Opinion: What’s in a name ?

 

Having recently finished reading a biography of Charles Kennedy, which covered the merger of the Liberal Party and SDP in detail, I pondered for some time on the controversy surrounding the names and philosophy of political parties.

In the late 1980s the Social and Liberal Democrats or SLD were lampooned as the Salads, the use of the shorter Democrats was unpopular because it omitted the word liberal, so we ended up with the Liberal Democrats – a title that is now long established.

If you look beyond the UK though, the confusion really begins.

Japan has a party called the Liberal Democrats but they are very definitely a conservative party and have been in government for most of the post war period.

In Australia there is the Liberal party who are a pretty conservative bunch and again have been in power for long periods of that nation’s history alternating with Labor.

Australia also has the Democrats who are social liberals and since 2001 the Liberal Democrat Party who describe themselves as classical liberal or libertarian. The latter won a senate seat in last year’s Federal Election. That Senator, David Leyonhjelm, is currently sponsoring a private members bill legalising same sex marriage against fierce opposition from conservatives and some religious groups. The Liberal Democrat Party is also campaigning against the Abbott government’s version of the Snoopers Charter.

The Democrats, founded in 1977 by a former Liberal cabinet minister with the very Aussie slogan ‘ Keep the Bastards Honest’, once achieved votes in excess of 10% and a high of 7 senate seats. They have a proud record of championing civil liberties particularly focusing on the rights of aboriginal people, but their support for a controversial goods and services tax led to electoral meltdown in the 2004 election. Sadly they have never recovered.

New Zealand has a party called the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers or ACT for short, who are usually described as being economically liberal. They have one MP who supports a right of centre government led by the conservative National Party on a confidence and supply basis. ACT combine free market economics with support for a more liberal drugs policy.

Finally, Canada has a Liberal Party who are more of the social liberal variety and have been arguably the most electorally successful of those affiliated to the Liberal International. As a majority governing party they have been able to put liberal policies into law.

Coming back home, the Lib Dems include liberals of both the economic and social variety. Of course our First Past The Post voting system encourages this unity. It’s a unity that has enabled us to get into government, giving us the ability to stop things like the introduction of ID cards and to block plenty of other illiberal Tory proposals.

Authentic liberalism endures worldwide because of its unique belief in freedom of the individual and the steadfast commitment to civil liberties. Those values bring economic and social liberals together in opposing authoritarianism in all its forms here in the UK, as well as internationally.

The name of a party isn’t that important. What matters is what it stands for.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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66 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Apr '15 - 11:26am

    We also have the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, generally a right wing party in all its forms:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15939801

    Names matter, but not too much.

  • Jaedyn Meissner 6th Apr '15 - 11:43am

    I’m from Australia and I’m a great supporter of the British Lib Dems. It’s so unfortunate we haven’t got a party like you guys here. The Liberal Party are anything but liberal, our Liberal Democrats are actually right-wing libertarians and what’s left of the Democrats is a bunch of in-fighting left-wingers who just recently rejected joining Liberal International and expressed interest in joining the Global Greens :\ I hate Australian politics…

  • I remember being at a regional meeting when the name of the merged party was being thrashed out and someone arguing that we couldn’t be called the Liberal Democrats because people would confuse us with the Japanese party of the same name. Social and Liberal Democrats triumphed, for a while, much to my annoyance.

  • @jaedyn Its a pity to hear that the Democrats are in such a sorry state.

    From what I know about their history they were once a thriving radical party of the centre.

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 2:11pm

    “Coming back home, the Lib Dems include liberals of both the economic and social variety.”

    The LibDems are confused lefties who badger, sideline and bully economic liberals. They consistently take authoritarian/nannying stances on lifestyle freedoms. They esconce overtly authorian policies in ‘liberalism’ to make them more palatable. They decry the evils of monopolies – except for the government monopolies they really, really like. Occasionally they talk about civil liberties and privacy but they struggle to vote the right way on them, you know, in parliament. They also struggled (and I believe continue to struggle) with some serious abuses of power within their own party.

    The Tories may reject Liberalism in all its forms, however, they know what it means. Although it breaks my heart, torn between a party that admittedly rejects Liberalism but is able to use a dictionary and one which remains clueless – my money is on the former.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Apr '15 - 2:43pm

    Another very odd thread at this time. I am coming to the view that LDV is losing the plot.

    Tony Greaves

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 3:12pm

    “I am coming to the view that LDV is losing the plot.”

    They never had it.

  • The fact is that “economic liberalism” is not, and never has been liberal; it is a term invented at a time when many in the intelligentsia felt that socialism was the wave of the future, and to claim to be “liberal,” in certain restricted academic circles, was to be in fact right wing, as the word “conservative” was simply never used; it referred to hidebound Colonel Blimps, rather than anything commanding academic respepct.

    Far from being about a level playing field and equality of opportunity, “economic liberalism” has always been about giving more power to the powerful, increasing the wealth of the rich, making class divisions impermeable, and creating the maximum amount of misery for the needy. This piracy of the name “liberalism,” combined with Trot-style entryist tactics into liberal parties, has created an endless amount of confusion. There is nothing in common between the ideals of “economic liberals” which envisage a sort of corporate neo-feudalism, and real liberals who understand that freedom can be threatened by any powerful bloc acting against the public interest.

  • David-1 6th Apr ’15 – 4:41pm

    Spot on.
    It is good to see it set out clearly and succinctly.

    As you correctly say :-
    ” … This piracy of the name “liberalism,” combined with Trot-style entryist tactics into liberal parties, has created an endless amount of confusion.
    There is nothing in common between the ideals of “economic liberals” which envisage a sort of corporate neo-feudalism, and real liberals who understand that freedom can be threatened by any powerful bloc acting against the public interest.”

