Tuesday 16 September 2008

What happened to radical liberalism? Part 2

The big news from this week's Lib Dem conference is the confirmation of the Lib Dems as a tax-cutting party. How significant is this? Have the Lib Dems become a party of 'right' liberalism rather than of 'left' liberalism?

In considering this question, it is important to look as much at the language the party uses as the policy itself. The language is one of 'tax burdens' and of lower tax leaving people with more of their 'own money'. This is not innocuous language. It conveys, implicitly, a definite political philosophy. Is it a liberal philosophy?

It is if your idea of liberalism is the 'libertarianism' of philosophers like Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia). Of course, the policy the Lib Dems are proposing is very far removed from the 'minimal state' that Nozick advocates. But the philosophy implicit in Lib Dem language is akin to Nozick's in the sense that it tends to present taxes as impositions or invasions on market-derived 'entitlements'. The language suggests that you properly own what you get in the market, and then the state comes along and takes some of it away. Thus, if it takes less away, it necessarily leaves you with more of your 'own money'.

Alternatively, there is the liberalism of philosophers like John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) and Leonard Hobhouse (Liberalism). According to this kind of radical liberalism, taxes do not impose upon or invade pre-existing, market-derived entitlements. Rather, a tax-benefit system helps to define what we are genuinely entitled to. On this liberal view, justice requires that we design our social institutions to prevent poverty and limit inequality. To achieve this, tax and spend is (usually) essential. My entitlement - what I can truly call 'my own money' - is what I receive after all the taxes and benefits relevant to achieving justice have been taken from or added to my account. Thus, if the state takes less tax from you, it does not necessarily follow that it leaves you with more of your 'own money': it might well be leaving you with more of other peoples' money - money that, in a just society, would belong to them.

At the policy level, the Lib Dems remain much closer to Rawls and Hobhouse than they do to Nozick. But they have edged away from Rawls and Hobhouse at this conference, and in so doing they have started to use a language which, in terms of its implicit assumptions, is closer to Nozick. This is a philosophically significant change. The Liberal Democrat left are therefore right to be concerned about the direction the party is taking - as are those of us outside the party who think of ourselves as radical liberals.

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