulfilling their goals and potential, government must remove the sources of coercion within society: poverty, an overbearing state, privilege, powerlessness and blockades to enterprise and free thought. If this means we remove economic regulation, create tax cuts and move further towards a laissez faire state then so be it but that does not make those policies equivalent to liberalism, it merely makes them methods that can be adopted by a liberal state (as they currently are to an extent in Poland).

Liberals must seek to reclaim liberalism from the ‘new right’, to show that liberalism and conservatism are incompatible theories and, finally, must make the case that liberal democracy is the only ideology capable of serving the interests of all and the vested interests of none in the modern world. We must tell the world that liberalism is there to free you and empower you against coercion upon your way of life, not to make you richer, for the government which attempts such aims will succeed only in debasing the spirit of humanity to nothing more than a greedy, self satisfying pig. That is the difference between liberalism and ‘liberalism’.

* John Dixon blogs at a radical writes.

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  • Letters From A Tory 29th Nov '07 - 9:39am

    “Conservatism puts government as an institution to keep order and stability”

    So the Lib Dems are against order and stability?

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 9:42am

    That liberalism and conservatism are in perpetual conflict should not be in question, but I’m not sure that conflict takes place over an economic battleground.

    John’s words about the liberal enabling state are correct, but equally there is an inherent freedom in economic liberalism where people are free to choose how to spend as much of their earned income as possible.

    Liberals recognise that a liberal society is only possible with sufficient investment, but equally that any additional taxation over and above what’s needed (for use on superfluous programmes, or wasted on inefficiency) is robbing individuals of their liberty to exercise their economic freedom.

    It’s often tempting to try to defend one’s key issue by pushing in a one-sided manner for tax cuts, or for the necessity to spend money to bring about a liberal society, but both are part of a liberal worldview.

  • Peter Dunphy 29th Nov '07 - 10:50am

    For me the banner on ‘Conservative Home’ sums it up – amongst the icons for conservatives are a family, a church, and a flag. Now I don’t seek to criticize any of these establishments – as it happens I support the concept that it is a good thing for children to live within a stable family with two parents, I also think that a sense of patriotism is a good thing. I absolutely support religious freedom. However the difference between a liberal and a conservative is whether you see it as the role of government to actively promote these, or provide them with a privileged place within society through legislation.
    A truly liberal party would acknowledge the right of the individual to take or leave any of these without fear or favour. And by favour this means that government should not seek to provide tax advantages for the purposes of social engineering e.g. to promote marriage. A liberal government would support disestablishment of the Church of England and provide equal opportunity to those of all religions and none. It would not seek to criminalise those that refuse to be ‘patriotic’ (e.g. the conservative support in the US for the legislation that criminalises ‘desecration of the flag’).

    Re Letters From a Tory post 1) ‘Order and Stability’. Well these are only mechanisms to favour maintenance of whatever is the status quo, they are not philosophies. In practice they usually involve the preservation of privilege which is the most anti-liberal force. To follow the logic of these you would presumably have opposed the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism in the Soviet Bloc – in their case ‘Order and Stability’ meant the Status Quo of State Communism. Presumably you support the General’s regime in Burma – they are on the side of ‘Order and Stability’

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 11:20am

    Liberals do not argue for a laissez faire state, they argue for a minimal state; or rather a state that among other things takes as little as is necessary for itself.

    I am sure that I will be accused of picking on one point, but I think that it is the crux.

    One of my biggest concerns about the Lib Dem position is how you define a minimal state. After all, I could quite reasonably argue that a minimal state is really extremely large if I define what I feel the state should achieve and the list is long.

    For me, the main argument is the extent to which you try to enforce equality or whether you prefer to try as hard as possible to put in a system that ensures equality but ultimately step back from rigid enforcement. At the moment it seems to me that Lib Dems (at least at the top) support the former and Conservative (certainly of the Cameron type) support the latter.