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr '15 - 5:10pm

    @Davd-1
    The Liberal party came into being in the 19th century as a Free Trade party. Trade is an essentially economic concept- so support for Free Trade can be thought of as Economic Liberalism. Since the Liberal party predated the rise of socialism, I don’t think your historical account is particularly helpful.

  • Blimey Iooks like I have really started something here.

    As I see it the Lib Dems are a really broad church, much like the Tories and Labour.

    Of course the FPTP electoral system encourages that.

    In a PR system the Liberals and the SDP may well have continued as separate parties.

    That said liberalism is not a rigid philosophy, particularly when it comes to economic issues.

    Pressure groups exist within the Lib Dems that reflect that.

    I am thinking in particular of the Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Reform and Liberal Vision.

    It is also a historical fact that splits in the Liberal party occurred following the emergence of Labour as a major electoral force because some favoured working with the former while others preferred the Tories.

    The formation of the National Liberal Party following this first world war was a manifestation of this split.

    I can recommend David Dutton’s book ‘Liberals in Schism’ which covers the history of the National Liberals who existed until 1968.

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr ’15 – 5:10pm

    Phillip, a limited knowledge of history can be a dangerous thing.

    It is a school-boy howler to suggest that the Liberal Party was an exclusively Free Trade party built on an economic outlook. it was not.

    I recommend Conrad Russell’s ‘An intelligent person’s guide to Liberalism’.

  • “Free Trade can be thought of as Economic Liberalism” — it can, if you want to be wrong. What now goes by the name of “economic liberalism” has nothing to do with 19th-century economic theories and everything to do with the reaction to “socialism” (which, as seen by the conservative “economic liberals,” by that time included contemporary liberal policies) in the years after the First World War. Its proponents used 18th and 19th-century writers (defined after the fact as “liberals,” regardless of their actual politics) selectively and opportunistically to justify an idealised laissez-faire economy which had never existed, under Liberal governments or in any other circumstances. When the principles of this pseudo-liberalism have been applied in modern times, even on a limited scale, they inevitably lead to erratic bubbles followed by massive crashes.

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 6:43pm

    ““Free Trade can be thought of as Economic Liberalism” — it can, if you want to be wrong. What now goes by the name of “economic liberalism” has nothing to do with 19th-century economic theories…”

    19th century economic theories proposed by John Stuart Mill, Federic Bastiat, David Ricardo and Richard Cobden? If modern economic liberalism has nothing to do with the ideas proposed by these individuals – it’s because you’re not talking about anything that can be defined as liberalism. Are you arguing with semantics or are you trying to esconce economic theory that just isn’t liberal as liberalism because you like the word?

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr '15 - 6:56pm

    “Economic liberalism also contrasts with protectionism because of its support for free trade and open markets.”
    (from wikipedia article on economic liberalism).

    So, free trade, is, I think, part of economic liberalism (I note freedom of movement is also mentioned in the article, not sure this was really a 19th century issue as there wasn’t much of an immigration control movement to counter it).

  • Peter Watson 6th Apr '15 - 6:58pm

    I remember a Spitting Image sketch in which David Steel and David Owen “negotiated” the name for the merged party. Owen suggested it would be fair to take two words from the SDP (“Social” and “Democratic”) and two words from the Liberals (“The” and “Party”).

  • Alex Sabine 6th Apr '15 - 6:59pm

    Frederic Bastiat, now we are talking… a French classical liberal, no less 😉

    Among his more perceptive and enduring insights:

    “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will”

    “Trade protection accumulates upon a single point the good which it effects, while the evil inflicted is infused throughout the mass. The one strikes the eye at a first glance, while the other becomes perceptible only to close investigation.”

    “If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all… It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 7:02pm

    “…not sure this was really a 19th century issue as there wasn’t much of an immigration control movement to counter it.”

    It was not an issue because movement was not controlled. The Ottoman Empire was considered backwards for requiring individuals to have passports!

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr '15 - 7:06pm

    There seems to be quite a lot of confusing terminology here, but what David-1 is attacking seems to be closer to “neoliberalism” than to “economic liberalism”- at least going by Wikipedia articles which I realise is probably a mistake- “neoliberalism” indeed having lacks to Thatcherism.
    I consider myself an economic liberal as well as a social liberal, but I do not consider myself a neoliberal (and I would doubt anyone thinking of themselves as a social liberal could do so).
    Tony Greaves does have a point that all this is rather splitting hairs while the election is being fought!

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 7:16pm

    There seems to be quite a lot of confusing terminology here, but what David-1 is attacking seems to be closer to “neoliberalism” than to “economic liberalism”

    I thought so to. But that’s a pretty a big distinction and it’s important to use the right words so the people you’re communicating with know what you’re talking about. The LibDems would have been wise to make the case for the distinction.

  • Alex Sabine 6th Apr '15 - 8:31pm

    @ David-1
    “…an idealised laissez-faire economy which had never existed, under Liberal governments or in any other circumstances.”

    I agree that pure laissez-faire is a figment. It does not exist outside textbooks, and even there it is a simplified model to aid conceptual understanding, as are concepts like the circular flow of income on which Keynesian theory is predicated. Something close to laissez-faire and a ‘nightwatchman state’ existed for part of the 19th century, but even then it was qualified in certain respects and (of course) buttressed by a framework of laws, regulations and social customs. Few classical liberals – or ‘economic liberals’ – would suggest it could be otherwise.

    “When the principles of this pseudo-liberalism have been applied in modern times, even on a limited scale, they inevitably lead to erratic bubbles followed by massive crashes.”

    If by “modern times” you mean the past century or the past 50 years or even the past 30 years, these have not been characterised by an extreme application of the principles of 19th century liberalism. Throughout this period governments have taxed, spent, regulated, intervened and redistributed income on a scale unimaginable in the 19th century. They have restricted the free movement of people through immigration controls of a kind that barely existed in the earlier phase of industrialisation.

