Thursday, 7 May 2009

'The Liberal Republic': How liberal? How republican?

Demos is sixteen years old today. To celebrate, Director Richard Reeves and Philip Collins have published a short new book which sets out some of the main themes of Demos's research, The Liberal Republic. It will be available shortly on the Demos website.

Its very much worth reading. As regular readers of Next Left will know, I have posted a great deal here both on democratic republicanism and liberalism as intellectual traditions that today's left needs to draw on. So its not surprising that there is a great deal in The Liberal Republic that I think we should be enthusiastic about: increasing inheritance tax and taxation of unearned wealth in general; greater use of independent budgets in social services; decentralization of policy-making to, and within, local government; encouragement for employee share-holding and for enterprise models like co-ops, mutuals and public-interest companies; a strong commitment to free speech; a tougher questioning of paternalistic measures to regulate our life-style choices. The trenchant, clear-headed defence of free speech, and accompanying critique of Labour's illiberalism in this area, is particularly to be welcomed.

Moreover, the book needs to be seen in the context of a much wider growth of interest in republican liberalism on the left and centre of British politics of late.

This interest is explicit in other books such as David Marquand's Britain Since 1918 and the book I co-edited with Dan Leighton, Building a Citizen Society. It is also at least implicit in the work of organizations such as Unlock Democracy and the Convention on Modern Liberty.

Still, in saying that republican liberalism is attracting interest across the 'left and centre', I raise the possibility that there might be different kinds of republican liberalism with different emphases. And, in my judgment, there are two questionable points of emphasis in the Reeves-Collins brand of liberal republicanism.

The first takes us back to the issue of tax. Reeves and Collins run against the political tide, and admirably so, in advocating greater taxation of unearned wealth. But they also claim that liberal republicanism should give less emphasis to income tax. They do not call for income tax cuts here and now. But they do argue that we should not see high taxation of high labour incomes as a matter of principle.

There is, however, a large body of liberal thought, stretching from Edwardian New Liberals like Leonard Hobhouse to later philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, which disputes this.

Reeves and Collins rightly emphasize the injustice of individual life-chances being determined by the arbitrariness of the family and class you happen to be born into. But as Rawls argues in A Theory of Justice, the canonical work of 20th-century liberalism, if it is arbitrary for my life-chances to be lower than others because of the bad luck of the family or class I am born into, surely it is no less arbitrary for my life-chances to be lower because of bad luck in the 'natural lottery' which determines our skills and abilities and, hence, our earnings capacities.

Or, as Ronald Dworkin, puts it, it is 'fraudulent' to claim that 'equality of opportunity' obtains even if we level the playing-field with respect to race, gender and social class, because even in this meritocratic situation some will predictably have fewer life-chances than others due to significant inequalities in earnings power for which they are not responsible. There is, therefore, a strong case on grounds of equal opportunity - non-fraudulently understood - for taxing high earners at a higher rate and redistributing to those with lower earnings power.

A second weakness in the Reeves-Collins version of republican liberalism concerns public services. The main emphasis in The Liberal Republic is on further measures to enhance 'choice' and competition in public service provision.

This is not necessarily wrong, but it is too one-sided. From a republican point of view it is important not only to empower individuals as individuals, but also to design the public sphere in ways that cultivate a sense of shared citizenship. Something has gone desperately wrong, from a republican point of view, if citizens approach public services merely as consumers, asking what they as individuals get from the state.

Arguably, this points in the direction of 'voice'-based approaches to public service reform, to measures which cultivate a sense of shared responsibility for public services (and, more fundamentally, for one another). I have only the haziest idea - if that - about how 'choice' and 'voice' can and should be integrated in public service design. But this seems to me to be the right territory for a republican liberalism to explore and I am not sure that Reeves and Collins move far enough into this territory.

That all said, The Liberal Republic is a stimulating read and a further contribution to the promising reconstruction of centre/left (and 'centre-left') thinking around republican and liberal traditions.

(Full disclosure: I am joining Demos's new Advisory Council and will be contributing to a forthcoming Demos project on republicanism. Oh, and Richard Reeves wrote a nice blurb for the book I co-edited on republicanism....)

Postscript: Sunny Hundal has an interesting post on The Liberal Republic at Liberal Conspiracy.

2 comments:

John said...

Why do you want Individual Budgets for Social Services?

The individual has no control over their sickness, genetic make-up and freak risk events, so why should they be burdened with a healthcare budget that could be used up entirely if they are unlucky?

Stop following this new dogma from the arch-blairites like Milburn and Clarke.

Stuart White said...

John: an individual budget, in areas ike personal social services, is based on an assessment of need. The point is not to give people uniform budgets regardless of differences in need. Nor are Reeves/Collins proposing individual budgets as a replacement for the NHS.