    And it is an extremely important distinction. If you are going to try to enforce equality in any meaningful way you need to be constantly measuring and re-adjusting. This massively increases the size of the minimal state. In fact, we can see from what Brown has done in the last ten years that it actually results is a very large state in absolute terms.

    So, you use laissez faire as a derogatory term. I would argue that NOT having an element of laissez faire necessarily results in an intrusive and over-sized state which is actually inimical to personal freedom.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '07 - 12:04pm

    The Tories tried to implement neo-liberal economics for all it was worth.
    During the 1980s – and up until today – the Liberal party and the Liberal Democrats was and is a party that believes in Keynesian economics and is highly critical of the growing divisions between rich and poor and the deterioration of public services that we have seen since 1979.
    The Conservatives had to centralise the state in order to implement it’s economic policies, and the economics of Hayak and Friedman are vehemently opposed by the Liberal Democrats for all these reasons.
    The Tories are also looking at redistributing wealth and by implecation at least are beginning to reject neo-liberalism in order to make themselves electable again.
    It would therefore be the ultimate folly of the Liberal Democrats go down that road, but after the publication of “Reinventing the State” I do not think that they will.

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 12:18pm

    Haven’t we actually seen an improvement of public services since 2002?

    I’d also question the accuarcy of imagining Lib Dem economic policy driven solely by Keynes rather than being an understanding of alternative economic models (classical, neo-classical, monetarist). Our party has been fairly consistent as treating economics as a means to economic freedom, rather than taking dogmatic sides in debates between economists arguing for more or less state intervention.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '07 - 12:36pm

    I do not know a single Lib Dem MP who claims to be a monetarist

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 12:52pm

    I don’t have a particular problem with people who claim to support Keynesian economics – it is a reasonable enough view although not one I think is best for the country overall. However, you have to be honest about what your priorities are. If you want a regulated system, you are going to end up with a larger state mechanism. Of course, you can argue that you are after a “minimal state” but the size of that minimal state will necessarily be larger than otherwise.

    I agree that is was regrettable that Thatcher felt the need to centralise power in order to push through her reforms, although I can understand why the circumstances determined this was necessary. But is it fair to say that she pushed market liberalism “for all it was worth”? I don’t think so. The Blair government was far more intent on privitisation than Thatcher ever was.

    I am interested why you use the same term (“neo-liberalism”) for both Thatcher’s and Cameron’s agenda. They seem to approach problems from extremely different angles. Thatcher looked primarily at economic solutions and of course the current prosperity in the UK can be very much traced back to the reforms of the Thatcher era. Cameron is far more interested in quality of life, in particular localist solutions for social justice. Now of course you probably wouldn’t call him liberal because you feel possessive about the term and have decided that you define the term differently.

    However, it seems curiously ironic that the article professes to support a minimal state and yet puts forwards policies that will necessitate a this “minimal state” to be large in absolute terms.

    There is also a contradiction in saying that being laissez faire is inconsistent with being liberal. The opposite of being laissez faire is being intrusive, which is not part of most people’s definition of liberal-ness.

    If you want to be Social Democrats then call yourself Social Democrats and don’t hide behind a fig-leaf of liberalism.

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 2:08pm

    Thanks for the response, John.

    Well, this argument all comes down to what you mean by coercion. A system with no coercion either has no rules or no way of enforcing the rules, which sounds like libertarianism to me. Some people think this is good although it is hard to square with the stated aims of wanting to close the gap between the rich and the poor.

    So, I assume we are going to have some form of coercion because we are going to have laws and we are going to have a police to enforce them. And I don’t think that it is just Tories who think this is a good idea.