    Periodic bubbles and crashes are (perhaps inevitable) features of capitalism and business cycles. In particular, large fluctuations in financial asset values have been characteristic of the history of capitalism and indeed of all economic systems with a market-related sector. They are disruptive and costly but – although they can certainly be aggravated and prolonged by inept government and central bank policies, as in the Great Depression – they have not managed to prevent an extraordinary transformation of living standards over the decades and centuries.

    Fifteen years ago, the former Labour Trade Secretary Edmund Dell wrote – perceptively and prophetically – of the then-fashionable critique of neo-liberalism from ‘Third Way’ gurus Will Hutton and Antthony Giddens: “The advocates of the third way will be tempted to proceed by caricaturing the views of those to the right and the left. The views of the right-wing ‘neo-liberals’ will be particular victims of such distortions, perhaps because the Blair government wishes to approach as near as possible to neo-liberalism while still differentiating itself from it for domestic political reasons. Comfort for the third way is found in the need for regulation if the market is to operate successfully and in harmony with social needs.

    “There is nothing more certain than that the market requires regulation, that this is no discovery of third-way theorists, and that the need is accepted by most neo-liberals. The neo-liberalism of governments is not so pure as third-way theorists have had it. It has been moulded by experience. The problem with domestic regulation is to find ways that on balance improve the operations of the market rather than distort them in undesirable ways. The problem with transnational regulation, as advocated for example by [Anthony] Giddens, is to find a basis of agreement between the participants that is both effective and able to survive occasional, and probably inevitable, capitalist crises.”

  • Alex Sabine 6th Apr '15 - 8:39pm

    And while I agree with Dell that the views of ‘neo-liberals’ have indeed been distorted, I wouldn’t define myself as a neo-liberal. The ‘neo’ prefix is redundant in my view. Modern economic liberalism stands on the shoulders of the classical liberal giants like Smith, Ricardo, Cobden, Bastiat etc. Of course their views needs adapting to today’s circumstances, but many of their central insights are still valid and highly relevant. And while I strongly support economic liberalism, I consider it only one (important) dimension of a free society and free people.

  • @ Philip Thomas
    It is often said that “The Liberal party came into being in the 19th century as a Free Trade party.” That doesn’t make it true.

    It is generally accepted that the Liberal party was formed in 1859 as a union of Whigs under Russell and Palmerston, Peelites like Gladstone and Radicals. Some Radicals represented manufacturing and supported free trade. The Peelites might be seen as the reforming wing of the Conservative party that supported the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Whigs were the party that wished to control the power of the crown and the landed-class.

    It would therefore be correct to say that the Liberal party supported free trade as in the reduction of tariffs. This support was for three reasons, abolishing tariffs on food made food cheaper, not having tariffs on food reduced the price of food and so reduced the profits of the great land owners and “squirearchy” who supported the Tories and encouraging foreign countries not to have tariffs meant they imported more of our manufactured items which benefited those people who owned manufacturing companies (i.e. Liberal supporters). Even when the Liberal party supported free trade in famous election campaigns such as 1906 and 1923 the emphasis was on cheap food. I do not believe that Liberals campaigned in these elections by saying that free trade meant wages were higher (I would be interested in any evidence to prove to me wrong).

    With regard to economic liberals I would say that they support free markets and believe that markets are the best way to allocate resources and that governments should not try to provide those things that the market can provide. Linked to this seems to be the idea that even when the government is providing the goods or services it is best to have corporations selling the service to the government than the government employing the staff directly. This does not really have a place in British Liberalism of the nineteenth century where Liberals gave local government the powers to provide all sorts of goods and services for the people.

    I believe that social liberals are not the opposite of social conservatives, but are liberals who believe that being poor reduces the liberty of the person, than living in over crowded homes reduces the liberty of the person and therefore pursue social policies to get rid of bad housing and provide good housing for the poor and to provide financial help to the poor and increase their liberty.

  • Alex Sabine 7th Apr '15 - 3:16am

    What Lib Dems refer to as ‘social liberalism’ doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation in other parties and political discourse more broadly. In Lib Dem terms it has roughly the meaning suggested by Michael BG in his last paragraph: a belief in ‘positive freedom’ (as Isaiah Berlin categorised it), the ‘freedom to’ do and accomplish things rather than (or in addition to, though sometimes there is a tension) the ‘freedom from’ oppression and coercion. Social liberalism owes its main intellectual debt to L. T. Hobhouse and other ‘New Liberal’ thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    So, for example, universal access to education, and the priority given to improving education, could be seen as a manifestation of social liberalism; although of course socialists, social democrats and conservatives believe in it too, it is the role of education in broadening the possibilities and horizons of each individual that gives it its crucial value to liberals. Interestingly, this says nothing about how that education should be provided, so long as access to it is guaranteed regardless of ability to pay. It could be a 100% state system or a pluralistic system with the state funding and regulating but not necessarily being a monopoly or near-monopoly provider.

    To a liberal, economic freedom – the freedom to trade, start a business, bargain freely over wages and terms of employment, keep the majority of the fruits of one’s labour, etc – should be valuable in itself, as one dimension of wider human freedom. But economic liberalism can also play an instrumental role: it can be a means to achieving social liberal objectives. That was perhaps the core proposition of the Orange Book, which sought to marry the two concepts (as well as ‘personal’ and ‘political’ liberalism). However, the subsequent debate within the Lib Dems has seen ‘social liberals’ defining themselves in contrast to economic liberals, many of whose ideas they see as alien or incompatible with their interpretation of liberalism. In practice, therefore, the distinction between economic and social liberalism has become an argument about means at least as much as ends.

