Wednesday 18 February 2009

Nick Clegg: more libertarian than he thinks

I've just listened to a very interesting broadcast of last week's ippr event featuring Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

It is clear that this thing called 'liberalism' matters enormously to Clegg. He is, perhaps, the Liberal Democrat leader who has given most emphasis to the 'liberal' dimension of Liberal Democrat thought. It is hugely refreshing to see a politician willing to go out and make a case for 'liberalism' in this way. Clegg is a politician of genuine ideas, and, as one might expect, there is a lot in his speech which liberals in the Labour party (like me) would agree with.

But just what kind of liberal is Nick Clegg?

Right at the end of the Q&A at the ippr event Clegg was asked what differentiates liberalism from 'libertarianism'. His answer was that liberals think personal freedom is limited by a duty not to harm others, while libertarians do not. This will be news to libertarians. I'm not aware of any libertarian philosopher who thinks we should be free to walk around assaulting others.

Consider, second, his response to another question, about bonuses and placing ceilings on high earnings. While Clegg called for an end to bank bonuses in his speech, he replied, with some passion, that it would be 'illiberal' to place a ceiling on earnings in general, to try to limit them through what he referred to as 'punitive taxation'.

In fact, high taxation of high earnings has a long pedigree of support within liberalism. New Liberals like J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse argued that the state should tax away high earnings because these almost certainly represented 'economic rents' which were undeserved by the person getting them. More recently, liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have argued that differences in earnings which reflect unequal talents are 'morally arbitrary', creating a presumption in favour of greater equality in the distribution of earned incomes by the means of taxation.

The phrase 'punitive taxation' - like the phrase 'tax burden' which Clegg used at his party's Autumn conference - is a give-away as to the underlying philosophy here. That philosophy is one which sees market-generated earnings as 'entitlements'. It's because we are, supposedly, already entitled to the income we get in the market that tax deductions can be seen as 'punitive'. On the Rawls-Dworkin view, just, equality-promoting taxes do not invade pre-existing entitlements; they define what we are really, genuinely entitled to: they help ensure that resources end up with whomever is genuinely entitled to them rather than with whomever the market selects. On this view, taxing very high earners to help lower earners is not necessarily any more 'punitive' than requiring a thief to return stolen goods to their rightful owner.

Now, what political philosophy maintains that market rewards are entitlements? The answer: libertarianism, as brilliantly set out in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Of course, Clegg is no advocate of the minimal state which Nozick defends. But his effort to reposition the Liberal Democrats on tax sees him drawing on what are essentially libertarian assumptions about the market, tax and justice. His use of a rhetoric based on these assumptions helps to reinforce the grip which these assumptions have in day-to-day public discourse. And this adds to the obstacles facing progressive liberals who want to use the tax system, rightly, in an equality-promoting way.

So, Nick Clegg: more of a libertarian than he thinks.

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