    The question then is what rules do we wish to enforce and how. And this is where I feel that the Lib Dem position falls apart a bit. If your stated aim is equality then you have to coerce people towards the average. This means pushing those less inclined to do so to succeed, and consequently withdrawing support from the most able and successful which will inevitably pull them back a bit. A problem appears here, and that is that elements of enforcing equality appear to be a negative sum game. In other words, the benefits you get from putting resources into those below average appear to be less than what you loose from withdrawing support form the above average, certainly as far as the very top (“the leaders of tomorrow”) are concerned. Which is one of the major factors underlying the worrying fact that increasingly the higher echelons of society (be they business, or politics, or whatever) have been educated at independent schools; the system that has been put in place in the name of equality has resulted in the very opposite.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that your stated aims are wrong (I realise that many Lib Dems believe that Conservative live by some Tory version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; in reality we all want to see everyone better off, although we differ on how we think it best to achieve this) just that the approach you propose to fix them is decidedly sub-optimal.

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 2:31pm

    Geoffrey @ 9 I wouldn’t expect you would, as my point made clear!

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '07 - 3:18pm

    I support an optimal state. It will be Liberal in that it is decentralised.
    A small state risks being inadequate, as we saw in the US, where despite being the richest nation on Earth, the US state was inadequate in dealing with the problems of hurricane Katrina.
    I think the penchant amongst many, including Liberals, is a confusing one. How far would you go. Countries that do not have an effective state are the worst places to live; Iraq, DRC, Columbia, Moldova spring to mind.
    So “smallness” should not be the primary objective. Democratic, accountable, responsive and decentralised are more important values we should aim for.
    At the time of Fukuyama’s book “The End of History” the neo-liberals thought they had “won”. Previously Marxists also believed in the “end of history”, that global capitalism would inevitably transform to socialism and then communism.
    The reality is that there is no one system that works perfectly for every country. The lesson from history is that there will always be history. As far as the UK is concerned, politicians will have to try out policies and see if they work, hopefully without being blinded by any dogma or simplistic formulas that look neat in theory, but only work well in some parts of the economy and not others, such as market forces for example.

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 3:26pm

    Fukuyama was a neo-conservative, if neo anything (realist Wilsonian is perhaps more appropriate). Whilst I realise that you don’t get the irony of using a term of insult created to discredit liberalism, you should at least be consistent in using to describe libertarian (or perhaps Old Whig) economists; not just everyone that you disagre with!

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 3:39pm

    I support an optimal state.

    Are you having a larf? We all support an optimal state. The question is, what IS a optimal state?

    A small state risks being inadequate, as we saw in the US, where despite being the richest nation on Earth, the US state was inadequate in dealing with the problems of hurricane Katrina.

    Do you think that this was the result of having a small state or the result of internal politics (which actually increases as the state size increases) and localsim. Lousiana handled Katrina badly. California, by most accounts, handled this year’s wildfires well. That’s localism for you: one administration (as it happens, a left-wing one) messed up and another (as it happens a right-wing one) did well.

    “smallness” in itself is not necessarily the correct target, but it is a reasonable indicator, especially when analysed alongside social mobility. Which is just another way of saying that the simple solution is often the best.

    Of course at one level the “neo-liberal” (if I have understood you correctly and by this you mean what I would call market liberalism a la Maggie) did win a crucial victory, and that was the breakdown of Communism in the Soviet block. And this victory has allowed many many millions of people to have a degree of personal freedom that they could not have dreamed of 30 years ago, which we should all be most delighted about, for USSR-style communism was an extremely harsh and constraining system.

    However, Thatcher’s methods are not applicable for addressing the problems of today, which is why Cameron is taking a very different approach. If you think that he fits into your definition of “neo-liberal” then you really ought to go and read some of his green papers.

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 4:12pm

    I for one don’t want to make anybody poorer.

    Tax makes people poorer. It is sad, but that is the way that it is. There are good reasons for arguing for tax, but don’t pretend that it is what it isn’t.

    A hypothetical person with £500000 who needs a £1m life-saving treatment, suffers a similar problem of absolute poverty to one with £500 in need of a £1000 life-saving treatment.