    Outside the somewhat rarefied context of Lib Dem ideological debates, ‘social liberalism’ has a different meaning, more akin to what the Orange Book labels ‘personal liberalism’. In this sense, a social liberal is someone who is broad-minded about matters of personal morality or lifestyle and does not believe it is the business of the state to get involved in them; and will tend to be comfortable with the social changes that have taken place since the 1960s rather than hanker after a more ordered, deferential (and hierarchical) age. It is a disposition towards the modern world as much as a political philosophy. There are clear generational differences here and those who react most strongly against social liberalism of this sort are often drawn to UKIP. By contrast a ‘live and let live’ Tory like Boris Johnson would be a social liberal in this widely understood sense.

    The most cogent (and trenchant) exponent of the reactionary tendency on the Right is probably the journalist Peter Hitchens, whose sincere if nostalgic across-the-board conservatism is quite different from the perspective of Thatcherite Tories as well as (more obviously) from that of moderate/liberal ‘one nation’ Iain Macleod/Ken Clarke/Michael Heseltine/Chris Patten types or the old High Tories. There are milder strains of social conservatism which don’t necessarily reject the liberal social changes wholesale but fear that, taken to excess (as they see it) and combined with economic dislocation, they have weakened traditional institutions, communities and allegiances. ‘Blue Labour’ represents this sort of communitarian reaction against social liberalism.

  • Philip Thomas 7th Apr '15 - 7:55am

    Thankyou, Michael and Alex.

    Yes, by free trade I mean the reduction of tariffs, what else could it mean?
    Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that one of the founding principles of the 19th century Liberal Party was free trade (a commitment to the reduction of tariffs).

    As for “keep the majority of the fruits of one’s labour”- I seem to remember reading something very similar in a Beginner’s guide to Marx. I suppose Marx was thinking vis-à-vis the bosses whereas Alex is thinking vis-à-vis the state, though.

  • David-1 and John Tilley, when they discuss economic liberalism, take it to mean everything that they hate and wish was gone from the party so they can re erect it in the image of their form of left wing extremism. Too bad mateys; we’re not leaving.

  • Stephen Hesketh 7th Apr '15 - 10:32am

    I noticed this thread last night immediately after posting a reply to Philip Thomas (6th Apr ’15 – 10:06pm) on the Candid Clegg thread. As this thread is probably that where the topic is being discussed more widely, I hope I may be permitted a very similar post on this occasion.

    I would use the term ‘Social Liberal’ as a shorthand for that (main) strand of British Liberalism that is most likely to be interested in social justice, the redistribution of power and wealth, in exploring ideas involving common ownership such as mutuals and cooperatives, in bolstering the power of individuals and communities within the nation-state and, crucially, recognising and then using the power of the state to balance the excesses of the free market. I have obviously missed out so much in the above quick one-liner e.g. sustainability and environmentalism but essentially the values of Social Justice Liberalism are those as set out in the Preamble … where they are properly covered!

    Economic Liberals share the same ideals of individual liberty and social tolerance (and free and fair trade) as mainstream Preamble Liberals but I feel give far too much respect to money, ‘the markets’ and other financial institutions, the wealthy – and indeed the super-rich. They are far more likely to believe that limiting the size of the state to some notional % is a worthy aim in itself. They also appear far more likely to believe in competitive rather than cooperative endeavours and the idea that wealth in itself is a good thing. How you share out that wealth always appears somewhat less important.

    From my experiences on LDV, the economic Liberals as typified by Jeremy Browne, Paul Marshall, Richard Reeves, David Laws and several people who are posters on this site and involved in business-assisted Think Tanks, are supporters of a much more laissez-faire approach to economics and business that would frequently not be out of place in the Conservative Party.

    Everyone knows of Browne’s views and departure and those of Marshall and Laws, ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’ but one or two may have forgotten Mr Reeves claim in 2008 that social Liberals (i.e. the majority of actual Lib Dem members) should not be members of the Liberal Democrats at all, but of the Labour Party!

    I do not hear economic Liberals having much to say about the wealthiest 85 individuals on the planet owning the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people – whereas they are very quick to point out the benefits, for example of TTIP (before the treaty is even finalised, made public and debated), expanding Heathrow, tobacco advertising etc.

    I would always choose to be on the side of individuals, communities, their democratically elected governments and of sustainable life on this planet.

    Modern day laissez-faire economics as widely supported by certain economic liberals is increasingly at odds with the above. When they do coincide, it is primarily when people, communities and services are viewed as potential consumer or worker units.

  • Stephen Hesketh 7th Apr '15 - 10:44am

    As so often, interesting economic insights from Alex Sabine.

    Tabman7th Apr ’15 – 8:38am
    “David-1 and John Tilley, when they discuss economic liberalism, take it to mean everything that they hate and wish was gone from the party so they can re erect it in the image of their form of left wing extremism.”

    Tabby, please add me to your own hate list. Thank you.

  • Putting debates about Economic and Social liberalism aside, as a relatively recent convert to the liberal cause what I would like to see is a focus on what I call the inefficient state.

    We currently have far to much bureaucracy and red tape, with little or no service delivery to the people that really need help.

    In my time as a full time carer I had the misfortune to deal with the DWP, HMRC, Local authorities and various other state agencies.

    None really provided the assistance that the person I was caring for or I needed.

    In fact in a lot of cases they were a hindrance.

    I was also fortunate enough to deal with charities like Carers UK, Age UK and the Alzheimers Society.

    All of whom were extremely helpful.

    Take from that what you will.

    What drew me to the Lib Dems was the fact that at least they were starting to identify some of the problems with the the state machine and its many failings.

    In contrast Labour want a bigger state, with more intervention and the Tories a very minimal one with little or no safety net.

    No party is perfect but in the UK the Liberal Democrats are the best that is on offer.

    As my article tries to highlight their are many shades of liberalism and in a country where the electoral system punishes small parties it is better if they can exist under one banner.

  • David “We currently have far to[o] much bureaucracy and red tape, with little or no service delivery to the people that really need help.”

    This is the reason I joined the party – and I well remember Nick Clegg enunciating exactly this sort of powerlessness in the face of a system that was inflexible to their needs at his election hustings.

    We need to set ourselves squarely in the face of producer interests and support those without the necessary power and influence to make things better.

  • Steve Comer 7th Apr '15 - 11:47am

    David: You say your a recent convert, well I have to tell you most Liberals (especially Social Liberals) are VERY excercised by the very points you make about bureaucracy, red tape, service deliverey ond the quality of public services generally. In the days when we used to run Councils in cities like Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Bristol, Portsmouth, Islington etc. then modernising and updating poor services so that they worked for the people who needed then was a key part of our modus operandum.

    Traditionally Labour thought having a big state and a large inefficiently managed wokrforce was a good thing in itself, whereas the Tories just wanted to contract everything out to the lowest bidder to keep costs down and make large profits for multinationals at the taxpayers expense. (OK I’m exaggerating to make a point, but you get the picture).

  • SIMON BANKS 7th Apr '15 - 12:30pm

    I’m afraid I just couldn’t understand the comment from Sara Scarlett. As far as I could work out it was an attack on the record of the Lib Dems in government with nil recognition of the party’s history or philosophy.

    Lest we feel uncomfortable about the uses to which the words Liberal and Democrat have been put (and I’d like to add Democratic as in German Democratic Republic), consider that the military dictatorship of Myanmar called itself Socialist while oppressing the poor and concentrating wealth and there is very little in common between the paternalistic, hierarchical but comparatively compassionate and interventionist Conservatism of 19th century Britain and the neo-cons either side of the Atlantic. Oh, and Green means something totally different in Northern Ireland.

    There are academics who happily tell their students what Liberalism is while dismissing as irrelevant (if they know of it) the actual views of people who call themselves Liberal. Any approach to British Liberalism has to be rooted in the history and current beliefs of its adherents – and that does not equate to the record of Nick Clegg in government.

  • Stephen Hesketh 7th Apr '15 - 12:48pm

    Sara Scarlett 6th Apr ’15 – 7:16pm
    [[There seems to be quite a lot of confusing terminology here, but what David-1 is attacking seems to be closer to “neoliberalism” than to “economic liberalism”]]

    “The LibDems would have been wise to make the case for the distinction.”

    Sara – I don’t believe ‘Lib Dems’ should be obliged to do this at all.

    If you and other economic liberals believe there is a difference between neoliberalism and much of economic liberalism , perhaps you might explain it as it frequently escapes detection.

    I am happy to accept that many economic liberals are also personally and ‘socially’ Liberal – the latter a term I use to mean something entirely distinct to Social Justice Liberalism.

  • Stephen Hesketh. I don’t operate a hate list.

    “If you and other economic liberals believe there is a difference between neoliberalism and much of economic liberalism , perhaps you might explain it as it frequently escapes detection.”

    It’s quite simple. Neoliberalism is a form of private corporatism; Economic liberalism takes the view that the most liberty comes from the most efficient and diverse operation of the market. That requires the minimum intervention to offset corporate interest of left and right.

  • Alex Sabine 7th Apr '15 - 3:19pm

    @ Philip
    “As for “keep the majority of the fruits of one’s labour”- I seem to remember reading something very similar in a Beginner’s guide to Marx. I suppose Marx was thinking vis-à-vis the bosses whereas Alex is thinking vis-à-vis the state, though.”

    An astute point, as ever. Yes, I certainly differ from Marxists about the means by which that goal is best served.

    Marxian class analysis – with its dichotomy between proletarian ‘wage slaves’ and the owners of capital, whose interests are antithetical – holds that only by abolishing the capitalist mode of production can workers secure the fruits of their labour and improve their material condition.

    The old Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution put the same message in less dry and economic but more romantic terms with its vow to “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange…”

    Of course, even supposing that “common ownership” was the means by which workers would receive”the full fruits of their industry” – a proposition that was flatly rejected by Labour Party revisionists like Evan Durbin and Douglas Jay and later Anthony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and co – it was assumed far too readily that the state was the appropriate instrument of change, and that workers themselves would see even a democratic state as the guardian of their interests and agent of their will. And the increasing size and scope of that state meant there was never any prospect of workers receiving “the full fruits” of their labour irrespective of who owned the means of production…

  • Alex Sabine 7th Apr '15 - 3:37pm

    A striking contrast to Marxian analysis and the Marxist understanding of how workers could secure the fruits of their labour was provided by the American political economist Henry George, whose 1879 treatise Progress and Poverty sold over three million copies.

    George noticed that the railway construction boom in California was increasing land values and rents faster than wages were rising. In 1871 he went for a horseback ride and stopped to take a rest while overlooking San Francisco Bay. He later wrote of the revelation that he had:

    “I asked a passing teamster, for want of something better to say, what land was worth there. He pointed to some cows grazing so far off that they looked like mice, and said, ‘I don’t know exactly, but there is a man over there who will sell some land for a thousand dollars an acre.’ Like a flash it came over me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.”

    This led George to draw a fundamental distinction between land (and other natural resources) on the one had and capital and labour on the other. He argued that the returns to the former properly belonged to the community, since they were derived from a common resource whose value rose independently of human effort, while the returns to the latter justly belonged to private parties in a free market economy.

    In his radical vision all taxes upon income and capital were unjust and should be abolished, to be replaced with a single tax (or, as he preferred to see it, a user fee) on the unimproved value of land (which is not the same as property). Land titles would remain in private hands but the state would capture increases in its value, while workers would pay no tax on their income, and the returns (both income and asset appreciation) from savings and investment would likewise be untaxed. The Georgist principle is that socially created wealth should be taxed while privately created wealth should not.

    I don’t go all the way with Georgism and I see Henry George’s solution of a single LVT as frankly utopian. But he was a great thinker and in my view his insights are of more enduring value and are more pertinent to some of the defects of today’s capitalism than those of either Marx and Engels or the Fabian tradition of statist social democracy.