    I think you have got “absolute” and “relative” mixed up here. In absolute terms the person with 0.5M who needs a 1M operation is much worse off that the one with 0.5k who needs a 1k operation (by 0.4995M). They have the same relative problem (a factor of 2).

    (apologies for being pedantic but these terms become important in the next section)

    I think it is good to have a moving standard of absolute poverty, and that this is what some, but not all people mean when they talk about relative poverty or inequality.

    This is a really tough subject, and I gather there is something of an internal debate within the Lib Dems about the merits of relative and absolute poverty as metrics. As far as I can see, above a certain threshold (which pretty much everyone in the UK is above) increase in wealth is not necessarily correlated to quality of life. The level of correlation is essentially a function of society, in particular the way in which different income levels see themselves and each other: in other words the prevalence of jealousy and snobbery.

    And deep down I think that a lot of people are starting to recognise that the old cliche that “you can’t buy love” has a ring of truth about it. There is a tendency to see everything in cash terms, and redistribution very much plays to this idea (“these people would be OK if they just had a bit more cash”).
    How often have we heard Brown claim credit for an initiative only in terms of the amount of money that has been put into it?
    This is not a tendency we should pander to.

    But not half as odd as “coercive”

    I was using the term from the comment I was responding to; it wouldn’t be my natural choice of word, although it does make the point that if you make “equality” a prime objective (and you might not agree with this, but I have certainly heard Chris Huhne and other senior Lib Dems voice this opinion) then you are going to have to force something somewhere to get it.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '07 - 4:23pm

    Neo-liberal is a term used in academic circles for many years. I do not think it was intended to insult liberalism, but since freedom for corporations does not equate to freedom of the individual (as we saw recently with the BBC report on a company that distributed poisoness meat with the consumer knowing about it), then “neo-liberal” does have that effect.
    As for the breakdown of communism (Passing Tory), well we all welcome that, but what followed does not amount to “freedom”. Neo-Liberal economists employed by the World Bank had a disasterous effect in guiding the Yeltsin government. They ignored the need to build an effective state, the economy was taken over by criminals and the life expectancy actually WENT DOWN for a number of years, unprecedented for a modern economy. Read “Globalisation and it’s Discontents” by Joseph Stiglitz.
    Today the Russian economy is benefitting from it’s enormous reserves of natural resources, but there is still a high level of criminalisation in that country, and the government is certainly not Liberal in any way.

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 5:00pm

    Do you think that the lack of liberalism might in part be due to a lack of adequate institutions and the rule of law, rather than the challenging of communist state structures which occured in the Yeltsin days?

    Which precise market reforms do you think were wrong in terms of being “neo-liberal” – I’d love to see someone try to apply the term precisely. I suspect that you’re not understanding that in post-communist countries (Estonia and Georgia being better examples) there’s a need to free the markets from their former Soviet control, which you would presumably describe as “neo-liberalism”.

    Yavlinksy from Yabloko (the main Russian liberal party) has gone on record on his views on Russia’s inability to build up democracy and the rule of law – I suggest they’re much more recommended reading that Stiglitz who’s at best a disgruntled minority critic and at worst hardly an example of a liberal thinker.

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 5:02pm

    As for the breakdown of communism (Passing Tory), well we all welcome that, but what followed does not amount to “freedom”.

    That depends on the former USSR country. Try asking the average Estonian whether they have greater freedom today than before ’91. And before you slag of Yeltsin too much, remember it was he who orchestrated the peaceful breakup of the USSR which could so easily have turned into a Yugoslavia with nukes.

    Neo-Liberal economists employed by the World Bank had a disasterous effect in guiding the Yeltsin government.

    Different countries employed different economists and the ones in Russia didn’t do a good job. However, Russia is a very peculiar country, and not an easy one to govern (to put it mildly) so pinning the problems of the 90’s down to your “neo-liberalism” is risky in the extreme. But if you want a serious discussion about Russian economic development since 1991 I would be delighted to engage.