    It is monopoly – and the economic rent it gives rise to – that should be the target of reformers, not only for distributional reasons but to improve economic welfare. Very often these monopolies are created, incubated or preserved by the state itself, both in industry and in the role that planning laws play in inflating the value of land. Where possible such privileges should be dismantled; if that is not possible (such as the abolition of all planning constraints) the monopoly rent thus created should be shared more equitably among the community and the tax on productive activity of all kinds – including capital accumulation – should be lowered as much as possible.

    A modest but worthwhile start would be to abolish business rates and replace them with a LVT (which I believe is Lib Dem policy). To my way of thinking, the mansion tax is not a staging post to an LVT but a negation of it. And unfortunately most Lib Dems seem to lump capital and land together and make no distinction between capital accumulation – which is essential to increasing labour productivity and wages – and land value appreciation, which serves no purpose in terms of overall economic welfare but confers large and growing advantages to the owners at the expense of the non-owners. I am not interested in bashing “the rich” but I am interested in practical economic reforms that would tackle the worst excesses of monopoly power and rent extraction and make a contribution, at least, to greater distributional justice.

  • Alex Sabine 7th Apr '15 - 4:17pm

    @ jedi re Lord Hailsham’s view of conservatism
    Indeed. I wonder which of today’s political parties (if any) speaks for this tradition…? I see Mrs T more as the liquidator of a bankrupt order – as the perceptive centre-left political journalist Peter Jenkins described her – than as a conservative. Originally I thought Cameron was a kind of modern incarnation of Burkean conservatism but increasingly I feel he makes it up as he goes along and is driven by the dictates of party management. UKIP looks back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles but conservatism is not a synonym for atavistic reaction and single-issue obsessiveness.

  • @ Philip Thomas
    “Yes, by free trade I mean the reduction of tariffs, what else could it mean?”
    It could be argued that safety regulations are a form of protection and true free trade means there should be no national standards.

    It seems I have failed to convince you that free trade is not a PRINCIPLE of liberalism. It is a policy pursued by liberals sometimes. The National Liberals didn’t pursue it in government from 1932. It is like the policy of nationalisation, liberals can support it when it achieves liberal outcomes. It could be argued that today it is wrong for liberals to support free trade; they should support fair trade as it is much more likely to increase liberty in the producer countries.

    @ David
    Please when you are the author of the article use your full name to differentiate you from others who might post under the name “David” and ensure readers know it is the author taking part in the discussion.

  • David Warren 7th Apr '15 - 5:20pm

    @Michael BG

    Good point, thanks.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Apr '15 - 10:17pm

    40 years ago, the interesting question in politics was why conventional socialism had not delivered the sort of society it promised, indeed in those countries where it was supposedly dominant society was further removed from what it promised than in those countries where it was just one of the ideologies which contributed to government. In those times, only bores carried on pushing the same tired old lines about socialism, making tired old excuses about why when it was tried it never worked, mostly the political equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, with the solution to all its problems being just to adopt it in a much more extreme form, with the failing extreme forms denounced as really just “state capitalism”.

    Well now the interesting question in politics is why “liberalism” as Sara Scarlett defines it has failed to deliver. Ask most people now, here in this country where since the 1970s we have had governments who have pushed politics in Sara Scarlett’s desired direction do they feel more free than they did back then, and they will answer “no”. Sara, of course, thinks the problem is just down to it not being pushed hard enough, denounces all those who are generally in favour of free market policies but do see drawbacks in them as “confused lefties” and so on.

  • Philip Thomas 8th Apr '15 - 10:26pm

    Economic liberalism vs neoliberalism: as I understand it from reading Wikipedia (and again I acknowledge that this is not the best source) the key point is that neoliberals have an ideological commitment to shrinking the size of the state, which economic liberals lack.
    Hailsham conservatism. Yes. I am a conservative in that sense- that is one reason I oppose leaving the EU and repealing the Human Rights Act- those are changes, and I don’t like change without good reason.
    Is free trade a principle of liberalism? Well, maybe- at least in the pure sense of opposition to tariffs, I think health-and-safety a slightly different matter.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Apr '15 - 10:46pm

    Alex Sabine

    it was assumed far too readily that the state was the appropriate instrument of change, and that workers themselves would see even a democratic state as the guardian of their interests and agent of their will. And the increasing size and scope of that state meant there was never any prospect of workers receiving “the full fruits” of their labour irrespective of who owned the means of production…

    So far as I am concerned, “the state” today means the bankers, the people in the City of London who are our real rulers. Oh, like the imperialists of old, they let the old tribal rulers keep their titles and the trappings of power, but real power had been taken from them, and they were only allowed to keep the trappings so long as they sucked up to the imperialists. The power of big business today is such that I think it ridiculous to us the old-style lines where the old tribal state is by far the biggest power around. Big business dominates the political agenda by pumping out the ideological messages in its favour and denouncing anyone who questions that. As it says, if the tribal state dares question that, it will pull out and go off and favour another tribe, so we’d better carry on kow-towing to our real rulers if we know what is good for us.

    Sara Scarlett type “liberals” do indeed think “the state” in this form is “the appropriate instrument of change” and that for ordinary people, who supposedly control it by exercising their right to spend their money where they want, it is therefore “the guardian of their interests and agent of their will”. Just as the naive, as the failures of socialism became apparent, still used lines that supposed that old style democracy would work in the old way, so people like her still have the old-fashioned view of “the market” from the days when it really was market stalls, and companies based in individual towns, not under global control by remote aristocrats.

    Just as conventional party political democracy has reached the point where whatever the theory behind it, most ordinary people just think of it as a bunch of aliens we have to accept as our rulers and aren’t even aware that once it was a way for ordinary people to take power for themselves, so whatever the old-style arguments for the market are that Sara Scarlett types still put, the reality is that it is dominated by a small ruling class, in theory open to everyone, in practice carefully policed so that only those who will safely assume and carry on with its aristocratic principles are ever admitted to it. The scale of society now means ordinary people cannot set up a small business and challenge the power of big business.

    In the 19th century, liberals challenged the established powers of the day: the established Church and the aristocracy. Who are the established powers of today? Who runs this country? In the 1970s, some still said the Trade Unions. Now, it’s that small inbred clique at the top of big business.

  • Alex Sabine 9th Apr '15 - 2:01am

    Matthew:  It may surprise you to know that I partially agree with you regarding the banks. I do regard them as in effect semi-public institutions, since they are dependent on the state to underwrite their credit risks and are insulated from the threat of bankruptcy. This was demonstrated very clearly in the response to the financial crisis worldwide.

    The reason for this was quite simple: their ‘systemic’ importance to the wider economy was such that the likely collateral damage from their liquidation would have been devastating for ordinary savers and households. This reflects the reality that we have delegated to commercial banks a public monopoly that is traditionally one of the core properties of a sovereign state – the creation of money – and treat deposits as equivalent to real money. As a result, the socialisation of losses (at least on a temporary basis) has been a feature of every financial crisis in the world, irrespective of the political colour or ideology of the government in office – except where governments themselves have been bankrupt – since it reflects the wider public interest in a functioning banking system.

    This poses a dilemma for policy-makers which I don’t think they have satisfactorily resolved post-2008: how to make the banks safe enough (ie have large enough capital buffers) to absorb future losses without recourse to the taxpayer, yet not so safe that they will not perform their core economic function of financing creditworthy households and businesses. Broadly speaking the policy response in the UK (and to a large extent in the US as well) has been to pile on an extraordinary volume of regulation – the detail of which is so arcane as to be incomprehensible even to the likes of Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist – while leaving the pre-crisis structure of the banking system more or less intact. I am not at all sure that this is the right response.

    There have been improvements to the Bank’s resolution mechanisms to provide for the orderly winding-up of bankrupt firms without exposing the taxpayer to losses – but these are unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a ‘too big to fail’ scenario arising in the future with the big banks given the scale of leverage that they will still be able to build up. The problem is easier to state than the solution. Simply railing against “the bankers” as some kind of sub-human species doesn’t get us very far. We need to think, as ever in economics, about incentives: about what practical steps can be taken to mitigate the perverse incentives and contain ‘moral hazard’. The aim should be for banks to face the maximum possible market discipline and I’m not sure the largely unreformed structure combined with a quite absurdly prescriptive rulebook takes us in this direction. For a while the banks probably will be safer, at some cost to economic growth and the productive capital stock, but I think it could all easily blow up again within 10 years unless there are more fundamental reforms.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 12:44pm

    “As far as I could work out it was an attack on the record of the Lib Dems in government with nil recognition of the party’s history or philosophy.”

    False. It is the way the party has behaved in government that has shown scant regard for party’s history or philosophy.

  • @ Philip Thomas
    “Is free trade a principle of liberalism? Well, maybe- at least in the pure sense of opposition to tariffs, I think health-and-safety a slightly different matter.”

    It would seem that you would regard those Liberals who voted for the introduction of some tariffs in the 1930’s as betraying liberal principles. In the past there were liberals in foreign countries that supported tariffs.
    As the Labour Party has always supported free trade (for reasons similar to liberals) would you say that free trade is a principle of the Labour Party?
    I would say that the main principle of liberalism is to maximise the freedom or liberty of individuals. This often takes the form of reducing the freedom of elites to restrict the freedoms of others. For liberals to support free trade if it reduced the freedoms of the people would be a betrayal of liberal principles.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 12:45pm

    “Now the interesting question in politics is why “liberalism” as Sara Scarlett defines it has failed to deliver. ”

    Because it hasn’t been anything near where I define it, Matthew. Don’t mischaracterise my beliefs. Don’t make personal attacks on me.

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th Apr '15 - 1:20pm

    Michael BG 9th Apr ’15 – 12:44pm
    “I would say that the main principle of liberalism is to maximise the freedom or liberty of individuals. This often takes the form of reducing the freedom of elites to restrict the freedoms of others. For liberals to support free trade if it reduced the freedoms of the people would be a betrayal of liberal principles.”

    Nicely put Michael.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 1:44pm

    “For liberals to support free trade if it reduced the freedoms of the people would be a betrayal of liberal principles.”

    Free trade doesn’t reduce the freedoms of the people. By definition. I have ever in my life come across an example of ‘free trade’ that reduces freedom. Freedom to trade is a hugely important freedom and shouldn’t be so readily disregarded as it so often is on LDV threads.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 1:47pm

    The way Matthew Huntbach has used name – ‘Sara Scarlett type liberals’ on this thread is completely innappropriate and slightly creepy.

  • @Sara Scarlett 9th Apr ’15 – 1:44pm

    You’re wrong. There is no example of free trade that exists outside a structure of rules and regulations that support the market it exists in. By definition, any attempt to base those rules outside and above a sovereignty (eg ISDS) erodes the democratic right of those people to determine within their polity, and hence curtails their freedoms.

    Those on the right often have a tremendous difficulty with the difference between free trade the idea and free trade the practice. In short, no one trades in a theoretical market.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 2:28pm

    When I talk about free trade I usually assume the harm principal is being practised. Your comment doesn’t affect my point.

  • I’m familiar with the Harm Principle but not the Harm Principal – can I presume you assume both when talking about free trade? Any other arbitrary assumptions you might include in your discussions about free trade for those of us with deficient eyesight? Do you assume that all discussions of free trade have the harm principal/principle implicit in them?

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 3:36pm

    Of course I meant the Harm Principle. People make typos. There is no need to be quite so spiteful.