    They ignored the need to build an effective state, the economy was taken over by criminals and the life expectancy actually WENT DOWN for a number of years, unprecedented for a modern economy. Read “Globalisation and it’s Discontents” by Joseph Stiglitz.

    See above. Unprecidented? In the sense of the first, maybe, but not unique (e.g. the LE in Romaina dropped from 70.5 to 69.9 between 1998 and 2000, and this is is nothing compared with the current trend in South Africa). And I have access to rather better sources than Stiglitz where the Russian economy is concerned 🙂

  • Tax makes people poorer.

    I for one am not convinced about this assertion. It is certainly true that tax makes some people poorer, and makes anyone paying it poorer in the most obviously short-term way. But I suspect that the relative success of our current economic system in creating a wealthy majority in the population (in historical terms) is in large part down to the redistributive character of the tax system. And if we were to return to tax levels from before Lloyd George’s Budget, we would see millions of people getting poorer, and a return to a middle class almost as small as that in Edwardian times within 25 years.

    This is really a practical point rather than an ideological one. Ideologically I don’t like the fact that the system seems to work that way, but as you say.

    It is sad, but that is the way that it is.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '07 - 5:23pm

    What I opposed in Eastern Europe was not the privatisations per se, but the “Shock Therapy”, which ensure that everything happened far too quickly, and that this did not coincide with the building up of an effective state in the meantime. This was needed to impose the rule of law and collect taxes. The inability to collect taxes, far from leading to a wonderful Utopia, actually leads to a criminalised economy.
    I am not for one moment saying that to do such a thing would be easy, but it does not help when the advice from the West is dogmatically adhered to the neo-liberal economics of Hayak and Friedman.
    Stiglitz book was highly aclaimed when it was published and much of it rings true when you consider that Russia has not turned out quite as expected by those who once believed in the “End of History”.

  • passing tory 29th Nov '07 - 5:50pm

    Point taken, although it is hard to run the control experiment.

    I know it is hard to envisage from the UK perspective but there is no tradition of the “rule of law” in Russia, no tradition of paying taxes, no tradition of holding politicians to account. Personally I think that this will develop over the next 25 years, but would have been impossible to “impose” on a realistic timescale in the 1990s.

    Was there some hubris? For sure, although I have seen Lib Dems win a seat of two and there is no lack of gloating around the wearers of the orange pigeon then too 🙂 – its a natural response and if we had been wiser it might have been able to do it better but generally things have worked out fairly well.

    People who believe they understand these very complex systems are deluding themselves, which brings us back to the attraction of the low-level, low-bureaucracy “politics2.0” espoused by Cameron.

  • Peter Bancroft 29th Nov '07 - 10:35pm

    Geoffrey @ 23 I really think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to radical and rapid reforms of the economy.

    Whilst Russia is a special example because it’s essentially almost impossible to run as a liberal democracy, the richest countries in the former USSR are the ones which reformed their markets the fastest and which rapidly created an environment where ownership rights and trading were possible.

    I accept it’s difficult to imagine what things might have been like from the position of someone in the UK, but put simply there was no “neutral” civil service to put in place these regulations which you think would have helped.

    State-building was near impossible at year 0 because of a total lack of resources, tax collection and regulation is difficult when your whole civil society is just a criminal extortion organisation and really getting to rapid economic growth as soon as possible is the way to build a state with proper public services and employment.

    Estonia is definitely the best example, but Lithuania didn’t do so badly either – even Poland for the first few years, despite the difficulties.

    On the other side you have countries which lagged like Bulgaria and Romania (until they too had liberal leaders) and which today are still suffering from their lack of initiative in the early 1990s.

    Georgia is an interesting example (I know I’ve used it before) of what’s going on today – the new pro-Western govt dropped taxes and got rid of 75% of all regulations and licences needed to operate. The economy is now one of the world’s top 15 in terms of growth, and the state now collects 400% what it did just 3 years ago.

    Rather than be inspired by the occasional posturing of Stiglitz and Chomsky, why not look to our liberal colleagues in Eastern Europe who have been there, who have made life better for 120 million people formerly living behind the Iron Curtain and who are now rapidly approaching us in terms of living standards.

    It’s a bit sad that this has to be said – But we’re liberals. Let’s be on the side of people overseas who are… liberals!

  • passing tory 30th Nov '07 - 11:11am

    What we do believe however is that there is such a thing as a rule of law.

    In the generally acknowledged meaning of everyone being equal in the eyes of the law then this is something I don’t think you will find too much disagreement with amongst the parties. It is slightly different what from you then go on to say.

    to a liberal laws apply universally and if anyone breaks them, such as the government over the Saudi Arabia arms deal, then it does not matter what political inconvenience may occur as a result because we believe all men and institutions to be equal before the law (that is our equality, very different from that of a socialist) and there should be institutions to carry that law out

    An interesting point, and very idealistic. I wonder whether, had the Lib Dems been in government, whether this principle would have actually been applied to Saudi Arabia? The underlying problem here is how you ideas work when you are communicating across national boundaries, with other cultures who do not share your laws. Should you impose your moral system on them? Do you go along with their way of doing things? Do you try to meet somewhere in the middle? What your statement about Saudi suggests is that the whole world should interact with you according to your values or you won’t trade with them. I don’t think this position is particularly realistic or liberal. It is essentially cultural imperialism.

    We believe in equality before the law, not material equality although we do have a distinct disgust towards poverty, squalor and the powerlessness and near slavery that results from such things and as a result aim towards eliminating those things but not with the aim of equality in mind.

    Again I don’t think you are going to find politicians from any party in favour of poverty, squalor and powerlessness. It would be disingenuous to portray it as a Lib Dem USP.

    In terms of believing in equality before the law rather than material equality, that might be what YOU think, but it is certainly not the message that some of your colleagues put forward.

    E.g. Huhne: “So equality matters, and under my leadership the Liberal Democrats would place it at the heart of our approach, alongside our belief in liberty”. And he isn’t talking about rule of law.

    Ohhhhh David Cameron, he’s so wuvley 😉

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised seeing as many Lib Dems seem to want Nick “Cameron MkII” Clegg as your leader 🙂

  • passing tory 30th Nov '07 - 12:45pm

    As for your constant references to David Cameron, and that we might be interested in what he has to say, I must say that I have heard little from him but mood music and calculated positioning exercises.

    What are you referring to here? I commented on one occasion that I didn’t feel that using the same term to describe the politics of Thatcher and Cameron was justified, and that if [Geoff] didn’t believe me he should go and read some of Cameron’s green papers. Not exactly controversial stuff, I would have thought; I try to read Lib Dem policy documents (it is only polite to try to work out what other people are thinking) or does sticking on a blue rosette from time to time make me incapable of comprehending this stuff?

    There was one further reference to Cameron politics2.0 and the rest has, I hope, been light banter prompted by a comment from John himself.

    As for realpolitik in international trade; no I don’t like it but of course on of the biggest obstacles to genuine free trade with developing countries is the EU, which the Lib Dems are huge supporters of, so in practical terms I don’t think your policies match your objectives.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Nov '07 - 1:12pm

    Tristan @ 5 – you say you want to cut taxes, but your preferred solution of vouchers must lead to increased taxes. If you want choice in public services, you need over-provision, which costs more. Under-provision in public services so people have no choice comes about precisely in order to economise so taxes don’t have to be too high.