    “Do you assume that all discussions of free trade have the harm principal/principle implicit in them?”

    Yes, I do. I assume rule of law because that’s what make free trade free. No force. No fraud.

  • Given the above, I now expect Ayn Rand to be quoted as a “liberal” thinker at any moment.

  • @ Sara Scarlett
    “I have (n)ever in my life come across an example of ‘free trade’ that reduces freedom.”

    As with free markets, free trade leads to specialisation and international monopolies and powerful multinational corporations. Multinational monopolistic corporations trade in the interest of their share holders and this is not necessary the same as for the benefit of the environment and the world’s population.

    Some developing countries in my life time have opposed free trade because they believed it reduced the economic well being of their nationals. This would mean it would make their nationals worse off and so reduce their liberty. The reasons why free trade can be harmful to developing counties include developing countries finding it difficult to compete, most benefits going to developed countries, developing countries can end up with balance of payment deficits, small scale and developing industries can be destroyed and there is no protection for these developing industries.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Apr '15 - 7:11pm

    “Some developing countries in my life time have opposed free trade because they believed it reduced the economic well being of their nationals. This would mean it would make their nationals worse off and so reduce their liberty. ”

    And yet developing countries with greater economic freedom consistently pull themselves out of poverty at a faster rate than those with less. It’s policies like the Common Agricultural Policy that concentrates power over markets into the hands of powerful monopolies.

  • @Sara Scarlett 9th Apr ’15 – 3:36pm

    So, your initial argument was: “Free trade doesn’t reduce the freedoms of the people. By definition. I have (n)ever in my life come across an example of ‘free trade’ that reduces freedom.”

    Now, if your “when I talk about free trade I usually assume the harm principal is being practised” is to be believed, then there’s a contradiction here. “I have (n)ever in my life come across an example of ‘free trade’ that reduces freedom” but then, of course, were free trade to come ready bundled with your version of the Harm Principle you never would, because by definition it would automatically be disqualified from reducing freedom. So why are you implying that there are lots of versions of free trade you come across that can be examined to see if they harm freedom if you are already assuming an inbuilt Harm Principle that prevents said harm?

  • @ Sara Scarlett
    “And yet developing countries with greater economic freedom consistently pull themselves out of poverty at a faster rate than those with less.”

    I don’t understand how this counters my comment that free trade can sometimes reduce economic well being and so liberty. I accept that businesses can produce economic advantages for people, but businesses should not totally dominate social and economic policy. As a liberal I support a mixed economy and take a pragmatic view on the benefits of competition.

  • Sara Scarlett 10th Apr '15 - 6:30am

    “why are you implying that there are lots of versions of free trade you come across that can be examined to see if they harm freedom if you are already assuming an inbuilt Harm Principle that prevents said harm?”

    This is exactly what I wasn’t doing. There is only one version of free trade. You’re deliberately twisting my words and meaning now.

    “I don’t understand how this counters my comment that free trade can sometimes reduce economic well being and so liberty. ”

    Because freedom to trade is a huge freedom in and of itself.

    This comment thread has got way off topic. I’m not replying anymore.

  • This thread has developed little since the comment by David-1 6th Apr ’15 – 4:41pm :-
    ” … This piracy of the name “liberalism,” … .., has created an endless amount of confusion.
    There is nothing in common between the ideals of “economic liberals” which envisage a sort of corporate neo-feudalism, and real liberals who understand that freedom can be threatened by any powerful bloc acting against the public interest.”

    I would ask everyone to stop the confusion and in future just use the terms ‘Neo-feudalism’ and ‘Neo-feudalist’ to describe the extreme right-wing ideology which some have tried to import into our party.

    There is a place and a time for New-feudalism. Those who want to return to the glories of economics under the Plantagenets should form their own political party and promote their cause.

  • @ Sara Scarlett
    “Because freedom to trade is a huge freedom in and of itself.”

    This of course raises the question that if a company has to pay tariffs on their imports into a country are they still free to trade with that country? I would say that the company is free to trade in that foreign country, but that foreign country does not have free trade. It seems that the reason that Sara Scarlett can’t understand how free trade might reduce liberty seems to be because she is looking at it from the sellers prospective and not from the view of the all the people of the country that allowed free trade.

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Apr '15 - 3:10pm

    I agree with David-1 and John Tilley.

    Indeed I have been criticised on LDV myself for using (in a positive sense) the term ‘fellow progressive libertarians’ as in libertarian socialist.

    The economic right have clearly intentionally appropriated the word ‘liberal’ due to its positive connotations and association with freedom – when in fact, for the vast majority of human-kind, the economics and social values of the ‘libertarian’ Right are anything but Liberal.

    British Liberals using the ‘liberal’ in association with these Tea Party-type economic values, policies and supporters are falling into the political Rights trap of sanitising what they actually believe in, and in doing so do mainstream Liberalism a huge disservice.

    Not only do we need to reclaim our party from these big-business-supported Tea Party infiltrators but we need to reclaim the very word and its true British meaning.

    With the rise and rise of the robber barons and bankers, John Tilley’s ‘neo-Feudalism’ is an apt description.

    What is that old saying … something about judging people by the company they keep?

  • John Tilley “There is a place and a time for New-feudalism. Those who want to return to the glories of economics under the Plantagenets should form their own political party and promote their cause.”

    People’s Plantaganet Popular Front? Splitters!

  • Philip Thomas 11th Apr '15 - 7:38am

    As the Labour Party has always supported free trade (for reasons similar to liberals) would you say that free trade is a principle of the Labour Party?
    I don’t know- I’d have to read the Labour Party constitution. Two points: firstly that “the Labour Party” and “liberalism” are two quite different types of things. Free Trade is not a principle of socialism…
    Secondly, members of the Labour Party, like members of the Liberal Party, joined the National Government in the 1930s, the government that implemented tariffs.

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