    Passing Tory @ 12 In other words, the benefits you get from putting resources into those below average appear to be less than what you loose [lose] from withdrawing support form the above average, certainly as far as the very top (”the leaders of tomorrow”) are concerned. I don’t understand this point. If you take £1000 from a millionaire, it will make little difference to his life, if you give it to someone who is poor, it massively increases their freedom. The thing about being poor is that your ability to choose is reduced because you have to choose the cheapest rather than what you like. It is a matter of expediency rather than liberalism that we don’t do more of this.

    No-one in the LibDems is arguing for absolute financial equality, or anything like it – but our constitution does say it’s one of the things we balance along with other considerations. If you’re skint, freedom is a 10 pound note – it means you are free to buy a pint or a packet of fags, make a journey to see a friend, have something a bit nice and tasty for dinner etc – yes, Tristan, there really are people who are constrained because they don’t have a 10 pound note to spare for things like this.

    Joe @ 29 As for your constant references to David Cameron, and that we might be interested in what he has to say, I must say that I have heard little from him but mood music and calculated positioning exercisesThe contrast in substance with Nick Clegg could hardly be greater.

    Hmmm …. .

  • passing tory 30th Nov '07 - 2:11pm


    You trimmed a rather important sentence, that going back I should have worded better (but hey, I am jugling quite a few things here).

    A problem appears here, and that is that elements of enforcing equality appear to be a negative sum game. In other words, the benefits you get from putting resources into those below average appear to be less than what you loose from withdrawing support form the above average, certainly as far as the very top (”the leaders of tomorrow”) are concerned.

    Now, I should probably have said systems rather than elements.

    There are some systems that appear to be positive sum (e.g. tax-funded benefits, within certain boudaries) and some which don’t (e.g. education provision as implemented by the current government). In fact, even the benefits situation is considerably more complex than appears at first once you take into account moral hazard, and there in mounting evidence that there are a significant number of people who are actually drawn into a poverty trap via the current benefits system.

    So the point I was trying to make (OK, not very effectively) was that redistribtion is not necessarily positive sum. The area that worries me most in this regard is education because
    here the evidence that the current approaches for equalising opportunity are having the opposite effect are strongest, and the main problem seems to be that the existing system simply does not allow the relatively small number of “high-flyers” that will become tomorrow’s leader to flourish, with the consequence that they are being drawn increasingly form the independent sector.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Nov '07 - 5:35pm

    Passing Tory – even Oxford and Cambridge take around half their intake from the state sector, so the commonly made suggestion that the state sector as a whole is completely unable to deal with high-fliers doesn’t stand up.

    Tory commentators do tend to jump to the conclusion that every state school is like the worst sort of comprehensive in the poorest part of town. Actually, I’d say the bigger problem is not the high fliers but those in the middle and the bottom, who are turning out so useless that most employers would rather take people from other countries whose English might not be good, but are at least polite and have some common sense.

  • passing tory 30th Nov '07 - 6:02pm

    Passing Tory – even Oxford and Cambridge take around half their intake from the state sector

    I know. I have taught a good many of them there.

    so the commonly made suggestion that the state sector as a whole is completely unable to deal with high-fliers doesn’t stand up.

    Not necessarily, for a couple of reasons. The Oxbridge intake is determined by targets (so not a good metric to look at state education by). Indeed, IIRC, state intake into Oxford was significantly higher in the heyday of the Grammar Schools – and there were no targets. However, if you look at the numbers that do well slightly further down the line (e.g look at the 1995 cohort now) the predominance of those educated at independent schools is becoming stronger rather than weaker.

    What appears to be happening is that, on average, the state school Oxbrigde kids don’t seem to be going on to do as well as those from independent schools. Sure, there is a distribution, so we are talking about movement of the mean here and there will be exceptions to this trend.

    But to claim that the current system is promoting social mobility is simply not consistent with the evidence.

    I should say that we are looking at the high-fliers here. Down in the middle of the bell curve things may be different and it may well be that those who would once have become nurses are now becoming doctors etc., and good for them. But if we are talking about aspiration, then we also need to consider the top end too, because that is where we get the role models for the next generation.

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